Throughout time, man has asked the question, “Why are we here?” In the Southwestern Pennsylvania area known as the Ligonier Valley, the answer to this question has changed many times over the years but there seems to be a genuine continuity of family, community and work ethic that remains the same in general response to the question.
The earliest settlers came to claim land to work the fields and to grow the town to what it is today--quiet, respectable, and wary of strangers. Uncanny when you think of how many people are planted with only one or at best, two generations of family roots in the ground compared to how many have been here since Pennsylvania was considered the ‘west’ in the 1770’s.
In more recent history evident in the early 20th century, old and new settlers helped to grow this industrialized nation by doing what was necessary. Some were invited to come. Others came because they had no where else to go while they were fleeing tyranny in their home nations. The ‘tired and the poor’ were invited by the nation, but they did not come here, they would not have survived. But in blending their many differences, the Eastern European immigrants who did make their way to this area found a way to stand together with the existing population—in the coal mines and later on the assembly lines that formed the backbone of labor unions in this country. It was never easy and sometimes it came at great cost.
Evidence of the cost appears most prominently between the 20th and 21st centuries. Many workers were lost to tragedies such as the Darr Mine explosion that became one catalyst for change as it accounted for the loss of 239 lives in Rostraver Township on December 19, 1907. Others like my own parents started their journey here but chose to make their way further ‘west’ to Chicago. My father was a Hungarian immigrant who found work here as a demolition expert in the mid-1950’s. My mother, a Southwestern Pennsylvania native born in Canonsburg, met my father near this area. In a way, I was born because of the quiet resolve of the people of this Valley to move forward despite hardships both here and abroad.
Since the Valley remains quiet and steadfast and maintains the frontier look, it is evident that change does not come easy in Southwestern Pennsylvania. An equally compelling fact inherent in the area is that it is hard not to be changed once touched by this Valley. A fact that has not gone unnoticed by some transplants like myself in the 21st century, who still may not know why we are here. We only know that we must be for a time in order to understand something more about ourselves. For this, we must know more about the Valley.
I am grateful for those people here who know the value of our past to our present and remain faithful and on constant vigil to it. People like Anna Toth, a resident of Brownville and a long time advocate of the historical preservation of the Darr Mine explosion as well as the preservation of landmarks and burial sites of those who gave their lives to change. Changes that encompass every thing from insurance made available to the working class to protections granted through improved environmental conditions. The owner of the largest collection of Darr Mine photographic material, Ms. Toth has donated a vast array of information to the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh across from the Mellon Arena to form the exhibit entitled, “The Points in Time-Industrial Revolution of Southwest Pennsylvania”. A noteworthy stop for home grown Pennsylvanians, transplants and visitors alike.
Among her many memories of the mining accident and those workers who continued to immigrate into the area long after improvements were implemented, Miss Toth recounted her belief that my own father had the pleasure of staying at her childhood home. In fact, I recalled visiting a home with my father as a child of about five or six and believe that it is quite possible that my earliest travels to this area was a visit to Miss Toth’s home or to one of the offspring of the Hungarian workers who chose to stay in this country. A copy of an old photograph retrieved from my personal momentos is currently being circulated to see if we can locate the owner of the living room where the photo was taken. Whether I can find the owner or not, it is amazing how many people’s lives this woman and her family has touched. To me, it is even more amazing how a middle-aged woman originally from Chicago like myself can learn so much more about my own family through ties to this area and the history that has been preserved.
Beyond my personal experience, another local home plays a large part in the historical preservation of the explosion and the history of the people who worked here. A Blue Marker of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in Olive Branch Cemetery that commemorates the nation’s second worst mining accident that occurred in Fayette County marks the loss of lives during that tragedy but the Bethlen Homes community remains growing and active. Bethlen Homes, quietly preserved in the confines of a retirement village, was first built as an orphanage in response to the Darr Mine explosion. Its’ walls pay respect to generations of Ligonier Valley residents who have overcome their own adversities and can find rest while under the care of skilled medical personnel, facility managers, and numerous support staff. Some former senior residents made a complete circle of life in the original building. They received refuge from the Darr Mine tragedy as children, and later found themselves in the care of the retirement residence. Just as the building adjusted to different uses, so have the people of this Valley.
I confess, I did not know of the vast historical role of the mining incident to the shaping of the people in the Valley. I would say that initially I was lured by the memory of the mountains in the morning veiled with the shrouds of clouds clinging to the tree tops or, from visiting the area in my youth and laughing at some of the conversations as a result of the Pennsylvania scenery.
“We keep passing signs for ‘Falling Rock’,” said one of my sisters. “When are we going to get there?”
My mother and I gave a blank stare to each other and then laughed as it finally hit her. She laughed then, too. It is all the more funny when you know that both of my sisters are very bright, despite evidence of the contrary based on the preceding comment made on a road trip to visit our grandmother in Canonsburg in the late 1970’s. No. “Falling Rock” is not a town and we will not be getting there any time soon. It is, however, part of the uniqueness of Pennsylvania for those of us who grew up in Midwestern flatlands where the only looming sites are not God made but man made out of concrete and steel. There is a marked difference in that perspective. This perspective is the reality of this seemingly quiet area that has known battle and hardship that has helped to shape this great nation. And so, the people, places and events that allow us to remember it become a grand part of the uniqueness that draws you into the complete experience.
Miss Toth and other community leaders and local historical researchers help us to understand that it is a grand thing not to forget the hard work, tenacity, diligence and the sacrifices of men and women who built this area, especially after centuries of heartbreaking loss. By doing so, we can begin to answer the question of ‘why we came to be here’.
Perhaps this combination of large scale and personal sacrifice is what makes this area so poignant, so alluring and somewhat allusive to someone who has not grown up here. Though you recognize that you cannot completely share in the experience, you can relate to what survives beyond the tragedy, the strife, the blood, sweat and tears. Within this sacrifice, you can sometimes find your own personal touchstone in which one can move on from knowing in part to complete understanding. Perhaps the sacrifice is the allure. Grateful to what has been left behind through centuries of struggle and some great tragedies—the ability to comprehend the impact of resulting love of life and caring for your community.
Ah, the sweet morning clouds clinging to the treetops in the Valley do not reveal the mountain even though we know it exists. But just as the day advances to allow the sun to unveil the quiet strength and power that lay hidden within the morning mist, it is fitting that the process of unwrapping the history of the area further enchants an old stranger in the Valley to approach the quiet and respectable place still wary of strangers until such time that we are strangers no more. Certainly, we are better for it, even though we cannot possibly understand all of the Valley, the mountain that surrounds it or the people that rest at its’ feet.
For more historical information on the general contents of this article, please check the following web sites. Darr Mine http://www.gendisasters.com/data1/pa/mines/jacobscreek-mineexp-dec1907.htm with related links; Bethlen Homes http://www.bethlen.com/ and the Senator John Heinz Museum in Pittsburgh, PA at http://www.pghhistory.org/.
(For a copy of this story, please contact me via email for details.)
Thank you for your lovely comments. If you are not from the PA area, it is easy to make the same mistake that my sister did and misread the 'sign'. It is not "Falling Brook" but "Falling Rock". The area mountains require notice to drivers that there is a hazard of rocks falling onto the street. Coming from the flatlands of Chicago myself, it is something that is not common.