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Two people, one dark skinned and one white, crouch down to plant flowers in front of a sign that reads "Community Clean-up and Flower Planting May 22"

Community Spotlight—Brownsville’s Perennial Project

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Youth volunteers help plant flowers in the new Hope Park in Brownsville.

Community Spotlight—Brownsville’s Perennial Project

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

Large groups of flowers are on the ground and in the bed of a truck in a green lot, waiting to be planted. A bridge is seen in the background.

Flowers are delivered to Hope Park.

Redefining a Community Through Art and Education

Before its Big Steel era, Pittsburgh was a center for commerce and transportation. However, it wasn’t the region’s only significant thoroughfare for travel and industry. The town of Brownsville, Pennsylvania, a one-square-mile borough located about 40 miles south of Pittsburgh, rivaled Pittsburgh as an important travel hub. Originally a trading post, Brownsville’s location along the Monongahela River gained importance when it became a stop on the historic National Road, the nation’s first federally funded interstate highway. (Learn more about how to experience it locally through the National Road Heritage Corridor.)

The National Road—today known as U.S. Route 40—connected travelers coming from the East to connect with steamboat and rail travel to the West that occurred between 1811–1837. As Brownsville became a hub for steamboat manufacturing, the borough also developed a high-end downtown business corridor that became a destination for shoppers from Pittsburgh and beyond.

Learn more about Brownsville’s place in history in this video.

“If you go back far enough, Brownsville was the place to be!” says Joe Barantovich, with a laugh. “It was once said that Pittsburgh wouldn’t be anything because it was too close to Brownsville.”

Barantovich grew up in the Brownsville area, then left to pursue a teaching and coaching career in Florida. While he was away, an ebb of industrial jobs led to population decline, shuttered businesses, and vacant lots. Brownsville Borough and adjacent Brownsville Township and West Brownsville shrunk in size from 10,000 residents to a little over 2,000.

Returning to a nearly desolate downtown didn’t sit right with Barantovich. Inspired by a group of high school students who initiated a school project to develop an outdoor performance stage in one of the vacant lots, he decided one day that he wanted to plant some flowers around town.

“I said, ‘I only want to plant some flowers,’ because it was something that I knew that I could do myself,” says Barantovich. “I could pay for it myself, and if nobody else cared, at least when I drove through town, I’d feel better.”

But people around town did care. One day of planting three years ago led to the creation of The Perennial Project, a 501(c)3 founded by Barantovich and run by a small team and a whole lot of community buy-in. Each year, The Perennial Project hosts community beautification events, design workshops, and art installations, and the groundswell of volunteer support the projects attract has not waned.

“It’s really, you know, not about me or my organization,” notes Barantovich. “It’s about all the people in town who love their community. The school district and the borough council and the township supervisors and the local business owners, I mean, everybody just kind of jumped in and started doing a piece.”

The organization is supported by more than a dozen partners, including the Greater Brownsville Chamber of Commerce, the Borough of Brownsville, Fayette County Chamber of Commerce, Go Laurel Highlands, Brownsville Area School District, the Brownsville Free Public Library, the Rotary Club of Brownsville, the Brownsville Sons of Italy, and Pennsylvania American Water, EQT, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Engineering.

Joe Barantovich hands off flowers from the delivery truck.

Hope Park

After a grouping of buildings was condemned and removed last year, an unobscured viewpoint of the Monongahela River from downtown opened up a big opportunity for the group.

“At that point we had a view that we’ve never had before. Or at least not, you know, for a couple hundred years. You could stand in town and actually see the other side of the river. It became a nice piece of ground after those buildings were torn down,” says Barantovich.

Recognizing the work The Perennial Project had already been doing, the Fayette County Commissioners offered to fund a mini master plan for the downtown area using tourism dollars, so the group could find out how the community wanted to utilize the new space and make the area attractive to both residents and visitors alike. After a series of community input sessions, the concept of Hope Park was established.

Barantovich was quickly able to secure funding for the project through grants from Giant Food Stores, EQT Corporation, the National Road Heritage Foundation, and Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program, which only added to the momentum the community had already spurred for the development of the lot.

The goal for Hope Park is to create a public greenspace that will serve as a year-round destination. Once completed, the space will offer active and passive recreation, community gathering, and a strengthened connection to businesses, historic tourist sites, and riverfront amenities.

An exciting key feature of the project is an outdoor movie screen, paired with public art banners, a multipurpose sport and recreation surface, a walkway that will lead visitors throughout, and amenities like new benches, trash receptacles, and a fence.

A green lot with a movie screen, colored walkways and flowers

A rendering of what Hope Park may look like after its completion.

The (Virtual) Rebirth of Union Station

Beyond the work The Perennial Project does to breathe new life into Brownsville, Barantovich has also combined his passion for teaching with the ongoing historical preservation around town, to inspire Brownsville’s youth to join in in groundbreaking ways. Utilizing 3-D scans of historic structures, including the iconic Union Station, students are now creating virtual reality programs that allow a viewer to feel as though they are walking through the station in its heyday.

As he discusses the work that is happening through The Perennial Project and around town, Barantovich is quick to note that what is occurring in Brownsville is more than just revitalization.

“I keep saying ‘revitalization’ is the wrong word, because we’re not bringing back to life what used to be here. You know, the coal mines, the steel mills, the steamboats—that’s all part of the past. What’s happening now in Brownsville is a renaissance.”

A group of local merchants and residents will be hosting the first annual Riverfest in August 2022, where you can check out the progress of Hope Park and other downtown beautification projects. To learn more about The Perennial Project visit brownsvilleperennialproject.org.

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 Perennial Project is one of eight organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2022.

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 Murals of Maxo Vanka.

Photos are courtesy of The Perennial Project.

Post/Industrial Ambassadors

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Industrial relics inside the Henrichshütte Iron and Steel Works in Hattingen, Germany.

Rivers of Steel in the Ruhr Valley

Augie Carlino, president and CEO of Rivers of Steel, shares an overview of the recent visit to Germany’s Ruhr and Emscher Valleys by members of the organization’s staff.

By August R. Carlino

Post/Industrial Ambassadors

Earlier this month, members of Rivers of Steel’s staff embarked on journey to Germany’s Ruhr and Emscher Valley regions, where we were hosted by the LVR-Industriemuseum and the Regional Association of Westphalia-Lippe—two quasi-governmental entities that are responsible for Germany’s industrial and cultural heritage projects.

A small group of people stand in front of a tall glass wall which reveals industrial structures towering behind them.

Rivers of Steel staff tour Jahrhunderthalle Bochum, a former gas power station that is now a state-of-the-art performance space.

This region of Germany is remarkably similar to southwestern Pennsylvania as it was—and still is—the nation’s industrial heartland. Like our region, it saw a change in its industrial economy in the 1970s and ‘80s as global steel production shifted to Eastern Europe and Asia. Unlike our region, however, the German government quickly recognized the value of industrial culture. As a result, it established strategic, planned reuse of the former sites, incorporating the historic structures into their reuse and redevelopment.

A blast furnace, stoves, and some stacks.

Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord is a public park located in Duisburg-Meiderich, Germany. It was designed in 1991 by Latz + Partner, with the intention that it work to heal and understand the industrial past, rather than trying to reject it.

During our trip, we visited about a dozen former industrial sites. Now stripped of their former roles, they have found new postindustrial purposes, operating commercially, culturally, and recreationally. These sites included former steel mills with blast furnaces, coking plants, and coal mines. In addition, we toured industrial communities connected by the Emscher and Ruhr rivers. Like Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania, these communities are connected by a trail system that parallels the rivers and canals of the region. And we stayed in Essen, Germany. Does that sound familiar? It is where the name for the town of Monessen originates—Essen on the Mon!

