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Infamy

After I wrote the post about my grandmother a few weeks ago, I remembered this short story that I wrote in 2017 based on her last pregnancy. I always wondered what it must have been like to be expecting a baby in the early, dark days of World War II, so I started writing and the story took me where it wanted to go.

I emphasize that this is fiction. It was inspired by my grandmother’s pregnancy in 1942, but my grandmother, to my knowledge, never had an abortion or even considered one. I also emphasize that the story is not meant to be anti-abortion, nor is it meant as a plea for abortion rights. I simply followed the path where my character took me, and I think the story illustrates the complexities of the issue, based on the fictional experience of one woman.

The photo was taken in 1934, shortly after the birth of grandma’s third child, my mother. This story was published in PIF Magazine in December 2017….

The house cannot hold one more person.  Grace and Robert live in this 3-bedroom foursquare with their four children.  Robert’s mother Bridget has lived with them since she was widowed in 1931.  Grace’s older brother Patrick moved in after the Crash, the same brother who lost an arm in the Great War and used to drive a red Packard up to the house, bearing cigars for Robert and a sterling silver rattle and a mahogany crib for her first baby.  In the terrible summer of 1936, her sister Patricia and her husband and two children also lived here, the four of them sleeping in their double-bed set up on the front porch.  After a rainy night, Grace would find them curled up on the living room floor and she and Patricia would hang the sheets on the line to dry, but by the end of the summer the mattress was ruined.

They are always bumping into each other, on the stairs or coming out of the bathroom or all getting up from the dining room table at once, so that even her growing belly will be in the way, much less the child itself.   Her teenage sons share a bed with Uncle Patrick, and her daughters share with Bridget.  When she brushes the girls’ hair in the morning, they smell like their musty, decaying grandmother.

Grace is 42, slack-bellied and graying at the temples.  Every day, eight people must be fed on one railroad bookkeeper’s salary.  The house cannot hold one more person.

On this December Saturday evening, she has the bathroom to herself.  Robert is at his lodge meeting.  Patrick is at the bar where he works on Friday and Saturday nights.  An old war buddy was willing to hire a one-armed veteran who drinks up most of his pay.  She told Bridget that she wasn’t feeling well and asked her to mind the kids.  Bridget will sit at the kitchen table and play Hearts with Dotty and Shirley. Donny and Davy will slouch on the living room couch, reading comic books and listening to swing music on the radio.    And Grace can do what she needs to do. 

She tiptoes into the bathroom with her tools, and turns the lock quietly.  She undresses, fills the enema bag with carbolic soap and hot water, lies in the tub. 

Her hands tremble.  She can insert the nozzle into her vagina, but can’t find the entrance to her womb.  Then she finds it but can’t insert the nozzle.  Then the nozzle scrapes her cervix.  Her hands tremble more.  The house cannot hold one more person. 

The scraping of the nozzle against the inside of her cervix is nauseating.  Her stomach cramps.  She squeezes the ball and feels the hot water wash inside her.  She squeezes again.  She thinks she will vomit.  She squeezes again.  She is sitting in water now, cold.  She squeezes again. 

She will have to skip Mass tomorrow, claim illness again.  She will have to confess first thing Monday, go to a church downtown, where the priest doesn’t know her.  She will do any penance: pray the Stations of the Cross, climb the steps of Immaculate Heart on her knees. The house cannot hold one more person. 

The bag is empty, and the bath water is clear, no blood.  She dries herself, pins an old diaper inside her pajama bottoms, and goes to bed.  She thinks she won’t sleep, but she doesn’t hear Robert come home.

***

The next day is overcast.  It might snow.

Grace excuses herself from Mass and asks Bridget to cook lunch, citing severe “woman problems,” which is not exactly a lie. She stays in bed and keeps checking the diaper for blood.  When she finds none, she tries to convince herself that it is for the best, that God must want this child to come into the world.  But she knows in her heart that she will try again next Saturday, if she gets the chance. 

She decides that something might happen if she gets up and moves around.  She rises from bed, dresses and goes downstairs to help Bridget wash the dishes and start Sunday night supper.  They will have meat pie, made with leftovers from last night’s roast, and some of the peaches she and Bridget canned in August. 

Bridget is rolling pie crust with her loose-skinned sinewy arms, and Grace has just come up from the cellar with 3 jars of peaches.  The radiators are hissing warmth, steaming the kitchen windows so that it seems they are cocooned from the world outside. 

Donny and Davey come banging into the house, the screen door slapping shut behind them.  “Dad! Mom!” Donny yells, “Turn on the radio, quick!”

