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History, Function, & Artistry: Embracing Architecture

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The City of Bridges. All images in this story are courtesy of Jeffrey Bowser, Instagram: fort_frick_412.

A Look at the Society of Architectural Historians’ 2022 Annual International Conference

By Jordan Snowden

As Drew Armstrong is chatting on Zoom about the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) 2022 Annual International Conference, he’s also looking out his window, which overlooks the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Main Branch.

“I can actually look right over on the stairs and watch people,” says Armstrong, the Director of Architectural Studies and Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “I watch how people behave, and it’s amazing what goes by your window. To me, that is a reflection of very specific configurations of what’s around here, where things are located, what makes people comfortable, even where the sun is. You know, if you’re going to sit on the steps, have lunch, or have a conversation. None of that’s about history; although it is—you can see it in many different ways.”

Armstrong and Sahar Hosseini, an Assistant Professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s History of Art and Architecture department, are the local co-chairs for this year’s SAH conference. They are firm believers that history is what is here; that we are bound to deal with history simply because it’s what’s present. It’s part of why they are so excited to show off the City of Bridges and its diverse landscape with the globe-spanning Society of Architectural Historians members who will be attending the 75th annual conference—the first in-person SAH conference in two years—to share what Pittsburgh’s landscape and architecture tell about the city’s past and its people.

“The way most [architectural historians] think about a building is not frozen in the past,” says Hosseini. “The building’s life starts from the past; it doesn’t end in the past. It continues, and each building has multiple lives. It continues to present and future. The buildings and the landscape and the city are just a way to frame these factors that contribute to making, for example, a landscape.”

Together with SAH Conference Chair Patricia Morton, Hosseini and Armstrong planned the 2022 conference tour site locations and a few other events, notably the Saturday seminar that focuses on current issues in the city itself.

“We care about what city [the conference] goes to, and the city itself is a really integral part to what happens during the conference,” says Armstrong.

Taking place from April 27 to May 1, the SAH 2022 Annual International Conference will feature thirty-seven paper sessions, keynote talks, social receptions, a city seminar, and architectural tours in Pittsburgh and nearby areas. Of those events, twenty-seven architectural tours, the Saturday SAH Pittsburgh Seminar, and the Sekler Talk, which architectural and urban historian Itohan Osayimwese will deliver, are open to the public.

“Even if you’re not interested in architectural history, the environment is used to tell a story,” says Hosseini. “So you can come to watch and listen and participate in the story. We’re hoping that we get people from the community to participate and share their thoughts at the Saturday seminar. It’s designed to be in conversation with the city and the community.”

Like Hosseini and Armstrong’s view of history, how the past informs the present, speakers at the Saturday SAH Pittsburgh Seminar will discuss how history informs current initiatives and future visions when considering building in Pittsburgh. Other topics include how a neighborhood, site, or installation can be reimagined as a place of inspiration and how Pittsburghers are working together to confront, challenge, and counter the destabilizing effects of local traumas and global threats.

“Virtually any architectural project in any city, any site, you are compelled—if there’s anything being changed about a building or a landscape—you are compelled to deal with history,” says Armstrong.

Visitors, native Pittsburghers, and Pittsburgh transplants can all find something to appreciate and learn in the various public conference tours. The Allegheny County Courthouse provides a combination of function and artistry. The Smithfield United Church of Christ and the historic ALCOA building allow an opportunity to analyze the application of aluminum. A tour of Pittsburgh’s Northside gives a look into the idea of the city as a place richly layered in time and history. While the Rivers of Steel partnered event, Heritage and Commerce: Redeveloping Pittsburgh’s Brown Sites, shows how sites in Pittsburgh are being creatively reused.

A yellow sunset softly illuminates the stack and stoves of the Carrie Furnaces with an Ore Bridge spanning the foreground of the image.

Sunset at the Carrie Blast Furnaces, one of the two sites that are part of the Heritage and Commerce: Redeveloping Pittsburgh’s Brown Sites tour.

Led by Rivers of Steel’s Director of Historic Resources and Facilities, Ron Baraff, alongside GBBN Architects Principal, Anne Chen, the Heritage and Commerce tour will take attendees to Carrie Blast Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark site managed by Rivers of Steel, and Mill 19, a location found in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Hazelwood. Mill 19 is being redeveloped as a hub for manufacturing research and development within the original steel structure of the former LTV Steel site. Combined, Mill 19 and Carrie Blast Furnaces demonstrate Pittsburgh’s revitalization and the durability of its history of innovation.

“Because of the concrete nature of architecture, it’s an excellent way of showcasing things that have contributed to the making of it,” says Hosseini. “Specifically, I’m thinking about the city of Pittsburgh because of the concrete nature of these buildings and landscapes, like, say, Carrie Furnaces. It talks about a very specific chapter of the city of Pittsburgh, which doesn’t end there. It continues, and that’s the beauty of the site, is that it actually shows it as a living thing. I could talk about it for many hours, but if you go there and see the physicality of it, it’s a much better story, and that makes it all much more appealing.”

If someone were to ask why Hosseini and Armstrong picked the tour spots that they did, when there’s such a wide range of options to choose from when discussing Pittsburgh’s topography, it’s not as simple as saying that they thought certain locations were better than others. The pair believe that all of the sites that people can potentially visit are interesting—it doesn’t have to be Frank Lloyd Wright to make an impact. Hosseini and Armstrong aimed to provide conference attendees with options of various scales, at different times, in multiple parts of the city. Their decisions came down to two key questions: “What is it about a particular site or tour that tells something about the history of Pittsburgh?” and “What story does it tell about Pittsburgh and its history and its people?”

“We also wanted to make sure that we were covering sites that had something new or novel or value that didn’t get covered at the previous conference in Pittsburgh in 2007,” says Armstrong. “We wanted to show people that there’s been development and change.”

Soft yellow light of sunset blanket a view of the Point with the cities tallest buildings reflected in the rivers.

An iconic view of Pittsburgh from the West End.

The Wednesday tour to Mount Washington, for example, was chosen because it’s a rare case of a city where visitors can stand in one position and look over the densest, most central part of Pittsburgh and experience the geography, landscape, topography, and built environment and how those relate to one another.

“Pittsburgh is very much a product of its landscape,” says Hosseini.

Longtime members of SAH, Hosseini and Armstrong are thrilled to have had the chance to contribute to the organization, which has supported Hosseini’s own architectural research in the past. The planning process for the 2022 conference started in early 2020, before the pandemic. While much has changed in the two years since, Hosseini and Armstrong’s enthusiasm for the Society of Architectural Historians, the upcoming conference, and Pittsburgh’s architecture has not waned.

“We’re excited to share Pittsburgh with people who are coming from the outside,” says Hosseini. “This is something that SAH has been very specific about, the cities that it comes to. They want to showcase the city, and they care about the building and environment of the city that hosts the conference.”

A youthful brown skinned woman with silver and black braids, smiling in a gray mock turtleneck.Jordan Snowden is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh whose work has been published in The Seattle Times, Pittsburgh City Paper ,and elsewhere. She also runs @jord_reads_books, a book-focused Instagram account where she connects with other bookworms. In her free time, Jordan can be found with a book in her hand or DIYing something with her husband.

Jeffrey Bowser is a local Pittsburgh photographer. His work focuses on Pittsburgh cityscapes, churches, industrial photography, and the Homestead / Mon Valley area. You can follow him at fort_frick_412 on Instagram  and learn more about him and his work here.

Jane Swisshelm—Newspaper Woman!

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A detail Jane Grey Swisshelm’s Self-Portrait, circa 1840-1845 / Senator John Heinz History Center, Courtesy of N.N. Moore.

Woman’s History Month Feature: Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm

To celebrate Women’s History Month, Rivers of Steel’s Interpretive Specialist, Dr. Kirsten Paine, crafted two articles on one of her favorite topics—Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm. In part one of this twofer, Kirsten examined the life of this woman who was clearly ahead of her time. Using Swisshelm’s autobiography as a starting point, Kirsten leaned on her own expertise in literature from that era to provide context for understanding this pioneering woman. In today’s piece, she digs in further, focusing on Swisshelm’s career as a reporter, newspaper publisher, women’s rights advocate, and abolitionist throughout the nineteenth century.

By Dr. Kirsten L. Paine

A Keen Sense of Self-Awareness

In a letter dated August 7, 1882, Jane Swisshelm declines her daughter’s invitation to stay. She writes to Nettie, “We see and estimate things so differently that it is quite out of the question for me to avoid being a source of apprehension to you all the time we are together. You never know when I am going to hurt someone’s feelings or do something to make myself ridiculous.” These lines highlight tension in their relationship, but they also demonstrate Swisshelm’s self-awareness. She is not always polite, and she can make people uncomfortable. Besides, she has work to do in Pittsburgh, she continues. The city “is in debt twice the amount the state Constitution allows. Her water works are a failure. I have exposed the fraud until the councils have sent an agent to talk or wheedle me into silence.”

By 1882, Jane Swisshelm had returned to Pittsburgh for good. Her work in journalism, nursing, and political activism had taken her to St. Cloud, Minnesota, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Illinois, and towns in between. However, Pittsburgh had changed in the intervening years, and she felt the strain of its expansion as industrial production boomed in the Monongahela River Valley. In Swissvale, the Allegheny Car and Transportation Company made state of the art rail freight cars. In Braddock, the Edgar Thompson Works was the first of Andrew Carnegie’s new integrated mills. Across the river in Homestead, Carnegie opened Homestead Steel. As Sylvia Hoffert notes in her biography, Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life, 1815–1884, “the world was closing in on her” (Hoffert 184). Still, Swisshelm had work to do.

At the time, she had intended to take up a new series “for lecturing in the Opera House or Library Hall every Sunday afternoon by way of teaching people how to live” (Swisshelm, 1882). She insists, “there is no one but me for this work” (1882). She closes this letter to her daughter by asking that her husband, Ernest [Allen], write to her again about “building workmen’s houses here” as thousands of laborers poured into the Mon Valley seeking work in the new factories.

