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Salt was one of the biggest industries in region's early days

| Sunday, Sept. 1, 2002

About 175 years ago, a noted writer reported that "the great mineral treasures of Pennsylvania are coal, iron and salt; all these are abundant and, with (the state's) agriculture, will form the principal sources of her prosperity."

Coal, iron and agriculture remain prominent today, but the salt industry has disappeared.

In those days, the Conemaugh and Kiskiminetas riversides were quite prominent in the production of salt springs — especially the Kiski, because it required only about 60 gallons of water to make a bushel of salt while other areas needed twice that amount.

In 1827, there were 30 active salt wells along the Conemaugh and Kiskiminetas rivers, which produced an average of 2,000 barrels of salt a year. It sold for about $2 a barrel.

There were three wells along the Monongahela River, which accounted for about 6,000 barrels of salt annually. Three or four wells were located along Sewickley Creek, "a branch of the Youghiogheny," which made 4,000 barrels of salt a year. There were two on Chartiers Creek, which produced about 2,000 barrels a year.

Total annual production of salt in southwestern Pennsylvania in 1827 was about 80,000 barrels. New wells were being added along the Kiski River that would increase production totals by about 20,000 barrels annually.

Salt was made by fast evaporation, using coal obtained for three or four cents a bushel, in furnaces that generally stood against hills.

Wells were 400 to 500 feet deep, sometimes as much as 750 feet, tubed with copper, with copper pumps worked by horses (or later with steam).

After boiling, the water was drawn off into vats, where some elements were removed. The clear brine was then processed through another boiler in which salt crystals were deposited.

There were salt springs throughout southwestern Pennsylvania, in part because certain areas with salt in the northern part of the state were not developed yet.

As recently as the 1880s, there was a salt works at Paintersville in Hempfield Township. Its operator was Daniel Gaffney, who had learned the business by operating the various salt works of Westmoreland County entrepreneur Col. Israel Painter.

ST. VINCENT DISASTER

After two miners were killed when water from an abandoned mine flooded St. Vincent shaft near Latrobe, author-historian Lewis C. Walkinshaw pointed out the potential of such disasters.

That fortunately occurred over Memorial Day of 1937 and avoided the presence of as many as 200 in the mine. In his "Annals of Southwestern Pennsylvania," published in 1939, Walkinshaw wrote:

"A disaster sounds a warning to those who would operate close to abandoned workings," as if warning against the Quecreek events.

"At the St. Vincent shaft … the water from workings of adjoining acreages, now abandoned, broke through and filled up the mine with water, drowning the only two men who were in the mine at the time.

"It was a holiday; otherwise there might have been a loss of 200 men, the normal working force of the plant."

EARLIEST SCHOOLS

Although the first record of any school in southwestern Pennsylvania was that by the families at Fort Pitt, who started one at the house of Col. Burd above the fort in 1761, other pioneering efforts were made in what became central Westmoreland County.

As early as 1772, a group of German Lutherans started a school at the Harrold settlement in Hempfield Township, near the present high school. Balthaser Meyer, their lay preacher, was schoolmaster.

There is also evidence that when the Lutheran church in Berlin, Somerset County, was begun in 1777, education was part of its purpose.

In Washington County, three Presbyterian ministers after 1780 established elementary schools. Another early school, also in Westmoreland, was that on Sewickley Creek about 1780.

Catholic schools were opened in Unity Township, at the developing St. Vincent complex, by 1790. Others were in the Waynesburg area by 1798 and in Gallitzin by 1800.

Pittsburgh Academy records were destroyed by the city's famous 1845 fire disaster, but it apparently was operating in 1787.

A school evidently was started in Uniontown in 1792 but didn't last long. It was revived as an academy in 1808.

MILITIA SERVICE OBLIGATION

In southwestern Pennsylvania in the late 1700s, all white men between the ages of 18 and 53 were subject to militia calls for service. Exempted were ministers, state officials, college teachers and members of sects with conscientious scruples against bearing arms.