Robert has been sitting in his easy chair in the living room, reading the newspaper and dozing off, as he always does on Sunday afternoons. His newspaper rattles, and he asks sleepily, irritably, “What?  Why should I turn the radio on?”

 “The Japs attacked Hawaii!  It’s on the radio!” 

Grace and Bridget sleepwalk, gape-mouthed, into the living room.  Dotty and Shirley look up from their Parchesi game.  Patrick wanders down from his bedroom, his afternoon nap disturbed.  Robert is turning the radio dial.  She hears static, and then the urgent, staccato tone of a news announcer’s voice. 

Grace finally feels the gluey warmth between her legs and her gaze rests on her sons, bent avidly over the console radio.  They are 15 and 17, pink-cheeked from the outdoor cold, irreplaceable.


My Kick-ass Flapper Grandma

In my last post, I promised a tribute to my grandmother, Mary Angela Grant Yaggi, whose personality and spirit shaped my own.

Born in 1901, her life spanned nearly the whole of the 20th century.  She lived to see the Wright Brothers’ first flight, the first footsteps on the moon and the launch of the Hubble space telescope.  She was a young flapper in the jazz age and the harried matriarch of a large family during the Depression.  When she was born, her hometown bustled with industry.  Her husband toiled over ledger books and a 20-pound adding machine to make a living.  By the time she died, her grandchildren carried computers in our backpacks, and McKees Rocks was born was battered, hollowed-out ghost of its glory days.

Early life

Grandma began her life in the Norwood neighborhood of McKees Rocks in September 1901, the oldest of four children of Michael and Margaret Grant. 

When she was 12 or 13, her little sister, Roberta, died.  Family lore has it that, as she died, Roberta cried out, “Mother!  I see Jesus!”  Roberta became a sort of family saint (and is my mother’s namesake).  Her mother kept the nightgown she died in, and she and my grandmother used to cut little scraps of the nightgown to pin onto the clothing of anyone in the family who was sick. 

Mary and her surviving siblings, Helen and Jack, had the kind of childhood that children of railroad laborers in Norwood had in the early 20th century:  plain food, homemade clothing, Mass every Sunday and Holy Day without exception.  According to the history of McKees Rocks and Stowe Township, the Norwood and West Park neighborhoods were still semi-rural during grandma’s childhood, and many housewives helped feed their families by planting small gardens and raising a pig each year.  Grandma never mentioned her mother doing either of those, but I come from a line of doughty little women, so it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. 

Grandma grows up

We have several pictures of grandma as a little girl, but I chose the two below to share, because they so perfectly illustrate two sides to her personality.  The women in my family love pretty clothes.  In the picture on the left, you can see that my great-grandmother was turning Grandma into a fashion plate from an early age.  Grandma was the child of a laborer, but her mother made sure she dressed like a spoiled little princess in this portrait of her at age 4. The portrait on the right, taken around the same age but unposed, shows her fierce personality.  She’s the barefoot little girl on the right with the I-WILL-see-the manager-this-instant look on her face.  Like me, grandma was a classic firstborn: opinionated, determined and bossy, from toddlerhood to dotage. 

As she matured, grandma’s interest in beautiful clothing grew. In the photograph below, she felt very proud of the fur-trimmed coat she was wearing.  She must have sent the photo to someone because she typed on the back, “I don’t want you to look at the face, just the coat.”  The photo probably dates to about 1919, when grandma had finished school and started earning her own money.  She took advantage of her new freedom and income to do herself up as the Zelda Fitzgerald of McKees Rocks.  I remember her bragging about being the first girl in the Rocks to bob her hair and wear short skirts with unbuckled galoshes.  Yes, that was a thing; see this New York Times article from 1922. 

Here she is: the Zelda of the Rocks.

The young Mrs. Yaggi

There’s a picture of my grandparents taken right before their marriage, that I’ve seen but haven’t been able to locate again.  They’re on a picnic with friends in the early 1920s.  Grandma is dressed in full flapper regalia, five feet and 100 pounds of sass, energy and self-confidence.  She looks like a girl who would be up for just about anything, the crazier the better.  Grandpap looks more serious.  The look on his face expresses amused, fatherly indulgence.  “Don’t worry,” he seems to say to the camera, “I’ll tame the little spitfire.” 

But grandma was untamable by any mere human being. It took the hard realities of life in the 1930s and 40s to bring out her deeper qualities of character.

My grandparents married in 1923. Grandpap had a good job in the Duquesne Light Accounting Department, so they lived comfortably.  They move into a brand-new house on Wayne Avenue in McKees Rocks, pictured below as I remember it in the 1960s, with gorgeous spirea bushes blooming in front of their porch.  But their first baby died at birth, and grandma didn’t bear a living child until 1929. 

