Saturday, April 9, 2011

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Still Clairton after all these years
The more things change: After last week’s blog I received an email that suggested Clairton had changed since the writer had graduated. Duuuuh. Imagine this: The CHS Class of 1961 is about to have their 50th high school reunion. When they were graduating the Class of 1911 was having their 50th if indeed there was a 50th for them. Clairton in 1911 was barely a decade old as a borough and was still a decade away from becoming incorporated as a third class city. Thousands of men, including many eastern European immigrants were moving in to work in the newly built steel mills. Central Park had been bulldozed to make way for the new blast furnaces, and the residents who had lived there for generations were certain the town was going to hell. World War I had not yet begun. George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it” is but one motivation to review the history of our community.

Clairton’s mayoral history: W. B. Farnsworth was Clairton’s first mayor elected in 1922. Robert W. Ostermayer served as mayor from 1934-37 and led the city through the beginning of the Great Depression. He was followed by John J. Mullen Mullen in 1938 who would serve at the helm through the end of the Depression and world War II as well as the early part of the Korean War, serving from 1938-1953. After Mayor Mullen came football great Ken Stilley (’54 – ’61, Robert F. Stokes, ’62 – ’65, Robert Baird, ’66 – ’69, and John J. Matz, ’70 – ’73.

Mayor Matz was followed by attorney Lloyd Fuge, ’74 – ’77 who had been blind since his youth but to this day, writes poetry, and the first woman mayor with my all-time favorite name, Rose Bush until 1983. It is interesting to note that there had been no mayors of Italian heritage up to that point but the five mayors who followed Mayor Bush were all Italian-American.

A little more history: At the corner of St. Clair Ave. and State Street where the gas station was located for years stood the Wylie farmhouse. The barn, half stone and half frame, stood diagonally across State Street. There was a spring house of stone that was supplied by an underground spring that ran downward from the bottom of Waddell Ave. to State Street on property owned by Frank Arch. My grandparents purchased a couple of acres of land from Mr. Arch in about 1915. The property abutted Park Avenue and was located on Arch Street, one block up from State Street. It was hilly and overgrown and they had to clear it and dig part of the hillside away in order to be able to build. Once the house was built the family would have to pull up the floors every year to divert the spring water. The water was piped across the railroad tracks and served as the main source of drinking water for the men who built the open hearth and later for the men who worked there. Such was the method of obtaining drinking water for years until a series of wells were drilled in the plant for drinking fountains.

Clairton and patriotism: The Clairton community has always been a patriotic one and its citizens have been represented in every war in which the U.S. has been involved. During the French and Indian hostilities Clairton stood as a bulwark between the settlements and the Indians. Area cemeteries house graves of soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary war and the war of 1812. The Clairton community was represented in the Mexican-American war, the Civil War, and the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II. For years a Roll of Honor stood proudly at the corner of Miller and St. Clair Avenues. Today a monument to heroes of more recent wars stands in front of the Municipal Building.

Early commerce: Although we think of Miller and St. Clair Avenues as the main streets in Clairton Park Avenue was the main street of business in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Businesses that stood proudly on Park Avenue included Wilson’s grocery store, Bennet’s pharmacy, Beehive Dry Goods, Glenn’s Furniture Store, two additional frames, one of which served as a school. School rooms were also located in the Clairton Carnegie Library and the basement of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Bedell’s feed store was located on St. Clair and Third Street across from Brouker’s Bakery.

By 1905 a new red brick three story high school had been built on Fifth Street between Waddell and Large Avenues. This was the first modern school, but by 1913 it would soon be outgrown and Shaw Avenue School was built. As the community pushed forward to Vankirk Street, Miller Avenue School was built. When further growth necessitated an even larger school, the site of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was selected which was across from the original brick schoolhouse. The original high school became Fifth Street Grade School and was eventually razed.

Clairton Churches: The congregation of the Cumberland Presbyterian church decided to build a new church and rename it First Presbyterian. A site was identified a few blocks awat on the corned of Mitchell Avenue and Fifth Street and the new church was erected. But the old church was grand and it would be a shame to tear it down. It was purchased by the large Serbian Orthodox population and the building was moved to its present location on Reed Street between Waddell and Large Avenues.

