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Lower Burrell marks 50th year

| Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009

One city's annexation desires gave birth to another city five decades ago.

Tired of seeing its land annexed by neighboring New Kensington, voters in Lower Burrell Township gave an overwhelming green light to an unprecedented advancement from a second-class township to a third-class city in the Nov. 4, 1958, general election.

On Jan. 12, 1959, then-Gov. George Leader signed the official charter creating the new City of Lower Burrell. Leader's signature was one of the final acts of his administration 7 days before his successor -- David L. Lawrence of Pittsburgh -- took office.

This year, city officials and residents will celebrate their charter's 50th anniversary.

In 1930, New Kensington took over Parnassus Borough and its school district in an election. The following year, New Ken annexed a section of Lower Burrell Township, from the current site of the water reservoir and the Golden Dawn Supermarket on Freeport Road to Craigdell Road. Also annexed was the area where Martin Elementary School sits to Falcon Park Road.

What really set off the Lower Burrell citizenry was the annexation of what's known as The 40 Acres -- four residential streets bounded by Craigdell Road and Edward Street.

"The 40 Acres people wanted to know where their children would be going to school," said Wayne Reed, the first city controller and later a councilman. "We wanted it where no parts of a city could be annexed without consent of the voters."

The 1958 election proved that the third time could be a charm.

Two earlier referenda to upgrade the then-booming township government failed.

Between 1945 and 1960, Lower Burrell's population nearly tripled, from 4,214 to 12,543. Housing subdivisions were springing up nearly everywhere -- from the Mount Parnassus section directly behind the current Riverview Plaza, to Speck Village in the southern end of the Chester Drive-Glade area, to the Chiarelli-Ryan Homes plan across the Route 56 Bypass from Bon Air School.

One attempt to jump from township to borough status fell short by 28 votes. In 1956, a second attempt occurred when a steering committee touting the "Borough of Burrellton" led another effort that ended 120 votes short of a majority.

Part of the reason both attempts failed was a debate over becoming a borough or a city.

Shortly afterward, township leaders learned that the only way a municipality could avoid annexation was to become a third-class city. The move brought the borough and city factions together, and the voters approved the leap -- 2,061 to 838 -- during the 1958 election. Only the Kinloch voting district was thumbs-down on the proposal.

Late attorney and city-status supporter P.K. Jones told the New Kensington Daily Dispatch the day after the election: "It took three trips to the post, but we have taken the first firm step to achieving our goal of scrapping an antiquated form of government."

Actually, few knew that Gov. Leader had signed off on the document creating the new city. With modern communications, the news would have been reported instantly but, back then, word of the signing didn't break until eight days later when the Dispatch first reported it.

In fact, new Gov. David L. Lawrence was sworn in on Jan. 19 and was moving into the governor's mansion on the banks of the Susquehanna River when news of the city status for Lower Burrell first was reported.

City officials, though, knew -- and were hip deep in politics.

Officials from the new city and its older counterpart, New Kensington, were feuding about the construction of a sewage-receiving area in the Kinloch section of Lower Burrell. The project would accept sewage from the East Kensington and Aluminum City Terrace areas.

New Ken officials accused Lower Burrell officials of dragging their feet on the receiving area.

Also that week, school officials from Arnold and Lower Burrell were discussing consolidating the two school systems.

The discussions were in response to similar talks between New Kensington and Upper Burrell Township education officials.

Interested adults were seeking a charter from Little League Inc. of Williamsport to form a youth baseball group.

The new city needed to form a police force, create zoning districts and ordinances and to elect new officials under the third-class-city system.

In the general election in November 1959, Republican Earl F. Hill defeated Clyde Holmes for mayor. Elected councilmen were Sam Buffone, John Faldowski, William Heaver and Wallace Reimer. Reed was elected controller and Joseph Widmer city treasurer.

"Earl was the only Republican elected, but we all worked well together," said Reed.

The initial police force selection was temporary.

On Dec. 15, 1959, supervisors appointed full-timers Leonard Rychlik, John Resetar and Thomas Baker, with Rychlik as chief. Part-timers hired were George Vasilopous, Joseph Thomas and Joseph Rodnite. The six officers were appointed with the knowledge that, once the municipality became a third-class city -- when the newly elected government officially took office Jan. 4, 1960, each would have to take a civil-service test under the auspices of a new Civil Service Commission and go through the selection process again.

The early days weren't easy for the police.

"We had no radios. We had to carry dimes with us and call from a pay phone and check in with a dispatcher," Vasilopous recalled. "We would have the old, pull-out ashtrays filled with dimes. If the dispatcher didn't hear from us, they'd call the chief at home, and he'd come out and look for us to make sure we were OK."

John J. Resetar was the first chief when the third-class city system clicked in. The police worked out of a cubbyhole-type office in the basement of the municipal building.

In the early days, an odd situation existed -- 40 Acres residents lived in New Kensington, but paid their taxes to Lower Burrell schools. In the spring of 1966, students there would be enrolled permanently in the New Kensington-Arnold School District.

Additional Information:

Festivities

A year of 50th anniversary-related activities will begin Monday, with a banquet at the VFW Post 92 hall on Wild Life Lodge Road. Present and former city officials will attend, as well as state officials, including Sen. Sean Logan and Rep. John Pallone. The main speaker will be Burrell High School graduate, former Valley News Dispatch staffer and national newspaper correspondent Tom Squitieri. The anniversary committee is selling 50th anniversary cookbooks and T-shirts and sweatshirts with the 50th anniversary logo.

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