After that, came two more children in rapid succession, the Depression, and first grandma’s destitute uncle and then her widowed mother moving in with them.  Grandpap’s wages were repeatedly cut during the Depression, and grandma struggled to keep all those bellies full.  Then, right at the start of WW2, came a surprise fourth baby.  My mom remembers that Grandma was mortified by her pregnancy at the advanced age of 40, and hid it for as long as she could – under very fashionable clothing, I have no doubt.

Rising to the demands of life

Grandma faced those mid-life challenges with her characteristic energy and gumption.  She learned to pinch a penny until it squealed.  She bought whatever meat was on sale, didn’t hesitate to buy second-hand, and had little patience for children who expected indulgences as their right.  Like her own mother, she took to her sewing machine to make sure that her children wore nice clothing.  The picture directly below shows her three older children on Easter 1937.  Grandma made every stitch of clothing they wore, excepting undergarments and socks but including hats. My mother’s wedding gown and veil were also sewn by grandma (see my parents’ wedding picture below). 

Weren’t my parent’s good looking kids? And how about that dress?!

Grandma also became a model of good works.  She sewed First Communion dresses for little girls whose families couldn’t afford them.  The elderly man who still lives next door to her house remembers to this day the lemon meringue pie she delivered to his family to welcome them to the neighborhood.  A neighbor girl named Puggy became her project in the early 1960s.  Puggy, a chubby teenager with bad skin, came from a troubled family.   Grandma sewed pretty clothes for Puggy, and paid her a few dollars a week to hang around the house and help a little in the kitchen, hoping to keep her out of trouble. 

The grandma I remember

My own parents had three children and – like most families in the 1960s – only one income, which just covered the necessities.  Every luxury I had was provided by my grandmother:  5th birthday party on the Good Ship Lollipop, outings to the baroque movie theaters downtown to see The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. 

Grandma also provided most of my clothing.  My sister and I always had pastel-colored Easter coats and matching hats, made by grandma.  For my first day of kindergarten, I was probably the last little girl in the United States to ever wear a pinafore (you probably don’t even know what that is; look it up here).  Grandma made me a navy-blue dress with white collar and cuff trim, and a white pinafore embroidered with a proud-stepping orange rooster on the pocket.   She could also be counted on for a dime for a vanilla ice-cream cone from Tastee Freeze or some penny candy from Zimmermans, treats unheard of in my parents’ penny-pinched household. 

Grandma absolutely did not tolerate bad behavior, though.  If an elderly person got on the bus after us, she only had to nudge me briskly to get me to stand and offer my seat.  She tolerated not a single second of whining,and had no problem utterly ignoring any level of pouting or complaining, so we quickly learned not to bother trying. Grandma was the absolute boss and we did not cross her.

Later Life

She’d probably have been at home in the 21st century as a career woman, but her era didn’t open that door, so she channeled her endless energy into creative pursuits.  In addition to the sewing and pie-baking that she was known for, she embroidered, painted china, and hand-made the kind of elaborate egg tree that you can purchase as an Easter decoration in any Joann Fabrics today. 

We gathered at her home for every holiday – and I do mean EVERY holiday, not just Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.  She hosted backyard cookouts for Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.  The house was always crowded with her own children and grandchildren, her sister’s family, and random grad students from foreign countries that my Uncle Fred brought home. 

Grandma was a praying woman all her life, and she needed to be.  She knew great sorrow.  Her mother and uncle died under her roof.  She endured the shame (in those days) of a daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the sorrow of giving up the baby for adoption to distant relatives in New England.  She watched her uncle, her brother, three nieces, one of her sons and both of her sons-in-law succumb to alcohol addiction.

Old age

Yet not until advanced old age did she lose her energy or her spirit of fun, and she certainly never lost her sense of fashion.  I remember running into her downtown when she was about 80 years old and I was a young career woman in my 20s.  I was out to lunch with some girlfriends from work and there, walking through Market Square, was an elderly lady who looked like she’d emerged from the cover of Vogue.  Her tiny figure was held erect, her silvery hair perfectly styled, and she wore a fur hat, a fur-trimmed coat, stockings and French-heel pumps.  “Grandma!” I called, and I was so proud to introduce my friends to my elegant grandmother. 

But my very favorite grandma memory took place several years later.  In her 80s, we lost her slowly to dementia.  The time came when she still remembered her children but not her grandchildren.  I took her grocery shopping one day and she asked me who I was.  “I’m Kathy,” I reminded her, “your daughter Bobbie’s daughter.”  The next time she talked to my mother she said, “Oh, Bobbie, I met your girl.  She’s very nice.”  It warmed my heart to know that my grandmother liked me even when she didn’t remember that I belonged to her. 

