Monday, February 18, 2019

When Ambridge had "everything you need"

Harvest Days Sale ad
Daily Times
October 3, 1956

Before there was a Northern Lights Shoppers City in Baden, years before the Beaver Valley Mall was built, Ambridge businesses were busy, and not just thriving, they were booming. Sidewalks were crowded with shoppers, and the lack of enough parking spaces was a frequent complaint.

But Northern Lights, the biggest shopping center then built in Pennsylvania, was under construction. Its first stores were about to open on November 1, 1956. So it was no surprise that the Ambridge business community was concerned, very concerned, about the impact Northern Lights would have. And they were right to be concerned. The opening of Northern Lights was the beginning of the downturn of the Ambridge business district.

Then the mall started luring businesses from Northern Lights.

And now, online shopping is killing off businesses in the mall.

Businesses couldn't have predicted in 1956 that "shop at home" would mean something very different in 2018 than "shop in your hometown."

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The curious carved pillars on Wagner Ave.

Pillar with the date "1884" on Wagner Ave.
April 16, 2016
credit: Nancy Knisley

Pillar with letters on Wagner Ave.
April 16, 2016
credit: Nancy Knisley

The 200 block of Ambridge's Wagner Ave. is a narrow, one-way street in the historic district, running between Church St. and Merchant St. The block is lined with a few modest non-Harmonist houses and not heavily traveled. If you did drive through it, you might not have even noticed the two tall stone pillars, one on either side of the steps in front of 269 Wagner.

269 Wagner Ave.
Google street view
October 2013

But if you were one of the street's occasional pedestrians, and particularly observant, you might have been struck by the odd pillars and stopped to take a better look. They are worn and look old and unlike anything else in Ambridge. On them, near the top, are carvings of six pointed stars, near the bottom are what appear to be letters. In addition, below their stars, the right pillar has the date 1884; the left, the letters "H" and "L" separated by a symbol. What do the carvings and letters mean? And why are the pillars in the tiny front yard of 269 Wagner where they seem out of place?

Here's what I know:

John Frederick (Fred) Knoedler, a stonemason by trade, helped carve the pillars. Fred and his wife, Katherine Kroll Knoedler, were long time employees of the Harmony Society, performing a variety of duties, but not Harmonists themselves.

The pillars originally stood in front of Economy School, built by the Harmony Society for the area's children. The letters "H" and "L" on one pillar stood for Jacob Henrici and Jonathan Lenz, the two Harmony Society trustees at the time the school was built in 1884, the year on the second pillar. (Beaver County Times, August 20, 1974)

The Economy School was built at the corner of what is now the northeast corner of Church and Laughlin Sts. You can see it in the left foreground of the photo below. The building to the right is the Blaine House, used as a school before the Economy School was built. The building in the background between the Blaine House and Economy School is Ambridge's Fourth Ward School.

"All Three Economy Schools"
Manuscript Group 354: Old Economy Village Collection
Photo Number 2404
courtesy of Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
Old Economy Village
used with permission

The photo below shows students in front of the Economy School in 1898. You can see the pillars on the sides of the student group.

"Economy School - 1898"
Manuscript Group 354: Old Economy Village Collection
Photo Number 2369
courtesy of Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
Old Economy Village
used with permission

The former Economy School building is now an apartment building:

Former Economy School building, now converted to apartments
April 6, 2016
credit: Nancy Knisley

After the Economy School was closed, its pillars were relocated, although I don't know when they ended up in front of 269 Wagner, once the home of Fred and Katherine Knoedler's daughters, Christiana Knoedler and Katherine Brown.

Christiana Knoedler standing with one of the pillars in front of her Wagner Ave. home
Beaver County Times
 August 20, 1974

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Old Economy Hotel, 14th and Merchant Sts.

"14th St. showing Old Economy Hotel, Economy Pa."
postcard circa 1907
photo circa late 1880s

This postcard shows the intersection of the streets that are now 14th and Merchant Sts. looking west, so towards the river. The large three-story building on the left is the long-gone Old Economy Hotel.

The postcard was never mailed, so there's no postmark, but a postcard like it in the Old Economy Village Archives was dated and mailed in 1907.

Built by the Harmonists, the hotel was one of the oldest buildings in the new borough of Ambridge.

Old Economy Hotel ad
Ambridge-Economy Citizen
December 16, 1904

In its day, the hotel was well-regarded by visitors to Economy and a stopping point for travelers and bicyclists. A number of famous people stayed at the Old Economy Hotel including Lafayette, Rudyard Kipling, and about-to-be President William Henry Harrison on the way to his inauguration. In Christiana F. Knoedler's book, The Harmony Society, she says, "The Economy Hotel was noted for its famous chicken-and-waffle suppers. It was also a haven for sleighing parties organized by young Sewickley people on snowy winter nights."

Oddly for a such a widely-known landmark building, exactly what happened to the hotel remains a mystery, even to the experts at Old Economy Village. Sarah Buffington, the OEV curator, told me that the hotel was either destroyed by fire or simply razed "perhaps in 1905."

