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Troopers began patrolling Pennsylvania’s highways in 1915

Eighty-eight years ago, in the summer of 1915, the State Highway Department had a problem as automobiles became popular.

Violations of auto driving laws in Southwestern Pennsylvania and throughout the state were widespread, and the department had no means of collecting evidence or prosecuting offenders outside towns that had police departments.

Reckless driving and speeding, driving while intoxicated, and operation with improper or fraudulent licensing were common, and getting worse.

The highway department asked the state police for help in patrolling the state highways. The troopers undertook this new assignment, and the effect was quite beneficial and praised by many state newspapers.

When the state police were organized and placed on duty in 1906, they assumed other types of police duties, and did yeoman service in investigating robberies, apprehending horse thieves and stemming violence, particularly in widespread areas without city or town police departments.

Early on, the organization operated much like a military unit, with all personnel to be available for instantaneous response when necessary. In 1907, the state police commander issued a general order: “To maintain the efficiency of the force, and owning to the fact that married men sleep out of barracks and are not immediately available at all times for service, hereafter any member of the force getting married will be honorably discharged.”

This was later modified to permit a trooper to marry after four years of service.

One of the types of police work in those early days was during a miners’ strike in 1910 in Westmoreland County. Disorder was such that local authorities appealed to the state police for help.

The state police found that their work was seriously impaired by a “mysterious influence emanating from the sheriff of the county.”

It was investigated, and a newspaper story relates the result:

“Sheriff John E. Shields was today arrested on charges of extortion, embezzlement, and perjury … as a climax to the recent investigation into his conduct of the strike of the coal miners of Westmoreland County. … The investigation showed that the sheriff charged the coal companies $1.50 per day for each deputy employed, in addition to their wages. The striking miners, it was shown, were also charged at the same rate for protection.”

The sheriff, it was alleged, had pocketed about $100,000 before his career was checked. His method was to take each miscreant arrested by police, swear him in as a deputy, and let him loose out the back door. The man was retained on the books as being in jail for 30 days, costing the county charges, which the sheriff collected. Also, the sheriff charged both the coal company and strikers for deputies’ services.

There were many other maneuvers with this exploit, the final result of which the sheriff was a guest of prison for two years. A small detail of state police handled peacekeeping chores instead of costly deputies.

This date in history

  • In 1800, educator William McGuffey, whose authorship of readers made him a national figure, was born in Washington County near West Alexander.

  • Sept. 28 in 1852 was the incorporation date for the borough of Jacksonville in Indiana County.

  • The first passenger train from Washington, Pa., that of the Hempfield Railroad, operated in 1857. Other train news on this date: Construction was completed in 1891 of the Turtle Creek Railroad from Stewart Station (Trafford) to Murrysville.

    The Pennsylvania College for Women opened at Pittsburgh in 1879 under Presbyterian auspices.

  • A not unusual occurrence in those days was the 1931 closing of the bank at Slickville (Westmoreland) after heavy withdrawals.

  • In 1946, trolley service in the Pittsburgh area was stopped by a strike.

  • In 1947, a big air show featured the dedication of the relatively short-lived Greensburg city airport at Carbon.

    The end of September has been a busy occasion at times in the past. On Sept. 26, 1925, Pitt Stadium (now torn down) was opened as the Panthers defeated Washington & Lee, 25-0. Sept. 27, 1926, was marked by the groundbreaking for the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. The U.S. Steel-Mellon building at Pittsburgh was topped out on Sept. 29, 1950. And the new Greater Pittsburgh airport was opened Sept. 29, 1992.

    Bad news 100 years ago

    The news today is quite complicated with all the international situations, business problems, sports and athletic complications, a wide variety of other crime, highway and other news.

    In actual effect, it hardly rivals the bad news contained nearly a century ago when the Connellsville newspaper’s two major front-page headlines on Jan. 4, 1904, were:

    “Wage Reduction Announced by H.C. Frick Coke Company” and “Advance in Price of Beer Announced by Brewers Today.”

    The reduction in wages averaged 12.5 percent, and was made necessary, according to the story, by “trade and market conditions.” The effect was widely felt because the Frick firm was by far the major employer in the Connellsville coke fields in Fayette and southern Westmoreland counties.

    It was pointed out that the former wages would be restored when conditions permitted.

    Assessing the impact of the beer price increase was speculative. “Shorter glasses of beer, or big ones with larger collars” were forecast as the result of a 50 cents per barrel increase for “the amber fluid.”

    This was, as the story pointed out, because it would be “impossible to raise the time-honored price of beer from five cents a glass.”

    Lincoln, William Penn highways

    In 1927, a news writer penned, Pennsylvania highways “make easy the access of all who will to the treasures of beauty and scenery, to the forests, the lakes, the rivers, the mountains.

    “Merely to think of the long stretches of perfect surface on … the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30), the William Penn Highway (U.S. 22), and other arteries is to long for the touch of the hand on the steering wheel and the pressure of the foot on the gas.”

    Today, in view of the congestion, construction projects, delays and other problems along these highways, it would be difficult to find a journalist who would make such a statement, particularly in Westmoreland and Allegheny counties.