My elegant grandma at age 80, right around the time I ran into her in town. This picture was taken at my cousin Sean’s wedding in 1981. My Aunt Joan Yaggi Walsh, mother of the groom, is to grandma’s right.

Grandma’s heart stopped in her sleep in August of 1998, shortly before her 97th birthday.  As a pie-baker, a homemaker, a mother, a grandmother, a Christian and a woman who puts on clothes every morning, Mary Angela Grant Yaggi is the standard by which I measure myself. 

Grandma’s four children in middle age. L-R: Joan Yaggi Walsh, my mom Roberta Yaggi Krieger, Fred Yaggi, Richard Yaggi. This picture was taken in my mom’s back yard in 1987.
Grandma & Grandpap Yaggi with my children in 1987. They were aged 85 and 88 at the time this picture was taken at my mother’s house.

My Family in McKees Rocks

In almost every old industrial town in Appalachia, the rich people populated the hilltops and lived on their capital, the poor people lived on the river flats on their brawn, and the middle-class people lived in the houses that climbed the hills, working as clerks or laborers or running small businesses.

I come from people who clung to the hillsides by their fingernails. 

My ancestors were bookkeepers and barkeepers, laborers, tailors and builders.  They owned furniture stores and barber shops.  When one business failed, they started another one.  They came to America from the Rhineland, Austria and Ireland, and persevered through Depression and war.  The lucky ones had real estate, or the proceeds from selling a business, to provide a retirement income.  Most of them worked until they dropped dead. 

Their lives played out primarily in McKees Rocks (see my previous blog post and The History of McKees Rocks) and Sheraden.  Here are some of their stories….

The Kriegers in McKees Rocks & Sheraden

My great-grandfather Frank Krieger was born in Austria in 1878.  His parents immigrated to the United State in 1889 and 1893.  Frank stayed behind and didn’t join his parents in Bridgeville, PA, until 1897.  In 1903, he married Suzanne Steiner, also a native of Austria.  He was a steel mill laborer and did well enough that he bought a house on Merwyn Avenue in Sheraden, where he died in 1936.

Frank and Suzanne Krieger with their 5 children about 1929: Pauline, Edward, Walter, Emma and Wilbert. I think this picture was taken on Merwyn Avenue

My grandfather Walter Krieger was the third of Frank and Suzanne’s five children.  A serial entrepreneur, the business that finally brought him prosperity was as a building contractor.  He bought a second home, a vacation cottage on Pymatuning Lake where our family gathered every summer.  When my parents bought their first house, Grandpap bought all their landscaping plants and helped to establish them, and bought me a swing set for the back yard.  That once-poor carpenter, who was frequently on the brink of insolvency during the Depression, must have been so proud to be able to do those things for his family. 

Grandpap retired to Florida in his 50s after a heart attack left him unable to continue working.  He lived a long life after that, dying in Florida in 1993 at the age of 85.  Grandpap was extraordinarily lucky to survive that heart attack back in the early 1960s.  His father and every single one of his siblings died of heart attacks.

The Marxes in McKees Rocks

Grandpap Krieger lost his father and his first wife in one terrible year in 1936.  My grandmother Margaret Marx Krieger, died of breast cancer at 28, leaving two little boys:  my dad and my Uncle Skip.  Her twin, Aunt Elsie, was an amazing warrior against breast cancer.  Diagnosed in her 30s, she underwent the treatments available in that era. She had her only child a few years later at 40, beat breast cancer AGAIN in her 50s, and lived another 30 years. 

Margaret and Elsie’s brother, Ed Marx, was a vivid, beloved figure in my
childhood.  All the Marx men were tall, thin and fidgety.  If he was
upright, Uncle Ed was pacing.  If he was seated, his legs were crossed and
the top leg was wiggling.  Ed’s brother, Fred, had the same quirk, as did
my father and Uncle Skip. 

Uncle Ed’s restlessness extended to business.  He and Grandpap Krieger tried a couple of business ventures together during the Depression.  Eventually, Uncle Ed owned a barber shop and dry cleaners in McKees Rocks with a partner (see my previous blog post).  Later, he owned a bar on Chartiers Avenue.  Like Grandpap, he eventually did well enough to retire – although his wife, my Aunt Mary, said that had as much to do with her steady work at the YMCA as with Uncle Ed’s many business ventures!

I know less about my Marx great-grandparents than my other ancestors.  Great-grandpap Marx was a tailor in McKees Rocks, and owned an apartment building on Woodward Avenue. My parents rented an apartment from him in the first years of their marriage.  I was born in that apartment on Woodward. 