But I found that as late as 1906, the hotel was fighting the loss of its liquor license in court. At the time of the court case, liquor could only be served in the Economy section of Ambridge--the area north of 8th St. The part of Ambridge south of 8th St. was legally dry. The court decision notes that until 1905, the Old Economy Hotel was the only licensed hotel in Ambridge. However, in 1905, two new hotels were built and given liquor licenses. Those were the Ambridge Hotel and the Grand Hotel. That decision rested on the fact that the Economy area only needed two licenses, and the public would be better served by giving those to the "modern" new hotels rather than to the more than 50 years-old Old Economy Hotel. (McCrory's License, Pennsylvania Superior Court Reports, Vol. 31)

I've wondered if the Old Economy Hotel's loss of its liquor license led to a drop in business resulting in its closing and eventual demolition.

In the late 1960s, the Pennsylvania Museum Commission proposed rebuilding the hotel on its original site. A photo identical to the above postcard's was published in a March 29, 1968, Beaver County Times article about the state's plan. The caption for the photo said that it was taken in the late 1880s. The plan to rebuild the hotel was never carried out.

I'm still hoping to find more information on what happened to the hotel and when it disappeared from 14th and Merchant.

At present, Elderberry Court, an assisted living facility, is where the Old Economy Hotel once stood.

Update November 21, 2018: Here's a scan of the reverse of the postcard, showing it has an undivided back. This type of postcard, which did not permit a message on the address side, was allowed by U.S. Postal regulations beginning December 24, 1901. Postcards with divided backs were allowed beginning March 1, 1907.

Reverse of postcard

The Old Economy Village Archives has at least three postcards with the same photo as the one at the top of this post..

Two are black-and-white. As mentioned in the article, one is dated and postmarked 1907; the other has an undated message on the front, but the address side isn't shown, so I don't know if there's a postmark or not. However, OEV gives the date of this postcard as 1906 - 1908.

The third postcard has the same photo, but it's been hand-colored. OEV says this postcard is also from 1906 - 1908.

In addition, the OEV Archives has an undated black-and-white photograph of the scene on the postcard. The only difference I can see is that the photo shows more of 14th St. above Merchant St. in the foreground. [End of update.]

[Update November 25, 2018: I don't know (yet) when the name of the hotel was changed from Economy Hotel to Old Economy Hotel. It might have been in the late 1880s, the era attributed to the postcard's photo by the Beaver County Times. However, I have found a series of ads in the Pittsburgh Press from the late 1890s promoting the Old Economy Hotel. Here's one of them:

"Notice to Cyclists"
Old Economy Hotel ad
Pittsburgh Press
September 2, 1896

The original print in the Press is very small, and enlarging it only made the text blurry, so here's what it says:
NOTICE TO CYCLISTS--Cyclists and others will find good roads and superior accommodations at the Old Economy hotel: for summer we offer to families pure air and home comfort, and to the tired business man, the delights of a country residence within a few miles of his business, railroad facilities unsurpassed; chicken and waffle suppers specialty.--ALF. M. McCashey, Proprietor
End of update]

Monday, September 3, 2018

After the 1933 Spang-Chalfant strike violence, the immediate aftermath

This blog post is a continuation of the story of the October 5, 1933, Spang-Chalfant anti-strike violence in Ambridge PA. If you haven't yet read about it, I recommend you read my blog post telling the story, illustrated by a number of photos and a newsreel: "Ambridge 1933 anti-union strike violence at Spang-Chalfant." If you have already read it, consider re-reading it. It's a shocking and sad story appropriate for Labor Day.

Strikebreakers on patrol after ending the strike at Spang-Chalfant
AP photo
October 6, 1933

Here's the Associated Press description on the back of the above photo:
Guard Steel Property: Deputies Sheriff are shown patrolling the railroad lines beside an Ambridge, PA., steel plant, around which there has been sporadic warfare between pickets and officers for several days. Tear gas and rifle fire have been resorted to by officers to halt the activity of pickets. 
Since I first started researching the story of that strike, I have been struck by how the workers who were trying to unionize were not only beaten, shot, and teargassed by deputized strikebreakers, but also I've frequently been taken aback by the number of local officials who led, condoned, or were complicit in the violence against the strikers, including the Beaver County Sheriff Charles J. O'Loughlin, County Detective Robert Branyan, Ambridge Burgess P. J. Caul, and county District Attorney, A. B. de Castrique, as well as local police.

But the mistreatment of the workers, or those suspected of being union sympathizers, didn't stop when the strike did.

A 1995 article in the Buffalo Law Review * describes some of post-strike incidents:
The next day, three carloads of police patrolled the streets breaking up groups of three or more at gun point, even on the steps of their homes. Many were routinely searched. Police raided the offices of the strikers to arrest several leaders of the strike, carrying off records and cash, without warrants. Leaders spent days in jail until released on habeas corpus. More than twenty men were fired at Spang-Chalfant. 
"Injured men were also interrogated about their work before treatment."

