Sunday, April 11, 2021

Pfeifer Building, 447 Merchant St., 1929

Business and home of R. L. Pfeifer 
Funeral Director
447 Merchant St.
Daily Citizen 
August 10, 1929

Did you ever notice that the Vocelli Pizza building at 447 Merchant St. has "Pfeifer" spelled out in bricks near the top of the fa├žade and wonder why?

Vocelli Pizza
447 Merchant St.
April 9, 2021
credit: P. J. Shotter

Well, about 100 years ago, that building was home to the business of R. L. Pfeifer, a funeral director who also provided ambulance service. The building was also home to Pfeifer and his family.

R. L Pfeifer ad
Economy Centennial Souvenir Program
Economy of Old and Ambridge of Today
June 1924

Robert L. Pfeifer, a WWI veteran, began his funeral business in Ambridge in 1920, and reportedly became a popular and very active part of Ambridge's community. Pfeifer belonged to a number of civic and fraternal organizations in Ambridge including the Rotary, Canady-Hull American Legion Post 341, Masons, Odd Fellows, Elks, and Moose. And he was an active member of Ambridge's Volunteer Fire Department where he held several offices over the years.

Pfeifer also was respected within his profession, serving as president of both the Western Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association in 1936 - 37 and Beaver County Funeral Directors Association. 

Pfeifer died of a heart attack in 447 Merchant on September 11, 1938, after working almost all night to prepare a body for burial, even though he'd not been feeling well. He would have been 40 on September 13. 

His obituary in the September 12 Daily Citizen was headlined "R. L. Pfeifer, Noted Citizen, Dies Suddenly. Death of Funeral Director, 40, Shock to Ambridge."

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Great St. Patrick's Day Flood, 1936: Ambridge stories


Unidentified boy looking at train on flooded railroad tracks,
east side of American Bridge Co., at the Ambridge Station 
St. Patrick's Day Flood, 1936
personal collection

The cause of the 1936 St. Patrick's Day floodthe biggest natural disaster in the history of the Pittsburgh regionhas been blamed on weeks of abnormal weather. First a prolonged cold spell allowed an unusual amount of snow and ice to accumulate. Then, just before St. Patrick's day, a sudden rise in temperature caused a rapid melt. And if those weren't problematic enough, an hours-long downpour added to the amount of water that had already been rising out of local streams and along the banks of Pittsburgh's rivers. Previously unimaginable destruction and death followed in Pittsburgh and many other river communities. 

During the overnight hours of March 17, the Ohio River began to rise in Ambridge. Although located along the river, Ambridge was relatively lucky thanks to its natural topography and to the American Bridge Company's occupation of most of the riverfront. American Bridge, though, wasn't so lucky.

The "crackerbox" tenements that had once stood on the river bank between 9th and 10th street, and flooded in 1907, were gone by 1936. Reportedly, only some of the Ambridge houses on Bank St. along Big Sewickley Creek were flooded. (But neighboring Fair Oaks, on the opposite, lower bank of the creek, wasn't as fortunate. See the photo below.) The rest of Ambridgehomes, businesses, and, with the exception of American Bridge, industrieswere high enough above the flood water that they were spared. 

Flooding in Fair Oaks along Big Sewickley Creek, 
opposite Ambridge
photo was taken from the upper part of Ambridge's Glenwood Dr.,
houses in the foreground are on Valley Rd.
March 1936
courtesy Ambridge Borough

Importantly, no Ambridge resident was reported as drowning in the deep, swift, muddy, and debris-filled floodwater. 

However, Ambridge experienced the same disruption of transportation, news, electricity, gas, phone, and telegraph service as other communities, not only along the river, but beyond.

Duquesne Light Co. substation
across Big Sewickley Creek from Ambridge,
Beaver St., Fair Oaks
March 1936 flood
courtesy Ambridge Borough

Roads were blocked by water, mud, or rockslides, making travel in or out of Ambridge pretty much impossible. Trucks that usually delivered food and other vital supplies could not make the trip into Ambridge. Rail service was suspended; a train was stranded on flooded tracks at the Ambridge station. 