Great-grandpap Marx’s apartment building on Woodward, where I spent the first 3 years of my life. Not sure who the folks in the picture are.

The Yaggis in McKees Rocks

My mother’s family came from Ireland and Alsace – the province along the Rhine that is German or French, depending who won the last war. 

The Yaggis came from an Alsatian town called Befferen-on-the Rhine.  When Al and I went to eastern France in 2012, we tried unsuccessfully to locate Befferen-on-the Rhine. It’s either been absorbed into a larger town or it was wiped out in one of the wars.  My Yaggi great-great-grandfather, Christian, was born in Befferen-on the-Rhine in 1823. He immigrated to the United States as a young man, settling in Allegheny City and working for a brewer named Lutz on Spring Garden Avenue.  Christian married Anna Kilmeyer and they had 3 children before Christian’s death.   Anna’s second marriage produced 3 more children. 

Christian and Anna’s middle child, Fred, was my great-grandfather.  My mother remembers that he had a German accent, although he was born in Allegheny. He clerked in dry goods stores in Allegheny and the West End, before coming to McKees Rocks and going into the furniture business with his brother-in-law John Yunker, in 1900.  

My great-grandparents, Fred and Mary Yaggi

In 1886, Fred married Mary Linsler, and they had 4 children in a house on Second Street in McKees Rocks.  The eldest, Sylvester, went into the furniture business with his father.  My grandfather, Norbert (called “Nock”), was the youngest. He made his career as a bookkeeper at Duquesne Light, and earned a pension that supported him and my grandmother comfortably until they died.  I loved spending time at their house on Wayne Ave in McKees Rocks when I was a little girl, climbing trees with my Walsh cousins and buying penny candy at Zimmermans. 

Dinner at the Yaggi’s, early 1950s. L-R: Aunt Helen Grant Graham, “Little” Helen Graham, Barbara Graham, Uncle Walter Graham, Grandma Yaggi, Grandpap Yaggi, “Grandma Great”, my mom Roberta Yaggi before her marriage, Richard Yaggi, Mary Graham

Grandpap Yaggi’s VERY Short Military Service

When I was a little girl, I asked Grandpap Yaggi if he ever fought in a war and he said, very brusquely, “No, I was too young.”  But, at his funeral in 1989, my grandmother was presented with an American flag, as the widow of a veteran.  She finally revealed that Grandpap had been in the Army for exactly one day in World War I:  November 10, 1918, with a discharge date of November 11. Armistice Day!  Grandpap longed to enlist for the war but he was young enough to need his parents’ permission, which they refused.  Within weeks of turning 20, he was at the recruiting office, but too late to be a hero.  I finally understood why the war was a sore subject with him.  We have a copy of his discharge papers, and a receipt for his pay for one day’s service:  a grand total of $2. 

The Grants in McKees Rocks

Grandma Yaggi was Mary Angela Grant before she married Grandpap in 1923.  Born in 1901, Grandma was a flapper and bragged about being the first girl in the Rocks to shingle her hair and wear galoshes and short dresses.  Her grandparents, John Grant and Mary Ann O’Neil, were born in Ireland.  They must have emigrated early in life, because her father Michael Grant was born in Ironton, Ohio in 1870.  Grandma’s mother, Margaret Saunders (Sanders in some records), was born in Brady’s Bend, PA in 1869.  It’s not clear how they ended up in McKees Rocks, but my grandmother and her siblings all grew up in the Norwood section of the Rocks. 

The Grant family around 1918 (L-R): Uncle Jack Grant, my great grandparents Michael and Margaret Grant, Aunt Helen Grant Graham, my grandmother Mary Grant Yaggi.

Great-grandpap Grant worked as a laborer in the railyards and mills of McKees Rocks.  Great-grandma Grant – whom we little ones called “Grandma Great” – lived until I was 4 and resided with my grandparents.  I vaguely remember being afraid of her.  She was so terribly old, and didn’t seem to like little children very much.

The Adventures of Uncle Pat

Another person she didn’t much like was her brother-in-law Patrick Grant, who also lived with my grandparents for many years.  Uncle Pat, a railroad worker, took advantage of an opportunity to go to Russia and to help build the Trans-Siberian Railroad. When the Bolshevik Revolution interrupted the railroad work, Uncle Pat had to escape across Siberia and through Japan.  He brought back a beautiful piece of Japanese embroidery that hangs in my living room today. 

