Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

In reading about our nation’s past, we often forget how different life was for our ancestors. We read about historical figures and movements, but rarely – except in excellent historical novels – do we gain a glimpse into the living environment. We also tend to for­get that there are many past environ­ments, each producing its own style and pace of living.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, industrial boom towns sprouted almost overnight in areas where no communities previously existed. These towns or small cities were, for the most pan, the creations of bankers, industrialists and mining, steel and railroad barons. Often the new towns grew around the site of a particu­lar company’s latest expansion of its in­dustrial capacity.

By quickly reviewing the early history of a steel town during the period of its rapid population and urban growth and by drawing upon material collected from oral history interviews, a glimpse into some aspects of the structures of everyday life in such a community can be gathered. In so doing, a greater ap­preciation for the different quality of life in early twentieth-century industrial boom towns can be attained.

Monessen, located about thirty miles south of Pittsburgh along the eastern bank of the Monongahela River, began as an industrial boom town toward the end of the nineteenth century. In 1894 a consortium of Pitts­burgh capitalists and industrialists had purchased over two hundred acres of nat land running in a narrow strip along the Monongahela. These capitalists and industrialists, who later incorporated themselves as the East Side Land Com­pany, viewed the area as a prime site for future industrial development because it was situated within the Pittsburgh freight zone, near plentiful and relative­ly inexpensive coal, coke and gas supplies, and next to an ample water source and transportation facilities.

In 1897 the East Side Land Company closed a business deal with William H. Donner, the owner of a tin mill compa­ny in Indiana. Donner was looking for a better site for his operations, one close to a cheap and abundant fuel supply. When he saw the advantages of the Monessen site, he quickly decided to lo­cate his mill there. For deciding to do so, the East Side Land Company gave Donner twenty acres of free land and a $10,000 cash bonus. The company was happy to give Donner such a seemingly generous business bargain. Since the East Side Land Company was largely controlled by interests attached to the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, Donner’s decision to locate his tin plant on the company’s land meant that the railroad’s shipping tonnage would rise and bring substantial profits. His deci­sion would also encourage other indus­tries to consider building on company land.

Construction of the tin mill began in 1897, and in the summer of that year the East Side Land Company sponsored a land sale. Settlers began moving into the area, and the town, then taking shape, received its name. M.J. Alexander, the general manager for the land sale, de­vised the name Monessen by combining “Mon” (from Monongahela River) and “essen” (from Essen, Germany. an in­dustrial metropolis along the Rhine River). In September 1898, Monessen was incorporated as a borough.

Donner’s tin plate mill opened pro­duction in the spring of 1898, and new operations were later added. By 1903 the works included twenty-four mills, making it the largest tin plate plant in the nation at that time. Production im­proved greatly, so that by 1923 the plant was able to produce 170,000 boxes of tin plates a month or 2,000,000 boxes a year, while employing 1,600 people and using 95,000 tons of steel annually.

Soon after the erection of the tin plate mill in 1897-98, several industrial firms quickly followed Donner’s lead. Estab­lished in rapid succession were the Monessen Foundry and Machine Com­pany, the Carnegie Steel Hoop Mill, Page Steel and Wire Company, and by far the largest firm, the Pittsburgh Steel Company, with its subsidiary, the Pitts­burgh Steel Products Company. By the early 1920s, these major firms, with sev­eral other smaller businesses such as the Monessen Box Company, Motz Lumber Company, Westmoreland Lumber Company and the Monessen Laundry and Cleaning Company, employed ap­proximately 6,000 workers with a ca­pacity to employ 8,000 when in full pro­duction. The city’s working population consisted primarily of semi-skilled and unskilled steelworkers who manufac­tured the city’s main products of tin plate, fence, tubes, rails and wire.