Central Park: As the nineteenth century drew to a close there was much high living and free spending in the Pittsburgh area. Locals needed an upscale venue to sing, dance, hold events, and just get away. That need was addressed with Central Park, a beautiful place larger than Kennywood that sat on the banks of the Monongahela River. Located just 12 miles upriver from downtown Pittsburgh the park was easily accessible by boat or railroad nad provided family entertainment for locals as well as well-heeled Pittsburghers. The park would flourish until it was purchased by the Carnegie Steel Company and eventually become the site of the U.S. Steel blast furnaces in Clairton.

A little blogging music Maestro… “Anytime at All,” by the Beatles.

Dr. Forgot

Friday, April 1, 2011

Clairton and its Bears

It’s Clairton High School, the pride of every student here........
Three Amigos: Andy Nixon, CHS 60, Bob White CHS 60, Don Taylor CHS 49

I've read much about my old hometown of Clairton, PA. Opinion blogs have blasted the community as having no future. Media reports have damned it as having unsafe streets lined with vagrants and ne'r-do-wells. They were dissing the community where I had grown up. Clairton is a city that has deep roots to me - my parents built their house on an unpaved road in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They lived there their entire lives. My father worked for the City of Clairton for more than four decades and my mother taught school there. One of my siblings is a businesswoman nearby. So I had to spend a week there to see for myself what is going on.

Banner across Miller Avenue near Stadium

The occasion of my visit was also to see the local football team celebrate a state championship - their second in a row. Traditionally high school state champs are given a ring to commemorate their success. Times are tough in Clairton and the school district had no funds to purchase the rings so a booster group was established as The Clairton Athletic Championship Club in hopes of raising enough money to purchase rings for the players and staff. Community members and businesses gave what they were able but as the date for the awards banquet grew closer the goal seemed a bit too lofty in these difficult economic times. So the treasurer of the group contacted Beverly Alcorn whose Facebook page is read by many alumni. She contacted Don Taylor who contacted Bob White who contacted yours truly whose blog is read by hundreds more alumni. The result was that Clairton High School alumni from around the country and around the world, many of whom had not been back to Clairton for decades, responded to the clarion call. Thousands upon thousands of dollars poured in and the goal was met.

The trophy

Saturday, March 26, 2011 was proclaimed by Mayor Lattanzi to be "Clairton Bears Day" in the City of Clairton. A proclamation was given to each football player in an assembly at the school auditorium. But Clairton Bear Day started at noon with a parade that featured dignitaries including State Senator James R. Brewster (thanks Anna Marie) and State Representative Rick Saccone as well as School Board President Richard Livingston, the superintendant of schools, principals, and a host of other school employees. The band, Honeybears, cheerleaders, and others marched down Miller Avenue and Waddell to the school. In traditional Clairton fashion the route was lined with residents and several parade participants tossed candy to those who lined the way. That tradition has been in place for more than three quarters of a century.

Honneybears - Still the best

Prior to the parade I drove the streets of Clairton, Wilson, Newtown, and Coal Valley as I reflected on days gone by and tried to square the rumors and media reports that have permeated the press, talk radio, and the internet over the past decade or so. It is clear that Clairton is an economically depressed area. Yes, there are boarded up storefronts and homes. Yes, the mansion at the top of Mitchell Avenue, the Historic Home that was once the residence of the president of the mill has fallen into disrepair complete with a huge tree that has blown over in the sizeable back yard. Yes, all three movie houses are closed and even the Blue Bird has relocated to a town across the river. But there is also a credit side to the ledger.

WPIAL trophy

There is a spirit among the good people of Clairton that simply will not die. Churches offer strength and solitude to their congregations. Many a superb singer's voice can be heard wafting through the rafters on Sunday morning. New business have come to the community and several of the old ones, Russo's Hardware, Skapick's Department Store, Prince Printing among them have stayed. Then there is Bears Football. They actually lost a conference game - in 2005. Their statistics have been cited here before but the statistics I heard at the banquet were the most telling. One third of the team is performing academically at a "High Honors" level, meaning their grade point average is ABOVE 3.5 or A-. Another third of the team is performing at an honors level which places their grade point average above a 3.0 or B. Thirty-one percent are performing at an academic level of 2.5 or better, which means that 97% of this year's championship team are performing academically far above the standard requirement of 2.0

The archway. Signage by Don Taylor

A little blogging music Maestro… “Its Clairton High School,” by Clairton High School Marching Band

Dr. Forgot