Monday, November 24, 2014

American Bridge Day: 50th Anniversary

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
Beaver County Times,
November 21, 1964

November 23, 1964, was "American Bridge Day" in Ambridge. The iconic Verrazano-Narrows Bridge linking Staten Island with Brooklyn was opened on November 21, and Ambridge's Mayor Walter Panek issued a proclamation recognizing the contribution of American Bridge Company's Ambridge mill and its employees in the bridge's construction.*

The text under the photo above says:
LONGEST SUSPENSION BRIDGE - New York's famed skyline fades into the background as the mighty new Verrazano Narrows Bridge takes the spotlight this week. Spanning the foot of New York Harbor between Brooklyn, right, and Staten Island, this breath-taking and record-breaking bridge will be opened for traffic today at 3 p.m. U.S. Steel's American Bridge Division, Ambridge, general contractors for the four main cables and the suspended roadway--including the record 4,200-foot long main span--was applying the necessary final touches when this photo was taken.
The November 21, 1964, Beaver County Times reported the bridge was said to be "the most spectacular yet built." An engineering marvel, the bridge was the world's longest suspension bridge at the time, and the mill workers at Ambridge's "Bridge Works" had fabricated materials for the bridge for almost three years, including 142,500 miles of the wire needed for the bridge's main cables. The mill also fabricated the bridge's suspended roadway.

According to the Times, Mayor Panek's proclamation declared "the might and ingenuity of local individuals played a vital roll [sic] in the bridge's design, fabrication, and construction." He noted that the mill "contributed substantially to the economy of our community" and "our fathers and forefathers found their first opportunity in America at the Ambridge Plant."

My father worked as a fitter** at American Bridge, one of the best I'm told. Putting the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge parts together was one of his proudest accomplishments. The bridge was one of two structures he helped to build that he wanted to see when we visited New York in 1964. The other was the Unisphere at that year's World's Fair.

Ambridge's American Bridge mill, which gave the borough its name, has been called "the plant that built America." It once employed almost 6,000 people and was the largest structural steel fabricating plant in the world."  It closed in 1984.

* The workers who actually built America's greatest structures like the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge are usually under-appreciated and overlooked. The American Bridge steelworkers at least were recognized by Mayor Panek's proclamation and an "American Bridge Day" in Ambridge. The New York City area steelworkers who built the bridge weren't even invited to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge's big opening day ceremony according to a segment on MSNBC's The Reid Report on November 21, 2014. Instead, the snubbed steelworkers attended a mass honoring the steelworkers who had died while working on the bridge.

* *Jay Deiter, who grew up in Ambridge near American Bridge and in the 1970s worked as an assistant to a fitter at Bethlehem Steel, described a fitter's job this way:  "A fitter is someone that can take pieces of steel, look at a set of blueprints, envision the assembled and finished project, correct engineering mistakes on the spot, build what is in front of him, sign off on his completed work and always be proud of his work and his craft!"

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fourth Ward and the Economy schools

Although I do read a bit about the history of the Harmony Society's Economy, I mainly focus my research and blogging on Ambridge and the post-Harmonite period. But sometimes the two overlap, as wonderfully illustrated by this photo:

Three Economy schools
State Library of Pennsylvania
Old Economy Village archives

Although I had probably seen this photo on one of my earlier explorations of the State Library of Pennsylvania archives, I didn't appreciate what it showed until I started doing research on "Ambridge's First Building" which I blogged about last week.

The Old Economy historian's letter cited in that blog post mentioned two photos of the Blaine House, described as a school. The Blaine House is the large building on the right above. The Harmonites moved Blaine House from its previous location near what is now First and Merchant Streets shortly after they arrived at what would become their last settlement, Economy, in 1824. Christiana Knoedler says in her 1954 book The Harmony Society that the Blaine House was used as a school for over 60 years. The Old Economy-Ambridge Sesqui-Centennial Historical Booklet, compiled and edited by Rev. Norman C. Young, May 1974, agrees, saying that the Blaine House was used as a school until 1884.

Those other two buildings in the photo were also schools. The one on the left is a later Harmony Society school. The building in the background with a tower peeking out between the other buildings is Ambridge's first school, originally named Economy Public School, later called Fourth Ward School.