A painting of a younger Swisshelm paired with a photo of her decades later which show remarkable similiarity.

Two portraits, about twenty years apart. Left: Self-Portrait, Jane Grey Swisshelm, 1840-1845 / Senator John Heinz History Center, Courtesy of N.N. Moore. Right: Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm, journalist, activist, and Civil War nurse, Joel E. Whitney, photographer / Whitney’s Gallery, St. Paul. United States, ca. 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

An Astonishing Career Begins with Letters to the Editor

For decades, Swisshelm believed “there is no one but me for this work,” and built an astonishing career in the United States as a preeminent journalist and reporter on behalf of many progressive causes. Her journalism career began in Pittsburgh in the late 1840s when she wrote a series of letters to the editor of the Pittsburgh Commercial Journal, Robert M. Riddle. These letters take up one of the tenets of the early women’s rights movement: the right for women to own property. Riddle published several of these letters. On October 28, 1847, Swisshelm writes about how a husband assumed all legal authority over any of his wife’s assets: “All they both have and all they can acquire are his, and only his, to dispense as he sees fit.” On December 11, 1847, Swisshelm writes, “There are that matter of quirks, wibbles and turns in the laws which relate to married women, and there is not one lawyer out of fifty who understands them or is fit to conduct any business which concerns them.” These letters to the editor seem like radical public statements; however, Swisshelm builds on an existing foundation of women writers who circulated their own ideas in print.

Throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century, middle-class white women like Swisshelm found limited opportunities to express political opinions in public. Popular fiction, especially novels and short stories, represented one opportunity for women writers to discuss their ideas with a reading audience. For example, Lydia Maria Child, known primarily today for editing Harriet Jacobs’s memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), wrote the acclaimed novel Hobomok, a Tale of Early Times in 1824. Catherine Maria Sedgwick, a best-selling writer from Massachusetts, published short stories in periodicals from the 1820s through the 1850s. Her most famous novel, a historical romance, titled Hope Leslie, was published in 1827. Both of these writers use historical fiction to explore questions about women’s and Indigenous people’s rights. Since women also comprised most of the reading audience for books like these, women novelists cultivated ecosystems for the public exchange of social, cultural, and political ideas that eventually developed sophisticated organizational and communication networks between women.

By the time Jane Swisshelm penned her first political opinion pieces as letters to the editor in the Pittsburgh Commercial Journal, she actively participated in a thriving culture of women writers. Her important steps forward came at a moment when other women like her began organizing en masse to demand rights to property, inheritance, divorce, and custody of children, as well as the vote. Publisher Robert Riddle owned other newspapers in Pittsburgh. In addition to the Pittsburgh Commercial Journal, he owned the Daily Gazette, Daily Morning Post, Mystery, Albatross, Spirit of the Age, and Pittsburgh Catholic. Newspaper publishing in the 1800s was a lucrative, if risky, investment. Some newspapers established broad subscription bases, while others occupied niche areas of interest. Countless newspapers went bankrupt after brief runs while other newspapers ran for decades. As emerging industrial technology made it feasible to make periodicals relatively cheap to produce and inexpensive to purchase, more newspapers meant more opportunities for marginalized voices to find reading audiences. That was the prevailing idea for Jane Swisshelm. She saw an opportunity to create change, and she took it. Because Swisshelm contributed to several Pittsburgh papers and gained a loyal—oftentimes vocal—readership, she approached Riddle with an idea. What if she edited and published a newspaper of her own?

The Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter—Swisshelm’s First Newspaper

A black and white photo of a white woman with her hair pulled back, holding papers in one hand with an elbow resting on a book , hand touching her face.

Mrs. Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm, image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. Scan from original on Epson Expression 10000XL. Full credit below.

By Swisshelm’s own account, Riddle initially was unsupportive. She writes about his response in her autobiography, Half a Century: “I was going to start the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter; the first copy must be issued Saturday week, so that abolitionists would not have time to be discouraged, and that I wanted him to print my paper” (Swisshelm 106). The city’s abolitionist outlet, Albatross, went bankrupt, and its demise created a vacuum for progressive political writing. According to Swisshelm, Riddle did not immediately take to her idea. She writes, “he had pushed his chair back from his desk, and sat regarding me in utter amazement while I stated the case, then said: ‘What do you mean? Are you insane? What does your husband say?” (106). Eventually, Swisshelm convinced him her husband’s opinion did not matter. He agreed to this venture together, even if he refused to furnish her with her own desk (108).

The Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter was Swisshelm’s first newspaper. It was also the first Pittsburgh-based newspaper with a woman at the helm. Swisshelm celebrated this achievement: A woman had started a political paper! A woman! Could he believe his eyes? A woman!” (113). The inaugural edition of the Visiter was published on December 20, 1847.  From the outset, Swisshelm intended the paper to highlight, advocate for, and provide a platform to abolitionist and women’s rights writing, and by the end of 1848, the Visiter had over 6,000 subscribers. Throughout the newspaper’s run from 1847 to 1854, Swisshelm maintained a strong, if sometimes controversial, editorial hand and a clear political voice.

For example, in 1849, the Visiter received pushback in the form of an opinion piece from a competing Ohio newspaper called the New Concord Free Press. In it, the writer claimed that the Constitution itself guarantees the continuance of slavery and attacked Swisshelm’s position; in true editorial fashion, Swisshelm responded to this argument with her own. Her characteristically witty tone and sharp dissection of language shines through a response published in the Visiter’s February 17, 1849 edition. She writes, “Who are ‘the people’ of a country? Webster says it is ‘each, every one, common people. The body of persons who compose a community, town, city or nation.’” She continues to argue, “these people of the U.S. ordained the Constitution to secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and posterity. All slaves were a part of the people, and lest there should be a mistake, they are named as ‘persons held to labour.’” In the conclusion to her article, as the Constitution cannot support simultaneous liberty and slavery, and if the Constitution does guarantee slavery, the document “is not worth straw enough to burn it.”

A Progressive Power

After the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, women’s rights issues, not just the right to vote, gained national traction. Some argued that the abolition of slavery should happen as part of a broader push for equal rights for women. The Visiter took up many of these arguments, and Swisshelm frequently published her own opinion columns. In her 2006 dissertation, “Women of reform: The periodical editing careers of Margaret Fuller, Lydia Maria Child, Caroline Healey Dall, and Jane Grey Swisshelm,” Terri Amlong investigates the ways in which several of Swisshelm’s articles combine her political stances with personal experiences. Her acrimonious divorce from James Swisshelm was not finalized until 1857, and it was granted only after protracted court battles over property and custody of their daughter, Mary Henrietta [also known as Nettie or Zo]. Amlong highlights two important pieces. One, published in the August 18, 1849 edition, is a review of E.D.E.N. Southworth’s popular novel, The Deserted Wife: “[W]henever two are really weary of each other, they are no longer married; and nobody can marry them—no combination of men can marry them. It is a base prostitution of the name and object of marriage, to bind two to live together contrary to the will of either.” Swisshelm asserts, [T]he State cannot be benefited by what is crime in the individual! The second appeared in the August 3, 1850 edition. In this piece, Swisshelm argues that expecting women to “marry either for a living or to maintain a respectable standing in society” is a disservice to all women. Instead of training girls only to become wives, Swisshelm maintains “all be educated in some useful employment or profession, whereby they may get as good a living as a man can get.”

Journalism was “as good a living as a man can get” for Jane Swisshelm.  She sold The Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter to her co-editor and friend Robert Riddle in 1854, and publication of the paper shuttered shortly thereafter. Swisshelm moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota, where she started two more newspapers: the St. Cloud Visiter and the St. Cloud Democrat. She continued to write for the rest of her life. She made friends with the likes of Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and she made political enemies on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Whether in Minnesota, Washington, D.C., or on Civil War battlefields, Swisshelm’s commitment to the written word—to the power of the press and women’s power won by the pen—prevailed. The Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter remains her most influential contribution to American journalism and her lasting legacy in the venerated Pittsburgh newspaper industry.

Bibliography

Amlong, Terri A. “Women of Reform: The Periodical Editing Careers of Margaret Fuller, Lydia Maria Child, Caroline Healey Dall, and Jane Grey Swisshelm.” Order No. 3232483 University of South Carolina, 2006.

Hoffert, Sylvia D. Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter. (1847–1854) (microfilm)

Swisshelm, Jane. Half a Century. Jansen, McClurg & Company, 1880.

Swisshelm, Jane Grey, “Letter, Jane Grey Swisshelm to Nettie Swisshelm [August 7, 1882]”
(1882). Jane Grey Swisshelm Letters. 18. https://repository.stcloudstate.edu/jswiss-letters/18

Image Credits

In order of appearance:

Swisshelm, Jane Grey, painter. Self-Portrait. Ca. 1840 – 1845, painting. / Senator John Heinz History Center, courtesy of N.N. Moore.

Whitney, Joel E, photographer. Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm, journalist, activist, and Civil War nurse / Whitney’s Gallery, St. Paul. United States, ca. 1865. [St. Paul, Minnesota: Whitney’s Gallery] Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Whitney, Joel E, photographer. Mrs. Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm / Whitney’s Gallery, St. Paul. United States, ca. 1860. [St. Paul, Minnesota: Whitney’s Gallery] Photograph. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Enjoy Dr. Kirsten L. Paine’s article? Read another story from the A Literary Look series

Folk & Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grants

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Apply Now—Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grants

Applications are due April 18, 2022. 

Rivers of Steel is excited to announce the official call for applications for the 2022 – 2023 Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grants through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Open to folk and traditional artists from across the state of Pennsylvania, these grants provide funding over a one-year period to a partnership between a master artist and a qualified apprentice, enabling them to work together for in-depth learning that encompasses the acquisition of techniques and artistry as well as the context of the culture. Apprenticeships are offered annually in both performing and craft traditions.

