Wednesday, May 13, 2009

More Clairton History

Clairton, Parks and Recreation

The impact of Clairton natives: Margaret Brown was born in the Wilson section of Clairton in August, 1914. She was from a multi-generational Clairton family. As a senior attending Clairton High School she dated the Clairton football hero and Notre Dame Athlete Ken Stilley. She even attended Ken’s prom at Notre Dame and the locals decided they’d make a lovely couple. But it was not to be. Ken Stilley married another Clairton gal and Margaret married Ken Norris. They had two Clairton children, Elizabeth and Robert. Margaret passed away in Florida last August at age 93. Her beloved husband passed away in 2004. Her daughter, Elizabeth Banzen was kind enough to share a photo of Margaret as a 16-year old, taken on the opening day of the Clairton swimming pool (front row left). See more about the Clairton pool and its opening below. Margaret Brown Norris, Clairton gal.

Of covered bridges and recreation: If you lived in Clairton you have driven along State Street through the area called “Peters Creek Bottoms.” On one side of State Street are the remnants of a still working mill that sits on the Monongahela River’s edge. Peters Creek empties into the river and during the 1940s, 50, and 60s, the smell of quencher would permeate the air so heavily that the kids would hold their breath and car windshields would become coated with the residue from the mill as cars crossed the bridge over Peters Creek. But have you ever given that bridge a second thought? Just an ordinary concrete bridge constructed in 1937 during the height of the Great Depression, one of thousands in the Keystone State built to allow smooth passage over water. It replaced an iron bridge that had stood for years. The iron bridge was built when engineers straightened the channel of Peters Creek from its normal winding route to allow for multiple railroad tracks. In the late 1800s that creek meandered past the first Clairton cemetery and was traversed by a covered wooden bridge. The Peters Creek Valley was the location for Clairton residents and neighbors to enjoy swimming, fishing, and recreation until it became a dumping ground for sewage, coal residue, and finally slag that created the bottoms that now exist.

A walk in the park – a swim in the pool: The City of Prayer might well have been called the City of Parks during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Blair Grove, McGogney and Reed Orchard, and Union Grove were located along the river – later to be supplanted by blast furnaces and mills. Central Park, replaced by the open hearth, had rides and a regular balloonist who would take off then leap from the balloon and open a parachute to return to earth. Mendelsshon Park at the end of Boundary Avenue included a dancing pavilion, merry-go-round and a Midway. But the crown jewel of area parks was the 137 acre City Park, which became Clairton Park as it is now known. Construction of the central feature of the park, the swimming pool, began in 1929 and the pool opened in time for the summer 1930 swim season. The 210 foot long by 130 foot wide pool had a baby pool at the shallow end that added another 15 feet. It cost $ 107,000 to build, no paltry sum, and held 1.3 million gallons of water. A large island in the shallow end and a smaller one in the deeper end were called the first and second floats, respectively. In addition to the 88 underwater lights there were towers, benches and life guard observation posts. The bathhouse of tapestry brick included a first aid station. The refreshment stand and stone pillars at the Walnut Street entrance were added later.

What a difference a century makes: One hundred years ago Clairton was a small village. The third high school class was about to graduate from Clairton High School. A new school that would accommodate more students would be built in a couple of decades to house grades 7-12 and the original high school building would become the Fifth Street Grade School, grades 1-6. Shaw Avenue School opened. Immigrants, mostly from southern and eastern European countries were flowing into the community to work in the mills. Ethnic communities would become defined as immigrants of Slavic descent would congregate in the area, those of Italian descent in another, African Americans in another, and those of Anglo heritage scattered throughout. By 1920 Walnut and Miller Avenue Elementary Schools had opened in an effort to school the burgeoning population. As the elementary children grew to be teens the city saw enrollment in Clairton High School triple. Many Clairtonians remember favorite and gifted teachers including music and art teachers such as Rutilio Rotili, Miss Jennie Mae Botdorf, and Miss Cora Pitcairn. Other outstanding faculty members included famed musician Ben E. Benack, English teacher Elizabeth Bayles who studied at University of London, and Latin teacher Emma Will.

The people and the industry: The people of Clairton have been highlighted in these blog posts as has the steel industry. U.S. Steel was incorporated in 1901 and capitalized at an unheard of $ 1.4 billion – the first billion dollar corporation. Attempts by the federal government in 1911 to break up U.S. Steel under antitrust laws failed. The corporation’s first president was Charles M. Schwab. U. S. Steel's production peaked at more than 35 million tons in 1953. Employment was greatest in 1943 with more than 340,000 employees. By 2000, however, it employed just 52,500 people. As the new century dawned Clairton was on life support. U.S. Steel announced a potential revival in late 2007 in the form of a $ 1 billion refurbishing of the Clairton works, but like so many other empty promises, the economy made that one fizzle.

The outlook for Clairton: Since the decline of the steel industry Clairton has followed suit. From a population high of 25,000 in the 1950s to an estimated 7,000 today the population and economy has contracted. Crime, poverty and unemployment are up. The school system struggles, and some say the future is bleak. But from chaos comes opportunity. The Community Economic Development Corporation of Clairton in conjunction with the Allegheny County Housing Authority and the state of Pennsylvania, recently completed construction of a single-family housing development to encourage people to own rather than rent. Taxes for nearly all homeowners have been reduced, and a new freeway that ends in Large is scheduled to continue on to Pittsburgh. Prospects for Clairton’s future look better today than a decade ago.

A little blogging music Maestro.... “A New Day” by Celine Dionne.

Dr. Forgot


Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say thanks for this site. I came upon it by luck. I was born raised ,live still and probably die in Clairton I hate the drugs that have taken over by with God, and the new Mayor elect hopefully this town will return to how it was a great City where there waa TON OF KIDS, and the pride was here

Heather Gallaway said...

It is nice to remember how Clairton used to be. I have many great memories from home town, but like you I moved away after college and never looked back. My Mother still resides in her families home on Fifth street overlooking the steel mill. I visit occasionally only to find the area has become more and more depressed. The city is filled with vacant buildings and homes over grown by vines. Familiar family owned shops are closed and replaced with dollar stores and resales shops. What a sad ending to a once thriving city.