All I know about the Economy school on the left side is this bit of information from the Sesqui-Centennial booklet: "In 1884 a building was built on Church Street near 16th Street and prior to 1904 classes were conducted in this farm building adjacent to the old 4th Ward Building. This building is now used as an apartment house." An apartment building still occupies that corner, although it doesn't look like the 1884 school building in the photo.

In the photo, the Blaine House school and the school on the left look like they were next to each other; however, Laughlin Street ran between them. I don't know when Laughlin Street was constructed, although I believe that it was one of the streets that were cut mid-block in the larger old Harmony Society blocks when Ambridge was being built. Perhaps Laughlin Street was built after the photo was taken, but if so, it must have been soon after, since the street is shown on a 1905 map of the area.

I knew that not everyone who lived in Economy had been a member of the Harmony Society, and ever since I started doing historical research on Ambridge, I'd wondered where the children from non-Harmonite families went to school before Ambridge existed. Some may have been home-schooled, but in addition, according to The Twentieth Century History of Beaver County Pennsylvania, 1900-1988 (edited by Cheryl Weller Beck, 1989), "A schoolroom was always in use in Old Economy and attendance was free to all children, not only the children of members of the Society." 

The Ambridge School District built its first school, called Economy Public School, in 1904. It's the middle school in the above photo. Located between Laughlin and 16th Streets, almost mid-way between Church and Merchant Streets, it was built the year before Ambridge was incorporated, designed by architect Elsie Mercur Wagner, who compiled the 1924 Economy Centennial Souvenir Program: Economy of Old and Ambridge of Today

I've wondered about why Ambridge chose to build its first school between Laughlin and 16th Streets. Undoubtedly a new school was sorely needed with the sudden influx of new families moving into Ambridge after American Bridge was built; however, most of them were settling on the other end of town, near the mill.

Below is a postcard postmarked in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1912, showing the Economy Public School built by Ambridge:

"Public School Building, Economy Pa."
postmarked 1912

Although postmarked in 1912, the photo and card itself may well be pre-1907. Before 1907, the U.S. permitted only a mailing address on the back of postcards. This card has an undivided back with the notation, "This side for the address." The U.S. permitted divided back postcards beginning in 1907, allowing both a message and address on the reverse side of a card's image.

Any message on an undivided back card was often squeezed in the front's margins as it is here. The writing is very faded, but this is what I can make out:

On the left side:
Dear Miss Buchman, Kindly let me know how early in May you can [send?] for me. Bell phone 527.

On the right side:
Mrs. J. C. Campbell Lan[undecipherable] Gertie Rauch(?) phoned you about me. 

Fourth Ward School was used as a school until it was closed and razed in 1964. Its site was used for a playground for many years. The playground was razed to make room for the Old Economy Visitor Center which opened in August, 2003.

Old Economy Visitor Center
270 Sixteenth Street
April 1, 2014

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Mystery of the Missing Marker

During my September, 2014, visit to Ambridge, I wanted to take a photo of "Ambridge's First Building," which the Beaver County Historical Research and Landmarks Foundation had recognized with a historical marker.

I wasn't sure where the building was, and a visit to the BCHRLF's Historical Marker Program page didn't help because, although "First Building in Ambridge" was listed, the marker's location wasn't given.

The Historical Marker Database wasn't helpful either, as it didn't list the marker.

Oh well, how hard could finding it be? I thought the building would probably be somewhere in or north of the historic district, perhaps between the Old Economy property and the French Point area. So I walked and drove around that neighborhood, looking for the marker, but didn't see it.

I knew the marker existed because I had once seen a photo of it taken by Edward King. I don't know when the photo below was taken, but no trees currently exist to the front or side of the building behind the marker, which turned out to be 1500 Church Street.

Historic marker
"Ambridge's First Building"
circa 1970s?
credit: Edward King, used with permission

Marker text:
Ambridge's First Building, 1824. This building was the first erected by the Harmony Society in their new town of Economy (now Ambridge) in May, 1824. It served as a church or meetinghouse until 1828. When the present Feast Hall was completed, this in turn was used as a church. The first building then became a granary and later a dwelling. The doors are the same on both sides, one probably being the women's door and the other, the men's. The emphasis placed by the Harmony Society on religion is illustrated by this building, which was erected before many of the society members had shelter.

Since my search had been fruitless, I asked some friends and acquaintances if they knew where the marker of the "first building" was located. I got a variety of answers, some of which I knew were wrong because the markers cited were not for the "first building." And I had driven through all the streets suggested as the marker location without seeing it. Why couldn't I find it?

