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."

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Zion Lutheran Church's landmark parsonage razed

Zion Lutheran Church's parsonage being razed
8th St. between Park Rd. and Maplewood Ave.
Daily Citizen
November 2, 1948

Daily Citizen caption:
The former Zion Lutheran church parsonage on Park Rd. near Eighth St. is being razed. Constructed some 47 years ago, it is a landmark of the community. The residence was vacated when the congregation erected a modern home for their pastor, Rev. Frederick B. Haer and family, on the corner lot, Maplewood and 8th St.
If the parsonage was built in 1901, as the caption indicates, that means it was standing before there was an Ambridge, predating the building of the American Bridge plant. And it would have been older than the first Zion Lutheran Church, for which construction started in 1904. No wonder it was a landmark.

Although the caption describes the parsonage as being "on Park Rd. near Eighth St.," it actually sat very close to 8th St., about half way between Park Rd. and Maplewood Ave.

An article about the new parsonage in the September 16, 1948, Daily Citizen, said that the plan was to sell the old parsonage, but it was demolished less than two months later instead. Perhaps the congregation, thinking ahead, decided to retain the property so it might eventually build a new church building there?

Here's a photo of the replacement parsonage, still on the corner of Maplewood Ave. and 8th St., after construction was completed, and the pastor was getting ready to move in.

"Zion First Lutheran Church Parsonage Completed"
Daily Citizen
September 16, 1948

Sunday, April 5, 2020

500 block of Maplewood Ave. circa 1907 - 1913

These two vintage postcards show the 500 block of Maplewood Ave. from 5th St. looking north.

The upper card is the older of the two scenes. If you compare the two postcards, you'll see this first scene doesn't have the trees planted along the street that are shown in the lower card.

Note the horse and wagon way down the block, left side of the upper card.

The upper postcard with the older scene was never mailed, so there's no postmark to try to date the scene. But since the later postcard was mailed, and postmarked 1913, the scene on the older view must have been earlier.

More clues as to the date of the older postcard: Both postcards have divided backs on the address side, a style that the post office only allowed to be used beginning in 1907, so I know that the older postcard dates from after 1907. And before 1913. *

500 block of Maplewood Ave. looking north from 5th St.
circa 1907 - 1913

Compare the scenes in both postcards with this "now" photo taken by P. J. Shotter. Most of the houses shown in the two postcards are still there. As far as I can determine, the modern flat-roofed building on the right side of the photo, 510 Maplewood, was built on the last empty lot on the block in the 1950s. A podiatrist is there now. Earlier, it was was a dental office for many years.

500 block of Maplewood Ave. looking north from 5th St.
March 8, 2020
credit: P. J. Shotter

There's one other difference I see between the two cards: there's a house not in the older scene that's shown in the later one: 517 Maplewood, the third house on the left side of the later scene with the peaked roof and brown shingles at the top.

500 block of Maplewood Ave. looking north from 5th St.
postmarked 1913

Beaver County property records say 517 was built in 1916 which isn't possible. The house has to be older since it appears on a 1911 Sanborn insurance map** and the postcard mailed in 1913.

The yellow brick house with the pointed roof on the left side of the street in the "now" photo is also 517, so brick veneer may have been added after 1913. Better guess (maybe): although the postcard was mailed in 1913, the scene on the postcard predates 1911, since the 1911 Sanborn insurance map indicates the house was veneered. Either that, or the coloring of the houses on the postcard isn't accurate.

Here's the latest Google Street View of 517 and the neighboring houses on both sides:

515, 517, and 521 Maplewood Ave.
Google Street View
July 2019

Most of the street trees shown in the later postcard scene are now gone, although a few remain nearer to 6th St.  I wonder if they were some of the 200 - 300 trees planned for Ambridge for which the "shade tree commission" was accepting bids in 1908. (Daily Citizen, August 25, 1954)

Personal memory: I spent many happy visits to 517 Maplewood when my Uncle and Aunt, Pete and Helen Gause, lived there with my three cousins.

* And yes, I realize that just because the postcard was printed in 1907 that also means the scene on the card is from 1907. But the October 1905 Sanborn insurance map shows more empty lots in the 500 block on Maplewood than the scene appears to show. So 1907 seems to be a good approximate date of the earlier scene.

** On the 1911 Sanborn map, the address of the house that is now 517 Maplewood house was 508. Building addresses in Ambridge were changed in 1917, making Ambridge history involving old buildings so much more fun.