Electric service was iffy and eventually limited to Ambridge's water plant, dairies, bakeries, and the phone company. Streets were unlit; buildings were lit by candles, flashlights, lanterns, and fireplaces for several days. Burgess P. J. Caul issued a special notice on March 20: 

Gas service in Ambridge from 8th St. south was shut off for several days as a safety precaution. As a result, many homes and businesses were unheated and stoves inoperable. 

Ambridge schools were closed until March 23 because they had no lights and heat.

Phone service was limited to emergency calls to the police and fire departments, doctors, drug stores, industrial plants, news offices, and other places that might need to be contacted if there was an emergency.

A big worry was that the Ambridge Water Works, with its location near the river, and already surrounded by water, might flood. Users were urged to conserve water. Ambridge's industrial plants were closed in the hopes that would ensure enough water for residential use. Fortunately, the Water Works survived the flood without contamination from the Ohio.

The only plant in Ambridge that remained open in the immediate aftermath of the flood was National Electric Co., so it could make critically needed replacement electrical equipment for damaged public utilities. But the company had to rely on its own power and water supplies. Electricity wasn't available from Duquesne Light Co. or water from the borough. 

Mail could not be delivered for two days. Outgoing mail couldn't leave Ambridge either.

The Ohio River finally crested in the Ambridge area at noon, March 18, measuring 44.3 feet at Lock No. 4 in Legionville in Harmony Township, more than 18 feet above flood stage. The flood water continued downstream, making its way towards other river towns in Beaver County, West Virginia, and Ohio. 

The flood at American Bridge Company

American Bridge Co.
Ohio River flood
March 18, 1936
personal collection

Ambridge's American Bridge, the largest structural steel fabricating plant in the world, seems to have been caught off guard by the amount of water the Ohio was rushing towards it that fateful St. Patrick's Day.

Men working at American Bridge the night of March 17 tried to save some of the plant's important property as the river began to push its way in, but the water came in so fast, and rose so high, the men had to abandon the plant at 3 AM. Plant electricians continued to work in the plant's powerhouse until 8 AM when they had to be rescued by boat. Power to the plant was finally shut off. The water continued to rise. 

On the morning of March 18, men who reported for work were sent home. American Bridge's barge yard and main shops were reportedly covered by two feet of water, a foot higher than during the disastrous 1907 flood. As a result, the plant couldn't operate and so was shut down. The local plant manager said all they could do was wait until the water receded to assess the damage. However, the damage was expected to be more than the "thousands of dollars" incurred during the '07 flood. That expectation turned out to be true, but did not do justice to the final cost of returning American Bridge to operating condition as the water continued to rise to a record eight feet.

On March 19, American Bridge officials said that the plant was still under four or five feet of water, after dropping about three feet from its high mark at 8 PM the day before. Repairs in the plant couldn't begin until the water receded. (Daily Citizen, March 20, 1936)

By March 20, water at American Bridge had receded "to the top of the lower level of the boat yard ways." Cleanup by several hundred employees began that morning. The "reclamation" and "re-conditioning" started in offices, shops, and yards where mud and debris had to be removed. Replacement of records and files destroyed by the flood began. Motors were taken to Ambridge's National Electric Co. plant to be cleaned and dried.

Once the power was turned back on, more workers would be added to complete the cleanup which would require "weeks" to finish. 

Cleanup continuing through April 6, when the all departments finally reopened. However, only the barge yard and a limited number of other departments were back to full operation. Other departments still were unable to fully open because the power plant, while working again, couldn't yet provide enough power. (Daily Times, April 8, 1936)

The Daily Citizen publishes despite obstacles

Getting news in 1936 wasn't always quick and easy in ordinary times, but for a while during and after the flood, finding out what was happening was much more difficult than usual. 

Most people relied on local newspapers and, maybe a radio if they, or a neighbor, were lucky enough to own one during the depression years. 