Interested artists can read more about the grants guidelines and download an application here. All applications must be submitted to Dana Payne at danpayne@pa.gov by April 18, 2022.

Learn more! Watch the video below or read the news release.

Folk & Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grants

A Literary Look: Jane Swisshelm’s Autobiography

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A detail Jane Grey Swisshelm’s Self-Portrait, circa 1840-1845 / Senator John Heinz History Center, Courtesy of N.N. Moore.

Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm’s Autobiography, Half a Century

A Literary Look is a recent series that features recommended reads from the Rivers of Steel. For Women’s History Month, Dr. Kristen L. Paine, our site management coordinator and interpretive specialist, reflects on one of her favorite historic Pittsburghers—Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm.  Working as a reporter, newspaper publisher, women’s rights advocate, and abolitionist throughout the nineteenth century, Swisshelm was a woman ahead of her time. Using her autobiography as a starting point, Dr. Paine leans on her own expertise in literature from that era to provide context for understanding this pioneering woman.

By Dr. Kirsten L. Paine

Tucked behind and rolling away from the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark is land that once belonged to somewhat of a Pittsburgh legend: Jane Swisshelm. Some locals might hear her name and recall the blue historical marker near the corner of Braddock and Greendale Avenues in Edgewood. Other folks might know a bit about the newspapers she ran, or that she is credited as the first woman reporter to sit in the senate press gallery in Washington, D.C. Perhaps others are aware that she advocated for women’s rights.

Jane Swisshelm’s life drifts in and out of public knowledge, and the legacy she left behind is complicated and filled with interesting contradictions. We will explore the ins and outs of her complexities in a companion piece to this article later this month. But for now, let us take a look at a fascinating piece of writing: Swisshelm’s autobiography. Half a Century was first published in 1880, and in it, Swisshelm sets out to tell the story of her early life.

A painting of a younger Swisshelm paired with a photo of her decades later which show remarkable similiarity.

Two portraits, about twenty years apart. Left: Self-Portrait, Jane Grey Swisshelm, 1840-1845 / Senator John Heinz History Center, Courtesy of N.N. Moore. Right: Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm, journalist, activist, and Civil War nurse, Joel E. Whitney, photographer / Whitney’s Gallery, St. Paul. United States, ca. 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Swisshelm’s narrative voice is engaging and witty. It is sharp, idiosyncratic, and can feel personable. Readers who enjoy memoirs, biographies, autoethnographies, and other forms of life writing might enjoy delving into this volume to get to know this interesting life of local lore. History buffs might enjoy the personal perspective on a galvanizing time in the American women’s rights movement, Civil War nursing, and Pittsburgh’s urban growth. There are many ways to read Half a Century. As March is Women’s History Month, consider reading it to understand what it means for a woman born in 1815 to tell her own story, in her own voice, and on her own terms in the nineteenth century.

Most people who know me know I am a scholar who specializes in American literary culture between 1790 and 1900 with a particular focus on women’s life writing from that time period. I love spending time with stories by and about women who challenge a world that is often inhospitable to their aspirations and ideas. Nineteenth-century women’s life writing has certain hallmarks. The writing can feel intensely personal even though the writer may not reveal much. Writers blur boundaries between public and private spaces and frequently indulge public scrutiny that might come with it. I enjoy investigating the purposes and limitations of this genre of literature.

So when I use the term “life writing,” I am taking it from two sources. In her 1992 book, American Women’s Autobiography, Margo Culley considers the term “autobiography” as three parts: “auto (self) / bio (life) / graphy (writing).” Then I combine that with James Olney’s perspective on the expansiveness of what “autobiography” can be. Life writing is autobiography, but it is also memoirs, journals, correspondence, scrapbooks, and other forms of composing the self.

Life writing is also intensely literary. Half a Century is a wonderful example of how a middle-class white woman in the nineteenth century uses rich simile, metaphor, and symbolism to make sense of the world in which she lives. She also has a strong sense of place. For example, she writes about her birth: “I was born on the 6th of December, 1815, in Pittsburg, on the bank of the Monongahela, near its confluence with the Allegheny” (10). In 2022, the building is long demolished, but it is still possible to trace the pathways of Swisshelm’s life in Pittsburgh by following her from the burgeoning little city out to the fresh air of Wilkinsburg and Braddock, then down the Ohio River to Cincinnati and Louisville, Kentucky. For the majority of her life, Jane Swisshelm did not stray far from one of the rivers that could, and would, eventually bring her back to Pittsburgh.

An illustration of the confluence of Pittsburgh's three rivers.

Pittsburgh during Jane Swisshelm’s era. View of Pittsburgh & Allegheny, Otto Krebs, Lithogrpaher.  Pittsburgh Pennsylvania United States, ca. 1874. / Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In Pittsburgh and everywhere else in the United States, the church played a critical role in people’s lives, no matter the denomination. Publicly accounting for one’s own spiritual journey is a key feature in autobiographies like Swisshelm’s. It is typical, then, for a writer like Swisshelm to lean heavily on religion as the lens through which she considers her life. She makes her spiritual journey central to how she understands her place in the world and why that place might not be enough for her. She was born to Covenantor parents, and the strict adherence to God’s authority over one’s every thought and action meant that Swisshelm had few opportunities to question or challenge that authority.

Early in her autobiography, Swisshelm writes about memorizing prayers and Bible verses at three years old, and alongside remembering preachers, sermons, and any religious education, she also writes about ghosts and cemeteries. At the beginning of one story Swisshelm recalls, “Grandmother took me sometimes to walk in these graveyards at night, and there talked to me about God and heaven and the angels” (15). Odd, yes? However, given the context of the early nineteenth century and the closeness people had with death, the graveyard is an ideal teaching tool for discussing mortality and the divine afterlife. Swisshelm muses, “I was sufficiently interested in these, but especially longed to see the ghost, and often went to look for them,” and sometimes she “went home to lie and brood over the unreliable nature of ghosts” (15). Her interests lie not solely in the dutiful contemplation of heaven and hell. She documents the fleeting, unprovable, weird parts of spiritual existence that, perhaps, cannot be learned by following all of the rules.

Swisshelm builds resistance to, and rejection of, authority throughout her narrative. It culminates in her methodical dismantling of marriage as an institution designed to subjugate her. The first chapter devoted to her doomed marriage to James Swisshelm is entitled, “Deliverer of the Dark Night.” In it, Swisshelm unleashes all of the ghosts that would continue to haunt her through her life. She writes about how “he had elected me as his wife some years before this evening, and had not kept it secret” (40). James Swisshelm pursued her for years, and by the acknowledgement of both her family and his, “he had been assured his choice was presumptuous, but came and took possession of his prospective property with the air of a man who understood his business” (40). Words like “possession,” “property,” and “business” highlight the transactional nature of marriage and her value as an object for sale. Small details like this lay a foundation for how she navigates the issues of women’s rights to property, to children, and to divorce, for the rest of her life.

In the nineteenth century, belief that women belonged at home regulated daily life for most people. Women largely relegated their influence to raising children and tending to domestic responsibilities. Laws barred women from voting and holding political office, and they were mostly prevented from pursuing higher education, training in professions, and owning businesses and property. In many ways, women were property, so there were very few opportunities to hold positions of public authority. However, Swisshelm rejects the expectations of the “woman’s sphere,” precisely because she cannot think of a woman who succeeded in escaping it. She “had never then heard the words, for no woman had gotten out of it, to be hounded back” (48). As so much of the narrative chronicles her journalism career and the public platforms she created in order to speak about issues that mattered to her, it is interesting to read about how she “had gotten out of it” and refused in every way imaginable “to be hounded back” (48).

The Civil War created many opportunities for women to leave their designated sphere. Jane Swisshelm was one of the hundreds of women who, through the United States Sanitary Commission and under the leadership of other women like Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton, nursed soldiers in ramshackle hospitals near every battlefield. This portion of Half a Century is of especial interest to me primarily because it is about Swisshelm’s service during the Civil War, but I also think it is a fascinating look at how a seasoned journalist tries to assemble fragments of memories that are all part of a great national trauma. Memoirs of female Civil War nurses abound, and Swisshelm fits hers well within the somewhat self-denying style and tradition of women writing about their service. On the surface of such narratives, a woman’s motivation is motherly devotion to the wounded nation. However, once a reader pushes beyond Swisshelm’s public assurance that she behaved herself and completed her duties without losing an ounce of femininity, they will start to see Swisshelm, yet again, pushing against the boundaries of an institution designed to slot her into a specific role.

She argued with Dorothea Dix over the “kind of women” who should be allowed to train as nurses and threatened to “apply to my friends Mrs. Abraham Lincoln and Secretary Stanton, and have your authority tested” (302). She recounts the horrors she witnessed in the aftermath of the battle of Fredericksburg. She cajoled doctors into pursuing better treatments, conversed with sick and dying soldiers as they looked to her as a refuge, and, by her own account in a chapter called “The Old Theater,” almost single-handedly saved an abandoned group of soldiers and cowering nurses (308–314). These chapters comprise most of the last third of the book and piece together Swisshelm’s movement from hospital to hospital.

Part of Swisshelm’s narrative provides the basis from which she discovers, and then defines, the parameters of her belief in abolition, which was, of course, the primary cause of the Civil War. It is important to remember that, as a white woman in the nineteenth century, Swisshelm’s ability to synthesize and discuss the institution of slavery is limited to the language available to her at the time. It is also important to remember that how she frames her belief in and work with abolitionist groups is always in relation to those with whom she speaks on a regular basis. Of course, that means the language she uses to discuss the institution of slavery is shockingly racist to contemporary audiences.

Language in nineteenth-century autobiography challenges modern readers precisely because it puts present-day understandings of how and why words and phrases are weaponized to hurt people over top of archaic models of storytelling. However, with Swisshelm’s narrative as an example, readers can consider how she commands a gut-level emotional response by cultivating sympathy. She does not sweep violence away to make it more palatable for people. Rather, the violence embedded in her language and in her descriptions of violent acts are there to provoke anger, outrage, and even perhaps a little disbelief. After all, she writes about her first encounters with enslaved people while trying to reckon with the haunting scenes of violence that seemingly called her to action.