Grandma & Grandpap Yaggi with Uncle Pat sometime in the 1930s
The Japanese embroidery that Uncle Pat brought home around 1919

Uncle Pat invested his Trans-Siberian Railroad money in the American stock market at just the right time to become a paper millionaire.  And stayed in the market just long enough to be wiped out.  Destitute, he moved in with my grandparents at about the same time Grandma Great was widowed and moved in with them.  If you ever think you don’t have enough space in your house, consider this:  My grandparents owned a 6-room house during the Depression and had 3 children at the time, as well as a mother and uncle in residence, and – during one unbelievable summer – also Grandma’s sister and her husband and 2 children.  11 people in a 6-room house with one bathroom.  My grandmother used to eat her meals sitting on the cellar steps because there was no room around the table – and no other way to get a quiet moment. 

Uncle Pat took what work he could find:  tending bar at Corny Mann’s Hotel, a dilapidated place that slumped on a hill above the Windgap Bridge until about 10 years ago.  The building dated to the late 18th century, and unproven stories claim that George Washington once stopped there.  Uncle Pat took a break from bartending during WW2, to build LSTs at Neville Island, but after the war it was back to Corny Mann’s until he died in the 1950s. 

The infamous Corny Mann’s not long before it was demolished

My family in America

There are gaps in what I know about my ancestors and, like so many recently-retired people in their 60s, I am hoping to find time to fill some of those gaps with research.  So, there may be a follow-up blog post on this topic in a year or two.  But, before I close, I want to preview a tribute to my grandmother, Mary Angela Grant Yaggi, that erstwhile flapper.  I adored Grandma, and she deserves a blog entry all her own.  Watch for that in a couple of weeks.

The story of my ancestors is the story of America, and the story of every industrial town like McKees Rocks.  They failed and tried again and failed again until they succeeded. And they did that in an era when failure meant not unemployment compensation and COBRA, but destitution and eviction.  They sweated over lumber or molten steel, or squinted at ledger books, and built a world where their descendants could be accountants, project managers, auditors, analysts, software developers (LOTS and LOTS of software developers; it is the most common profession among living generations of my family).  The little town where they lived and worked and loved and died to make our lives possible has seen better days. But I’ll always have a deep fondness for the Rocks.  It’s like a grandparent to me:  wrinkled and age-spotted and unlovely, but loved nevertheless for its history and for what it gave. 


Chartiers Creek at McKees Rocks

When I last wrote, Al and I had traced Chartiers Creek from its origins in rural Washington County all the way to Bridgeville.  We are finally at end of our journey, in McKees Rocks, where the creek empties into the Ohio River – and where my own family has deep roots.

Early History of McKees Rocks

The town of McKees Rocks has a long and colorful history.  It was first settled about 5000 years ago.  The very first settlers grew corn and beans in the flatlands along the Ohio River now known as The Bottoms.  They hunted in the forests of the Ohio Valley and fished in the rivers and streams.  We know that they must have fought with other Indians, because they left behind remnants of their arrow and throwing spears.  But their ultimate fate is unknown.

The next settlers of The Rocks were the Adena (800 BC – 100 AD) and Hopewell (100 – 500 AD) peoples, the builders of the once-famous Mckees Rocks mound.  Mound Building peoples settled all across eastern North America, and the McKees Rocks mound was the oldest in Pennsylvania and among the oldest in the country. The mounds were apparently used as both burial places and sites for ceremonial and spiritual rites.  The McKees Rocks mound was surveyed and partially excavated in 1896, and slowly destroyed in the 20th century, by a combination of quarrying and collapse into the Ohio River.  Only the smallest remnant of the Mound can be seen today.

The Mound in the late 19th century

Peter Chartiers got a creek and a township named after him, but it’s Alexander McKee whose name lives on in the town at the confluence of Charters Creek and the Ohio River.

The McKees

In the era after the Mound People, many different Woodland Indians moved in and out of the Ohio River valley.  When the Europeans began trading in the area in the 18th century, the Delaware and Seneca Indians predominated.  The French were the first Europeans to consistently trade with the Indians, most prominently our old friend Peter Chartiers (see my earlier blog post about the West End of Pittsburgh). 

McKee was born on August 14, 1740, in the Pathe Valley, near the Susquehanna River in south-central Pennsylvania.  His father, Thomas McKee, had been a trader along the Susquehanna and later at the headwaters of the Ohio.  Legend has it that his mother spent some of her childhood years in Shawnee captivity, and that is was she who taught him Indian tongues.