But without electricity, radio stations couldn't broadcast. Pittsburgh's powerhouse station KDKA could only broadcast intermittent alerts and emergency information. And without electricity, Ambridge residents couldn't hear radio news anyway. Battery operated radios weren't common then, and the batteries required electrical recharging. 

Ambridge's Daily Citizen found gathering and printing the news to be quite a challenge, but they, with the generous help of newspapers from neighboring towns, made a valiant effort.

The morning United Press news report usually delivered to Ambridge's train depot didn't come on March 18. UP's Pittsburgh office was flooded, so the Citizen had to get most of its stories via long distance calls from Cleveland, Ohio. When UP finally was able to contact the Citizen "by special wire," the reporter had to read the information by flashlight. 

With its gas service cut off, the Citizen couldn't operate the gas-heated linotype machines used for most of its printing. But the Sewickley Herald offered the use of their linotypes, enabling the Citizen to print "a limited amount of copy." The Citizen noted the published paper's unusual appearance, since it was set with the different typefaces used by both newspapers. Beaver's Daily Times also helped by sending "five galleys of their early copy."

Yet another problem arrived two days later when the Citizen's printing plant lost electric power, stopping its ability to print. But the Citizen was able to publish a four page edition, thanks to the Beaver Falls News-Tribune, which allowed the Citizen to use its equipment.

But that wasn't the end of the problems created by the flood. Four days into the flood, all of Beaver County lost electric power, and none of the papers in Beaver County could print. But the Citizen's staff still was determined to print a paper. Here's how they accomplished that with ingenuity, some unusual help from two people in Ambridge, an Ambridge industrial plant which had its own electrical supply, an extraordinary effort by the paper's staff, and finally, the help of a newspaper in neighboring Butler County:
A small motor was dismantled from a washing machine, loaned by [Ambridge business owner] C. F. Milleman, and attached to one of linotype machines.

At 2 o'clock this morning, employees practically dismantled the mangle and sewing machine of Mrs. Anna Ross, 184 Sixth Street, in order to procure the pully and gadgets found necessary for the completion of the primitive but nevertheless effective contrivance. Operators worked all night preparing for today's issue by the light provided by two kerosene lamps, a lantern and flashlights. The entire force was kept busy this morning setting much of the copy by hand. The Citizen's portable saw was moved to the plant of the National Electric Company where their power was used in order to trim all advertising cuts.

Forms and type were then transported by [automobile] to Butler, where the paper was printed on the Butler Eagle press. 

The Ambridge marauders and one man's excuse

A number of out-of-town papers wrote about a mob from Ambridge that had gone to neighboring Leetsdale, a community that had suffered a great deal of flood damage, in order to loot. Leetsdale residents objected. A riot ensued. Leetsdale's police chief had to call the National Guard to help.

Here's the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's March 21 account of the story:

I haven't yet found Ambridge's version of the whole Leetsdale looting story in the Daily Citizen, although according to the March 24 issue, one of the arrested Ambridge men offered an explanation of his actions to a judge:
Joe Gilbert, Bank street, Ambridge, was held under $2,500 bond at a hearing before Judge Ralph Smith, in Allegheny court yesterday on a charge of larceny, and he was committed to the Allegheny county jail.

Gilbert was one of the men arrested by the Leetsdale police for looting in the flooded area. According to Gilbert's story, he had no intention of stealing, but had come across a garage lodged against a tree in the garden flats 300 yards away from any house, and that looking in, he saw a raincoat and a jack, which he thought he was entitled to, since he had found them. Judge Smith, however, thought otherwise
The March 23 Citizen did say in an article about Leetsdale's flood damage and cleanup that eight of the nine Ambridge men who had been arrested were sent home "with a warning not to be caught back in Leetsdale again" and added:
Twenty-two Leetsdale residents, mostly members of the fire department, were deputized as special police by the [Leetsdale] Burgess and were armed with sawed off shot guns with orders to shoot in the legs anyone caught below the railroad tracks after dark. 