Those moments in her autobiography are bitter and deeply unpleasant, even as those same moments help readers understand how nineteenth-century people lived and wrote about their society, environments, and experiences—but proceed with caution.

A concrete relief sculpture of a woman's progfile set into a brick wall.

Photographer’s note: “This is one of four small, hard-to-spot stone reliefs built into a brick wall in the Coffee Way alley downtown, c. 1865. The artist is unknown. Exactly whom this relief represents is not recorded; it is speculated that it Mary Croghan Schlenley, a noted Pittsburgh philanthropist of the day; or Jane Grey Swisshelm, an American journalist and abolitionist.” One of dozens of examples of exemplary public art and architecture, some old, some new, in the venerable “Steel City” of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh, 2019. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Of course, Half a Century delves into Jane Swisshelm’s journalism career. She details every paper she ever started, discusses in detail her approach to reporting and editing, and wields the power of the press to advocate for sweeping political, social, and economic advancements for marginalized groups of people. Readers who know Swisshelm’s extensive body of work in this arena will not be disappointed by the stories she tells.

I plan to use this part of the book as a pivot point for a companion piece about Swisshelm’s activism via the press. While it might reference Half a Century, the next piece on Jane Swisshelm will not be about her autobiography. It is a deeper dive into her journalism career as it relates to causes that eventually impact labor in the late nineteenth century.

Physical copies of Half a Century might be difficult to find because it is out of print, but it is easy to access online. Search for the book title and author on archive.org and enjoy one of the high-quality digitized copies located there.

Bibliography

Culley, Margo.  American Women’s Autobiography: Fea(s)ts of Memory.  University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Olney, James.  Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing.  University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Swisshelm, Jane.  Half a Century.  Jansen, McClurg & Company, 1880.

Image Credits

In order of appearance:

Swisshelm, Jane Grey, painter. Self-Portrait. Ca. 1840 – 1845, painting. / Senator John Heinz History Center, courtesy of N.N. Moore.

Whitney, Joel E, photographer. Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm, journalist, activist, and Civil War nurse / Whitney’s Gallery, St. Paul. United States, ca. 1865. [St. Paul, Minnesota: Whitney’s Gallery] Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Krebs, Otto, Lithographer. View of Pittsburgh & Allegheny / Otto Krebs lith., Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Pennsylvania United States, ca. 1874. Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. One of dozens of examples of exemplary public art and architecture, some old, some new, in the venerable “Steel City” of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh Pennsylvania Allegheny County United States, 2019. -07-05. Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Enjoy Dr. Kirsten L. Paine’s article? Read another story from the A Literary Look series

A two story clapboard house with five windows on the upper level, and four on the bottom with an offset door to the left.

Community Spotlight—The Ambridge Bicentennial House

By Blog

An early rendering of the Bicentennial House by Cochran Associates Architects. Courtesy of AHEDEC.

Community Spotlight

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

The Ambridge Bicentennial House: A Community Preservation Project

A historic building nearly condemned to demolition is now on the path to preservation. Located at 284 13th Street in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, the almost two-hundred-year-old house is one of the earliest residential Harmonist buildings, part of a religious community built on the banks of the Ohio River north of Pittsburgh. Dubbed the Bicentennial House, the structure is now a registered National Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Looking into the Bicentennial House, what we’ve determined from digging out records that are housed at Old Economy Village, we found that it was built in the summer of 1824 and is one of the Harmonist’s first six buildings,” says Carl Sutherland, project coordinator for the restoration project. “We don’t know if it’s the first or the sixth, but it was built to house the advance group of Harmonists, the carpenters and masons and finishers who were the first people to land to build structures for the rest of the party as they came to Ökonomie (now Ambridge).”

A white clapboard two story house with a failing porch roof.

The Bicentennial House before work began. The building was dubbed the Bicentennial House by the Ambridge Historic District Economic Development Corporation in celebration of the 200-year anniversary of the Harmonist village in Ambridge that will occur in 2024. Courtesy of AHEDEC.

Sutherland is a key member of the Ambridge Historic District Economic Development Corporation (AHDEDC), a nonprofit whose mission is promoting the district and its economic viability, along with Steve Roberts, chair of AHDEDC, and Michael Knecht, AHDEDC board member and site administrator at Old Economy Village. A combination of their efforts can be credited for bringing this project to life.

“I guess you could say it’s my fault,” says Roberts, laughing. After working for years on revitalizing the Mexican War Street houses in Pittsburgh’s North Side, Roberts made the move to Ambridge, to a log cabin across the street from the Bicentennial House.

“When I came here, I saw this Harmonist house that most of the street said, ‘I wish they’d tear that down’,” notes Roberts, who is also a realter with Keller Williams. “It was just sitting empty. I looked it up and found out that it was owned by somebody out of state that had bought it at a tax sale. And I talked her into listing it and putting a sign up. And gradually that sort of started to change people’s minds—if something had value to sell, then maybe it’s, you know, something different.”

As time passed and no offers came in to purchase the home, Roberts began urging the other members of AHDEDC to take on the project. His efforts paid off, and the owner of the home agreed to donate it to the organization.

Momentum for preserving this piece of the community’s history grew from there. After Preservation Pennsylvania designated it as one of the seven most important historic buildings “at risk” in Pennsylvania, they granted AHDEDC $5,000 to have a feasibility study prepared. This allowed the group to then pursue additional funding.

In 2021 the organization was awarded funding through Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program to secure the building and remove exterior hazards, including a collapsing porch and rear addition. The grant allowed for in-kind volunteer hours as part of the required match, which Sutherland notes was critical to their progress.

“The one thing that’s wonderful about the Rivers of Steel grant is that inclusion of in-kind labor. We’ve got a lot of volunteer labor that can be utilized,” he notes. “We needed so many hours against the grant—we’re approaching double that at this point.”

“Carl has really worked hard to stabilize this building,” continues Roberts. “He’s done everything from coordinating weekly ‘work parties’ to unifying the volunteers, to literally cutting down trees and planing them to make the right-sized beam to go under part of [the house] that needed to be jacked up. We’re a small group, but it’s pretty cool to be doing this kind of work and seeing the progress.”

The same house with the porch roof removed and a new white picket fence.

Volunteers were essential in helping to complete the early stages of the work. Courtesy of AHEDEC.

The completion of the work funded by Rivers of Steel then led to a Keystone Historic Preservation Planning Grant, which the organization utilized to hire MCF Architects to develop final plan options and create specifications for restoration and renovation. These plans will allow AHDEDC to solicit bids to complete the work while simultaneously pursuing a larger fundraising campaign, both next steps on the path to a 2024 bicentennial celebration of the house and the Ambridge Historic District.

Additional funding and partners will be sought to finish the structural stabilization, restore the exterior of the house, complete the interior renovations, and finally to develop programming for its use. As they work through this list, Roberts hopes they can continue to grow momentum, both for this project and other community development projects in the area.

“I came from Pittsburgh and was involved with a community development corporation (CDC) And Pittsburgh was well supported with CDCs all over, in every neighborhood, that were funded through both the foundations and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and they made a huge difference because they took on buildings and they redid them,” says Roberts. “A lot of that just doesn’t exist out here in Beaver County. The support we’ve gotten from Preservation Pennsylvania and Rivers of Steel is really sort of cracking a door open, because it’s something that really hasn’t been done.”

Knecht, who has also been involved with the project since the beginning, wholeheartedly agrees. “The Rivers of Steel grant was a major shot in the arm and boost to the entire project. The work that we’ve been able to accomplish with those funds really has raised awareness of the project in the community. They see work going on as a result of the grant, and it definitely has people talking about what’s going on with the house and asking what are your next steps and things like that.”

“We felt it was critical to show the community how, through creative partnerships and fundraising, and hard work and elbow grease, you can bring a house like this back to life and give it new meaning for hopefully another 200 years,” Knecht continues.

A new sign is displayed onsite detailing the historic designations and the work that is ongoing.

As they near this celebration of 200 years of history, Roberts sees potential for the future of the Ambridge Historic District. “Part of the whole point of all of this, in little towns like this that have hit sort of rock bottom after all the steel mills left, is a revitalization. And finding some hook that gets them to be a destination point. Old Economy Museum is not large enough by itself, because you really want a walking area and shops to go to, and so getting beyond that and making the whole area of the historic district a destination point, then it makes Ambridge more of a destination point.”

“Our little step on the Bicentennial House, and support for it from funding partners like Rivers of Steel, is really sort of an eye opener in a way, of what we need to do or maybe do on a bigger scale,” he continues. “So that we just don’t sit here and wait for things to happen or fall down or get torn down, but to actually make a difference.”

To learn more about the Ambridge Historic District and the Bicentennial House, visit ambridgehistoricdistrict.org or follow Ambridge Historic District Economic Development Corporation on Facebook.

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program. The Ambridge Historic District is one of six organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2021.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read Gita’s recent article about the Josh Gibson Foundation’s collaboration with local teens to create an educational app.

A black man wearing a work life vest on a boat with a bridge the skyline in the background.

Profiles in Steel: John Mahn, Jr.

By Blog

John Mahn, Jr., at work on the Explorer riverboat.

Profiles in Steel

Rivers of Steel’s Profiles in Steel series shines a spotlight on the talented members of our organization’s community.  From staff and volunteers to collaborators and patrons, it takes a dedicated group with many and varied talents to support the community-based initiatives offered through Rivers of Steel.

In this installment, we meet John Mahn, Jr., a deckhand on the Explorer riverboat. Breaking barriers is something John Mahn, Jr. has been doing his entire life, from his time working in the steel industry to his recent distinction as the first Black person appointed to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. While he understands the significance of such steps, what is really important to him is connecting people with the outdoors.

John Mahn, Jr.’s Story

By Brianna Horan

Meet John Mahn, Jr.