A sign displaying the industrial culture route through the Ruhr Valley.


A green field and blue skies

Paragliders practice at the Hoheward Landscape Park—the largest slag heap in Europe that is now a recreational space.

Rivers of Steel and these two German agencies are working to develop an international partnership to advance industrial heritage and preservation efforts within the U.S., Germany, and in other countries. As part of this work, Rivers of Steel has been invited to join the International Committee for the Conservation of Industrial Heritage (TICCIH). In addition, Rivers of Steel’s metal arts staff will return to Germany in September to participate in a European metal arts demonstration conference to be held in Berlin.

Over the next weeks and months, Rivers of Steel’s staff will share their takeaways—things we learned and observed during this process. Beyond that, we’ll convey some of what our German partners were able to gain from the exchange with us, as we forge new partnerships via our work in conserving industrial heritage.

August R. CarlinoAugust R. Carlino is the president and CEO of Rivers of Steel. Read his bio.

In this mural, Christ is mounted to the cross and World War I era soldiers menace him with their weapons.

Community Spotlight—The Murals of Maxo Vanka

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Christ on the Battlefield, a mural by Maxo Vanka at the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, PA.

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

A yellowed black and white image of the artist standing on scaffolding reaching up to a mural.

A photograph of Maxo Vanka, paint brushes in hand.

Maxo Vanka: Preserving the Immigrant Experience

If you drive through any one of the small boroughs and towns that sit immediately adjacent to Pittsburgh along its three rivers, you will pass countless churches that dot the neighborhoods like beacons. These churches sprung up as communities were developed by the immigrants who flocked to the region at the height of the industrial revolution, and many have lasted into the century that has followed as permanent mainstays of the Steel City.

One particular church in Millvale, Pennsylvania, is adorned with over twenty-five larger-than-life murals that depict the immigrant experience fused with themes of faith, war, cultural identity, and social justice. The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka (SPMMMV) hopes their conservation efforts will allow these timeless works of art to last into another century at least.

Maxo Vanka was a Croatian-born artist who arrived in the United States in 1934 after fleeing Europe with his Jewish family as the Second World War was looming. He visited Pittsburgh in 1935 as part of a tour around industrial centers of America with writer Louis Adamic. While in town, he produced a number of works that were then shown publicly. Upon seeing the exhibition, Father Zagar, a priest from St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, felt Vanka should be the one to adorn the interior walls of their house of worship. Zagar later connected with Vanka through Adamic and invited him back to St. Nicholas to consider the commission in early 1937.

The Vanka murals were painted during two periods of time in 1937 and 1941, and include images of Mary, Queen of Croatia; the four Evangelists; the Crucifixion and Pieta; an Immigrant Mother Gives Her Sons for American Industry; and Croatians in America, which depicts a priest asking for a shovel—a symbol of labor—to be blessed by Mary. Vanka called these works his “gift to America” and their themes were prominent and pointed and are still relevant today.

A priest on his knees gestures toward a group of five workers. Some hold pickaxes, one holds a lunch pail and another holds a church.

A priest appeals to Mary, seeking a blessing on the shovel—a symbol of labor—one refection of Vanka’s perspective on the immigrant experience in America.

The Conservation

An interest in raising public awareness of the murals’ regional and cultural significance beyond the church community prompted the founding of the SPMMMV in 1991. Their efforts led to a increased community engagement and the start of a successful donation campaign to begin conservation of the murals in 2009.

“A lot of people are really surprised to find out that the murals are water soluble. They aren’t oil—they are something that will come immediately off the walls if you rub too hard,” notes Anna Doering, executive director of the SPMMMV. “They aren’t true fresco because the plaster was dry when they were painted, so you don’t have that embedded pigment.”

The conservation team is led by Rikke Foulke, a fine arts conservator from Foulke Conservation, along with Ana Alba, Patty Buss, Cindy Fiorini, Jessica Keister, Patty Huss West, Cricket Harbek, and Rhonda Wozniak, who have completed twelve of the twenty-five murals to date.

“The really amazing thing,” says Doering, “is that we’ve been working with members of the team since the conservation started, so some members have been with us for now twelve, thirteen years, and are experts on the conservation of these hard-to-conserve murals.”

“The conservators are all accomplished and experts in their own right,” continues Doering. “They do a lot of independent projects and then they come together as a group to do this project,” which, she notes, allows them to accomplish more of the work at a time than if an individual or much smaller team was tasked with the project.

The conservation of the St. Claire and St. Francis murals are supported by a Rivers of Steel Mini-Grant.

Looking Ahead

After the team completed the mural Mary on the Battlefield in 2018, the Society paused to establish a Phase II scope of work for the remaining conservation.

“We don’t typically start conservation if we don’t have the full funding in place to complete the project. We want to make sure that we can keep going once we get started,” says Doering.

In 2021, SPMMMV utilized a Keystone Planning Grant, with support from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Heinz Endowments, to complete a historic structure report on St. Nicholas and to develop the scope, timeline, and cost for Phase II of conservation and lighting.

With these plans in place, the Society is ready to jump back in.

“To kick off this next phase, we sought funding from Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program to do the conservation of the organ loft murals, St. Francis and St. Clare,” Doering says. “Part of the reason that we asked for the support is because it’s kind of a preview for phase two of conservation, and a way to begin reengaging the public with the murals and the work. The ‘before and after’ photos from conservation are dramatic, and it’s something that people can instantly see the positive impact of the conservation and their financial investments.”

Doering happily notes that even after the necessary lull in tangible progress, folks were still eager to help continue the work. The Mini-Grant funding was matched by the generosity of just a small group of individuals, including Vanka’s granddaughter and her husband. Donors included Julia Bubanovich, Christie Clayton and Michael Burkitt, Marya and John Halderman, Janet Kafka, John A. Martine, Melissa McSwigan and Robert Raczka, Jennifer Novotny Mulrooney, Rita Perstac, Julia Royall, and Barb Spelic.

Paint the Town Maxo

With conservation underway once again, Doering and team are looking forward to bigger and more inclusive ways of engaging the public with Vanka’s timeless murals.

May 19th will kick off a new era for the organization. Their Paint the Town Maxo event on that day will serve not only as a fundraiser, but also as a chance for SPMMMV to elevate their educational programming as they expand on the murals’ universal themes of struggle, sacrifice, faith, and hope.

“One of the most exciting things about the event is that attendees will get a sense of our community engagement and outreach,” says Doering. “We’ll be unveiling new commissions on the issues of injustice, justice, the immigrant experience, and motherhood through Gift to America 2.0. It’s a contemporary take on Vanka’s themes, by local artists.”

Gift to America 2.0 features new work by Christiane Dolores, Max Gonzales, Maggie Negrete, and Cue Perry, and is curated by Corey Carrington. The exhibit will highlight local and national industrial history and the immigrant experience.

As she looks ahead at the work to come, Doering is eager not only for restarting the conservation of the nationally significant Vanka murals, but also for renewing relationships with supporters and sparking new public interest, engagement, and investment in the project.

“The murals really are a one-of-a-kind art treasure,” she says. “Conservation is a tested and compelling opportunity to build community interest, appreciation, and accountability for supporting historic preservation and heritage tourism in Pittsburgh and beyond.”

Learn more about the Maxo Vanka murals, Paint the Town Maxo, and Gift to America 2.0 at vankamurals.org.

