Bookshelf provides descriptions and notices of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects.

Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and its Region

Edited by Joel A. Tarr
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004 (281 pages, cloth, $32.00)

Visitors to Pittsburgh in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were invariably shocked by the ways in which industrial development dominated the landscape. Steel mills sprawled across hundreds of acres along the rivers. Land and waterways were crisscrossed by dozens of bridges, miles of railroad track and pipelines, and a dizzying web of electrical, telegraph, and telephone wires. The city’s rivers ran brown from the toxic chemicals, sewage, and refuse that choked them. Coal mines and coke ovens – and their huge piles of debris and waste – ­punctuated the denuded, muddy hills. After forests were decimated for fuel, the remaining flora and fauna died from the acidic effluents, garbage, and slag that piled up. Street lamps glowed by both night and day to compensate for the smog that blanketed the city in darkness. Residents became accustomed to dramatic displays of Light, color, and sound as mills, foundries, and factories shot jets of flaming gas, black smoke, and steam into the sky. Amidst this churning milieu of capitalism, workers dwelt where they could, in rickety row houses built into the spent hills, often accessible only by steep and winding alleys of stairs, and without sewers or potable water. Today, however, the steel industry that defined Pittsburgh for more than a century is gone. The sky is blue, the rivers flash with fish, and the hillsides have grown verdant and lush. Chronicling this decline and rise is Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region, a collection of ten essays by leading environmental scholars who minutely examine the city’s process of reclamation, as well as how power was used to cause change – or prevent it – and who benefited from environmental initiatives and why. These scholars trace how modern Pittsburgh developed out of a checkered environmental history and how environmental shifts sometime emerge from surprising sources. During the heyday of manufacturing, some Pitts­burghers embraced their sooty sky as a sign of an exceptionally strong work ethic, while their opponents believed that a dirty environment led to low moral character. During the Great Depression, the federal government dispatched WPA crews to seal abandoned mines, temporarily halting the problem of acid leakage, but the impetus was to create jobs for the unemployed, not improve the environment. In the end, Pittsburgh made its largest gains in restoring the environment as the economy shifted from one based on manufacturing to one based on service. The contributors to Devastation and Renewal assert that there is still a long road ahead for reclamation and conservation. They contend that if a lesson may be taken from history, it is that changes will come along circuitous routes as they have before, often springing from self-interest, and obstructed by battles among competing civic groups, regional and national government agencies, individuals, and businesses.


The Fairmount Park Motor Races, 1908-1911

By Michael J. Seneca
McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2003. (228 pages, hardcover, $39.95)

For four years, early in the last century, the Fairmount Park Motor Races were run on an eight-mile course in Philadelphia’s West Fairmount Park. They drew a half-million spectators the first year but, surprisingly, have been overlooked as part of the history of automobile racing, as well as the city’s history. In contrast to other racing events, such as the Vanderbilt Cup, the Fairmount Park Motor races were not marred by serious injuries and not a single death, but after four years of spectacular racing, the event was banned, with safety concerns cited. On the day after the inaugural race, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer proclaimed, “When the history of motor racing in this country is written, much space must be devoted to yesterday’s event,” adding that it was among the most important events in Philadelphia’s history and one that would be remembered forever. However, in a city where so many historic events have taken place, the races were relegated to obscurity – history books make no mention of them and histories of the park have completely ignored its role in early twentieth-century automobile racing. Until now. The Fairmount Park Motor Races, 1908-1911, offers readers an insider’s look at one of the early twentieth-century’s spectacular racing venues, replete with period photographs, records, statistics, and maps. While Philadelphia played host to the most dramatic of sporting events, Philadelphians turned out in droves to see vehicles, such as the Locomobile, Acme, Lozier, Chadwick, Mercer, and Benz, speeding through the picturesque park. Important figures in the history of American motorsports, including Ralph DePalma, George Roberston, and Ray Harroun, thrilled the crowds, estimated to exceed any single day of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition held in Fairmount Park. Fairmount Park was not an easy course, and the drivers risked Life and limb to capture the coveted Founders’ Week Cup, a handsome trophy made by the Bailey, Banks and Biddle Company, a well respected jeweler. Standing three feet tall, the silver trophy, capped with a figure of William Penn and valued at two thousand dollars, went to Roberston in 1908. The author fleshes out the individuals behind the wheels and behind the scenes who helped spawn, popularize and, in one case, doomed the races. While many realized that the venue was among the most scenic road courses of the day – the cars traveled on a winding jom­ney through the picturesque park, past monuments, mansions, and fountains – Dr. J. William White, a member of Philadelphia’s old guard and the Fairmount Park Commission, set about to ban racing in the park. His comments were most telling. “While it is may be a minority, still it is a large minority of drivers in these races who are mentally and morally irresponsible,” he said. “lt is demoralizing to see such type of man exalted as a hero.” White prevailed, and as racing in the park came to an end, the focus of automobile racing moved west. After examining in detail the controversy, as well as the ambitious attempts to revive the race, the author tantalizes readers by wondering how American automobile racing might have developed had the Fairmount Park Motor Races continued as the country’s premier road racing venue. The Fairmount Park Motor Races, 1908-1911, greatly adds to sports, social, and political history of Philadelphia.