If you’re looking for John Mahn, Jr., the odds are good that you’ll find him outdoors and near a body of water—preferably with a fishing rod in hand.

His favorite local spot these days is Cross Creek Lake in Avella, where John and his then eight-year-old daughter, Brandee, were among the first to cast a line when it opened for public fishing in 1985. He spends a lot of time on the Monongahela River—John’s last name happens to sound the same as its nickname, the Mon—because it’s so close to his home in Charleroi. The part of the Youghiogheny River near his home runs slower and shallower than in other areas, making it good for wading. John knows a lot of great fishing holes “all up and down I-79,” and if he follows it north to Erie, he can take the boat he has docked there out on “the big lake.”

Growing up as a youngster in Cambridge, Massachusetts, John’s draw to water was just as strong, but his options were considerably more limited. “It was a city; we didn’t have creeks running everywhere like in Pennsylvania. There was the Charles River, and that was about it,” John says. He quickly figured out that the best fishing in town was at the local water supply lake, which were all ringed with ten-foot fences topped with barbed wire. “They had blue gills, sunfish, and bass in them, though, so if I wanted to fish, I’d sneak under one of the fences and hide in the bushes to fish from there.” His parents also helped him experience the great outdoors whenever the opportunity arose. “My dad wasn’t a fisherman. He wasn’t outdoorsy or anything like that—but he was into whatever his kids were into,” John says. “My older brother was into scouting, so my dad got into scouting. I liked to fish and run around in the woods, so my mom and dad made sure I got plenty of that. I went to church camp, I went to scout camp, I went to YMCA camp, and I even went to the Jewish community center camp.”

He remembers the impact that those experiences had on him as a child, shaping him into the person he is today. Retired from a 35-year career as a supervisor in the steel industry, John is heading into his eleventh season as a deckhand on Rivers of Steel’s Explorer riverboat, having joined the crew when the vessel was owned by RiverQuest. Explorer was built as a floating classroom, and it typically welcomes 3,500 students on board every year to participate in hands-on education programs. In a region that is defined by river valleys, creeks, and waterways, for many students these field trips are their first experience on the water.

“The first thing they ask me is, ‘Where is the poop deck?’” John laughs. “They all want to see the poop deck, and I have to tell them that we don’t have one. Then they see [Explorer’s Captain] Ryan [O’Rourke], or they see me, and they say, ‘You mean you can actually make money working on a boat?’” It’s an eye-opening experience before the education programming even begins. “I think about it every time we have those kids on the boat,” John says. “They have so much available right in front of them, and some of them are clueless about the opportunities that they have. It’s kind of sad in another way, because I think about some kids like me who never get the opportunity, and this is right in their back yard.”

John Mahn, Jr. and Magisterial District Judge Eric Porter pose for a picture together after John’s swearing in to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission in December, 2021.

Connecting Kids with the Outdoors

Connecting kids with the outdoors is one of John’s top priorities in his newest role as a Commissioner appointed by Governor Tom Wolf to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Appropriately, John made sure Washington County Magisterial District Judge Eric Porter, who John used to take fishing when the judge was young, swore him into the position. “He was a classmate of my son John Wesley’s, and when he was little the only way I’d get him to go fishing with me was to take a friend with him.”

The Fish and Boat Commission is an independent state agency with a mission to protect, conserve, and enhance the Commonwealth’s aquatic resources and provide fishing and boating opportunities. John will serve as a commissioner for the next four years representing District 2, which includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Washington, and Westmoreland counties. John will serve not only the current anglers and boaters in his district, but also those who have yet to realize their passion.

“I told our executive director the other day the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is so far off of these kids’ radar. If you’re growing up in Homestead or Braddock, the Fish and Boat Commission might as well be on the moon it’s so far away from you,” says John, who is working on an initiative with the agency that would bring conservation officers and outdoor recreation instructors into classrooms to talk about all of the ways to enjoy time in nature. “Something that always sticks with me is the idea that talent is evenly distributed, and opportunity is not. There is no doubt that there are some future outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen sitting in the schools—they just have to get the opportunity to get outside,” John says. “Some of them will grab it and run if they’re given the chance. The worst thing you can tell a kid is ‘You’ll never be able to do that,’ or ‘We don’t do this.’”

Two images of John Mahn holding up fish he caught.

Left: John Mahn holds up a norther pike in Ontario, Canada. Right: John Mahn shows off a lobster on his friend’s boat, off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts.

A Life Filled with Firsts

Limiting preconceptions like those held no water in the home John grew up in or in the life that he’s shaped. At age 71, John is the first man of African American descent appointed to the Board of Commissioners, a stride that begins to make the agency more representative of the population it serves—particularly at a time of increased scrutiny of the barriers that people of color face when accessing the outdoors are encountering increased scrutiny. But being the first or only Black person in a space is nothing new to John.

“I understand the significance of it, and I want other people to understand the significance of it—but to me, it’s not a big deal because I’ve run into it so much in my life,” John says. “If there was something I wanted to do, I wasn’t going to let anyone else tell me that I couldn’t do it. I love to fish, and I would go to different places to fish, and I would run into the same thing—people who’d say that you can’t stay here. Well, I’m here, I came here to fish, so I’m going to find a place to fish. I never let that bother me. I would do what I had to do.”

John’s mother modeled that same mentality and determination while he was growing up in the 1960s, whether participating in sit-in demonstrations at the local Woolworth’s lunch counter or insisting that her sons be educated alongside white students at the local public school. “There were only two high schools in Cambridge, a vo-tech school, and Cambridge High and Latin School,” John explains. “If you were Black and you were a boy, you were going to the vo-tech because you weren’t going to college.” But that wasn’t going to be the case for the Mahn boys—their mother engrained the notion that they would be college graduates before they were old enough to understand what college was. John’s older brother, seven years his senior, was one of the first two Black males to attend High and Latin in the early 1960s. John couldn’t help but notice that his brother came home from school with torn shirts and black eyes almost daily during that first year. It also didn’t escape his attention that his own elementary school principal—who lived across the street—drove past him every day as he walked to school. “When I went to school my classes were integrated, but when I went home the neighborhoods weren’t,” John says. “I didn’t know it at the time, but we were redlined. I never thought much about it, that his side of the street was white, and on my side of the street it was all Black. And I didn’t know about redlining at that time. All I wondered was how come Mr. Murphy sees me every day going to the same school he’s going to, it’s wintertime—why didn’t he offer me a ride?”

Shortly after John’s older brother graduated from High and Latin and began his studies at Franklin & Marshall College, their mother passed away. John was in eighth grade at the time, and also had a younger sister. “A single parent back in those days was almost unheard of,” John recalls. “My dad now had three kids and a job [as a machinist] to handle.” The Fox family, who had employed John’s mother  as a domestic, helped his father formulate a plan to enroll John in a boarding school just south of Boston. With John’s older brother away at college, that would leave only his little sister at home.

The year he started at Milton Academy, he was one of the first three Black students admitted in the boarding school’s history—one in eighth grade, himself in ninth grade, and another in tenth grade. “For myself, I think the Jewish kids had a lot harder time of it than I did,” John says. “I remember people saying the N-word, not directly at me, but within earshot. As far as being treated differently or being treated poorly, I didn’t remember that as part of the experience.”

It was during these years that John began to realize his love for boating, joining his friends on their families’ boats and cruising from Boston to Maine. “Every day was like an adventure,” he recalls. “You never knew who you were going to run into, you had to plot a course, you had to navigate by compass and buoys. You never knew right where you were. You might sail all day and never see another boat.” John also worked on a lobster boat during high school. “There was a lobsterman, and we said we were helping him, but we were just in his way, really. He put up with us and let us haul the traps,” John recalls.

Eager to see more of the world outside of Boston and Cambridge, John followed his brother’s path to attend Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1968. The school became co-ed while he was a student there, so his younger sister also enrolled there when she graduated from high school. Finding adventure in the great outdoors remained a priority for John, and he spent the summer of 1971 in a Rambler on an epic road trip with high school friends. They headed west across the United States and then back east via Canada, camping in National Parks and staying with friends and family along the way.

John, his mother-in-law Maxine, with his wife Jeannie celebrate the holidays.

Making a Home in the Mon Valley

Another thing John found in college: love. John and Jeannie met while attending a friend’s wedding in New York City—he was a friend of the groom, and she was a friend of the bride, and soon they were married themselves during John’s junior year. “When I graduated, it was time to figure out what we were going to do. She wanted to stay in New York, and I just could not do it—I am not a city boy. We couldn’t afford to move back to Boston. So, reluctantly, she agreed that we could move back here,” he said, referring to Jeannie’s hometown of Charleroi. “We’d visited many times while dating, and there was a strong outdoor tradition that I was into.”

Jeannie ended up moving back ahead of John, and her father helped her get a job in human resources at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corporation’s Allenport Works, where he worked as the only Black supervisor among about 3,000 employees. When John arrived in Charleroi to join Jeannie, the young couple lived with her parents at first. His father-in-law let John know that the plant manager at the Allenport Works was aiming to hire another Black supervisor who had a college degree. “I’m sitting at the table eating his food, and he’s telling me that so-and-so’s looking for a worker—so I figured I better try it. And so I went and had the interview,” John says.

John landed the job, and he and Jeannie moved to an apartment in little California for about a year, about ten miles from where they’d been living with her parents. “My wife is from a very large, tight-knit family, and she felt it was too far away from them. She wasn’t seeing her family as much as she wanted to be, so we bought a house in Charleroi so she could be closer to them,” John says.

By the late ’70s, John Wesley and Brandee were born, and Jeannie left her job at Wheeling-Pittsburgh to raise their children. John advanced through managerial positions at the mill over the course of a thirty-five-year career. “I can’t say anything bad about the mill. I bought a house, I put two kids through school. It was a good living, and it served our needs,” John says. “I ran the roll shop until I retired, and I was the supervisor the whole time. The one thing I liked about it was that the majority of the guys I supervised had the same interests that I did. I wasn’t a golfer, so I didn’t golf—but it seemed like everyone that worked under me was either a hunter, a fisherman, or a boater. So when I was off, I was always doing one of those things.”

