Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Of Lawbreakers and Trolleys

State of Affairs in Clairton

A different look at the old hometown: As regular readers are aware, one of my favorite topics for this blog is my old hometown of Clairton, PA. Once known as the “Coke Capital of the World,” the mills of Clairton created more coke, a crucial product in the production of steel, than any other place anywhere. At some point Clairton’s moniker changed to “City of Prayer.” Although my memories of Clairton are happy ones for the most part, reality dictates that, with apologies to Charles Dickens, even in the best of times it was the worst of times. Since the mills have for the most part gone away, things have deteriorated in the old hometown. Perhaps that is why I was moved by a newspaper article I read recently.

CLAIRTON TERRORIZED: Although we like to see the positive side, the headlines screamed about how the City has been at the mercy of thugs, murders and scofflaws. The article includes a double murder, a fatality that was the result of a fight, and a mysterious death of a security officer murdered in a church cellar. The article further mentions “...still another crime was charged up to that locality, in the murder of Tony Spanna, 31 years old, who was shot in the abdomen during a fight on Sunday.” Spanna had apparently been in a fight with John Sarael and a yet unidentified third person.

Another murder: a trail of blood led to the discovery of the body of Joseph Murray, 50, who had been drinking the night before with several unidentified men. He was employed at the Clairton Works.

In yet another example of brazen lawlessness burglars entered through a broken side window of a local business at 2 a.m. and made off with a 1,500 pound safe. The safe was hoisted up onto a window sill and using two empty beer kegs as skids, was dragged to the reception area. An exchange of gunfire between the thieves and the business owner may have led to the wounding of one of the suspects. The gang is believed to be the same group that recently blew up the safe in the Clairton post office and made off with $ 400.00.

Other notes from the police blotter include the robbery of John Robinson and Paul Sheehan on State Street, and two local ironworkers who were accosted at gunpoint. The ironworkers, however overpowered the bandits, and according to the report, relieved them of a bottle of whiskey before the would-be robbers escaped.

The above was based on a story was reprinted in the Mifflin Township Historical Society newsletter and was originally in the Homestead News-messenger January 27, 1903. The events happened 106 years ago.

Trolleys from long ago: My father's birthday was the easiest to remember: 12/13/14. My Mom was born a year later. Both were born in Clairton and as a youngster they would regale me with stories from their own childhood. There were stories about "foreign" kids and the struggles their ethnicity brought them from teachers at Clairton High School who felt they were polluting the gene pool. Also stories about the local mills, especially of the women of the workforce who had replaced their husbands and brothers who went to war. But one of my favorite stories was about the trolley. Like so many Clairton families during the Great Depression, my parents had little money. They had no cable TV (or any TV for that matter), no computer games, ipods, cell phones, or SUVs to help wile away the time so they found their own frugal methods of entertainment. My mother's family lived off State Street across from the Clairton Works mill gate. As a youngster she and a few peers would ride the trolley from State Street up St. Clair Avenue to its terminus at 7th Street, then back again. As long as they did not disembark they did not have to pay another fare to ride as long as they wished - up and down St. Clair Avenue.

Jim Hartman of the Mifflin Township Historical Society was kind enough to make me aware of several historical items of interest from their archives regarding Clairton. The following is an excerpt from their May 2003 newsletter. For further information you may visit the Mifflin Township Historical Society at 3000 Lebanon Church Road Suite 202 or visit their web page at www.mifflintownship.org.

Clairton's Toonerville Trolley (reprinted with permission)

Do you complain about bus service in Clairton? Local transportation has not always rolled on balloon tires. In fact for a long time the only public travel facilities in the city were those provided by the Clairton Street Railway Company. With this name the only possible topic under discussion could be street cars. This is no news to the town’s oldsters to whom the railway company had become a fixed institution when it was finally liquidated in 1926.

The company, a branch of the Pittsburgh Street Railway Company, was organized in Clairton in 1902. A Clairton ordinance of August 15, 1904 authorized this route: “State Street at the borough line, State to St. Clair to 7th to Sloan; return via 7th to St. Clair to 5th to Waddell to Ridge to Park to Miller to St. Clair to State ending at the borough line.” At a stockholder’s meeting on May 13, 1905, Henry Clay Frick, president of Carnegie Steel paid $30,000 cash for the entire line. From 1905 to 1911 the line was operated under the control of Frick. Its main purpose was to carry men to work in the mill, and to carry passengers to and from trains at the railroad station at the bottom of St. Clair Ave. Since the line was so short, it was found that steelworkers would walk downhill to work but after the long, laborious shift were quite willing to pay for the uphill ride home. The traction firm had the foresight to see that some transportation was desperately needed here, and grabbed the chance, but in the inevitable march of progress they were forced out of business by a more versatile concern. This last occurred in 1926 when the Nixon Bus Line appeared and since it was able to spread service over a large area, the little four-wheeled street car was supplanted by busses.

The line consisted of exactly one mile of track running from the present location of Gumbel’s Garage [in 1947] on St. Clair Avenue to the old Crucible Hotel at the bottom of the hill, and didn’t require much space, as the company owned only two cars. Before St. Clair Avenue was paved, which was not too long ago, it was possible to see the brick covering over the unused street-car tracks. When the last superintendent, Edward Lewis, and the traction company made their departure from Clairton’s business life they left quite a respectable reputation as far as punctuality and good service were concerned. Making trips up and down the hill every 15 minutes regularly, meeting every train, and providing sure, on-time service for working men kept customers satisfied, and this can be easily understood (we can really appreciate this today). The fare was one nickel!

Although Clairton’s version of the Toonerville Trolley was on its toes in being on time, it had its share of accidents, most of which, it must be said, were very trivial. Two of these accidents recalled by one of the company’s motormen (all cars were operated by one man who served as combination motorman and conductor), Edward Kuntz, Jr.

One day in 1924 at 7:30 a.m. Joseph Adams was piloting the car up St. Clair Avenue when the vehicle skidded off the track just as it rounded the turn at the Columbia Hotel. To tell a story is much longer than it actually took for the mishap to occur, the motorman and passengers, after a wild five seconds, found themselves in what was then a stone quarry. Although no one was seriously injured one of the passengers was not less than Mayor W. B. Farnsworth.

At another time car and motorman apparently had expansive ideas long before company officials had. What happened is that when the trolley reached the bottom of the run, at the mill office, it kept right on going—which would not have been too bad if there had been a track there. The motorman this time was Charles Semack. The list of motormen, although far from complete, included Mr. Semack, T. Bateman, Mr. Evans, J. W. Gillingham, Charles Livingston, and Mr. Kunz. Mr. Kunz is now a city fireman [in 1947].

The went constantly up and down St. Clair Avenue day and night, in wintry chillers and July scorchers. Although a part not of the bright present or of the brighter future, the Clairton Street Railway company fills a huge gap of the city’s sentimental past.

A little blogging music Maestro... “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan.

Dr. Forgot

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