Another newspaper – The Oakland Republican in Oakland, Maryland –  picked up my “Looking Back” column on a monthly basis last week. I’m pretty happy about that because I love researching the stories and writing about them.

For example, I found a story about a man who was called the “Champion Miner of the World” in the 1920’s because of how fast he was at mining coal. I wrote about his story for The Republican, but in researching it, I found out that this man’s son, was a frontline reporter in WWII who won a Pulitzer Prize. He also got his reporting start at another newspaper that carries my column so I had two columns from one idea.

Right now, four newspapers – The Catoctin Banner, The Gettysburg Times, The Cumberland Times-News, and The Oakland Republican – carry my column, though at one time it was four. Even though multiple papers carry the column, I write different columns for each paper. It’s sort of a hybrid between a local column and syndicated column.

It certainly would be easier if I could just publish the same column in multiple newspapers, but I don’t think it would be as fun.

Actually, I wouldn’t mind being able to get another couple newspapers to carry the column, hopefully, in places that I’m not too familiar with. Then I get the joy of discovering of the interesting people, stories, and places in that area.

Here are the links to the newspapers if you want to search them for my Looking Back articles:


1933 Chicago World’s Fair

Chicago_world's_fair,_a_century_of_progress,_expo_poster,_1933,_2Although the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair is the famous one because of all of the innovations introduced during the fair, Chicago hosted it’s second World’s Fair 40 years later. This World’s Fair celebrated the centennial of Chicago’s incorporation and also had it’s share of wonders.

I was introduced to this World’s Fair when a gentlemen I was interviewing told me about his visit there in 1933 when he was 10 years old. After the interview, I went looking for more information about the fair so that I would be able to ask him better questions about the fair.

Here’s a link to a site with some fun information about the fair. Take a look at some of the information there. I would have liked to visit the fair even today.

There were houses of tomorrow, babies in incubators, a giant sky ride, prototype cars, Frank Buck’s Animal Show, and the first all-star baseball game to name a few of the many things. The Hindenburg even put in an appearance one day.

I’ve never been lucky enough to visit a World’s Fair, but they sound like there is so much to see at any of them that you could spend a week there and not see everything.

Viewofhousing1923_1st2nd3rd4thsts  Susan Tassin was hiking with her husband one day along a Pennsylvania trail when they came across stacked cut stones in a large rectangle. Tassin recognized what she was seeing as the foundation of a house. The home was long gone, and the stones were all that remained to mark that someone had once called that out-of-the-way place home.

“I was excited,” Tassin said. “We saw some other hikers and told them what we had found.”

The other hikers didn’t understand the Tassins’ excitement. The hikers pointed out a historical marker that told readers the site had once been more than a place for a single home. An entire home had been located there.

It was all gone, though.

All that was left was a ghost town.

When most people think of ghost towns, they picture dusty streets flanked by false-fronted buildings and tumbleweeds rolling down the streets. Yet, some people say that Pennsylvania has more ghost towns than any other state and most of them are in western Pennsylvania.

“Some of the best ones are out here,” Tassin said.

She should know. She has been fascinated by ghost towns since that first discovery on the trail years ago. She has visited many of them and written a book called Pennsylvania Ghost Towns: Uncovering the Hidden Past (Stackpole Books, 2007).


Ghost (town) stories

Despite being nearly forgotten nowadays, many of these towns have interesting stories to tell.

Wehrum in Indiana County was founded in 1901. It was the home for Lackawanna Coal and Coke Factory miners. At its peak, Wehrum had 250 houses, two churches, a school, a post office, a hotel, a bank, and a company story.

In 1909, a gas explosion in Mine #4 killed 21 miners and injured 12 more. This was roughly about 10 percent of the population. Thus, began the town’s slow decline until in 1934, all that remained of the town was a house, the jail, the school, and the Russian Orthodox Cemetery.

Like Wehrum, many of Western Pennsylvania’s ghost towns were former company towns for coal mining operations. Because coal mines were generally not found near a city, coal companies had to build towns where their employees could live and be close to their jobs.

“When the coal mines went away, so did the towns,” said Delores Columbus, executive director with the Cambria County Conservation and Recreation Authority. She pointed out that when the mine closed in Wehrum, the coal company tore the houses down and used the wood to help build buildings in another coal town.

Hassin added that even if the company didn’t tear down the abandoned buildings, other people might.

“In Whiskey Run, there’s not much there, but if you know what to look for, you can see the wood from the houses in their neighbors’ barns and sheds.”

Whiskey Run in Indiana County is one of the ghost towns with a very colorful history. There are at least three versions of how the town got its name from settlers murdering drunken Indians to a post office that sold untaxed alcohol to bootleggers using the water in the creek for their illegal whiskey.