Between 1898 and 1920 Monessen was transformed from an insignificant rural area into a bustling industrial center. By the early 1920s it was the leading city in Westmoreland County in terms of the value of its products, the number of workers employed and the amount of capital invested in industry. Remark­ably, Monessen ranked fourteenth among cities in the state in terms of capital invested.

Accompanying this fast-paced in­dustrialization between 1898-1920, was a swift influx of people. These set­tlers were attracted to the city by the availability of jobs at the massive com­plex of industrial plants which stretched along approximately two and one-half miles of the river front.

The years of settlement up to 1910 were explosive. In 1898 there were prob­ably two hundred people in the Mones­sen area, but only two years later, there were 2,197. After ten more years, Mon­essen’s population had reached 11,775. Over the next decade, Monessen’s popu­lation grew by a remarkable sixty per­cent to over 18,000, and by the early 1920s the city’s population went over 20,000. With such a substantial popula­tion, Monessen dropped its borough status and incorporated as a Third Class City in 1921. In the mid L920s, respond­ing to the need for additional land for a growing and progressive community, the city doubled its area from 650 to 1,300 acres with the annexation of such adjacent mini-communities as Wireton, Dutchtown and Essen, as well as other small sections of Rostraver Township.

Monessen’s populace came from di­verse backgrounds. There were native Pennsylvanians from English, Irish, Scotch-Irish and German backgrounds who comprised about thirty percent of the working population. In general, they held the better-paying skilled and supervisory jobs and controlled most of the city’s political offices up to the 1930s. The majority of Monessen’s pop­ulation during the early twentieth cen­tury, however, consisted of immigrants and second-generation eastern and southern Europeans. Like in other in­dustrial towns in America’s northeast, the impact of the huge wave of immigra­tion to America during the late nine­teenth and early twentieth centuries was quite evident.

In 1910, the foreign-born, primarily Italians and eastern Europeans, repre­sented approximately forty-six percent of the city’s inhabitants. This figure rose to seventy-two percent when their American-born sons and daughters were added. By 1920 the immigrants ac­counted for only thirty-five percent of the city’s population, but when counting their sons and daughters, that figure more than doubled. Among these peo­ple, Italians, Slovaks, Poles, Croatians, Hungarians, Greeks, Ukrainians and Finns were the major ethnic groups. Al­though blacks would later become one of the more important groups in the city, in 1920 they accounted for only three percent of the population.

The large heterogeneous immigrant population affected the daily work and social routines in the city. Interpreters were needed to cut across the various language barriers both on the job and in the neighborhoods. Moreover, language diversity promoted the creation of eth­nic enclaves. Joseph Barton, the son of a Maryland-born black migrant to Mon­essen, remembered that hand signals were sometimes used by workers in the mill as a way of communication be­tween blacks and European immigrants. John La Forte, Sr., and John Czelen re­called that their immigrant fathers, who came to Monessen very early in the twentieth century, frequently acted as interpreters for the more recent immigrants to the city and occasionally be­tween different immigrant groups. One of the first people born in Monessen, Dr. Joseph Dudas, Sr., recalled how he and his family were involved with the constant flux of people coming into and leaving Monessen at this time:

There was a police station which was at the corner of 4th and Donner. And we lived right around the corner … They (the police) knew us down here, and how many times, one of us kids would act as interpreter down there in police court. You know for somebody that was Slovak or some origin was in trouble and they would call us for inter­preters, and these people, when they came to town, had nobody to come to … They (police and other people) told them to come to Dudas’, and then we got them jobs. Maybe some of these people stay at our place for two or three days. Sometimes we had a crowd of kids, sometimes it was a man and wife, and sometimes it was girls, or it might have been men. So our house was like the stopover station. Oh, what a life! It was inconvenient, but it was beautiful.

With the rapidly rising population and swift industrialization, con­tinuous housing and street construction, the establishment of stores, theaters and other places of entertainment, in many ways Monessen was an exciting place to live. For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the city, H. Dallas McCabe, an engineer for the East Side Land Company who had led the survey­ing team that laid out the city, wrote of these early years in the city’s his­tory: “We had a bully time.”