I also got a variety of opinions on what building was "Ambridge's first."

The next day, I again walked and drove several times through all the streets in the northwest part of Ambridge: Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Sixteenth, Boyleston, Laughlin, Henning, Henrici, Church, and Merchant Streets, and again I couldn't find the marker.

While I did enjoy walking around Ambridge in beautiful fall weather, this was turning out to be a not very productive search historical-building-wise.

At that point, I decided I could keep wandering around northwest Ambridge looking for the marker, or I could ask the people who should know where it was. So I called BCHRLF and spoke with Brenda Applegate, the executive director. She told me that the marker once identified a building at the corner of Fifteenth and Church Streets, but was currently in storage by the BCHRLF after an Old Economy Village historian expressed concerns about the accuracy of the marker.

Later, Applegate sent me a copy of a February 21, 2002, letter from an Old Economy historian to the chairman of the Beaver County historical marker program about the possible "re-installation" of the marker at the "Blaine House." The letter states, in part,
[T]here  seems to be question [sic] as to the historical accuracy of the oral tradition associated with the house on the northeast corner of Church here in the Historic District of Ambridge as being the oldest house in Economy. 
The letter goes on to list some of the historical writings that would call into question the accuracy of the marker, including several passages from Christiana Knoedler's 1954 book, The Harmony Society in which she writes about the Blaine House, saying it was still at the corner of Fifteenth and Church Streets:
The house was located near old Beaver Road and First Street of present day Ambridge, about one mile from the village of Economy. The Blaines gave possession about two months after it was sold. It was occupied by Father Rapp until his new dwelling in Economy was completed.  
This house was about twelve years old in 1824, when it was taken down and re-erected. When rebuilt, all of the material was used again, even the plastering. For almost sixty years the building...was used as a school. It is now well over 135 years old and still stands at the northeast corner of Fifteenth and Church Streets. 
The other house of interest is the one at the southwest was a log house moved from the Heslet track (present day Hazel Hollow, near Nineteeth Street). This is considered to be the oldest house in Ambridge today.

The historian goes on to write about two photos showing the Blaine House:
As you can see, the building which is presently at the northeast corner of 15th and Church Streets bears no resemblance to the school house as rebuilt by the Harmony Society which reused all material again. The building there now may contain elements from the original House but is hardly a historic building of the Harmonist or pre-Harmonist period.

This is one of the photos, reproduced in The Harmony Society, showing the Blaine House and cited by the historian. The Blaine House is the building in the background. The copy of the photo below is from the State Library of Pennsylvania's Old Economy Village Archives with the descriptive note: "Typical dwelling and school (Old Blaine House)"

Economy house and schoolhouse
State Library of Pennsylvania
Old Economy Village Archives

Knoedler's caption in The Harmony Society says: A typical Economy dwelling at the corner of Fifteenth and Church Streets. At the right is Blaine House.

I think the second photo supplied as a reference by the historian is so interesting, it deserves its own post, which I hope to write soon. So I'll not show it here.

I did find another photo of The Blaine House in the State Library of Pennsylvania's Old Economy Village Archives which lists it as a "school." The descriptive note says: "The 'Blaine Mansion' moved (sometime in the 1820s) from what is now East of Merchant Street and Duss Ave Intersection"

Blaine House
State Library of Pennsylvania
Old Economy Village Archives

Here's the Google street view of 1500 Church Street for comparison:

1500 Church Street
Google street view

I don't have the answers yet to some of my new questions:
  • When was the building at 1500 Church Street, which Knoedler identifies as the Blaine House, so extensively remodeled it no longer qualified as a "historic building of the Harmonist or pre-Harmonist period"?
  • If 1500 Church Street is not Ambridge's first building, what is? Is it the former log house at 1427 Church Street which is believed to be the Heslet log house which Knoedler thought was "the oldest building in Ambridge" in 1954? And why didn't the BCHRLF mark that building as Ambridge's first? 
  • Were there other pre-1824 buildings on land that later became part of Ambridge that weren't moved by the Harmonites to Economy? And if so, what happened to them? 
  • What was the Blaine House used for besides a school? Was it ever used for a church/meetinghouse, granary, or house, as the marker said?

If you have the answers to these questions, please leave a comment.