Some of the men who John managed weren’t interested in finding common ground, however. “Once Jeannie’s dad retired, I was the only Black supervisor in the mill.” And while this wasn’t a new experience for him, he saw clear differences between the way that the mill workers reacted to his presence and the way his fellow students had treated him in school. “Adults are sometimes not afraid to express their true selves. I had to supervise guys who didn’t take kindly to me giving them orders, and they made that known . . . Let’s just say the Mon Valley wasn’t the most enlightened workforce. The guys worked hard. They had hard jobs—they had hot, dirty, uncomfortable jobs to do. I give them credit, but there was also a small minority that spent more time trying to get out of work than if they’d just done the job to begin with. I got an education in college, but I also got an education of a different kind in the mill.”

That discrimination extended in the community outside of the mill, where many organizations and establishments made sure John knew he wasn’t welcome. “As much as I love to hunt and fish, I could never figure out why the gun clubs and sportsmen’s clubs were always full and never accepting members. When it came time to teach my kids about the outdoors, those kinds of facilities weren’t available to me. But I made sure they learned what they needed to and had those kinds of experiences. When my son was young, I bought a boat and took him fishing,” John says. “To this day, there’s a place two streets over from my house that I can’t walk into and get a drink. This is 2022, and I can’t walk in there and get a drink.”

It’s a reality that’s strikingly similar to his wife’s recollections. As a high schooler in Charleroi in the 1970s, she was not permitted to eat inside restaurants; Blacks were refused a seat and received their order in a bag to go. “Technically, they weren’t denying you service, but you’d have to take it somewhere else to eat,” John says.

His father-in-law faced even more blatant racism in the early 1980s, when he met with a group of fellow former mill employees at the local Italian Club. “It was the early ’80s, and the company—business was bad, so they laid off the union guys. But the people who were on salary and were managers were just fired. It worked out that all the guys who were let go were older, so they got together and hired a lawyer from Detroit to fight age discrimination,” John says. “They had one meeting, and the president of the club went up to them and said, ‘You can meet here again, but he’s not getting back in here,’” referring to John’s father-in-law. “This was twenty or thirty men meeting there for two or three hours drinking. I give the other guys a lot of credit, because they took their business elsewhere.”

Blue skies and clear pale green water surround John, dressed in a white shirt with his head covered in a red cloth, as he holds up a nearly clear fish.

John, with a wrapped head to protect himself from the sun, displays a bonefish in the Bahamas.

A Life Outdoors

Even as intensity inside the mill and the injustice outside of it remained present, the outdoors was still a steady constant in John’s life. “You go in the mill, and it’s hot, it’s noisy and dirty. So you need—or at least I do—some adventure in my life,” he says. “When you get in the outdoors, when you go fishing, you never know if you’re going to catch something or not. It’s all unknown, and it’s something you have very little control over. That sense of adventure is what the outdoors is all about for me.”

As a freelance outdoors writer for the Mon Valley section of the Tribune-Review newspaper’s Sunday edition, he captured that sense of adventure for readers for about thirty years. He’s also a past president and current member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. “Doing that for so long, I got to see a lot of kids being introduced to the outdoors—not just fishing, but boating, camping, and hiking.”

One outdoor experience he’ll never forget is a fishing trip in New York on Lake Ontario with his then thirteen-year-old daughter Brandee, which turned out to be a good reminder of the surprises that can come along when they’re least expected. As they were casting their lines, Brandee asked her dad if he would get her fish mounted if she caught a big one. “I thought, ‘What are you going to catch?” so I said, ‘Sure,’” John remembers. “Well, I had to get it mounted, and it’s still hanging on the wall. That was in 1991, and it’s bigger than any fish I’ve ever caught! I still kid her about that to this day.”

A black man in a hat works the bow of large vessel as it heads up a wide river lined with trees.

John Mahn, Jr. during a charter excursion on the Explorer riverboat, 2021.

Working on the Water

In the early 2000s, John returned to his native state and earned his Coast Guard license to run a passenger boat at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy on Cape Cod, where he was once again the only Black student in the class, and this time one of the oldest. That license would come in handy when the mill he worked for closed in 2009, bringing an end to a 35-year career in steel industry management. Before long, he was behind the wheel of Miss Pittsburgh, a 50-foot enclosed pontoon boat, shuttling passengers to sporting events in Pittsburgh. His work with this company ended up taking him far beyond the three rivers. When the owner purchased a new vessel, Fantasy, in 2010, John signed up for what he thought would be a two- or three-week voyage to bring it from New York City via the Hudson, across the Lake Erie Canal, and into Pittsburgh via the Ohio River.

With his bags packed with warm clothes for October weather on northern waterways, John and the rest of the crew were surprised to find out that the Fantasy was too tall to go on the Erie Canal when they arrived in New York. A new plan was devised to bring the boat out to the Atlantic Ocean, heading south to connect into the Intracoastal Waterway. After cutting across Florida on the Okeechobee Canal, Fantasy redirected North to enter the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in Mobile, Alabama. From there, the crew navigated to the Mississippi, and finally to the Ohio River and its destination in Pittsburgh. “That was a long, long trip,” John recalls, noting that Fantasy’s top speed was around ten miles per hour. “We would stop every night, and on Sundays we’d find a Steelers bar wherever we were, and then we’d get on our way. Towards the end, we’d go around the clock and take shifts because it was taking so long.” The crew was flown home for Thanksgiving, and then resumed the voyage. John eventually had to return home by the time the boat had made it to Tennessee, but he was waiting in Pittsburgh to greet his fellow crew when they arrived in Pittsburgh. “That was an adventure, to say the least. That was one of the things that you got into having no idea what is going to happen,” John says. “You think one thing is going to happen, and it’s nothing like that—it was 180 degrees different than what I expected.”

By 2011, John’s fellow captain on Miss Pittsburgh, Curt Graham, let him know that he was getting slammed with hours at his other job piloting the Explorer riverboat for RiverQuest. John didn’t need much convincing to start training on that boat to help his friend out. Sadly, after about six months of training, John was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012. “I took forty-some radiation treatments, and you have to go every day to get your radiation. By the time I got out of those treatments, there was no way I could [also continue training],” John says. When he returned to Explorer later that year in remission, the boat was fully staffed with captains. “I didn’t want to quit, so I decided I’d just take a deckhand position. I was still out on the water.”

More than a decade later, John remains a constant fixture on the Explorer, assisting with deck operations, handling the lines, keeping watch for traffic and obstacles, and working with the rest of the crew to maintain a safe and welcoming environment on the riverboat—even if it does lack a poop deck, to younger passengers’ dismay.

“I love that job,” John says. “I don’t tell [Captain] Ryan, but I would probably do it for nothing.”

Brianna HoranBrianna Horan is the manager of tourism & visitor experience at Rivers of Steel, where she helps groups design customized travel experiences throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. She also lends her considerable writing talents to this blog on occasion and can often be found on the Explorer riverboat, where she manages Rivers of Steel’s public tours and private charter experiences. 

For more stories from our Profiles in Steel series, check out the interview with Ed Parrish, Jr.

Josh Gibson with a crowd of young ballplayers

Community Spotlight—Josh Gibson Foundation

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Josh Gibson with a crowd of young fans. Image from the Josh Gibson Collection of the Rivers of Steel Archives.

Community Spotlight

The Community Spotlight series features the efforts Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations, along with collaborative partnerships, that reflect the diversity and vibrancy of the communities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

Connecting a New Generation to the Negro Leagues and Baseball Great Josh Gibson

In 1972, Josh Gibson became only the second Negro League player ever to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And even though it took the MLB another 42 years to recognize Negro League stats as “Major League,” Gibson’s records stand up as some of the greatest of all time. Gibson, who played for the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, is credited with some of the greatest career numbers of any hitter in the game’s history, with a .365 batting average (second only to Ty Cobb), a .449 on-base percentage, and 1.139 on-base plus slugging percentage. And his .441 batting average in 80 games in 1943 is now the best in baseball history without needing a qualifier.

A black and white photo of men, women and a few children standing in from a plaque decorated with emblishments.

Josh Gibson’s family gathers with representatives of the Baseball Hall of Fame when the baseball legend was inducted into the institution in 1972.

To honor that legacy and to highlight the accomplishments, triumphs, and barriers Gibson experienced in his life, members of the Josh Gibson Foundation set out to create a virtual platform that would educate users about the Pittsburgh legend and the Negro Leagues.

“The whole concept began during the COVID pandemic, when everything became this whole new virtual thing—everything was on Zoom, a lot of kids weren’t in school,” says Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Josh Gibson and executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation. “So we had made a decision to do something educational but also fun—virtually—so it doesn’t have to be something that has to be played in person or in school, and it can reach not only the people in Pittsburgh but also through other cities and the surrounding areas.”

With funding from Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program, the Gibson team linked up with Tea, a creative agency based in Los Angeles, to begin the process of creating a virtual tour, with the final product evolving along the way. The end result is the Josh Gibson Virtual Baseball Game, an app that features trivia questions about the famed player and the Negro Leagues, that is played like a game of ball.

Half a dozen students at desks examine a game on their laptops and a larger screen.

Students who beta tested the app gave feedback and were able to have their questions answered as they interacted with the developers and creators of the virtual game.

The Josh Gibson Foundation

Rooted in the experiences Josh Gibson lived while in Pittsburgh, the foundation in his namesake is dedicated to the improvement of the lives of young people in the city, ensuring that the youth of our communities remember the legacy of Gibson while providing life-skills coaching and educational support.

The organization offers several programs for kids aged 6 – 14, including after-school programs, mentoring partnerships, summer camps, a Business of Sports Academy, and a S.T.E.A.M. program for 8th grade boys in partnership with Pittsburgh Classical Academy.