Here's the address side of the two postcards:

Address side of 1907 postcard

Address side of 1913 postcard

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Ambridge's Harmony Hotel. And the other Ambridge Harmony Hotel

"Harmony Hotel"
Manuscript Group 354: Old Economy Village Collection
Photo Number 635b
courtesy of Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
Old Economy Village
used with permission

Just a short distance northwest of the well-known and highly regarded Economy Hotel,* once located on the southwest corner of what is now 14th and Merchant Sts., there was a smaller, less impressive hotel. The Harmony Hotel, sometimes belittled as the "Tramp Hotel" or the "Hotel of the Unfortunates," hasn't been in business for many years, although its building still stands at 277 Fourteenth St.

Why those disparaging nicknames? According to Sarah Buffington, Old Economy Village curator:
"The guests at the Economy Hotel were told to arrive promptly at 4:30 for supper, so as not to keep others waiting. The staff was fed after the hotel guests, and then the 'tramps' were fed afterward. These homeless people were allowed to stay for one night, but were then told to move along. The Harmony Society kept track of them so that they wouldn’t overstay their welcome."
The date of the photo above is uncertain, but it probably dates from the late 1800s, before there was an Ambridge, or early 1900s. The building dates from much earlier, back to the establishment of Economy, and wasn't originally used as a hotel. Although it doesn't look like the typical, brick Harmonist house, it was the early home of Frederick Rapp, adopted son of George (Father) Rapp. Frederick Rapp later moved to a brick house that is on the grounds of Old Economy Village.

The three people in the photo are unidentified. but according to Buffington, the woman and girl may be Carrie Staples, a widow, and her daughter Katherine. Staples was a boardinghouse keeper there at the time of the 1910 census. 

The photo below shows a recent Google Street View of the former Harmony Hotel building:

277 Fourteenth St.
Google Street View
October 2013

What is not visible from Fourteenth St. is a large addition--that appears to me to be at least as large, or maybe larger, than the original house--built on the back of the building, probably around the time it became the Harmony Hotel. Buffington said the addition "is very much set up like an old hotel." You can see the addition from Boyleston St. Here's a satellite view of 277 Fourteenth St.:

277 Fourteenth St.
Google Satellite View

The other Harmony Hotel in Ambridge

To confuse Ambridge history more than it often is, there was another Harmony Hotel, across town from the one on 14th St. This Harmony Hotel, at 300 Merchant St., was built and operated later than the hotel on 14th St., but was also viewed as disreputable, especially by the American Bridge Co.

This Harmony Hotel was the bane of the American Bridge Co. for years. The company didn't want its employees drinking, and so devised deed restrictions that said that the area within the original boundaries of Ambridge was supposed to be "dry"--alcohol free--for 50 years. However, the Harmony Hotel, mere blocks from the company's plant and office, sold liquor. Legally. That was possible because the Harmony Hotel wasn't in Ambridge; it was in Harmony Township, at that time, just a walk across Merchant St. from Ambridge. Which I'm guessing made its site a very attractive spot for a

The building shows up on the 1911 Sanborn Insurance map as the location of the planned "Hotel May," named for its builder. Sometime between then and 1915, the name was changed to Harmony Hotel. The battle between its owner and American Bridge Co. over the hotel's liquor license appears to have begun early. Here's part of the remarks made by F. T. Cadmus, the plant superintendent, from the Daily Times, October 22, 1915:

The liquor license battle continued in 1916 when the hotel was owned by George T. Davis. In an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 14, 1916, Davis' attorney claimed that the American Bridge superintendent, Cadmus, had warned employees of the company that they would be fired if they were seen in the barroom of the Harmony Hotel.

So American Bridge must have been pleased by this announcement in the January 2, 1917, Daily Times:

A "temperance hotel" may not have proved to be as popular as the barroom at the Harmony Hotel may have once been, because in 1920, Divine Redeemer Church, across Merchant from the hotel building, bought it and converted it into a parochial grade school. After the church built a new school in 1961, the building was sold to the Karnavas Vending Co.

Karnavas Vending Co.
former Harmony Hotel
former Divine Redeemer School
300 Merchant St.
Google Street View, Oct. 2017

*Later renamed the Old Economy Hotel in the late 1800s.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Gene's Coffee Shoppe & Dining Room, Thanksgiving Menu, 1929

Gene's Coffee Shoppe & Dining Room
Thanksgiving Menu
Daily Citizen
November 27, 1929

Gene's Coffee Shoppe & Dining Room was in the long-gone Ambridge Hotel, located from 1905 to 1964 on the northwest corner of 8th and Merchant Sts. The restaurant's address was not printed in the ad. I guess everyone in the area knew where it was.

That $1.25 is equivalent to about $19.40 today. Still an attractive price for a complete Thanksgiving meal, but when the average steelworker was making less than $0.68 an hour, and taking home even less, perhaps beyond the budget of the average steelworker's family,

And no pumpkin pie!