"Police violently interfered with people going to the funeral of the man killed [Adam Petrasuski], and two women, Edith Brisker and May Ecker, were arrested when they tried to speak to the crowd."

The Law Review article also tells the story of how a community member not involved in the strike was not only shot by the deputies, but also mistreated by the very people who should have cared for him:
Abuse was not limited to pickets, a bread delivery man showed the extent of municipal control.
 I was near Twenty-fourth Street. There were no pickets or strikers there. A bunch of deputies, not among those who came in from the outside but from those who were inside shot at me. They were stationed on the railroad tracks. I did not know what for. I had no stick or anything. I was just watching from a distance what was happening when the fellows from the railroad tracks shot at me hitting me in the back. . . . 
 When I first came to the hospital I had to hang around in the waiting room. I was very sick, so I found a bench and lay down. Pretty soon someone came to me, I don't know whether he was a doctor or who, I was too sick to look up. He asked me "where you work?" I was too sick to reply. 
 The same evening Dr. F.C. Forcey who is on the staff of the Sewickley Valley hospital and who is also the company physician of the Spang-Chalfant Company said to me "You are a red." I said "sure, can't you see all the blood from my wounds." Then he said "You ought to be shot." 
 Then Dr. Boruku, the second day when he went to take the bandage off the wounds, asked me whether I cry. I said no. Then he tore the bandage off my arms, tearing the hair with it. "You must be tough," he said. Then when he started taking the bandage off my head he said "We're going to have fun now." He tried to tear it off. It hurt terribly, tears were rolling down my eyes, but I said nothing. He could not tear the head bandage off, so he took the scissors and cut my hair.
After I collect more information, I hope to write more about what happened in Ambridge in the aftermath of the 1933 strike. Until then, on this Labor Day, think about how people literally fought and died for the employment rights and benefits many U. S. workers have today.

* Casebeer, Kenneth (Winter, 1995) "Aliquippa: The Company Town and Contested Power in the Construction of Law," 43 Buffalo L. Rev. 617

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Ambridge streetcar #1, 1906

Ambridge's streetcar #1
(possibly January 1) 1906
courtesy John Dunn collection

Why were all these men and children, dressed for cold weather--and way in the back of the left side of the crowd, a horse--gathered in the 400 block of Merchant St. around a streetcar? I assume it must have been an important event. And where were the women? In the streetcar? Not invited? Too busy to come?

While local historian Bill Bowan left some notes on the back of the photo about the area where it was taken, he didn't include an explanation of the reason the group posed with the streetcar, which if you look closely, has a number on the front--"1."

I believe that the photo may show Ambridge's first streetcar on the day it began service. But I have no confirmation of that identification.

The French Point Street Railway Co. made its first run on January 1, 1906, over still unpaved Merchant St.  Going south, the two-car line's route was French Point to 4th St., then west to Maplewood where it turned south again until 1st St., turned east and looped back to Merchant St. for the trip north. (Daily Citizen Trade Area Directory, 1956)

To provide the power to run the system when it began, the operators, rather cleverly I think, temporarily used the boilers and engines still in the former Harmonist laundry building, with the addition of electrical generators and machinery. A permanent power system was planned for the spring of 1906. (Ambridge-Economy Citizen, Dec. 28, 1905)

Future plans for the French Point Street Railway Co. also included:
  • connecting the south end of the French Point line to the Pittsburgh Railways Co. line in Leetsdale, eventually connecting Ambridge with Pittsburgh, and  
  • connecting the north end of Ambridge's line to the Beaver Valley Traction Co. lines in Baden via the newly completed Duss Ave.--once the new steel viaduct over Legionville Hollow was finished. This connection would allow riders to travel between Ambridge and Beaver.

In 1934, the Beaver Valley Traction Co., then operating the streetcars in Ambridge, replaced them with buses. (Daily Citizen, March 31, 1939) The old streetcar tracks on Merchant were covered with blacktop in 1958 (Beaver Valley Times, July 29, 1958), but reappear from time to time during resurfacing.

The area of 5th and Merchant Sts.

The tall building you can see behind the streetcar is the razed Ambridge Savings and Trust Co. building on the northeast corner of Merchant and 5th Sts.

Here's what Bill Bowan's handwritten note on the back of the photo said:
About-1906--Ambridge Pa. Looking North toward 5th St. on Merchant.
Empty Lot on corner became "Regent" Theatre and Goldstein's Clothing Store downstairs.--2nd Flr. Andy Labenz has 12 Bowling Alleys--Duckpins, and Pool Tables. Regent Theatre became "Penn" Theatre. Witmeyers Drugs--became Freymark Drugs. M. Libermans Mens Furnishing Shop became Heberlines Jeweler-Optician and Musical Store--Wm. J. Bowan -73.
Between the occupation by the Regent and Penn Theatres, another theater was in the building eventually built on the southeast corner of 5th and Merchant--the Senate.

Freymark Drugs was at 513 Merchant, so perhaps the building with the ad painted on the side?