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 Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka is one of eight organizations who received Mini-Grant funding through this program in 2022.

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 Steel Valley Trail.

Photos are courtesy of The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka.

A black and white image of three strikers pointing across the river at blast furnaces.

May Day & the Legacy of Labor

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Strikers from Local Union 1397 in Homestead point towards the Carrie Blast Furnaces. Image from the Rivers of Steel Archives.

May Day & the Legacy of Labor

In honor of May Day, Interpretive Specialist Ryan Henderson reflected on the origins of the holiday and the impact of labor on our region.

By Ryan Henderson

Understanding May Day

Now that April showers are behind us and May flowers ahead, May Day is here and with it the perfect opportunity to reflect on labor history and the importance of preserving and memorializing that history.

You may be asking, “What does May Day have to do with labor?” Though May Day might conjure up images of twirling ribbons around the maypole to celebrate spring and the coming of summer, the holiday has a different connotation across much of the world. Also known as International Workers’ Day, the holiday celebrates workers, the working class, and the labor movement, and is recognized as a public holiday akin to the American Labor Day in many countries. In France, for example, the day is a national holiday that most people have off; it is well known for coinciding with marches, parades, and protests.

The idea for tying May 1 to the cause of labor was proposed in 1904 by the Second International, a group of Socialist and Labor parties. They intended May Day to serve as a day for demonstrations pushing for an eight-hour workday, in addition to a way to honor the working class and labor movement more generally. The fight for an eight-hour day was one of the major workers’ rights issues of this era, where ten- or even twelve-hour days were the norm.

Rugged looking men, some smiling, pose for the camera, all wearing workwear, with the exception of one guy in a vest and bowler hat.

Workers from the 1880s. Image from the Rivers of Steel Archives.

The Second International chose May 1 as it coincided with the beginning of the 1886 general strike, a push for the eight-hour day that concluded in the infamous Haymarket Affair. This incident—one of the most important days in American labor history—saw a rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago descend into violence and chaos as a bomb was thrown into the path of several policemen attempting to disperse protesters, resulting in several deaths. The ensuing trial and execution of those held to be responsible was and remains controversial, with members of the labor movement of the time insisting that the men convicted were falsely accused and that the bomb had actually been thrown by individuals working for business interests to create a backlash against labor.

While the original May Day was directly linked to these events and the specific goals of labor in the late 19th century, the day has become more generally a day honoring the causes of the working class. As the push for the eight-hour workday was successful in many parts of the world, May Day came to represent a holiday celebrating the labor movement and its accomplishments more generally, while still serving as a day of protest and demonstration.

Workers post with picket signs for a group photo. Most are wearing newsboy caps or fedoras.

United Mine Workers of America. Image from the Rivers of Steel Archives.

The Legacy of the Labor Movement

Though many Americans are not union members or part of organized labor, the contributions of workers’ rights movements to our society today are innumerable, in ways many of us do not often stop to consider. Many workplace protections and laws we take for granted as part of a standard day at work were the result of decades of struggle. Things like the aforementioned eight-hour day, child labor laws, minimum wage, workplace safety laws, and the right to organize only exist today as a result of decades of protest, strikes, demonstration, and lobbying.

Much of the benefits workers enjoy today, such as paid time off, owe a great deal to the labor movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Gaining these protections for future generations was not without a great deal of sacrifice on the part of many activists. Blacklisting, jail time, and serious risk of injury and even death was common. As many owners and business leaders in this period were loath to give up power in the workplace, those fighting for workers’ rights were often met with violence and suppression. The fight for rights in the workplace was often a literal battle, with several instances of armed conflict between industry and labor, whether in the coalfields of West Virginia or here in Pittsburgh. Many owners hired union busters, Pinkertons, various “detective agencies,” or bought off local law enforcement to suppress workers by any means necessary.

While labor conflicts and the resulting upheaval are often overlooked parts of American history, they are nonetheless events of monumental importance that deserve greater honor and recognition.

A walk with text and two exhibit cases with items. The wall text reads "The Battle of Blair Mountain"

Visitors to the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum can learn about the Battle of Blair Mountain. Image courtesy of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.

The (Literal) Fight for Workers’ Rights

Take, for example, the Battle of Blair Mountain, a confrontation with the miners of Logan County, West Virginia on one side and forces including the West Virginia Sheriff’s Department and hired representatives of local coal companies on the other. The battle, which occurred from late August to early September 1921, was the largest uprising in U.S. history and the largest armed conflict in the United States since the end of the Civil War.

Part of the larger Coal Wars of this period, the battle was precipitated by increasingly hostile confrontations between members of the United Mine Workers and agents of mine ownership such as the Baldwin-Felts Detective agency. The miners pushed for greater unionization and resisted the eviction of miners and their families from company towns following retaliatory mass firings of workers who had joined the union.

After these tensions boiled over into a gunfight in the town of Matewan that left several Baldwin-Felts detectives and miners dead, both sides continued to steadily move toward open conflict despite attempts by various figures, such as Mother Jones, to stave off a bloodbath. Eventually a multiday battle took place, resulting in over one hundred deaths. The fighting was incredibly fierce and even saw the use of private planes hired by the coal companies to drop leftover World War I munitions on miners. The miners were forced to surrender, and nearly one thousand of their number were arrested.

While this represented a victory for the coal companies of the time, it paved the way for a new wave of union organizing and tactics, as well as a greater public sympathy for the appalling conditions that miners faced and the severity of the situation in coal country. Eventually, the unions rallied and won major victories in the 1930s, creating larger, stronger, and better organized movements that continued to win further labor protections.

A man in an orange shirts stand above a large crowd in what appears to be a park.

More than 120 people attend the walking tour of Historic Matewan by the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum during the Blair 100 activities. Image courtesy of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.

Though many Americans may not know the story of Blair Mountain, historians are hard at work to preserve its legacy and help to bring the event and struggles in the coal industry into the wider public consciousness. The Battle of Blair Mountain celebrated its centennial in 2021, a weekend marked with marches, speeches, talks, and panels with organizations across the country, including Rivers of Steel.

An old bank building with photos of workers in the windows.

The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum

Visitors to Matewan today can visit the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, which collects, preserves, and interprets the history of Blair Mountain and other similar conflicts. While the Battle of Blair Mountain and the Mine Wars Museum is only one example, there are dozens of museums and organizations working today to memorialize or preserve labor history. Museums looking at the history of specific fields, like the automotive or textile industries or specific events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, can be found all across America, working to elevate the stories of workers’ struggles for rights and fair treatment.

A carved panel depicts the events of July 6, 1892.

Visitors to the Pump House in Munhall can learn about the Battle of Homestead.

Honoring the Everyday Worker

At Rivers of Steel, we believe the memorialization of labor history is an incredibly important part of not only the legacy of the steel and iron industry, but the legacy of the Pittsburgh region.  Many nationally important labor events took place here, such as the Battle of Homestead, which you can learn more about here. Today, visitors can stop by the Pump House to walk the grounds of the battle or come to the Bost Building, where the Amalgamated Union was headquartered during the conflict.

The story of labor, though, is more than just the physical remains of these events. We believe it is important to not merely tell the story of industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, but also to focus on the everyday stories of workers. All too often, the experiences of men and women who worked “regular” jobs are not given equal attention to the experiences of industrial leaders to the detriment of our understanding of the events that shaped American life. While the story of industry as a force moving American life is important, the individual stories upon which that narrative is constructed need to be told as well, with the attendant conflict that was a part of labor in the 20th century likewise included.

About 15 men in dark pants and white shirts joyfully gather with newspapers showing headlines about the end of a strike.