Damn Dutch: Pennsylvania Germans at Gettysburg

By David L. Valuska and Christian B. Keller
Stackpole Books, 2004 (236 pages, cloth, $26.95)

Damn Dutch: Pennsylvania Germans at Gettysburg is the first work to highlight the contributions at the July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg by regiments of “Pennsylvania Dutch” – the descendants of eighteenth-century German-speaking immigrants who had developed their own dialect and culture in Pennsylvania – ­and post-1820 German-born immigrants. On the first day of the battle, the Union Army’s 1st Corps, in which many of the Pennsylvania German regiments served, and the half-German 11th Corps, which had five regiments of either variety in it, bought with their blood enough time for the federals to adequately prepare the high ground, a sacrifice that proved critical in the end for the North’s victory. On the second day, they participated in beating back Confederate attacks that threatened to crack the Union defenses on Cemetery Hill and in other strategic locations. The book focuses on the distinctions and tensions between the two groups – at the time lumped together and sometimes referred to as the “Damn Dutch” – and how their ethnic identities shaped their behavior before, during, and after the battle. In his foreword, Don Yoder reiterates that the Penn­sylvania Dutch of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth-century migrations and the emigrants from Ger­man-speaking Central Europe who arrived later, “in the nineteenth century, were not the same, despite their common German ethnic origins, their use of the German language, and in some cases their denomination adherence,” adding that “they did not always get along in America.” The Civil War, America’s first “modern” war, with its military innovations and social tragedies, had profound social, emotional, and psychological effects of both groups. The authors deftly examine the Pennsylvania regiments that included German Americans and those with large Pennsylvania Dutch components, providing an ethnographic analysis never before available. With contributions by Scott Hartwig and Martin Oofele, Damn Dutch employs previously neglected sources, among them German-language newspapers, letters, diaries, and military records of the German­-speaking units, to provide insight into one of the largest American immigrant populations of the nineteenth century.


Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective

By J. Samuel Walker
University of California Press, 2004 (303 pages, cloth, $24.95)

Twenty-five years ago, Hollywood released The China Syn­drome, starring Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas as a television news crew who witness what appears to be a serious accident at a nuclear power plant. In a spectacularly eerie coincidence, on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, less than two weeks after the motion picture’s debut, the worst accident in the history of commercial nuclear power in the United States occurred at Three Mile Island in Middletown, Dauphin County. For five days, amid growing alarm and escalating tension, the residents of central Pennsylvania – and the entire world – followed the efforts of authorities to prevent the crippled plant from spewing dangerous quantities of radiation into the environment. Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective is the first comprehensive account of the causes, context, and consequences of the accident. Written by the historian of the United States Nu­clear Regulatory Commission, the book captures the high human drama surrounding the incident, sets it in the context of the intensely polarized debate over nuclear power in the 1970s, and analyzes the social, technological, and political issues the accident raised. The book also clears misconceptions held to this day about Three Mile Island. The heart of the narrative is a gripping, moment-by-moment account of the accident itself, in which the author brings to life the principals who dealt with the emergency: Joseph M. Hendrie, chairman, and Harold R. Den­ton, director, Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; President Jimmy Carter; Pennsylvania’s Governor Dick Thornburgh and Lieutenant Governor William W. Scranton ID; television commentators John Chancel­lor and Walter Cronkite; National Security Council staffer Jessica Tuchman Matthews; Walter Creitz, president, and John G. Herbein, vice president, Metropolitan Edison Company; Oran K. Henderson, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency; and a cast of thousands, including scien­tists, reporters, local residents, and doomsayers. The author offers enough examples of mistakes – many repeated over and over and over – by the figures involved that the book could have been subtitled A Communications Crisis in Historical Perspective. From the onset of the accident, chaos and confusion reigned, especially among laypersons unfamiliar with nuclear technology and puzzled by its terminology. Three Mile Island looks at the accident’s aftermath in the area, including studies of the long-term health effects of radiation exposure, political fall­out, and the beginning of the end of the nuclear industry in the United States (see “An Interview with Harold Denton – From Chaos to Calm: Remembering the Three Mile Island Crisis” by Kenneth C. Wolensky, Spring 2000; and “Pennsylvania Memo­ries For A New Millennium: ‘Memories of a Crisis’” by Jerry A. Gouse, Summer 2000.)