Whatever the origin for the name, the town quickly developed a reputation as being rough and lawless. Duels and gunfights were not uncommon.

In one story, the Bartino family rented rooms to miners. It seems that many of them were smitten by one of the Bartino’s daughters, Maria.

“Three of the men began arguing one afternoon about who should have the right to court the young lady,” Hassin wrote in her book. “The fight, not surprisingly, escalated into physical violence, with the three men rolling around, punching, kicking, and shouting. Into the mix came a fourth suitor, who arrived with flowers in hand, hoping to see Miss Bartino.”

Then, as might be expected in Whiskey Run, guns were drawn and fired. Three of the miners died on the scene. The fourth was injured and died later from his injuries. Even Bartino was injured in the gunplay.

Not all ghost towns are related to the coal industry, though. Some towns wound up being buried under a man-made lake. This is what happened to Aitch, which is now under Raytown Lake.

Other towns met a different fate.

“Hannah’s Town doesn’t exist anymore because the Indians burned it down,” said Anita Zanke, the library coordinator with the Westmoreland County Historical Society.

The town was the first county seat for Westmoreland County in the late 18th century. The Indians and British soldiers burned the town in 1782. It is now rebuilt as a historical site.

Still other towns might still exist, but it as a shadow of its former glory.

“It’s hard to have a town called a ghost town when people still live there, but they are much smaller towns,” Hassin said.

Iselin is such a place. Founded as a coal town in 1902, Iselin grew quickly to more than 1,000 residents. Housing construction couldn’t keep up with the demand. However, as the demand for coal disappeared so did the population. The mines closed in 1935.

Iselin still exists today as a suburban community where you can still see signs of the former coal town in architecture of some of the older buildings.


The Ghost Town Trail

Cambria and Indiana counties decided to turn interest in ghost towns into a tourist attraction. The two counties developed a 36-mile-long trail along the old railroad line that passes near 10 ghost towns from Saylor Park in Indiana County to Ebensburg in Cambria County.

The trail was first opened in 1994 and gets about 75,000 hikers and bikers annually, according to Columbus.

“This is our 20th year since we first opened in October 1994,” Columbus said.

For more information on the trail, visit: http://www.indianacountyparks.org/trails/gtt/gtt.html.

ribbon_cutting 006As the Confederate Army retreated from Gettysburg, Pa., on July 4, 1863, they encountered Union troops in the area of Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., and a two-day battle ensued in the middle of a thunderstorm that eventually spilled over the Mason-Dixon Line into Maryland.

“It is the only battle fought on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line,” said John Miller, director of the Monterey Pass Battlefield Museum in Blue Ridge Summit.

While lots of books, movies and stories have focused on the importance of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, little light has been shined on how the Confederate Army made its retreat south from the battlefield through enemy troops with weary men. The Battle of Monterey Pass involved about 4,500 men with 1,300 of them winding up as Union prisoners and 43 soldiers being killed, wounded or missing. Major Charles K. Capehart of the 1st West Virginia also earned his Medal of Honor during the battle.

Through the efforts of Miller and other volunteers and supporters, Blue Ridge Summit not has a small museum and a growing area of protected land dedicated to educating the public about the battlefield.

The museum opened last October on 1.25 acres along Route 16 in Blue Ridge Summit. The Monterey Pass Battlefield Museum displays a collection of artifacts related to the Battle of Monterey Pass. It has galleries that look at different aspects of the battle, such as the overall Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania and Washington Township at the time of the battle. Outside the museum is a marker erected by the State of Michigan commemorating the participation of Michigan troops in the battle.

“It is one of only five such markers outside of the state of Michigan,” Miller said.

Most of the uniforms, weapons, pictures, and other artifacts were donated to the museum and the attractive building was built through the hard work of volunteers.

“The purpose of the museum is educate people about the battle,” Miller said, “but it also can set a standard for other community organizations along the retreat route that want to see how they can do it.”

Places like Hagerstown and Falling Waters are among the towns looking at doing something similar in their communities.

Although the museum wasn’t open in time to catch a lot of the tourist traffic in 2014, more than 300 did visit.

“It’s been slow at first, but the number of visitors will grow as more people learn about it,” Miller said.

The Friends of Monterey Pass have been working with tourism councils in the surrounding counties to tie the museum into the counties’ Civil War tourism plans.

When it reopens in April, the Friends of Monterey Pass hope to add 116 acres of land over which the battle was fought to the museum. Miller said that before the museum reopens for the 2015, he hopes to have some additional displays in the museum as well as some interpretive panels for a driving tour of the new piece of land.