A group assembled at the end of a sixty-day strike. Image from the Rivers of Steel Archives.

To that end Rivers of Steel has, in addition to our historic facilities, worked to preserve a series of materials related to labor in our archives. Union contracts, pamphlets, meeting minutes, newsletters and newspapers, pins, buttons, and ID badges are all there, as are books relating to labor, photographs of strikes and labor conflicts, contemporary newspapers, and even letters and communiqués from events like the Homestead Strike. Rivers of Steel uses some of these materials as the basis for many of our exhibits and programs, but the archive is free and open to the public for research purposes as well, and we encourage interested parties to contact us to set up a time to visit.

In the meantime, however, spare a thought this May Day for the workers who came before us and all they sacrificed so that we might enjoy a safe, fair workplace today, and don’t forget the many struggles that are ongoing to keep these rights into the future.

Ryan HendersonRyan Henderson is an interpretive specialist and grant writer with Rivers of Steel.  You can also catch him giving the occasional tour at the Carrie Blast Furnaces. 

If you liked this reflection, you may want to read article A Home for the Culture of Steel.

A white man with a goatee, glasses, and a bandana over his long hair plays an acoustic guitar standing in front of the glass window of a bar front with patrons gathered in the foreground.

Reawakening: Homestead Live Fridays

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A musician plays at Blue Dust during Homestead Live Fridays in the fall of 2021.

Reawakening: Homestead Live Fridays 2022

By Jordan Snowden

“I feel like when I walk around Homestead; it’s a very special neighborhood. Its legacy of the past echoes through into the present.” Jon Engel, Rivers of Steel’s “on-the-ground guy” who manages many of the forthcoming Homestead Live Fridays’ event logistics, speaks of the former steel mill center with an enthusiasm and passion typically unheard of in non-Homestead natives.

“I have a lot of love for the area and the community that inhabits it and makes it meaningful,” he says. “The Homestead Live Fridays series, as cool as it is, it’s just a very small part of looking at a place like that and going, ‘This has worth and value,’ maybe not necessarily to people who are not of Pittsburgh, of this history, but this has worth to us, and the people who live here, and we have worth to each other, and we gotta stand by each other.”

In left foreground, artworks hang on the wall. To the right a crowd gathers around other colorful artworks.

Event-goers visit the galleries of Kindness, Solidarity, & Design during Homestead Live Fridays.

Homestead Live Fridays is an event series that welcomes newcomers to the neighborhood, letting them in on a secret locals already know—it’s a happening place. Alongside a goal of economic and cultural revival, the upcoming revamped performance series will showcase the small town’s unobserved substance and ample entertainment options that it has to discover.

“People used to think of Homestead as crime-filled, impoverished, and just an all-around bad place to live, work and play,” says Vanessa McCarthy-Johnson, Homestead Borough Manager. “People that actually live here know much better. We have a great community that needs to be highlighted as best as possible. We have new businesses coming in every day, developers creating new housing in various price ranges, and we have great restaurants and nightlife.”

Kicking off May 20 and running monthly through October, Homestead Live Fridays will occur in multiple venues throughout the area’s Eighth Avenue business district, including gastropub Blue Dust, cafes Dorothy Six and Duke’s Upper Deck, and local breweries Voodoo Brewing Co. and Golden Age Brewing Company, among others. Presented by Rivers of Steel and the Steel Valley Enterprise Zone, the event series features local performers, art exhibitions, and activities almost every month from 6:00 – 10:00 p.m.

A crowded street scene during a Homestead First Fridays event.

“This is a huge deal for Homestead,” says Shunta Parms, a Homestead native and current Borough secretary. “A lot of us Homestead natives don’t go to The Waterfront; we hate the train. We look forward to Eighth Avenue for retail, spa, and dining. Homestead Live Fridays will show how rich Homestead is in its history and diversity . . . I appreciate the thought and brainstorming from Rivers of Steel. Homestead is a vibrant, live, and full-of-life kind of town. I’m grateful that others see what I already saw in this hidden gem. That they too can call it home.”

Rivers of Steels represents southwestern Pennsylvania’s eight county-wide National Heritage Area (NHAs), which the National Park Service (NPS) defines as “places where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes.” Yet, while National Heritage Areas fall under NPS, NHAs are large, lived-in landscapes, unlike national parks. Therefore, the spaces need a different type of care and preservation.

“One of the ways that we support Heritage Partners throughout this region is to try to work with them to create exciting things that get people out into the community, out onto main street, walking around to support local businesses,” explains Chris McGinnis, Rivers of Steel’s arts director. “Using the arts is really a mechanism for that. Homestead Live Fridays is essentially a manifestation of that. We’re of course based in Homestead, our offices for Rivers of Steel, but we also have a very close and long-term relationship with this community.”

Passersby engage with the folks from MVI.

To that effect, Rivers of Steel launched an initiative called the Mon Valley Creative Corridor. By collaborating with community partners throughout the region, Rivers of Steel works at the grassroots level to stimulate the economic and cultural development of the Monongahela Valley. Homestead Live Fridays, and Homestead First Fridays before that, has become River of Steel’s flagship move for the Creative Corridor.

“Here is a town, Homestead, where we’re based,” says Engel. “It has this business district that’s underutilized; but the buildings are full of character. It’s a town with profound history and community, which deserves to be recognized. So Live Fridays are our part of a movement to invest in this community—through arts programming, we pull people to the business district and stimulate the community.”

When Live Fridays started in 2019 as Homestead First Fridays—which was intended to be the long-term vision for working with Homestead—Rivers of Steel’s collaboration goal with local businesses and community partners was relatively simple: “Do whatever you want as long as it’s going to draw a crowd; let’s just do it together all on one night.” Rivers of Steel put on art programming in an empty lot in Homestead, 309 East Eighth Avenue, which the organization dubbed the Community Plaza.

A crowd gathers around the Glass Center tent while a solo blacksmith works at a anvil.

Blacksmithing and glassblowing demonstrations were among the activities occurring in the Community Plaza.

“We had art vendors and art performances that created something interesting and visual. It made people feel like an event was happening,” explains Engel. “So other businesses—more than two dozen of them—on or near Eighth Avenue filled in with their own programming. It was pretty successful, but not as focused as what is planned for 2022.”

Then the pandemic hit, and it gave the Homestead First Fridays team a moment to recalibrate, think about the first year, and reflect on what went right and what went wrong. One of the most significant changes was moving the event series from the first Friday of every month.

“There’s a lot of competition for first Fridays in Pittsburgh,” says McGinnis. “Homestead Live Fridays gives us more flexibility. We also wanted to double down on live music; that’s a cornerstone of the series now. It was the easiest route for a lot of partners and organization businesses in town to connect with the program. Not everyone has a roster of artists, but the capacity to host a small band or a solo act is much more doable.”

However, McGinnis emphasizes that Homestead Live Fridays is not solely a live music event series. There will be outdoor art and experiences, workshops, vendors, and numerous other activities that are non-music-related, like outdoor exhibitions.

A crowd gathers around breakdancers on Eighth Avenue.

The inaugural May event, for example, is centered around hip hop, aptly titled “Hip Hop Homestead,” and will include spray can art and breakdancers. The theme stems from Rivers of Steel’s graffiti art program, which pulls inspiration from local graffiti writers, urban explorers, and guerrilla artists—the underground culture found in Carrie Blast Furnaces and other post-industrial sites in Pittsburgh after the steel industry collapsed.