The missing Ambridge boy

Another Ambridge story that made a lot of out-of-town papers was about a missing 16 year-old boy who hadn't come home after visiting his grandmother in South Heights, across the Ohio, a few days after the flood had arrived in Ambridge. Naturally, his parents were frantic and search parties sent out, but they failed to find the boy. However, the story ended with a weird twist. Here's what the Daily Citizen wrote in its Monday, March 23 issue:
After three days of frantic searching for Elmer Bauder, 16-year old son of John Bauder, 554 Maplewood avenue, missing since Friday [March 20], word was received this morning that he was all-right and he had started on a trip.

Friday morning, young Bauder invited Frank McGeorge to go to South Heights to his grandmother's to get a warm dinner. When told that he would be over there for two or three hours, McGeorge declined saying that he had to be home in an hour. He asked Bauder if the "gang" would see him that night and was given the assurance that they would.

He went to the home of his grandmother, Mrs. Elmer Laughner, where he did have dinner. He was given $3 to buy galoshes and went to Beck's store for this purpose. They did not have the kind he wanted and he said he would wait until he returned to Ambridge. At 1:30 o'clock he walked out of the store and that was the last that was known of his whereabouts.

Police were notified and searches of parties of three and four have combed Ambridge and the South Heights districts. Yesterday, the state police sent out a teletype of his description. He disappearance also had been broadcast over the radio.

This morning, John Bauder, received a postal card, postmarked midnight Friday from the Oakland Branch of the Pittsburgh postoffice. It read:

"Dad, don't worry. I'm alright. I'm going someplace. I'll be back home shortly. Tell Grandmother Laughner I'm away on a trip with the DeMolays" signed, "Red."

The reference to the trip with the DeMolays was made because of the illness of Mrs. Laughner and he evidently did not want his grandmother to worry about him.

It is thought that the youth got a ride to Pittsburgh on a delivery truck and, having $8 in his pocket, decided to go to Johnstown to view the results of the flood. Another conjecture is that he is heading south with the intention of visiting Lawrence Shomo, who is attending Atlanta Military Academy at Port Defiance, Virginia, and then continuing to St. Petersburgh to visit his uncle, who owns a drug store there.

There had been no trouble between the boy and his relatives so it evidently had not been premeditated as he was not dressed up when he left home Friday.
I was told that Elmer eventually returned home, but as of yet, I don't know when. Or what his parents had to say to him when he did.

The floating garage
The floating garage crashing against a pier of the Ambridge-Aliquippa bridge let go an automobile which quickly sank while another [automobile] was lodged safely in the remaining part of the building as it moved down steam. (Daily Citizen, March 20, 1936)

The information in this article came from reporting in Ambridge's Daily Citizen newspaper unless another source is named.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Coffee Pot Inn, Duss Ave., 1929

Coffee Pot Inn
Duss Ave., Near New Byers Plant
Daily Citizen 
August 10, 1929

Ever since I first saw this ad for the Coffee Pot Inn ("Hot Bar-B-Q Open All Year") when Maria Notarianni shared a scan of it with me several years ago, I've wondered exactly where on "Duss Ave., Near New Byers Plant" it was.

And then recently, while looking for something else entirely, I found the answer in The Pittsburgh Catholic, Sept. 22, 1932, issue, in an ad for a different Ambridge inn: the Golden Moon Inn, "Formerly Coffee Pot Inn."

The Golden Moon Inn ad advertised "Delicious BAR B Q--10¢. No Cover Charge; Dine and Dance; Private Parties and Banquets a Specialty."

Golden Moon Inn
"Formerly Coffee Pot Inn"
3000 Duss Ave.
Pittsburgh Catholic
September 22, 1932

The address in the Golden Moon ad, 3000 Duss Ave., no longer exists. But if it still did, it would be as far north on Duss as possible without crossing the Legionville Bridge into Baden.

But perhaps the Coffee Pot Inn and the Golden Moon Inn weren't actually located that far north on Duss. I have a later address for the Golden Moon Inn, 2916 Duss Ave., which would have put it more or less across the street from where the Byers plant's office was. So either the Golden Moon had moved further south on Duss, or the buildings on that part of Duss were renumbered at some point so 3000 Duss became 2916 Duss. Does anyone know?

