Friday, March 13, 2009

The Birth of a City

Clairton – Over my shoulder a backward glance

Know your Clairton History: Some 25 years ago Noah Thompson compiled a history of the Clairton area. If you are not a Clairtonian, read on anyhow. I’ve taken excerpts of his work to provide a background of our community. I’ve edited it for the sake of brevity. His entire text can be found at:

Land occupancy in the Clairton Area began in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. The first survey record is dated September 27, 1769. It resulted in the “Ravensburg” patent granted on February 10, 1791. This patent covered land known as Wilson. A second tract was surveyed on December 8, 1783. A third tract was surveyed by Samuel St. Clair, September 8, 1784, and was conveyed to Samuel Willie (Wylie) on September 22, 1788. A fourth tract was surveyed on September 20, 1787.

The Borough of Clairton was erected on April 25, 1903, the Borough of Wilson (including the unincorporated towns of Wilson, Coal Valley, and Peters Creek or Mendelssohn) was chartered on January 4, 1907; and the Blair District became the Borough of North Clairton on March 27, 1915.

Thus the Clairton Area was divided politically into three separate jurisdictions, each of which was free to enact ordinances and set tax levies independent of the others. Duplication of municipal service for schools, public works, and public safety became costly and uneconomic. By the close of World War I, the separation of a single community into three political jurisdictions had become evident and a movement toward municipal unification was begun. An election was held in November 1920 and the three boroughs voted to merge them in a single municipality. In January, 1922 the City of Clairton was incorporated with a population estimated at approximately 11,000 souls.

Citizen Soldiers: The Clairton community has been represented in every war in which the United States has been engaged, from the French and Indian hostilities, the Revolution, as well as in the War of 1812. Clairton was represented in the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Viet Nam, and Iraq. Local war hero Reggie Desiderio won the nation’s highest honor as mentioned in previous posts.

Business history: In the early 1900s Park Avenue was largely the business street in Clairton with S. C. Wilson’s grocery, Bennet’s pharmacy and Glenn’s furniture store. The Clairton Branch of Carnegie Library and school rooms were located in the basement of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. At Third and Miller was the Bedell Feed Store, and across Third was Brouker’s Bakery. Mitchell Avenue had a number of company houses for local businesses.

The most overcrowded building in the town stood on Waddell Avenue. It was at once the St. Clair Improvement Co. Office, the bank, post office, two school rooms, and housed the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church. By 1905 all its denizens had found other quarters and it served only as a Chinese Laundry. Eventually it was moved to Halcomb Avenue and Third Street.

Education: By 1905 the new High School Building on Fifth Street was completed, the principal being Prof. E. H. Knoch. The rapid growth of the town soon demanded additional space and by 1913 the Shaw Avenue School was opened. The opening of the Vankirk Street section of the town resulted in the building of the Miller Avenue School.

Boom and Bust: With the announcement of a railroad terminal to be built in Blair which would be a vital link in coast to coast railroad travel, property values in Blair sky-rocketed-—changing hands in some instances two and three or more times within a month. But the reality did not match the hype and Blair settled down to a dull existence as a sort of across-the-track section for Clairton. With the construction of the Coke works and the importation of laborers from many sections of the country, many did not find work, so Blair had a resurgence with gambling houses and more colorful places which operated under the guise of “coffee house” and “boarding house” until a prominent magazine, did a survey concluded that Blair was the wickedest spot in the U. S. That caused the city fathers to redefine Blair and government housing in the form of projects were later built.

Remembering the Dead: Three cemeteries are located in Clairton. Peters Creek Cemetery is the oldest burial ground in this region with the oldest tombstone dated 1789. The burial plot is an odd formation, a knoll of less than one acre in area, rising abruptly from the former shores of Peters Creek. Greek Catholics, re¬siding in Clairton, as members of the Ascension Church, on Feb. 17, 1909 received an option for some five or more acres of ground for a cemetery. St. Clare’s Cemetery is located on the north side of Worthington Avenue just inside the city limits and comprises approximately five acres of land purchased by St. Clare’s Church. The cemetery was opened in the summer of 1909 and is used as a burying place by the three congregations—St. Clare’s, St. Joseph’s and St. Paulinus.

Clairton Park: Clairton takes pride, in declaring that this beautiful recreational creation is the equal or superior of any pleasure grounds enjoyed by the residents of other cities in Pennsylvania the size of Clairton. The park, portions of the former McGogney and Wilson Farms, com¬prises approximately 137 acres of land, which about 75 years ago, were tillable fields. The park is nearly 75 years old, and was created following the optioning of 99 acres by the city from the Phipps Pennsylvania Trust. Remaining land was purchased from the Wilson estate. Civic organizations aided in re¬moving underbrush and other preliminary work.

Swimming pool construction began in 1929, and it opened on May 30, 1930. It was remodeled and upgraded decades later. The Clairton Lions Club helped promote the project by selling $2,000 worth of advanced season tickets. The original pool cost a total of $107,000 including improvements and the pool was 210 feet long and 130 feet wide. A separate baby pool 130 feet long and 15 feet wide was built at the shallow end.

Even today the pool is one of the most outstanding in the state. AS originally built the pool held 1,300,000 gallons of water and had a change of water every 11 ¼ hours, and was constantly chlorinated to safeguard health of swimmers. Twenty-nine lights illuminated the pool, along with 88 underwater lights, islands, diving hoards and towers, benches for lolling swimmers, and guard stations were features of the big pool. The bathhouse was of tapestry brick, and ac¬commodated 2,200 swimmers. There was a first-aid room with full equipment. A refreshment stand was later added along with other improvements, including pillars at the Walnut Avenue entrance and seats for spectators along the hill overlooking the pool.

Terraces with concrete walks and shrubbery were installed, and parking space is provided for vehicles. Peak attendance has been 2,400 daily and upwards of 70,000 bathers has enjoyed the center in one season. Over the years the park has been updated and improved with recreation facilities and beauty spots. Nine shelter houses stand in convenient spots, each provided with tables and a rustic cooking stove. A kitchen stands on Mem¬orial Hill for special occasions. There is a softball field as well as a baseball field. New improvements include two clay tennis courts and an outdoor stage built for the Silver Jubilee. Children enjoy the park playground adjacent to the swimming pool daily throughout the summer months.

A beauty spot is Memorial Hill, at the South end of the park where small tablets, with a tree planted beside each, are placed in memory of the dead of World War II. An honor roll for the dead of World War I has been placed at a central spot on the hill. Encircled by a driveway, Memorial Hill contains a Memorial Star, flower display, a gold-fish pond, and other picturesque settings. Two pillars have been erected from stone taken from the old Morris and Bailey Mill office, once located north of the Benzol Plant.

The park lodge is a rustic cabin, situated at the east entrance of the park. It is used by citizens and organizations of the city for social affairs, and is very popular, being in use nearly every evening.

An addition was the fishing pond between the pool and Memorial Hill. Used for the pleasure of children during the summer, it becomes a skating rink in winter months. Flood-lights and music add to the setting.

A tragedy bit the Park in May, 1936, when the big dance pavilion, located on the present Memorial Hill, was destroyed by fire. The Lions Club had been active in clearing the site for building of the dance pavilion.

We hope the above information has given you a sense of Clairton before your family settled there, and we hope you enjoyed the walk down Memory Lane.

A little blogging music Maestro… “Memories” by Barbara Streisand.

Dr. Forgot

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