On August 17, 1756, young Alexander enlisted in the 3rd Battalion of the Pennsylvania Colony Regiment, and served in the French & Indian War.  Later, he and his father both worked closely with George Croghan, who was put in charge of Indian affairs in the Ohio valley in 1758.  Alexander spoke several Indian languages fluently, and got wind of Pontiac’s uprising in 1863 when he noticed that the Indians had started trading their furs for lead and gunpowder.  He warned Croghan of the coming uprising, and was in charge of all communications with the Indians during the siege of Pittsburgh in June and July of 1763.

After the battle of Bushy Run resulted in Pontiac’s defeat, Colonel Bouquet rewarded McKee with a 1400-acre estate, including all of present-day McKees Rocks and a strip of present-day Pittsburgh on the west side of Chartiers Creek.  McKee was also named commissary at Fort Pitt, a post that he held until the British abandoned the fort in 1772.  After Pontiac’s war, McKee also resumed his trade with the Indians and became the Indian agent for the area.  His estate prospered and he entertained George Washington for dinner in his grand house called Fairview on October 20, 1770.

This picture of George Washington and Christopher Gist meeting with Delaware Indians at McKees Rocks used to hang in the PNC Bank branch on Chartiers Avenue .
Alexander McKee’s mansion Fairview, before it was razed by the P&LE Railroad in 1902.

But with the coming of the American Revolution, McKee’s luck changed.  He sided with the Tories and was run out of the town that bears his name in March of 1778.  His estate was taken over by his brother, James, who had backed the right side.  James lived on the estate until his death in 1853.

Alexander made his way to Detroit, where he worked as a liaison between the Delaware Indians and the British.  Later, he was appointed Superintendent for Indian Affairs in Canada and moved to Ontario.  He died in Maldeen, Ontario, on January 14, 1799.

Recent History of McKees Rocks

In the decades that followed, the McKees’ namesake town prospered into a railroad and manufacturing center, home to the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, the Pressed Steel Car Company, the Shoen Works of Carnegie-Illinois Steel, and many other thriving industries.  19th-century immigrants to the Rocks were mainly from Germany, but in the first half of the 20th century, immigrants from eastern and southern Europe poured into the rail yards and factories of McKees Rocks.  They settled in row houses in The Bottoms along the Ohio. 

Housing in McKees Rocks Bottoms mid 20th century.

The Rocks in the early 20th century was a bustling little town, boasting at least two movie theaters, several grocery stores and supermarkets, a skating arena, and the dry cleaners, bakeries, and other little shops that allowed people of that era to thrive running their own small businesses.  My family has home movies of a Little League parade in the early 1960s.  The population of the Rocks was so large and active that they fielded several teams who never had to leave the Rocks for opponents to play.  I remember going to my cousins’ games where dust rose from the parched fields and the smells of diesel fuel and burning coke were the perfume of prosperity.  My own family’s history is very bound up in McKees Rocks’ glory days, and I will be blogging about that next time.

Like so many industrial towns, McKees Rocks’ fortunes declined in the late 20th century.  The factories closed, the P&LE Railroad shrunk and was finally sold, and the little businesses along Chartiers Avenue and Broadway slowly began to close.  The dry cleaner where my father worked as a teenager burned down about 20 years ago, and the shell is still a charred gap on Chartiers Avenue. 

My Uncle Ed Marx owned the Marx half of Marx & Petraitis Cleaners/Barber Shop pictured here in the late 1950s. My dad worked there as a teenager.

But the community is fighting back hard.  For 50 years, the Focus On Renewal organization has been providing social services such as a food pantry, early-childhood education, mental health support services, arts programs and small business incubation.  Some steel fabricating factories remain, CSX Railroad has increased their presence, the Roxian theater has re-opened, and the community is known for Pierogies Plus and Mancini’s Bakery.  I liked to think that old Peter Chartiers and James and Alexander McKee would be proud of their community’s tough, resilient spirit. 

Sources:

Images of America:  McKees Rocks and Stowe Township – Bernadette Sulzer Agreen with the McKees Rocks Historical Society

https://historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt%3A31735066234331/viewer#page/1/mode/2up


Chartiers Creek Part Two

Recently, in our search for interesting Western Pennsylvania history, Al and I have been following local creeks and runs. When we left Chartiers Creek in my last blog post, it had turned into a robust waterway in Houston, PA.  On a blustery November day, we rejoined the creek just north of Houston in Canonsburg. 

Chartiers Creek in Canonsburg

Named for its first settler, John Canon, who arrived in the area in 1773, Canonsburg is almost as old as Pittsburgh.  Legend says that George Washington passed through in 1777.  The town’s first main street, Pike Street (also known as the Pittsburgh-Washington Pike) was laid out in 1787.  A grist mill stood on the creek along present-day South Central Ave. just south of the pike.