I've also wondered what that cute little building on the Coffee Pot Inn's right side was. Phone booth?  

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Laundry day, Ambridge's Marshall Alley homes, July 1938


Laundry hung between some Marshall Alley homes
"Housing conditions in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, home of the American Bridge Company"
Photographer: Arthur Rothstein
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
July 1938

It must be laundry day in some Marshall Alley homes. 

This is another of a series of photos photojournalist Arthur Rothstein took in July 1938 as part of a project for the Farm Security Administration, documenting life during the Great Depression. 

Most of the photos Rothstein took in Ambridge focused on the First St. area. The iconic photo of the Dead-End Pool built by First St. children, and the frequently shared photo of a girl in a wash tub, were taken by Rothstein.

The Marshall Alley projects consisted of three rows of homes, only two of which were on Marshall Alley. The third row faced First St. The rows ran between Merchant St. and Maplewood Ave. They were built circa 1904 and housed some of Ambridge's poorest families.

Location of Marshall Alley homes
snip from 1923 Sanborn Insurance map

Because the homes which were actually on Marshall Alley faced each other, as shown in the blog post "The children of Marshall Alley," and this photo shows the backs of two rows, it must have been taken behind the First St. row of homes. So in a Marshall Alley alley. 

Those are not outhouses attached to the back of the houses. I've been told that
 the additions were meant to help keep out the cold and dirt. I'm not sure how successful they were. Although the homes did not have a bathroom, each had a toilet in the basement. Someone who lived in a Marshall Alley home as a child remembered the basement as a dark and scary place, with rats scurrying past when someone came down the stairs. 

Laundry would probably have been done in big metal tubs like the one in the "girl in a wash tub" photo, with water heated on the stove, and perhaps scrubbed on washboards. 

The Marshall Alley homes were razed in the 1950s.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Big Sewickley Creek Bridge 1917: "Longer to complete than did the building of the Panama Canal"


Big Sewickley Creek Bridge
From Allegheny Co. looking north into Ambridge, Beaver County
credit: Allegheny Co. Dept. of Public Works

Streetcar tracks crossed the bridge in 1917. The dark building just above the photo's center and the first building on the right were on the part of Beaver Rd./Beaver St. that leads into Ambridge from the bridge. To the dark building's left is a home that I think was on Bank St. and the backs of some buildings in the 300 block of First St. The dark building and all buildings to its left have been razed. The tall building farther up the left side of the street must be the S. P. Kristufek Department Store. If you enlarge the photo enough, you can see a horse standing next to the Kristufek store. And, above the first utility pole on the right, a carriage.

The nearest building on the right is still standing; Hark's Place bar is now there, 70 Beaver St./Rd. Beyond that, the building with all the porches was one of the infamous "Crackerbox" tenements that stood on the hill above Merchant St./Beaver Rd., razed in 1960.

Far in the background are homes in the 100 block of Merchant St. And behind them, the domes of Holy Ghost Orthodox Church, 210 Maplewood Ave.


Long before Ohio River Boulevard connected Ambridge with Allegheny Co., the small Big Sewickley Creek Bridge provided the connection.

The Economy Centennial was being celebrated when Ambridge's June 6, 1924, Citizen* newspaper noted on its front page: 
an important milestone in the history of Ambridge...the beginning of the end of the work on the Big Sewickley Creek bridge between Ambridge and Fair Oaks, which has been a bone of contention between two counties, a street car company, residents of three boroughs and tourists of 48 States for a number of years.
Because that very morning, a contractor had started pouring concrete in the bridge's road bed and expected the work to be completed "in about two weeks."

Even though the bridge is only about 200 feet long, that same Citizen article claimed it took "longer to complete than did the building of the Panama Canal and has cost enough to build a bridge across the Ohio River."

The history of the bridge's construction is murky. The Citizen article said Allegheny County records showed a bridge at the site    "[96] years ago" according to a construction inspector, who said he had found a 1828 "road view plan" showing a bridge at the same location.