“When all the mills closed and were vacant, people still gravitated to them, including graffiti artists,” says Engel. “What I really appreciate about Rivers of Steel is that they honor that post-industrial era, the art traditions and way of life that could only come about in Pittsburgh, and places like it, that maybe don’t get the attention they deserve. That is to say, we have that historical relationship to this art . . . it just follows naturally to dip into that heritage. They come from our relationships, which ultimately come from our history of the town.”

A woman in an gold skirt and black top waves and black and gold flag and leads a troupe of traveling musicians.

Colonel Eagleburger’s Highstepping Goodtime Band march and play their way down Eighth Avenue in 2019.

Other Homestead Live Fridays themes include Circus on the Street, which will feature circus performers; August’s Skate Park Block Party, where downtown Homestead will be turned into a temporary skate park with food vendors; an ethnic food, music, and dance event called Eighth Avenue International; and finally, closing out the 2022 performance series is October’s Hot Metal Halloween, which will include an aluminum pour and horror movies.

“I’m looking forward to the themed events and hope that part will stick around—Hip Hop Homestead, Circus on the Street, Skate Park Block Party, Eighth Avenue International, and Hot Metal Halloween—best themes ever,” says McCarthy-Johnson. “I love the idea of the arts meshing with local businesses as well. I’m excited about the whole series! This is the year for me to be much more involved and try to see how we as a local government can help make it successful. I want Homestead to see local government and understand that we are here to increase the quality of life in our community.”

Outside revenue and recognition are other vital aspects of Homestead Live Fridays—bringing enthusiasm back to a place steeped in rich history and community. Not only from the people who live there but the people from other areas of the City of Pittsburgh.

Two rocking musicians sing into microphones with colorful art behind them.

“It’s about changing the perceptions of a place, sharing the stories about what is exciting and how you can experience something different,” says McGinnis. “By having public space activated in a positive and creative way it provides opportunities for local residents to recognize value and interest, hopefully in the places that they live, and for those who don’t live there, they recognize these places as forward-thinking and creative communities that are open to doing things differently. So it’s twofold, and all those things have both community and economic implications to them.”

Some financial aspects of Homestead Live Fridays have been alleviated thanks to the help of the Steel Valley Enterprise Zone, a private, nonprofit local development corporation located in Homestead. Working in partnership with Rivers of Steel for the event series, the Steel Valley Enterprise Zone is partially underwriting some of the live music bands and artists set to perform in Homestead.

“I hope this series gets the word out about Homestead and brings in lots of visitors who will check us out, see what we have to offer, and come back to try other things,” says McCarthy-Johnson. “I also would like our residents to appreciate what we have to offer and participate in our events. I also want to showcase how important the history of Homestead is to the residents. Homesteaders are proud of the rich history and culture you find here.  We are a small community who has long memories.”

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.

If you liked this, you can also check out Jordan’s previous story for Rivers of Steel—History, Function, & Artistry: Embracing Architecture.

A Charcuterie board with meats, bread, crackers, cheese, olives, etc.

Chopped: A Charcuterie Trail

By Blog

A charcuterie board, image courtesy of Parma Sausage in the Strip.

Exploring PA in a Tasty Way—Culinary Trails

This week we are excited to shine a spotlight on the Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT) at Chatham University.  The CRAFT team created four culinary trails for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development—trails that highlight the foodways traditions in southwestern Pennsylvania and throughout the Commonwealth. In the article below, guest writer and Program Manager for CRAFT, Cynthia Caul,  offers a taste of the Chopped trail.

By Cynthia Caul, Program Manager, CRAFT at Chatham University

A carved wood pig with a butcher's hat, cleaver, and arm tattoos in front of a stone wall and glass entrance door..

A pig greets shoppers at the Stone House Butcher and Provisions in Farmington, PA.

“Chopped: A Charcuterie Trail” is not just for Foodies

“Foodie” is one of those words that makes me cringe a little each time I hear it. I am personally referred to as a foodie fairly frequently, and it always elicits an awkward laugh with a gentle correction out of me. I am not a foodie, and you don’t need to be one, either, to enjoy Pennsylvania’s Chopped: A Charcuterie Trail.

The trail was first released back in the fall, along with three other culinary trails from the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development, and it was developed by regional culinary historian Mary Miller and by our team at Chatham University’s Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT).

As spring finally emerges, it’s a perfect time to revisit these trails as you plan your long weekend or even just a day trip.

As I mentioned in my first blog when the trails launched, we developed each of these trails with a food systems approach, incorporating a variety of food growers and makers, as well as a diversity of individuals responsible for cultivating our food traditions historically and today. In the same way that we took this holistic approach in selecting the stops along the trails, we also hoped to create experiences that could be enjoyed by an equally inclusive community.

If you just Googled “charcuterie” to figure out what it means, this trail is still for you. Take it from a person who just Googled the word for the very same reason a short few years ago.

And if you didn’t just Google “charcuterie” but were planning to, let me make it easy for you: Google defines charcuterie as “cold cooked meats.” It’s a French word that directly translates to “pork-butcher’s shop” or “cooked pork meats.” Today, it refers to a wide range of cured meat products, many of which you are likely to be familiar with. It does not just entail meats spread on a beautiful tray or wooden boards. It is also that backyard smoked sausage or kielbasa. Personally, my family has been eating kielbasa at almost every special occasion for my entire life, but we never once referred to it as charcuterie.

Two teen girls with pulled back sandy blond hair smile for the camera in front of a horizontal wood paneled wall with special written on chalk boards mounted to it.

Sisters Ryleigh and Remi, whose family is friends with the owner’s family, work at the Hungarian Smokehouse.

So, if you read “charcuterie” and immediately associated it with an inaccessible or esoteric foodie trend, I hope you’re starting to reconsider (and if you already knew what it meant this whole time, I hope you’ll stick with us too).

Charcuterie certainly has been trending lately, but the practice of drying and curing meats dates back to the very first communities in what is known today as Pennsylvania as well as more broadly in North America. Many indigenous communities of this region made and continue to make jerky and are the inventors of pemmican, a mixture of dried meats, berries, seeds, and fat. Historically, this nutritious mix was invaluable to these communities during long winters and was adopted by many European colonizers upon their arrival here for the same reason.

Industrialization in the region throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought migrants from all over Europe and the world who carried with them their own traditions of drying and curing meats. The many who settled near the port in Philadelphia were often able to get imported meats from their countries of origin, maintaining their former food traditions here in the region. However, those who moved to more rural areas to work on railroads or in coal mines often adapted their traditions with ingredients that were readily available to them, creating new regional traditions.

Ham, beef, cheese, and turkey are among the products displayed in this case. Prices are hand-written in blue on the outside of the case.

A selection of meat and cheeses at Silver Star Meats in McKees Rocks, Allegheny County.

Seasonality continued to play a significant role in meat preservation. Farmers often slaughtered their hogs and other animals in the late fall or early winter, as the cold weather made it possible for them to preserve the meat safely. Once preserved, the meat would sustain them through the winter when it was otherwise too cold to cultivate food. Farmers typically had smokehouses in their backyards in addition to smoking shelves in their chimneys. Some of these smokehouses still remain today, and you can see them for yourself as you drive through the Juniata River Valley on the part of the Chopped trail that runs through the central part of the state.

Like the Baked trail, the Chopped trail will give you a full experience of your food, providing an understanding of its history and how it ultimately came to be on your plate, including all of the stages in between. The trail will take you to farms where the animals are raised, meat auctions, supply stores where you can get everything you need to cure your own meats, workshops to teach you how, and places to purchase beautiful handmade trays and boards to serve them on.

