Trailheads presents information and details about the exhibits, events and programs hosted by the historic sites and museums on PHMC's Pennsylvania Trails of History.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that resulted in airliner crashes into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Anyone old enough to remember 9/11 can recall the wall-to-wall news coverage and vivid sense of national grief about the destruction and lives lost.

The story of the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93 fighting back against the hijackers has been told in books, films and news reports, and it is the centerpiece of the Flight 93 National Memorial, built at the crash site in Stonycreek Township, near Stoystown and Shanksville. What may not be as familiar is the role played by the Somerset Historical Center, a Pennsylvania Trails of History site, in preserving and telling the story.

Top, Many visitors to the Flight 93 Temporary Memorial brought small tributes with them or improvised with what they had on hand, as seen in this photo from May 2002. A visitor sign-in book would have been quickly damaged by weather, so plywood boards were installed to allow people to leave their names and remembrances. Bottom, These wooden angels, one for each passenger and crewmember of Flight 93, were carefully made and left at the Temporary Memorial along with a sign of tribute. Photos, PHMC

Top, Many visitors to the Flight 93 Temporary Memorial brought small tributes with them or improvised with what they had on hand, as seen in this photo from May 2002. A visitor sign-in book would have been quickly damaged by weather, so plywood boards were installed to allow people to leave their names and remembrances. Bottom, These wooden angels, one for each passenger and crewmember of Flight 93, were carefully made and left at the Temporary Memorial along with a sign of tribute.
Photos, PHMC

Within days, while local authorities and the FBI were still investigating and securing the debris field at the Flight 93 crash site, people began to visit. The public was kept at a distance, and a viewing area was established, informally at first. A series of spontaneous memorials arose, with visitors leaving personal items and signing their names on available surfaces. As Somerset Historical Center curator Barbara Black explained in an article in the Historical and Genealogical Society of Somerset County (HGSSC) newsletter in 2002, the Somerset County commissioners quickly asked the center to take responsibility for the items left at the site. (HGSSC served as a support group for the center in addition to its role as the county historical society.) The smaller memorials were consolidated into a single Temporary Memorial, as it became formally known, with chain-link fence and plywood boards to accommodate visitor tributes, signatures and messages.

Black, with support from other Somerset Historical Center staff and volunteers, established protocols and procedures for monitoring the Temporary Memorial and the ever-expanding array of items. In the newsletter, she noted that “items are left at the Memorial for as long as possible to allow the more than 1,000 visitors a week a chance to view the many tributes.”

Items were removed only when they were in danger of permanent damage from the weather. They were taken to the Somerset Historical Center, where a processing and storage space had been set up in a building that was separate from the site’s visitor center and exhibit buildings. Staff and volunteers performed light cleaning, according to museum conservation standards, designed to have minimal impact on the objects. Once cleaned, items were cataloged and photographed before being placed in acid-free wrapping materials and storage containers. They were stored and their locations recorded.

In the newsletter article, Black described the types of items she and her team were dealing with, noting that the predominant colors were red, white and blue. Items included flowers, flags, stuffed animals, military insignia, children’s toys, religious and spiritual objects, angel figures, notes, letters, poems, and police, firefighter and emergency medical technician items. It was clear that some visitors had carefully crafted their tribute items at home with the intention of leaving them at the Temporary Memorial. I remember a set of angels, one for each Flight 93 passenger and crewmember. Other visitors, it appeared, found themselves unexpectedly moved to add to the collection of items. Black mentioned a harmonica, a charm bracelet, and a stainless-steel medical clamp. On a visit with my parents in 2003, I remember a baseball wedged into the chain-link fence. It was those spontaneous gifts that I found most affecting.

Congress approved a permanent memorial for the site in 2002. A task force consisting of Flight 93 family members, along with local, state and national figures, was formed to oversee planning and design. Somerset Historical Center continued to track, house and care for memorial tribute items until 2004–05, when the National Park Service (NPS) established an office in Somerset. Responsibility for the Temporary Memorial and the associated collections was transferred to NPS as planning for the Flight 93 National Memorial continued. Barbara Black was hired by NPS as curator and chief of interpretation for the memorial, and the tribute items were moved to secure storage in the Pittsburgh area.

Unfortunately, in 2014, some tribute items were lost in a fire. By that time, NPS had erected several temporary headquarters buildings at the Flight 93 site as construction of the visitor center and memorial wall progressed. Collections items were on-site to be reviewed for exhibits that were in development. Many objects remained, however, and the Flight 93 National Memorial visitor center includes an exhibit of tribute items. Barbara Black, prior to her retirement from NPS, curated an exhibit for the site’s Learning Center, featuring images, words and objects left by children. Visitors continue to leave items at the permanent memorial, which was designed with niches for that purpose.

 

ILGWU Bowling League (Wilkes-Barre area) Championship Trophy, 1983-84, in the collection of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum. Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum, PHMC (AC2005.15.2)

ILGWU Bowling League (Wilkes-Barre area) Championship Trophy, 1983-84, in the collection of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum.
Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum, PHMC (AC2005.15.2)

Collections Spotlight

PHMC has established a monthly virtual program highlighting collections at multiple Pennsylvania Trails of History sites and focusing on a central theme. Please check the PHMC Events Calendar or look for the PHMC Virtual Collections Showcase on PHMC’s YouTube channel. Our April showcase revolved around sports. One of the featured collections was a trophy awarded to the 1983–84 championship bowling team of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), part of the collection of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum.

According to museum curator John Fielding, the ILGWU, founded in 1912 with a female membership majority, “often led the way for women’s equality, and by the 1930s one of the many activities they sponsored were female leagues in sports like basketball, softball and bowling, to name a few. These extracurricular activities provided women with opportunities beyond the traditional scope of home and work.”

Fielding’s ongoing research on the bowling trophy, which was donated to the museum in 2005 by ILGWU successor union UNITE/HERE, includes finding the stories of the women whose names are listed. Verna Ritchey Mayhue, the team captain, was born in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, in 1923, was raised by a single mother and at some point moved to Luzerne County. She was a 30-year member of ILGWU. Fielding notes, “I am uncertain as to what happened to her father and how she ended up in the Wyoming Valley from western Pennsylvania; usually the migration pattern was reversed.” Fielding continues to try to fill the gaps in Verna’s story and to learn more about the other members of her championship bowling team.

 

Amy Killpatrick Fox is a museum educator in PHMC’s Bureau of Historic Sites & Museums. She writes a weekly blog also called Trailheads at patrailheads.blogspot.com.