However, the inspector's history was questioned by John Frederick (Fred) Knoedler, who was a non-Harmonist caretaker of Old Economy and its property both before and after the Harmony Society dissolved. Knoedler said that according to Harmonist records, "the Economites drove through the creek to get to Leetsdale" during their early years in Economy. But, he says, "much later," there was a bridge across the creek when the Harmonists had pastures on both sides of Big Sewickley Creek. Knoedler remembered "wire gates hung from the bridge to keep the [Harmony Society's] cattle from going up the creek." 

The Citizen also said that "during the youth of John Duss," who was born in 1860, the bridge was condemned, and Duss designed an arch under the bridge to strengthen it. "The original arch still stands, but is is now encased in concrete."

A 1906 G. M. Hopkins & Co. map shows a narrow bridge in that spot. Eventually, the bridge was raised and the walls heighted to accommodate street cars.

Then, during the WWI years, a decision was made by some entity to further widen and rebuild the bridge. Beaver County's commissioners claimed they had no money for such a project. So Allegheny Co. undertook the work on its own. I believe the photo above shows that reconstruction project. 

But the work did not go well. In fact it went so wrong that The Citizen said:
The [whale] may have swallowed Jonah, according to tradition, but no one who ever had any thing to do with the Big Sewickley Creek Bridge from that time on would believe that Jonah was anywhere but right handy to that bridge. His hoodoo seemed to be always present.
What was supposed to be a one year project took two. Twice high water moved the derrick. Once all the bridge's "large stones were washed down the creek, requiring lines to be tied to them to 'snake' them out of the creek." 

Even after the construction project finished, problems continued when the streetcar company said it wouldn't pay to move its tracks. So in 1923, the two counties agreed to do the job themselves. But then, after the contractor had moved one of the tracks, he claimed that he didn't have enough money to finish the job. And the work dragged on and on into the spring on 1924--bad weather didn't help. But finally--finally--the bridge construction appeared to be nearing completion.

But wait, there's more!

If you enlarge the photo at the top, you can see what appears to be the back of a carriage, and near that carriage, part of a sign peeking out on the right side of a pole. And if you're like me, you thought, "I wish I could read what that sign says. 

Well, wish granted. Because there's another photo! And while the photo was focused on the bridge's stone arch, it shows more than that.

Big Sewickley Creek Bridge
from the Allegheny County side of Big Sewickley Creek
credit: Allegheny Co. Dept. of Public Works

First, an enlargement of the sign: 

Ambridge speed limit sign
Merchant St. near Valley Rd.

The sign says "Ambridge Borough, Speed Limit, 15 miles per hour." It appears to have stood about where the "Welcome to the Borough of Ambridge" sign is now, just north of the intersection of Valley Rd. and Merchant St.

An enlarged photo also shows a tailor's signs painted on the windows of the building with the awning, now Hark's Place.  I think the left window says "Merchant Tailor." The one on the right window says "John [last name I couldn't read], Tailor."

The sign on the side of the one story wooden building says "Favorite Cigarettes." While there are more signs on the side and on the front, I can't make them out. 

Could the house on the right side of the photo, above those two buildings, have been on Valley Rd.? And the houses on the very top of the hill on Glenwood Dr.?

And towards the right side of the photo, a man wearing a hat is standing, looking toward the photographer. And us.


Thanks to Debby Rabold, Bell Acres Borough's historian, for sending me the two photos above. Debby has also written about the Ambridge-Leetsdale Big Sewickley Creek Bridge and provides a somewhat different history of its construction than the one written in The Citizen. She also has included some early photos of that bridge. Here's a link to Debby's article: "Big Sewickley Creek...Early Bridges," which also includes information about other bridges that cross Big Sewickley Creek. 

* The Citizen's June 6, 1924, article was republished in the March 21, 1939, Daily Citizen. The latter did correct several typos in the original article, including that a bridge was at the site "6 years ago." That befuddled me at first, because I knew that the bridge had been built before 1918. In 1939, the bridge was referred to as the "Ambridge-Fair Oaks Bridge."