Substitutes were allowed, however. After 1798, a man was able to get his name left off the militia rolls by paying $6 to the state.

THIS DATE IN HISTORY

Sept. 1 was noted historically in 1791 when Thomas Hamilton became the first postmaster in Greensburg.

First National Bank in Greensburg, more recently known as Southwest Bank, was chartered in 1881.

The first library in Indiana, although short-lived, was opened in 1888.

California's Southwestern Pennsylvania Normal School became a State Teachers College in 1928, although the name was not changed until May 1929.

The first Sears store in Westmoreland County was opened in downtown Greensburg in 1932.

In Pittsburgh, the Fort Pitt tunnels were dedicated on this date in 1960.

SCHOOL WAS EXPENSIVE

By the time the patriarch of Mellon Bank, Thomas Mellon, was 17 (around 1830), his father arranged to help him buy a farm. However, Thomas didn't move in that direction, because he had decided to go to school.

A couple of years later, he went to Canonsburg planning to enter Jefferson College. He arrived there at commencement and was shocked by the hilarity of the boys getting out of school.

He later wrote in his autobiography, "They did not present that earnestness of purpose for the knowledge and mental improvement that I had expected."

Instead, Thomas chose to attend the Western University of Pennsylvania (Pitt). He labored hard for five years to get his degree, though with great difficulty financially, because the cost ran to $100 a year.

MINI-VIGNETTES

  • When the Mexican War broke out in 1846, the Army recruiting officer in Pittsburgh was 1st Lt. William Sherman, whose aggressiveness in the South made him famous in the Civil War.

  • In 1925, Jacks Run, an open creek in what became Offutt Field in Greensburg, was covered inside the stadium that is still in use today.

  • The first large industrial plant in the Chartiers Valley was Canonsburg Iron Co., built 120 years ago in 1882. It brought an economic boom to that Washington County community.

  • An 1832 book on Pennsylvania noted that to travel completely around the state on its borders would involve a trip of 961 miles.

  • The first school of higher learning chartered in the state was the University of Pennsylvania in 1753.

  • Squirrel was served in virtually every dining place in 1783 along the roads to Pittsburgh. Failure of nut and acorn crops that year caused a food problem for the squirrels, who migrated in large numbers seeking food.

  • A prominent Pittsburgh attorney in 1786 wrote that the fish of the Allegheny River are harder and firmer than those of the Monongahela, probably because of the coolness and purity of the Allegheny water. That attorney, H.H. Breckenridge, was instrumental two years later in getting Allegheny County formed.

  • When John Canon laid out the town of Canonsburg, each purchaser of land was granted the right to mine coal on his premises to heat his home.

  • All of the counties of Pennsylvania formed before the Revolution were given names of English counties or related activities. After the Revolution, when most were formed, there were only three with such names — Huntingdon, Cambria and Somerset.

    SPORTS HISTORY

    Latrobe has figured in various ways in football history, and some of the less well known ways include the dedication of the new municipal stadium 50 years ago.

    On Friday night, Aug. 29, 1952, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Green Bay Packers, 7-6, in that dedicatory game before a packed house.

    The Steelers' score came on a 73-yard play on which Ed Modzelewski (remember him from the former Har-Brack High School in northeastern Allegheny County?) crashed center for about 12 yards, then lateraled to Lynn Chandnois, who sprinted the remaining 61. Gary Kerkorian converted the placekick.

    Another obscure way went back to 1895. That fall, Washington & Jefferson's football team was undefeated against "the big three." The Prexies defeated West Virginia and Pitt (then known as Western University of Pennsylvania) and tied Penn State in compiling an unbeaten record against college teams.

    Its quarterback was John Brallier, who was paid to play for Latrobe early in the season.

    Even in obscure ways, Latrobe found ways to get into print. Scottdale High School in 1911 had a player who stayed in the game against Latrobe High despite having an ear stitched to hold it in place.

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