For more information

Monterey Pass Battlefield Park

14325 Buchanan Trail East

Waynesboro, PA 17268


Last To Fall CoverIt can be said that the last deaths at the Battle of Gettysburg were two marines who fell from the sky in an airplane in 1922.

Confused? Are you starting to type a comment to tell me that the Battle of Gettysburg was fought in 1863 and there weren’t any marines there?

You would be right on both counts. However, during the first week of July 1922, nearly a quarter of the U.S. Marine Corps re-enacted Pickett’s Charge in a historical way and also using modern equipment, such as tanks and airplanes.

Think about that for a second. There’s a whole sub-genre of science fiction based on alternative history. One of the standards of the genre is Harry Turtledove’s “Guns of the South.” In it, time travelers give the Confederacy Uzis to use in their Civil War battles.

That is fiction, though. This training exercise was like having an alternative history come to life on the battlefield as planes dropped bombs and shot down an observation balloon and tanks rolled across the fields impervious to bullets. And while it may have only been a training exercise, two marines died during the re-enactments.

It’s a little-known and written of event in Gettysburg history, but now you can find out the whole story along with more than 150 pictures in “The Last to Fall: The 1922 March, Battles, & Deaths of U.S. Marines at Gettysburg.” The book will retail for $24.95 when it is released in early April, but you can purchase autographed copies for $20 as a pre-order on my web site.

Marines in action, Gettysburg 1922

The “Sons of Liberty” mini-series premieres this Sunday on the History Channel. I have slowly come around to wanting see it. I think it might be a guilty pleasure because I’m not sure how good it will be as a history show.

The trailer makes it seem like it will be an action epic. While that could be great television, my take is that there was great reluctance to take action among the Founding Fathers. They didn’t want to start a fight with their mother country. They just wanted to live in peace.

Great Britain didn’t make it easy, though. Check out this article on Mental Floss about how much tax some common items would have added to their actual cost. For instance, a hundredweight of foreign coffee had nearly $351 in taxes added to it in order to make it far more expensive than British coffee. It was a way to modify the behavior of the colonists through taxation.

Sound familiar? Our government still continues to do this to us through the IRS and a tax code that is so large that the national debt could probably be paid off if colonial-era taxes had to be paid on the printing of a single copy.

I also notice that the “Sons of Liberty” will feature scenes of the Boston Massacre and the trial of the British soldiers afterwards. I’ll be curious as to how these scenes compare to the same ones in David McCullough’s “John Adams” mini-series. That show had moments of drama, but it focused more on the people of the time and how they created a nation.

It’s nice to see so much history in the movies and on TV, but each new show seems to spark a debate over how much of the history shown is accurate. Sometimes, the complaints can be very nit-picky, such as whether a particular garment was closed with buttons or pegs. Other times, it’s more serious, such as whether a particular historical character actually acted as he or she is portrayed.

Too often, these modern depictions of history are shaped through the lens of current mores. I can only hope that future generations view these films as we view historical films today; entertainment that can’t be taken too seriously.

Take a look at the trailer for “Sons of Liberty.” You might want to watch it, too, to get one view of history.

CanawlersAt a time of war, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was caught in the crossfire between two nations.

Hugh Fitzgerald proudly calls himself a “canawler.” He works on the C&O Canal transporting coal nearly 185 miles between Cumberland, Maryland, and Georgetown. For nine months a year, he and his family live on their canal boat, working hard to get them through the lean winter months.

The year 1862 was a hard year to live on the canal, though. The Civil War was in full swing and the canal, which runs along the Potomac River, marked the border between the Union and Confederacy. To this point, the Confederacy has stayed south of the canal, but now the Confederate Army intends to go on the offensive and take the war into the north.

Not only are the Fitzgeralds’ lives endangered by the increased activity of warring armies and raiders on the canal, but the Fitzgeralds’ secret activity as a stop along the Underground Railroad only endangers their lives all the more.

Then fate takes Hugh away from his family, leaving his wife, Alice, to hold the family together. With the help of her children; Thomas, George and Elizabeth; Tony, an orphan from Cumberland; and David Windover, a disillusioned Confederate soldier, they will face the dangers presented by the war, nature, and the railroad together.

Midwest Book Review called this book, “A powerful, thoughtful and fascinating historical novel, Canawlers documents author James Rada, Jr. as a writer of considerable and deftly expressed storytelling talent.”

Now you can get the Kindle version of Canawlers for limited time for just $1.99. It will introduce you to Fitzgerald family who featured in three novels and a novella about the canal during the Civil War.


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