A visitor to Monessen at the end of June 1899 described the city as a “veri­table Klondike.” Jobs were readily available, prices were reasonable and real estate values regularly jumped up­ward. In 1904 one Italian immigrant was able to sell his half-acre lot for the then unheard of price of $6,000. In an eight-week period in 1906, one real es­tate agency, Newcomer & Wolf, sold over $100,000 of property in Monessen. The thirteen hotels in the city enjoyed a thriving lodging and restaurant busi­ness.

This was a period of pride in the city’s growth and optimism ran high about the future. AL the city’s fourth annual Board of Trade banquet in January 1914, Col. James Schoonmaker, vice­-president of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, member of the East Side Land Company and one of the founders of Monessen, pronounced, “I challenge the world to produce a town that in fif­teen years has made the progress and de­velopment Monessen has. To rise from a farm and wasteland, to a modern little city in this length of time is indeed a challenge to the world. I fill with pride, and swell out my chest when I speak of Monessen.”

Another typical pronouncement from Monessen’s early years is this 1903 quote from the Daily Independent: “Monessen is now the undisputed queen of the Monongahela Valley and her greatness is but in its infancy. All the vast industries now here and in full and constant operation, are not only perma­nent but are backed by unlimited capital in charge of men who are not surpassed anywhere for experience and expertness in their business nor for broad and liber­al views in public matters.” With a bright future envisioned, city leader Goodlow H. Thomas, in the commemo­rative book for Monessen’s twenty-fifth anniversary (1923), predicted Monessen would have a population of 40-50,000 by 1948.

Many of the city’s older citizens re­called their early years as stimulating and entertaining. The Monessen Opera House opened on December 7, 1904 with the popular play, Captain Barring­ton. Tickets sold for twenty-five, thirty­-five, fifty and seventy-five cents. The Star Theatre, built and controlled by William A. McShaffrey, the vaudeville­-promotion mogul of the Monongahela Valley, featured high-quality vaudeville acts and most tickets sold for only a dime. Both entertainment centers at­tracted overflow crowds.

City residents enjoyed the dances of the era: the cakewalk, the round waltz and the two-step. The Louhi Band, a prominent local Finnish musical organ­ization, regularly delighted city resi­dents with its concerts in streets, churches and parks. Monessenites also enjoyed drinking Perfecto Beer sold by the Monessen Brewery Company. With a simple phone call to the brewery, Mo­nessenites could have Perfecto Beer de­livered to their door.

Since Monessen was then a young and bustling town, there were many aspects or daily life which were less structured in nature. Consequently, the general at­mosphere in town was loose and infor­mal; and at times, could also be chaotic and frantic.

For job seekers there often was no need to go through the screening of a personnel department. Steve Zoretich, a second-generation Croatian, recalled that all his immigrant father needed to do co obtain his job was stand outside the mill gate in the morning and wait with other men until the bosses of the different departments came out and selected workers.

Other residents of Monessen recalled that it was relatively easy for them and their relatives to obtain lodging at a boarding house. These boarding places often housed as many as six to ten men who normally had to share their beds between work shifts. An immigrant woman, or boarding house “mother,” usually cooked meals for these men and washed their clothes for a small charge.

Because the population grew rapidly, the demand for housing was ever in­creasing, and the city itself expanded so quickly with marginal planning, there were shortfalls in schools. buildings, sewers, streets and other city services. For example, neighborhoods were es­tablished before many streets could be paved. This was such a common occur­rence that Monessen was then nick­named “Mudessen.” Rose Popovich re­called there was a time when, “Mones­sen was nothing but hills and gutters and what not. We didn’t have streets.” Lester W. Hunter described what condi­tions were like for pedestrians:

There weren’t many cars and they had, instead of streets, it was dirt roads. And instead of having sidewalks, they had boardwalks. Down in the park, there was a boardwalk down there, and they used to have a lot of steps made out of wood. I used to get stuck in the mud. I used to get a bath three or four times a day. I would go out and get stuck in the mud and they would pull me out. Shoes and all would come off. They would take me in and wash me and I would go out again.