The current S.T.E.A.M. class was a key focus group as the Virtual Baseball Game was being developed. The kids had an opportunity to test the app while having their questions answered as they interacted with the developers and creators of the game. This direct interaction provided them the insight to understand the software and programming they were using as well as the issues the team faced while creating the app.

“The main goal that we wanted, for middle-school and high school-aged groups, was something to be of course educational, to learn about Josh Gibson, the Negro Leagues, Homestead Grays . . . but we also wanted it to be entertaining,” says Gibson. “Our 8th grade S.T.E.A.M. boys were our testers, and they had some great feedback.”

Gibson noted with laughter some of the things the boys pointed out that the development team hadn’t thought of. “You know how when you go to a Pirates game, or you go to a baseball game, and when somebody’s batting up they have music when they come to the plate. One of the boys was like, how come they don’t have music as they’re coming to the plate? And I had to explain to them, well you know, I know you guys are thinking of today’s times, but you’ve got to think about this history is back in the 1930s and 40s!”

It was important to the team to layer in those teachable moments. “Even though we are going to add some components of today’s era, we still wanted to have that rich tradition of the Negro Leagues era of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s,” continues Gibson.

A student looks at the game on his laptop.

A student interacts with the game on a laptop.

A Sense of Place

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Josh Gibson’s Hall of Fame induction, which Sean Gibson finds fitting for the rolling out of this new game. While the development team is putting the finishing touches on the app, Gibson is brainstorming ways it can be utilized as part of his outreach programs with regional schools.

On the heels of the Centennial Celebration of the founding of the Negro Leagues, Gibson is thrilled to also see other initiatives popping up to honor the legend, including a mural of Josh Gibson on the Voodoo Brewery building in Homestead by Pittsburgh artist Jeremy Raymer that was completed last spring.

“It’s important to us that we work on connecting the community to see and understand the rich history of southwestern Pennsylvania,” he says. “The creation period brought forth a larger learning platform that has reached people that never knew about the Negro Leagues and Josh Gibson. We’re able to teach people not only about the player, but also the landmarks where he played and lived.”

To learn more about the Josh Gibson Foundation, its educational programs, and upcoming events, visit joshgibson.org.

Four people look up at a mural.

Rivers of Steel staff check out the newly painted mural of Josh Gibson in Homestead, July 2021.

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program. The Josh Gibson Foundation is one of six organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2021.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read Gita’s recent article about the digitization of the Donora Historical Society’s collection of glass plate negatives.

Identicaly houses are closely groups in a grid in a black and white photo

Community Spotlight: Glass Plate Negatives Tell a Story in Donora

By Blog

Image: An image from the Bruce Dreisbach Collection of what is now the Cement City Historic District in Donora, PA. Built 1916-1917 as housing for employees at American Steel & Wire’s Donora plant, this community of Prairie-style buildings is noted for the innovative use of poured-in-place concrete construction.

Community Spotlight

The Community Spotlight series features Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations whose work contributes to the vibrancy of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer

Donora Historical Society’s Bruce Dreisbach Collection Opens a Window to Everyday Life in the Early 1900s

It’s safe to say photographer Bruce Dreisbach took his job as quality control technician at the American Steel & Wire Company very seriously. Tasked with recording the daily goings-on at the mill, his love of photography also bled out into his daily life. On and off the job, Dreisbach spent most of his time photographing his surroundings, and a collection of his glass plate negatives now offers one of the most comprehensive glimpses back in time in the region.

“The thing that’s exciting for us is we’re able to tell stories,” says Mark Pawelec, a long-standing volunteer at the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum. “A story sometimes isn’t as good as when you do not have pictures that accompany it, and these do that for us. We can show people exactly how life was like in Donora a hundred years ago . . . whether it was related to the steel mill or some of the different other subjects that we promote.”

Hundreds of workers, mostly whilte and nearly all in dirtied work clothes, pose for a picture in front of what may be an administrative building with a shed full of smokestacks adjacent to it.

American Steel & Wire Workers

When Dreisbach passed away in 1959, his collection of thousands of negatives was passed along to his widow, and a portion of that collection was found in her apartment when she died in 1986. With the help of funding from Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program, Pawelec and the other volunteers who run the Donora Historical Society have steadily been working to have the glass plates digitized and preserved.

Though the process can be painstaking, Pawelec is quick to point out the value in the project.  “It’s really incredible,” notes Pawelec. “We’re so fortunate that somehow somebody had the wherewithal to preserve those glass plate negatives and not sell them. We have different documents, we had different photographs in our collection that kind of show the way life was like in Donora in the early 20th century, but we didn’t have a full collection of photographs, and that’s what these provide us.”

Smoke bellows from at least ten industrial buildings along a river in this historic image.

Captioned “The Wide Mill, Donora, PA.

Years ago, previous museum volunteers who were familiar with a working steel mill did a cursory identification of the negatives to begin sorting them by theme. Over the years, as the museum acquired funding, volunteers have continued to sort the images before taking batches of them to be processed at Bernie’s Photo Center in the Northside. Pawelec calls Bruce Klein, who owns and operates the shop, critical to the success of the project.

“Bruce takes the negatives and handles each one individually. It’s impressive the amount of expertise that he has with the old photographic technology. But more than that, our ability to hand deliver boxes of these plates ensures their safety and allows us to stretch the funding more than if we had to package them and ship them somewhere to be processed. We trust that Bruce will complete our projects with a high degree of quality, and he’s also extremely flexible as we work through the batches.”

The most recent round of funding from the 2021 Mini-Grant, along with Klein’s partnership, has allowed the Historical Society to process 70+ glass plates, nearly the end of the collection, with one exciting addition: digitizing five-foot-long panoramic photos of American Steel & Wire Company.

Panoramic River veiw of the mill and town.

These images of American Steel & Wire’s Steel Mill and Zine Works, along with the neighboring scenery were digitized from five-foot long prints.

Dyno Nobel, an industrial and mining explosives manufacturer, currently occupies the site of the former Donora Zinc Works, with buildings that date to 1915. “After having multiple discussions with Dyno Nobel’s Donora Plant over the past few years, they have graciously loaned us these prints to have scanned,” says Pawelec. “To get any artifacts from the steel mill or Zinc Works is a rarity, so the fact that Dyno Nobel loaned us these photos is a huge get for the Donora Historical Society.”

Hundreds of children reflect a sea of small faces in this historic image.

The Bruce Dreisbach Collection includes images of the community, not just of the mill sites. This image is of children at chrismas visiting the mill for a treat.

This new addition to the museum comes on the heels of the organization’s 75th anniversary, which has been working to preserve Donora’s past since 1946. Though they are most famous for their Smog Museum, the Dreisbach Collection has opened doors for programming and partnerships with the Carnegie Science Center, the Heinz History Center, and the University of Pittsburgh, among others, and has prompted tourism from the tri-state area.

Eight blast furnace stoves and one stack rise up behind a sign that reads "Donora Next to Yours the Best Town in the USA."“Rivers of Steel is thrilled to play a part in the long-term conservation of this wonderful collection of glass plate negatives within the Donora Historical Society’s holdings,” said Ron Baraff, the director of historical resources and facilities for Rivers of Steel. “The story that their collection unveils of life in the mill is a wonderful complement to the rich archival holdings preserved by Rivers of Steel and other area repositories. Partnerships such as these, through our mini-grant program and regional cooperation, allow for all of us to tell, more succinctly, the enduring industrial and cultural history of our region and its legacies’ impact on the nation—and the world.”

Visit the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum website for more information on upcoming tours and presentations and to learn more about the Bruce Dreisbach Collection.

Additional funding for the preservation project has also been provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Washington County Community Foundation, and a generous donor—Steve Acai from Raleigh, North Carolina, who has ties to Donora.

All images provided by the Donoral Historical Society.

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant Program. The Donora Historical Society. is one of six organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2021.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read Gita’s recent article about The Westmoreland Museum of American Art’s latest exhibition, Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance.

Heritage Highlights: Heritage Craft Kits

By Blog
Artist Benjamin Aysan writes his name in italic letters.

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage, from ethnic customs and occupational traditions to new American folk arts and urban cultural practices. Usually passed down from person to person within close-knit communities, these traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing another part of southwestern Pennsylvania’s rich ways of life.

Heritage Craft Kits for the Carnegie Library of Homestead

Jon Engel HeadshotBy Jonathan Engel

So other than the stories about local artists that we share in this forum, how does Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program realize its goals? Especially during 2021, we’ve had to get creative in addressing these core questions: What are our communities’ art traditions? How do we bring them to more people? And how do we use those traditions to improve those people’s lives? With those questions in mind, we look for projects that increase the accessibility of art and seek partners that also value local culture.

The Carnegie Library of Homestead is one such partner. They have always sought to connect our neighbors to the resources they need to explore and express themselves. During the first social distancing period of the pandemic, the library began releasing monthly activity kits, free to anyone. They consisted of art supplies and instructions on how to make a simple craft. They were designed for children, suddenly stuck at home, without the creative outlets that they might otherwise have had access to—or have never had access to.

We’re excited to share that we have collaborated with the Carnegie Library of Homestead to produce a round of kits for them, co-created with local Turkish calligrapher Benjamin Aysan. Free as ever, anyone can pick them up at the library—located at 510 East 10th Avenue, Munhall PA, 15120—and begin creating their own works of handwriting art today. We hope that they bring you joy—and pull you a little bit closer to the rich heritage of one of our many wonderful communities.

Calligraphy Bookmarks with Benjamin Aysan

Benjamin Aysan, a frequent collaborator with Rivers of Steel, has designed our first Heritage Craft Kit. Benjamin is originally from Van, Turkey, and has been a practicing calligrapher for over ten years. Calligraphy has a long history in Turkey, extending at least as far back as the early days of the Ottoman Empire. Practitioners, then and now, decorated mosques with stylized passages from the Quran. Benjamin writes in both Arabic and English, adapting his talents to his new home in Pittsburgh. In this kit, he teaches us how to write our own name on some beautiful bookmarks for all our library favorites. To learn more about Ben, read this brief biography (pdf link).