The current grounds of Canon-McMillian High School were once the site of the Black Horse Tavern.  In the 18th century, the Pittsburgh-Washington Pike was sometimes known as Black Horse Road, and the tavern was surely named after the road. Founded in 1794 by Henry Westby, the remains of the tavern still stood until the high school was built in 1958.  During the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, local rebels met at the tavern to plan attacks on federal forces.  They also intercepted mail coming to the federal leaders from Philadelphia.

Canonsburg was also the home of Jefferson College, originally a sister school to Washington College in Washington, PA.  Both schools ran into financial difficulties during the Civil War, and they merged in 1865, forming Washington & Jefferson College.  The home of one of the Jefferson College founders still stands:  John McMillan’s 1780 log house is preserved on East College St.  Nearby stands the Roberts House, whose original wing dates to 1802. 

Home to coal mines and steel mills in the 19th and 20th centuries, Canonsburg is best known in the 21st century for Sarris Candy and All-Clad kitchenware – and for its Independence Day parade.  The town of about 9000 residents attracts as many as 60,000 for its elaborate parade.

The Lake and Montour Trail

After a very pretty drive out of Canonsburg, the creek sprawls into Canonsburg Lake before slimming down into a river again as it enters Allegheny County.  Alcoa Corp. created the dam and lake in 1943 to create a freshwater reservoir for their Canonsburg Forging Plant. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission acquired it from Alcoa in 1957.  

We stopped on our way north and hiked a little way on the Montour Trail for some lovely views of the creek.  It is shallow in this section and ripples over rocks very prettily.  Let’s just say that our car desperately needed a wash after the drive to the trail head parking off Linwood Road.  I recommend parking at a different trail head if you’re fussy about your car, but it was worth it to us for the views of the creek.

Chartiers Creek in Bridgeville

The creek follows its crooked path behind Queen of Heaven cemetery and through Forest Valley golf course before entering Allegheny county near the border of South Fayette and Upper Saint Clair townships.  It then enters another old town that is named for the first bridge to cross the creek:  Bridgeville.  The bridge went up some time in the 1790s, and references to “Bridgeville” appear in newspapers by the 1830s.  Here is a link to an excellent article that provides details of how the bridge came to be at that location.

The bridge sparked growth in the little town that bore its name. It soon boasted forges, factories and a woolen mill at the corner of Bank St. and Washington Avenue (Pittsburgh-Washington Pike).

After our long drive and our hike, Al and I felt hungry, so we stopped for a late lunch at LaBella Bean.  Yummy chai latte and ham-and-brie panini with raspberry jam!

Chartiers Creek in Scott Township

As I said in my last post, wherever you see a creek in Western Pennsylvania, you can be sure that a coal mine operated not far away, and that proved true as we entered Scott Township on our drive.  We spotted a mine entrance right on Bower Hill Road. 

Scott Township and Mt. Lebanon split off from Upper Saint Clair Township in 1860.  By 1883, coal mining was Scott’s main business.  A partial list of mining companies includes Glendale Colliery, Nixon Mines, Diamond Mines, Summer Hill Mines and Bower Hills Mine (probably the one we saw).  The community also boasted a bottle factory, Leasdale Glass, and the Chartiers Valley Railroad, which serviced the mines. 

John Neville’s homes both stood in Scott.  A Virginia native, Neville arrived in Pittsburgh in 1774 to command the Virginia troops at Fort Dunmore (later remained Fort Pitt), and started construction of his home, Woodville, around the same time.  His home at Woodville survives on Washington Pike and was occupied until 1975.  The house opens for tours only on Sundays, but Al and I spent an enjoyable hour poking around the grounds.

Neville later built another home, Bower Hill, near the current location of Kane Hospital and Our Lady of Grace Church.  At the time, Neville was one of the largest landowners in Western Pennsylvania.  He owned 10,000 contiguous acres in present-day Mt. Lebanon, Scott, Carnegie, Rennerdale and Bridgeville.

In this neighborhood, however, you can’t get away from the Whiskey Rebellion any more than you can get away from coal miles.  Neville was on the “wrong” side of the Whiskey Rebellion and the rebels burned Bower Hill during the rebellion in 1794.

Al and I have spent two full days exploring Chartiers Creek, and we’re still not done!  Stay tuned for the twists and turns of the creek as it makes it was through Carnegie and Crafton and finally empties into the Ohio River at McKees Rocks. 

Sources

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canonsburg_Lake

http://history.rays-place.com/pa/wash-canonsburg.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canonsburg,_Pennsylvania

http://www.bridgevillehistory.org/

http://www.bridgevillehistory.org/waterunderthebridge.html


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