And for those who did not travel by foot, transportation required combining the newly invented, primitive automo­bile with the centuries-old method of traveling by horse and buggy or car­riage. Lester Hunter also remembered:

Well, they didn’t have roads. People didn’t have cars. A car was a luxury in that time. But we (his family) had the first car with an electric starter. They had it advertised, the car without a crank! Most cars you had to wind up by hand. A lot of cars didn’t have electric headlights. They had presto lights. Those little presto light tanks on the running board. And if you wanted your lights, you had to stop your car and open the door and turn the key on. You had a valve there and light the head­lights. A lot of them had kerosene tail­lights. They had kerosene that you had to light with a match. And if you trav­eled by horse and buggy, it was kerosene that you put on your buggy. We used to get our groceries in the winter time with a sleigh, a horse and sleigh. That’s right, when I was a kid, sure, up till about 1920 … A guy used to come here rid­ing on his horse and get his groceries and take off. They used to come in bug­gies.

This “rough edge” to life in Mones­sen was further exacerbated by a pre­dominantly male population and by dense living arrangements. In the period 1900-1920, the city’s population was mostly male (males made up sixty per­cent of the populace in 1910 and fifty-­five percent in 1920). This “maleness” of the city encouraged a more rough­-and-tumble environment.

Crowded housing conditions were ag­gravated by the availability of only 1,435 dwelling units for the 2,203 fami­lies in the city in 1910. Though these conditions were somewhat relieved by 1920, crowded housing was still consid­erable, especially between 1900 and 1915. This situation forced the use of boarding houses and created some un­due domestic pressures in some homes. Monessen old-timer Nick Mahalko de­scribed the kinds of pressures that ex­isted for large families.

The families are very close knit. But like I told you, [because of the number of children] there couldn’t be too much attention given to each child. They were all close knit. Everybody enjoyed one another. And, of course, we got into our hassles . … And it would be like it’s all quiet on the western front on a hot sum­mer afternoon. And all at once some­body done something wrong, and then all hell would break loose . .. because so many children and each one had trouble and they had 10 work around each one. Then and if one got sick, the whole fam­ily would get sick.

Since Monessen was a newly-born community experiencing fast and heterogeneous population growth and was pressured by increasing demands for housing and municipal services, it took time for the city to stabilize and for a system of law and order to be estab­lished. The front page of the Monessen Daily Independent, especially before 1915, was frequently filled with stories of some form of municipal chaos, such as rock and mud slides, explosions, neighborhood fights and brawls, rob­beries, burglaries, and even occasional killings. Borrowing from the expres­sion, the “Wild West,” John La Forte, Sr., described Monessen as the “Wild East.” By reviewing a few of these inci­dents, the general character of the vio­lence and disorder that plagued the city becomes evident.

Near the end of June 1903, several persons on Fourth Street were involved in a brawl in which hatchets and knives were used. A month later, a Mrs. Peter­son was wounded in the face by a shot­gun blast while picking berries with her two daughters on the outskirts of town. Her assailant was unknown. In the late winter and early spring of 1904 a rash of burglaries occurred in the downtown area and on McKee Avenue. On the evening of December 7, 1907, a storage tank of the Monessen Water Company was dynamited by alleged enemies of the company. The tank, which was on a hill overlooking the then McMahan section of Monessen, was demolished by the ex­plosion, letting loose a hundred thous­and gallons of water which damaged property below. That same night five men were arrested after a fight in a boarding house during which one Greek immigrant received a serious knife wound. Five days later a gas explosion partially wrecked the home of mailman George Meiser. About six weeks later, at the end of January 1908, another gas explosion badly damaged the newly­-constructed business building with up­per-level apartments owned by Michael Badzik. In July 1912, employees were forced to nee for their lives when an am­monia rank burst at the Independent Brewing Company.