The trail provides an opportunity to visit a myriad of local businesses where you can taste and take home a variety of products, including deer and elk jerky, ring bologna, chorizo, kielbasa, soppressata or “soupie,” and so much more.

Specifically, the western part of the trail takes you to neighborhoods and areas within and just beyond Pittsburgh, including the Strip District, Larimer, McKees Rocks, Brookline, Crafton, and the Laurel Mountains. Highlights include:

 

Seven different kinds of wrapped and labeled sausages laid out on a slate board.

A wide variety of authentic Italian pork products are available from Parma Sausage. Images courtesy of Parma Sausage.

Parma Sausage Products, a nearly seventy-year-old, family-owned company specializing in cured Italian meats that operates on the same street where the very first prosciutto was cured in the United States.

 

Three employees in blue aprons stand in front of a white tile wall with a black and white checkered tile border near the ceiling. A meat slicer is visible on the counter behind them.

Mike, Brian, and Linda were working behind the counter at Silver Star on a recent Friday afternoon.

Silver Star Meats where owner Robert Germony is dedicated to preserving the recipes and memories of Pittsburgh’s Polish community, working with the many Polish delis that have closed their doors over the past decades to reproduce their recipes. For hunters, you can also get your own meat processed here.

Las Palmas Carniceria, where you can get both Spanish- and Mexican-style house-made chorizo from their meat counter in the back or tasty chorizo tacos from their stand out front.

 

A painted cinder block building with a rustic wood slat smokehouse out front.

The Hungarian Smokehouse on Route 88 in Carmichaels, Greene County.

Hungarian Smokehouse, where they carry a vast variety of jerky, beef sticks, kielbasa, pickled eggs and vegetables, smoked cheeses, and more.

 

A carved cow is perched above a large sign reading Stone House Butcher and Provisions, Circa 1822." The shop emerges from behind the sign and the road disappears over the ridge on the left side of the frame.

The Stone House Butcher and Provisions offers grass-fed beef from their own farms, along with other products. It is situated on the historic National Road (Route 40) in Fayette County.

Stone House Butcher and Provisions in the scenic Laurel Mountains near Fayette Springs, which includes an inn, restaurant, butcher shop, and barbecue hut.

You can see the full-length trail on the visitPA website.

Whether you consider yourself a foodie or not, plan your trip today. This trail is for all meat-eaters.

And remember to bring a cooler!

About CRAFT

The Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT) works to support robust regional food systems that are equitable, inclusive, and sustainable in Western Pennsylvania and beyond.
CRAFT works with a number of regional partners to develop culinary trails that support economic development particularly in our region’s rural communities.

These trails aim to highlight the rich heritage and food traditions of the region, as well as include the history and culture of all of the area’s historical and current residents. We take this inclusive approach in order to acknowledge, learn, and inform about the fraught and complex history of land ownership and food production in our region and country, recognizing and celebrating the contributions of displaced indigenous and enslaved peoples.

The trails provide regional farms and food businesses with increased markets and promotional opportunities, as well as providing tourists with a deeper understanding of the regional food system and the unique value and history of the food grown and prepared within it.

Cynthia Caul is the program manager for CRAFT at Chatham University and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School for Public and International Affairs, where she studied International Development. Cynthia’s research has focused on food and nutrition security, land access, and the role of agricultural smallholders in an increasingly globalizing economy. She also worked at the Ford Institute for Human Security, conducting research on human rights-based approaches to improving agricultural land access for women farmers and was the 2017 recipient of the Simon Reich Human Security Writing Award. Prior to her current role, Cynthia worked on public health programming in Ghana with the U.S. Peace Corps.

If you’d like to know more about the culinary trails, check out her first post in this series, which features the Baked Trail.

All photos by Rivers of Steel, unless otherwise noted.

A sign along a trail reads "Now entering Steel Valley Trail dot org, almost 10 miles, 100% volunteer maintained"

Community Spotlight—The Steel Valley Trail

By Blog

A sign greets travelers along the Steel Valley Trail.

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

Steel Valley Trail Council Connects Riders to the Region

If you are familiar with the Great Allegheny Passage, you may know that it runs 150 continuous miles from the Point in Downtown Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, where it then links to the C&O Canal Towpath for an additional 184.5-mile trek through to Washington, D.C.

But you might not know that there is a nine-mile section of the trail that travels from Pittsburgh through seven local towns in quick succession—or that this portion of the trail is maintained by the Steel Valley Trail Council. One dedicated board member is working to change what you know about his stretch of the trail.

Roy Bires supports the efforts of the Steel Valley Trail Council, one of several volunteer-led trail chapters of the Regional Trail Corporation (RTC), which acquires, develops, manages, and maintains trail and water corridors within southwestern Pennsylvania. These organizations are each responsible for maintaining a section of the trail and helping the RTC promote opportunities for recreation, volunteerism, education, tourism, economic development, and historic and environmental conservation.

A downhill section of the trail before improvements were made. What was a blind bend now has a clear line of sight after volunteers removed a section of fence and honeysuckle bushes.

“The Great Allegheny Passage trail that runs behind the Waterfront in Homestead was built around 2000, but it wasn’t until 2011 that the trail opened up from McKeesport to the Waterfront, and two years later in 2013 the trail was completed through Sandcastle and past the Keystone Iron and Metal Co.,” notes Bires, who joined the organization just about a decade ago.

“This section of the GAP Trail, from McKeesport to Waterfront, was the next-to-last section of trail to open up between Cumberland and Pittsburgh, and so it is lacking in interpretive signs compared to other older sections of the trail,” he continues.

While working as maintenance supervisor, a role that includes volunteer coordination and weekly site visits to maintain the trail by cutting back grass and brush, trimming trees off of the path, digging out overgrown drains, repairing fences, and cleaning up rock slides, Bires is also working hard to make sure riders know that their organization exists.

With funding from Rivers of Steel’s Mini-Grant Program, Bires is collaborating with graphic designers to finalize a series of signs that amplify a rider’s experience with this historic section of trail.

“Our section of the trail only had two interpretive signs, one that was at the Lock and Dam that is behind Kennywood, and one about Kennywood itself. A couple of years ago during a ride, we were traveling through what used to be the Duquesne Steel Mill, and someone stopped me and said ‘What did this used to be?’ And I was, for a second, like—how could you not know this was the Duquesne steel mill?” Bires notes with laugher. “Then I realized, if you were born after 1980, you would have no clue.”

The Steel Valley Trail Council portion of the GAP Trail begins where the South Side Riverfront Trail ends, at the Keystone Iron property, and runs through West Homestead, Homestead, Munhall, Whitaker, Duquesne, West Mifflin, and into McKeesport. Along with the Duquesne Steel Works, other notable landmarks include the U.S. Steel Homestead Works in the Waterfront, Kennywood Park in West Mifflin, and the National Tube Works in McKeesport.

Bike in Rack parked at the Pump House

A bike parked at the historic Pump House along the trail in Munhall, PA. Photo by Richard Kelly for Rivers of Steel.

But there are lesser-known landmarks that riders have asked to know more about too.

“If you’re biking through the Kennywood area, you’ll notice a green gas line. It’s forty inches in diameter. It runs from the Clairton Coke Works, and it used to go to Homestead. It pumped a byproduct gas of the coke process, which was only maybe 60 percent as efficient as natural gas—but it was free. So Andrew Carnegie piped that in from Clairton all the way to Homestead so he could have free, sort-of natural gas to power his plants,” Bires continues.