This craft kit, available at the Carnegie Library of Homestead, contains: a set of calligraphy pens, a pair of scissors, paper, and instructions on how to cut the bookmark and make your letters. The kit is best for children in sixth grade or above, or third to fifth grade with adult accompaniment. You can view and download a PDF of the instructions here, and you can pick up a kit of your own at the Carnegie Library of Homestead at 510 East 10th Avenue, Munhall PA, 15210.

For more information about Benjamin Aysan, read an interview with him from the Heritage Highlight series, published in January, 2021. You can also check out the most recent Heritage Highlight, which features the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center

Community Spotlight: Examining the American Dream through the Lives of Black Americans

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By Gita Michulka, Contributing Writer   |   Image: Stephen Towns in his studio by Jermaine Táron Bell

Community Spotlight

The Community Spotlight series features Rivers of Steel’s partner organizations whose work contributes to the vibrancy of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance exhibition opens at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art

The work of Stephen Towns is a metallic-infused, gold halo-topped bright light shining out of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a way that is both reverent and celebratory, the mixed-media artist elevates laborers and hidden figures from a historical timeline in this exhibition that weaves a connection to current events.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is no stranger to this pull of history on the present day. Pittsburgh and the stretches of land along the three rivers that define the area are well known as a blue-collar region that is deeply ingrained with the history of industry and labor movements. The Westmoreland Museum of American Art’s newest exhibition aims to elevate one aspect of this collective history that shines a light where it isn’t often cast.

Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance, which opens on Sunday, January 30 and remains on view through May 8, features newly created work by the artist, including over 30 new figurative paintings and story quilts. Organized by guest curator Kilolo Luckett in collaboration with Towns, the exhibition examines the American dream through the lives of Black Americans. Using labor as a backdrop, Towns highlights the role African Americans have played in the economy and explores the resilience, resistance, and endurance that have challenged the United States to truly embrace the tenets of its Declaration of Independence.

A Black woman and A black man stand in front of the wall with text labeling the exhibition. He is holding his hands up as he speaks.

Curator Kilolo Luckett and artist Stephen Towns lead a walk though of the exhibition during a press preview on Wednesday, January 26, 2022.

“Much of the work in Declaration & Resistance began when I was quarantining in the spring of 2020. I thought about how I had the privilege to take a step away from my work. When I returned to my studio, I reflected on how I had gained a deeper appreciation for essential workers risking their lives in the midst of a global health crisis. I come from a long line of laborers in Georgia and South Carolina. Prior to being a full-time artist, I also worked many laborious jobs. This show is a testament to my ancestors and also the coworkers I have befriended along the way,” indicated Towns.

Two mixed-media images of coal miners

Two portraits by Stephen Towns from the Coal Miners series, which features six coal miners from West Virginia. The figures are surrounded by black mica to symbolize the mines. The flags represent the miners’ dedication to the American promise of a better life. Ancestral spirits in the form of yellow canaries protect each miner from the toxic conditions and constant threat of injury or death. Stephen Towns (b. 1980), “After the Shift,” 2020, and “Underneath the Mountaintop,” 2020. Oil, acrylic, fabric, buttons, Bristol paper, mica flakes, graphite, glitter, and charcoal on panel, 40 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and De Buck Gallery, New York, NY and a private collection, respectively.

The exhibition expands on the historical narratives of enslaved and free people who toiled under extreme hardships. Through acts of rebellion, courage, guile, and determination, they persevered. They are deftly portrayed here by Towns, whose use of color, pattern, and choice of materials radiates the character of these individuals, reaching beyond the scope of their trials to imbue their triumphs. Towns explores these stories in his painting and quilts, often creating a series of work reflecting a type of industry. Many of the featured artworks depict arduous trades often associated with historic roles, including coal mining and agricultural and domestic labor. However, he has also crafted images that highlight care and nurturing, such as nursing—a theme that the artist felt was important to pursue as he created new works during the COVID-19 pandemic, works that highlight the racial disparities that continue to plague the country.

“This is my most ambitious project yet,” said Towns. “I want this show to be a celebration,” noting how repeated motifs in his work exude this vibrancy. “For me, the butterflies represent spirituality . . . flowers emanate joy.”

A black woman looks at acolorful painting of a black woman.

Curator Kilolo Luckett discusses the leisurely nature of the subject in Stephen Towns painting “Ms. Elsie Henderson,” 2021. Ms. Henderson worked for the Kaufmann family. Luckett noted how you imagine the source image having been taken poolside near the Fallingwater residence. Courtesy of the Artist and De Buck Gallery, New York, NY.

Guest curator Kilolo Luckett is a Pittsburgh-based art historian and curator. She is the founding executive director and chief curator of Alma|Lewis, an experimental, contemporary art platform for critical thinking, dialogue, and creative expression dedicated to Black culture.

“I’m very committed to questions around American patriotism, exceptionalism and labor. I’m also interested in querying the foundations of belonging and access, and unsettle some of the assumptions we have. Through his beautifully imposing quilts and mixed-media paintings, Stephen offers viewers sobering truths and tender stories of Black life that break away from dominant narratives that continue to plague society in the United States of America,” Luckett stated.

Accentuating Towns’s work, an adjoining gallery holds a collection of work by other artists in similar media. Notes Luckett, “It was important to put Stephen in the context of a broader range of artists.” This gallery, titled End of an Illusion, features nearly 30 pieces of art and draws connections between the work of Towns and those who have preceded him. Other artworks include pieces by Thomas Doughty, the first American artist to work exclusively as a landscapist; Master of San Sepolcro’s Angel with Crown of Thorns and Spear, a circa 1330 painting on loan from the Frick Art Museum; a collection of Charles H. “Teenie” Harris images; and work by Joshua Johnson, the earliest African American known to have made a career for himself as an artist.

Stephen Towns (b. 1980), Mary McLeod Bethune, 2021, Natural and synthetic fabric, polyester and cotton thread, crystal glass beads, metal and resin buttons, 43.5 x 64 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and De Buck Gallery, New York, NY.

The Breadth and Depth of American Art

The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, located in Greensburg about 45 minutes east of Pittsburgh, is the only museum dedicated to American Art in western Pennsylvania. Its permanent collection highlights the breadth and depth of American art, with a strong focus on the art and artists of southwestern Pennsylvania.

“At the core of our permanent collection are scenes of industry, highlighting the labor of this region during the big steel era. This exhibition centers the lived experiences and contributions of Black Americans, whose labor built this nation, through beautifully rendered multimedia and textile works. With a shared focus on labor, Stephen’s art connects well to our collection, but more importantly, his works reveal stories that have been largely left untold in American history and in American art. This is why we are so honored to have the opportunity to collaborate with him and Kilolo in presenting Declaration & Resistance and to bring more light to these stories of resilience,” commented Anne Kraybill, The Richard M. Scaife Director / CEO of The Westmoreland.

Declaration & Resistance was funded in part by Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program, which is dedicated to uplifting projects that define our region’s cultural and industrial heritage.

“Funding made possible to present this exhibition shines a light on the importance of the state providing support for these Mini-Grants and the partners like Rivers of Steel who administer them,” says Rhonda Madden, Director of Advancement at the museum.

“The works of Stephen Towns are an absolute treasure—and the exhibition a must-see experience,” adds Carly V. McCoy, director of marketing and communications for Rivers of Steel. “It’s an honor to support a project like this. Rivers of Steel was founded by the desire to preserve the stories and the culture of our region’s workers. The Declaration & Resistance exhibition is presented in that spirit, connecting our present day and with an understanding of the past. Stephen’s work offers viewers a chance to understand his carefully selected subjects in a new way and, in this case, take joy from them.”

“Scenes of industry are well known at The Westmoreland and reflect a key time in our region’s history,” says Madden. “The Stephen Towns exhibition enriches this story and highlights the important contributions of Black laborers.”

Visiting The Westmoreland

The Museum’s operating hours are Wednesday–Sunday from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. General admission to the museum is free with advanced registration. Visit thewestmoreland.org for more information.

Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance will travel to the Boise Art Museum in Boise, Idaho, in the summer of 2022 and to the Reynolda House Museum of Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in winter of 2023.

Visitors to the exhibition will also want to make sure they view the adjacent exhibition, Cultivation: Journey of the Work by quilter Tina Williams Brew, which examines the artist’s 40-year journey of self-discovery, teaching, and linkages to cultures not always found in the history books.

About the Exhibition

Stephen Towns: Declaration & Resistance is generously supported by Eden Hall Foundation; The Heinz Endowments; Hillman Exhibition Fund of The Westmoreland Museum of American Art; Arts, Equity, & Education Fund; National Endowment for the Arts; and De Buck Gallery.

Additional funding was provided in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, Environmental Stewardship Fund, administered by Rivers of Steel.

About the Mini-Grant Program

Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program assists heritage-related sites and organizations as well as municipalities within the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area to develop new and innovative programs, partnerships, exhibits, tours, and other initiatives. Funded projects support heritage tourism, enhance preservation efforts, involve the stewardship of natural resources, encourage outdoor recreation, and include collaborative partnerships. Through these efforts, Rivers of Steel seeks to identify, conserve, promote, and interpret the industrial and cultural heritage that defines southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is one of twelve supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). Funding is provided via DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program and the Environmental Stewardship Fund to Rivers of Steel, which administers the Mini-Grant program. The Westmoreland Museum of American Art is one of six organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2021.

Gita Michulka is a Pittsburgh-based marketing and communications consultant with over 15 years of experience promoting our region’s arts, recreation, and nonprofit assets.  

If you’d like to know more about community projects supported by the Mini-Grant Program, read Gita’s recent article about Center of Life’s collaboration at the Hazelwood Green.

If you’re interested in learning more about Black labor in southwestern Pennsylvania, check out John Hughey & the Legacy of Black Workers at the Carrie Furnaces by Ryan Henderson.