Immigrants and workers were the pre­dominant victims of the violence and disorder. Joseph Nicoletti, * an Italian immigrant who worked at Pittsburgh Steel, remembered that two foremen were shot to death, one in the street and another at his home. Nicoletti also claimed that many city residents at this time carried guns for protection. At the boarding house where he stayed with from six to eight other men between 1910 and 1915, Nicoletti remembered that “they all had their little gun, .32 (caliber) or .38 (caliber), under the cush­ion.”

While there was trouble with the “Black Hand,” the mafia of that time, most of the murders Nicoletti remem­bered were due to jealousies between men over women. (Perhaps the pre­dominantly male population at this time heightened the sense of competition among men for female companionship.) John Capuano’s immigrant father, on the other hand, traveled back to Italy because of “Black Hand” threats and only later returned to Monessen to sell his store. Capuano mentioned his father’s fears of extortion:

My father was scared. Because he was doing pretty good as far as his business was concerned, and that time they called them Black Hands … And they were after you to get money all the time, and he had to pay so much all the time to those people. So he got disgusted with that and took us back [to Italy] at that time (around 1910). And he came back again to sell his property.

Harry Lawrence * recalled that his father was nearly a victim of violence on several occasions. Local moonshiners and other common criminals for some reason thought his father, a doctor, was an Internal Revenue Officer. On one oc­casion a bomb, planted just outside their home, failed to explode; another, this one placed in the yard, detonated prematurely and injured the man who had planted it. His father had also been shot at while in one of the rougher neighborhoods. Lawrence claimed that his father “always carried a gun with him.”

While these incidents certainly were not indicative of the experiences of the vast majority of Monessenites, they are suggestive of the frequency and kinds of disorder and violence that af­fected the temper of the community dur­ing its first twenty years. It is noteworthy that these serious events were occurring with such frequency in a city the size of Monessen.

Perhaps one of the best summary de­scriptions and analyses of Monessen during this period was delivered by H. Dallas McCabe. In a speech before the city Board of Trade in April 1910, McCabe offered these remarks about the general image of the city and its cur­rent problems:

Monessen is like an overgrown schoolboy who has not yet learned to keep his face clean – big, uncouth, gawky, a bit unkempt, but vibrant with health and strength and with a keen zest in the life of the future. The parallel be­tween the schoolboy and our town is not all unfair for Monessen has undoubted­ly made some of the fast growth mis­takes of the same nature as those com­mon to the fast-growing towns of the West. It is part of the price we pay for civic ignorance, individual commercial­ism and unbounded prosperity.

This snapshot of life in an industrial boom town does not, or course, consti­tute a comprehensive portrayal of all the facets of life in Monessen. This glimpse of a particular “past,” however, does create a sense and feeling for aspects of the general atmosphere and quality of life in the environment of a fast-grow­ing, turn-of-the-century industrial town. Monessen at this time was a dy­namic place to live, characterized by rapid change, excitement, adventure and a degree of opportunity for city residents. At the same time, this envi­ronment had its tougher side, with a considerable amount of disorder and violence. For our ancestors who lived in such places, life was in many ways very different from today.


* = Name has been changed to preserve anonymity of interviewee


Matthew S. Magda is an associate his­torian in charge of ethnic, minority and labor studies at the Pennsylvania His­torical and Museum Commission. This article was developed through research and interviews done for his forthcoming publication, Monessen and Its Peo­ple: A Brief History of an Industrial Boom Town and Steel Community, which is part of a project funded by a grant from the Pennsylvania Human­ities Council to the PHMC. The author has also published a number of articles on various aspects of ethnic, minority, labor, urban and oral history.