“On our trail behind Kennywood there are cement columns about three or four feet high, and I mean there’s probably ninety of them—and people ask, ‘What is that?’ Those columns used to hold the green gas line that went to the Homestead Works. So we’d like to put up an interpretive sign about that.”

Though there is a focus on highlighting the key features of the Steel Valley, including some of the history detailed on their website, the Trail Council also wants to highlight other notable attractions as well. Bires eagerly shares that their trail boasts not one, but two osprey nests and a twenty-five-foot waterfall in Duquesne.

The osprey nests along the trail are just a few miles apart. The first appeared in Duquesne in 2014 and the second in McKeesport shortly thereafter, possibly built by the offspring from the birds at the first nest.


Riders stop along the trail to view the osprey nests. This map shows viewpoints along the trail for birdwatchers.

Nearly ten years after the completion of this section of the trail (and more than twenty years since the Council was incorporated), Bires is still working to raise awareness for the trail. In 2021, he was contacted by Brian Senkowicz, a Boy Scout from BSA Troop 109, about creating a series of engraved markers for the trail as his Eagle Scout project. Senkowicz has since completed carving the signs, and Bires and other Trail Council volunteers have helped to paint them. There will be seven posts installed this summer at the boundary of two municipalities, with two signs on each post with the name of the municipality that the trail crosses.

Boy Scout Brian Senkowicz and other volunteers paint signs that Brian made to identify the various communities on the trail.

“The Mon-Yough Trail Council, a neighboring RTC member, maintains a trail that is, I think, sixteen or seventeen miles long—and it only crosses through two, maybe three towns,” says Bires with a chuckle. “And our trail has all these little communities, so having the chance to create these interpretive signs and markers is a big deal.”

Learn more about Steel Valley Trail Council at steelvalleytrail.org, or check out the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath TrailGuide for comprehensive mile-by-mile trail descriptions, town maps and directories, and itineraries for day trips, weekends, and thru-rides.

Sunset along the trail in Whitaker, 2017.

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 Steel Valley Trail Council 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 restoration of the Ambridge Bicentennial House.

Photos are courtesy of the Steel Valley Trail Council, except where noted. 

A bowl full of decorated pysanky eggs.

Heritage Highlights: The Practice of Pysanky Eggs

By Blog
Image of pysanky eggs created and photographed by Lisa DiStefano-Bauer

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage—from traditional, ethnic customs and industrial arts directly linked to Pittsburgh’s past to new American folk arts and cultural practices emerging from the region’s diverse urban experience. 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.

This month, Heritage Arts Coordinator Jon Engel visited St. Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, just ten minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. In this historic church, which is 118 years old, they practice the centuries-old tradition of Ukrainian egg art. This art is called pysanky, from the phrase meaning “to write.” Jon spoke with members of the congregation about their community, the art of the egg, and the culture and mystical meanings embedded within them.

St. Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Image courtesy of Chris Mills.

St. Peter & St. Paul’s Pysanky Sale

By Jon Engel

One of first things I noticed about Carnegie is the train tracks that divide it. Built during the peak of mill production, they run beside James Street between the diner and the ceramics supply store. Now, they are integrated by concrete overlays into the borough’s road map, part and parcel of the town. Before they were here, Alice O’Neil tells me, this side of Mansfield Boulevard was all housing, torn down when the highway expanded to two lanes. When she was a child, the working people of Carnegie lived there and walked to church.

To her family, that church was St. Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox, which sits now between the Ukrainian-American Citizens’ Club and Holy Virgins Russian Orthodox. Like much of Carnegie at the moment, it is adorned in blue and yellow. The Ukrainian immigrants here came to the mills over a century ago, but have stayed rooted in this place, their culture continuing even as the circumstances around them have changed dramatically. I thought about this as I ate lunch at a local joint, Sunset Pizza, which sits on a historically brick road in the middle of Main Street. The employees chatted idly in Turkish as a Ukrainian flag flapped into my eyeline, pulled into view by the breeze. I finished my meal and made my way to St. Peter & St. Paul.

Cynthia Haluszczak shows an egg featuring the traditional net design—Christ is the fisher of men.

Faith and Family

I was first invited to St. Peter & St. Paul’s church by Michael Kapeluck, the lead organizer of the church’s annual pysanky sale. Each year, a friendly crew of church folk works to produce somewhere between 400 and 500 dyed eggs, which are lovingly decorated with intricate patterns steeped in traditional symbolism. These eggs are sold alongside traditional Ukrainian foods like stuffed cabbage and beet soup on Palm Sunday every year, as they have for decades, echoing the even older tradition of springtime pysanky.

The first pysanky eggs were created by ancient Ukrainians before the arrival of Christianity. Back then, they were sun worshippers who lived by the course of the agricultural seasons. They tended crops and kept animals, most importantly bees and chickens. The winter was a time for mending, housekeeping, reflection, and dreaming of the next year. The practice of pysanky grew from these short, cold days, where the house was lit by candles and hands were more idle. The women of this culture developed a practice of sketching on unused eggs with melted beeswax. They created complex works of metaphor, weaving the imagery of their everyday lives into prayers and fortunes. A sketch of a ram became a symbol of masculine strength, to be given as a blessing to the male head of the household. The pattern of a pine needle, the only plant to survive the snow, became a symbol of life used to conjure a bountiful harvest for the next year. Eggs were created both as charms and simply to beautify, left around living areas or hidden in the rafters of homes.

Christians began to evangelize Ukraine as early as the 800s, eventually leading to the development of many churches, including the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of which St. Peter & St. Paul is part. As the culture shifted to this new faith, pysanky persevered, becoming metaphorically tied to the arrival of spring and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Old symbols shifted meaning and were joined by new ones, like crosses, Christian fish, and tears of the mourning Mary. Still, the process by which the eggs were created remained largely unchanged, even as Ukrainians began moving to the United States during the industrial boom of the late 1800s, when many of the families that now make up St. Peter & St. Paul’s congregation settled in Carnegie.

Many of those who attend the church now learned pysanky from their parents or grandparents, inheritors of family traditions as distinct as Ukraine’s many regions and towns are from one another. However, the annual sale can be traced back to two women. Michael’s mother, Beverly, was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she attended St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Through a series of national events between Orthodox churches, she met St. Peter & St. Paul’s Stephen Kapeluck, whom she married. She moved to Carnegie to live with him and brought St. Michael’s pysanky practice with her. At St. Peter & St. Paul, the priest’s wife, Tillie Beck, was already teaching the traditional art to some of the parish children. Together, Beverly and Tillie organized a series of demonstrations and sales to raise funds for the church. This eventually developed into the annual sale, which has run for more than fifty years, attracting customers and collectors from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.

Most of St. Peter & St. Paul’s current crop of egg-makers learned the craft from others in the church and primarily practice the art to support the annual sale. Across the decades, all have become extremely skilled and passionate, delicate with their tools and close to one another. They joke as they work, egging each other on, gently teasing. Carnegie is a small town, and St. Peter & St. Paul is a small church. Both literally and spiritually, the members are family, praying together for decades, attending events together, intermarrying, dancing the old dances, and making pysanky. Their humor and their affection affirm their work, and the work affirms their community. They are one and the same.

“I personally believe that church begins when you come out of the building,” says Sherri Walewski. “I believe in the community. During COVID, we couldn’t do certain events, so we just did ‘em outside . . . People were still so happy to come and socialize, come and get food. Same thing with the pysanky sale.”

Sherri Walewski and Cynthia Haluszczak make pencil sketches on the eggs.