    Add to that the impending commercial growth and other factors, it might inspire “foot on the brake” as the appropriate description.

    Last public execution

    The last public execution in Westmoreland County, a hanging in 1930, attracted a crowd of between 6,000 and 8,000 to Greensburg, which had a population of just more than 800 at the time.

    The hanging of Joseph Evans, 22, took place on a hill east of town, probably in the area of Urania Avenue, near Laird Street and later Offutt Field. The event was talked about for many years afterward, since history records that it was more a result of animosity toward Evans than sound evidence.

    He was convicted of murdering a man in Derry Township at his trial. That he was rather wild was well established by his prior activities, which included repeated fights; the tarring and feathering of several men, including two married men he found when “cleaning out” a house of ill repute; burning down another such house; and shaving the mane and tail of a Methodist minister’s horse.

    He also “lathered up” the preacher, who was laid up for two weeks as a result.

    At a card game the day before New Year’s Day of 1830, the whiskey-drinking players started a fight with the unpopular Evans as the target.

    A man by the name of Cissler stepped in to try to stop the fight. Evans, wielding a shovel in his defense, hit Cissler and knocked him into an iron kettle. The result was fatal, and Evans was apprehended by the crowd that had gathered.

    Three prominent clergymen from Greensburg were at the hanging, the Revs. Laird, Hacke and Steck. A hymn was sung and Evans spoke from the scaffold to warn the huge crowd against his vices in a calm, resigned way, before he met his death.

    Wedding bell(s)

    The term wedding bells was appropriate for a ceremony performed by the Rev. J.W. Scott in 1880 in Greene County.

    When Belle M. Denny, daughter of Harvey E. Denny, of Jefferson Township, married David P. Bell, her name became Belle Bell.

    One wonders whether she got any kidding about the wedding “Belles.”

    Mini-Vignettes

    A manse next to Chartiers Hill Presbyterian Church in Washington County once played host to a pastor, a Jefferson College graduate by the name of Wilson. He moved to Virginia shortly before his son, Woodrow, who became a United States president, was born.

    When a 1905 fire burned the Overholt distillery at Broadford, near Connellsville, 800,000 gallons of whiskey worth $4 million was lost in the blaze.

    Mary Croghan, born at Pittsburgh in 1827, married a somewhat older Capt. Edward Schenley as his third wife. They departed for England to avoid her father’s wrath. She was the sole surviving child of William Croghan Jr., and inherited a fortune when he died one of the wealthiest men in the city.

    In 1901, a newspaper noted that West Newton had 101 unmarried women over 25 years of age. The paper said it shouldn’t be inferred that the girls are homely or unable to catch a beau. “There is no other town in the county that can boast of so many real pretty girls,” the paper said, “but they are particular as to choice.”

    Capt. Jacob J. Vandergrift was a pioneer in gas line development. His firm laid the first such pipeline of major importance, from Saxonburg in Butler County to Etna in suburban Pittsburgh to serve mills there. Later a steel industry leader, the town of Vandergrift was named for him.

    There were more than 20 millionaires in Uniontown a century ago as a result of the booming coal business.

    Two relatives of George Washington are buried in the Episcopal cemetery at Brownsville, Archibald Washington, a native of Southampton, Va., and John H. Washington, who died in 1818.

    During the Civil War when a threat to Pittsburgh put 10,000 men to work on fortifying the area, boys received 75 cents a day to carry free beer and hard cider to the men.

    The first coal mines at Wilkinsburg in the 1860s were known as “dog” mines, since dogs were used to draw the cars after they were filled with coal by miners from the often quite small mines.

    Although the Pittsburg, Summerville & Clarion Railroad was built in 1903-04, only 18 miles were constructed between the latter two towns of its name.

    Sports history

    Two southwestern Pennsylvania schools played in the first experimental telecasts of football and basketball, both against Fordham University at New York.

    Waynesburg College was the football pioneer, and Pitt in basketball.

    This week marks the anniversary of that football telecast, which Fordham won, 34-7, on Sept. 30, 1939. In that game, Waynesburg’s Bobby Brooks, of Greensburg, scored the first TV touchdown.

    The pioneer basketball event was Feb. 28, 1940, the first game of a Madison Square Garden double-header. Pitt won over the Rams, 57-37, in a season in which they finished 8-9 with such athletes as Sam Milanovich, Larry Paffrath, Mel Port, Ed Raymond and Ed Strall.

    In 1914, Harvard nipped Washington & Jefferson, 10-9, to win top honors in collegiate football. The Prexies lost only that game. This prompted nationally famous sports writer Grantland Rice to pen this poem:

    Where are the magic Big Four gone
    That once ruled East and West?
    That once skimmed all the cream on top
    And crowned the gridiron crest

    That once were the lords of their domain
    With laurel on their brow.
    Are they still monarchs for the realm?
    Where rings the cheering now?

    Ask of the Michigan Aggies;
    Query to the Pittsburgh U.;
    Shoot in a call to Dartmouth Hall
    For that husky Hanover crew;

    Hurry a wire to Carlisle
    And ramble along the slope
    Where W&J has a word to say
    In regard to the conquering dope.


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