Making the Eggs

In Ukraine, and even at St. Peter & St. Paul, pysanky styles vary greatly. One of the biggest deviations is the Lemkos tradition, native to the Western Ukrainian region of the same name. As Alice describes to me, this is a tradition of the especially poor, who had no access to the dyes that other regions might have. Her mother’s family replicated this with melted crayons in America. “When they were growing up,” Alice explains, “they didn’t have a lot. They would put the crayons in a pot on the stove and then they would cover them with a lid to melt them. And she would have a straight pin with a little ball on the end. She would put that into a pencil, at the end of an eraser, and she would dip it into the wax and then make the stroke.” This produces white eggs with the design raised from the shell. Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans have used techniques like this to recreate traditional patterns for centuries.

The standard method practiced at St. Peter & St. Paul is similar. Designs are drawn in pencil by the individual artist, or by members Pat Sally and Cynthia Haluszczak. These drawings are used as the base for future lines, which are traced in melted beeswax, just as ancient Ukrainians used. The eggs are then dipped into dyes—traditionally brewed from vegetable material like onion skins and beets—now replaced with chemical colorants like those used for American Easter eggs. The wax solidifies so that when the egg is submerged, the dyes can’t reach the shell beneath and those lines stay white. Colors and shapes are layered over and over through the repetition of this technique, so that the final pattern builds in reverse, ending with the background color.

Tracey Sally chats with Jon Engel as she works.

The pysanky-makers draw their lines with a specialized stylus called a kitska, which consists of a small bowl with a dripping point. Traditionally, kitskas are heated over a candle flame so that they can scoop chunks of wax from the honeycomb and let them melt naturally. However, during my visit, artist Tracey Sally was using an electric kitska that heats itself. Tracey is, in many ways, a modernizer of the pysanky tradition. She married into St. Peter & St. Paul through her husband, Mike Sally, son of Pat, and learned the practice from them. Now she applies contemporary techniques like tie dyes to her eggs and pulls design inspirations from tissue boxes and floral purse interiors. “There are people who will sit down and just plan out their whole egg,” she explains. “I don’t. I have a rough idea of what I want, and then I just go from there. I pull a lot from the tradition too—even a lot of my contemporary designs have some inspiration from the traditions. I’m not Ukrainian, [but] I love Ukrainian culture. Ukrainians are a very unique people. They have a lot of background, and most Ukrainians will carry that with them.”

Mike and Tracey, like the church as a whole, bond over pysanky. “The one time, how many years ago was it?” Mike recalls, “We decided to take a vacation together, and we went up to our family’s camp up near Tionesta. There’s no TV, nothing to do. You can put on the radio, that’s it. We had a potbelly stove to keep us warm, and we sat and we made about five . . . five and a half dozen pysanky in one weekend. We just kept cranking ‘em out. You get tired, go to sleep. You get hungry, make something to eat. Just the middle of the woods, sitting around.”

Michael Kapeluck strips an egg by melting the wax.

When all the color layers are dyed in, the wax lines are “stripped” from the egg, revealing the full, multicolored patterns beneath. This is done by holding the egg over a candle flame so that the wax melts again and can be wiped clean from the shell. Michael Kapeluck and his wife Michele were stripping cartons of freshly made eggs when I sat beside them to chat.

Michael has inherited his mother’s position as point person for the pysanky activities, just as there is someone responsible for organizing the food sale and the monthly clothing donations. Michael has been an artist since he was a child and is a graduate of the studio arts program at Carnegie Mellon. As he tells it, he spent a few years as a modern artist, showing works in local galleries. But he began to find the work hollow. “I just got bored of the art world,” he says. “I think it’s the connection—the kind of internal connection. You’re always trying to reinvent yourself. I feel like the contemporary art world just became about the individual artist—it ceased to have any real roots. It just didn’t have that world connection.”

Some time ago, he began to focus his energies on traditional religious art entirely. Other than the pysanky sale, he works as a professional iconographer, painting various pieces for Eastern Christian churches around the country in continuation of Orthodox aesthetic traditions. “The art form itself is what art used to be before the modern era,” he explains. “There was no difference between art and science. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment and all that started separating all these things into different categories. Science, magic—it all just merges. And that’s what iconography is. It isn’t just a pretty thing to hang on the wall. It serves a function.” That much is surely true of pysanky too, steeped in wishes for good fortune.

A dyed egg in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, halfway through being stripped of its wax.

Michael sighs as he reaches for the next egg from the crate. “Who did a yellow egg?” he says with a touch of dry irony. “Who did a yellow egg?

“Is there a problem with a yellow egg?” I ask.

“It’s hard to take the wax off,” Michael explains. “It scorches because it’s lighter. You get the carbon from the flame on it. It’s a pain in the rear end.”

“That’s why it’s usually best to have a darker color as the last color,” Michele adds.

But of course, this egg was yellow and blue to evoke the Ukrainian flag. I asked: did they know why these colors were chosen to represent the nation? Michael nodded. Blue for the clear skies, yellow for the bountiful grain. The flag stands for the horizons of pastoral Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe.

“The wheat fields,” Michele says wistfully, her eyes fixed on the egg in her hands, “that are all getting destroyed.”

Volunteers in the middle of loading the trucks of donations to Ukraine.

A Long-Held Tradition

Throughout, our conversation was often disrupted by a storm of footsteps thundering out over our heads. Initially, I assumed that the dance group was practicing above us, but I came to learn that their practice space had been filled with boxes—diapers, canned foods, clothes, and medical supplies. St. Peter & St. Paul had collected two moving trucks full of critical needs to aid Ukrainians during the invasion, which were moved by a volunteer team of nonparishioners in the course of an afternoon.

Like the donations drive, the pysanky sale is the work of ordinary people who are extremely dedicated. Tracey is the manager of Carnegie’s Rite-Aid. Alice works at the local Lowe’s. Carnegie is a town of around 8,000 people. St. Peter & St. Paul has around 100 members. Within this community and this art form, each of them has a significant influence over the world—they are the creators of distinct and refined works, their signature choices of color and linework recognizable to each other and their patrons, their capacity for creativity and organization limitless.

Above all else, pysanky eggs represent the changing of the seasons. Nearly all of the traditional symbols—the ancient symbols and the pagan forms—are omens of spring. Birds flock back from their winter migrations. Flowers bloom to collect the morning light. And the sun is everywhere—once a representative of the Ukrainian sun god, now the Christian son of God—either way, warmth, surging back toward the springtime.

The eggs themselves are perhaps the most potent symbol. Each of them contains a literal piece of life (or contained, as some have their yolks blown out through a pinhole poked at the top of the shell so as not to rot). They are ephemeral and delicate and full of potential. They are symbols of birth and rebirth, adorned with many colorful lines that trace their circular bodies. Functionally, these are used to divide the image into sections, but they are also by far the most recurring visual element for deeply spiritual reasons.

“They represent eternity,” Michael notes. “Lines that go on without beginning or end.”

Following that line, we see what the Ukrainians have always known across eons, religions, and nations—inevitably, all things change. All things die. And all things live again.

And still, across it all, the children of the farmlands sit with their needles, drawing lines along their eggs, just as it has been for centuries.

St. Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s annual pysanky sale will take place at their church, 220 Mansfield Boulevard, on Sunday, April 10, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. You can also read more about Michael’s iconography work at archangelicons.com.

Jon Engel HeadshotJon Engel is the Heritage Arts Coordinator for Rivers of Steel and the author of the Heritage Highlights column. Looking to learn more? Check out this recent Heritage Highlight, which features the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center

A twilight image of the Allegheny River from the North Side with one of the yellow three sisters bridges spanning the image with the downtown skyline on the far right.

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