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The Company Town of Iselin

Iselin band

By Eileen Mountjoy

With the founding of Ernest in Rayne Township, the company-owned mining town became a familiar idea to Indiana Countians.Even as crews labored on the railroad extension from Jefferson County to the new town, however, officials of the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal & Iron Company were already making plans for the opening of a second major coal field in Elders Ridge.

On November 26, 1902 the Indiana Evening Gazette informed its readers that "an unconfirmed rumour" indicated that the rich Elders Ridge coal field had been sold to "a powerful syndicate." Negotiations for the estimated 6,000-tract were conducted efficiently by Lucius Waterman Robinson, then general manager of the R&P C&I. The sale of the coal field was welcomed enthusiastically by Elders Ridge landowners.

Upon completion of all transactions, more than a half-million dollars found its way into the pockets of Indiana Countians who transferred their land to the Pittsburgh Gas Coal Company, a subsidiary corporation formed by officers of the R&PC&I. "The Pittsburgh Gas Coal Company," reported the Gazette on Feb. 25, 1903, "will operate the new field as soon as a branch of the BR&P is built from Ernest to the new territory."

Within a month, the proposed rail extension became a reality, with a name: the Ridge Branch of the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh Railroad. Work on the new line began in the spring of 1903, and by the end of May, 400 men were settled into several camps located along the route between Parkwood and West Lebanon. The greater part of this number were Italians, Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks who, having arrived in America, came from New York on the BR&P directly to the work site. In June more men arrived, and the labor force grew to a total of 675.

During construction, the men ate and slept in hastily built camps of "shanties" set up along the proposed railroad line. To help sustain this huge crew, Andrew Tedisco built a gigantic outdoor bake oven at Parkwood. At peak production, the oven had a capacity of over 1,000 loaves of fresh bread per day. This enterprising merchant also constructed several grocery stores along the eight-mile stretch of road.

Life as a laborer on the Ridge Branch was a bewildering experience for the group of immigrants seeking a better life in America. Accommodations at the "shanty-town" camps were far from comfortable. Liquor was easily obtainable from unscrupulous sources, and bouts of weekend drinking frequently led to "riots" among the crew.

Although contractors King, Clement and Shoemaker enlisted the aid of two large steam shovels at the railroad construction site, most of the labor was done with pick and shovel.
The work was difficult, and many men stayed on the job only a few weeks, eventually drifting away to established mining towns or large cities. Some of the men who worked on the railroad extension, however, remained to help populate the new town at Elders Ridge site.

In June of 1903, surveyors were seen along the banks of Harper's Run in Young Township. Coal mining preceded the settling of the town, as reported in the Sept. 9, 1903 edition of the Indiana Evening Gazette: "Considerable coal has already been taken out at Elders Ridge. An opening has been made on the old Steffey farm and upwards of a 1,000 bushels of coal mined. The opening has been cut into the hill for a hundred yards or more." The firm of Hyde-Murphy in Ridgway won the contract for building of houses in the new mining town. By the end of September, 12 houses were completed one mile northwest of Elders Ridge, and the community named Iselin in honor of the New York banker and owner of the BR&P Railway. Harrisburg's Report of the Bureau of Mines for the year 1903 included Iselin, and records that beginning in August of 1903, two drift mines operated at the location for a total of 131 days.

Richard Smith was the general superintendent that first year; attracted by the high coal of the Pittsburgh seam, 42 miners came in the initial months and the number of men grew steadily.

By early 1904, Iselin had been transformed from a labor camp to a coal town. In mid-January the railroad reached West Lebanon and a steel bridge over Crooked Creek at Shelocta was completed. March saw the first scheduled train on the Elders Ridge Branch. The regular Punxsutawney to Ernest train, after reaching Ernest in the morning, went back to Ridge Junction at Creekside and from there traveled to Iselin. Full train service encouraged the growth of both mines and town. Tipple, boiler house, carpenter, blacksmith and machine shops soon stood ready to handle increased coal production.

Inside the mines, electric motors hauled coal out and up into the tipple, reducing the number of animals used underground. In June of 1904 Charles Rowe secured the contract for a hotel building. The three-story structure, owned by Ross Mahan, contained 39 rooms and cost $9,000. A school, theater and brick company store added the final touches to the physical makeup of the town.

By 1905, 440 men worked underground at Iselin mines #1 and #2. The next year, two additional mines opened at nearby Whiskey Run. Mining towns quickly grew up. around each opening; the main town of Whiskey Run lay at mine #3. Across a low hill, another village was founded at mine #5. Locals called this extension of Whiskey Run "Hart Town" to distinguish it from Whiskey Run #3. Hart Town was built on the site of Joseph Hart's old farm and woolen mill, an early Indiana County landmark. During the years of World War 1, when demand for coal was greatest, the two sections of Whiskey Run together contained a total of over 60 houses, a doctor's office and a company store.

Iselin #4 mine was known as Nesbit Run. A tiny community, totaling only 14 houses by 1925, stood near the opening. After 1910, the Pittsburgh Coal Company also opened two more small mines at nearby Big Run; these mines were called Fritz mine #1 and #2. At the present time there is a mine maintenance school on the site of Big Run; this school is an extension of Penn State University.

Taken together, the Iselin mines by 1914 had a daily output of over 6,000 tons of coal. With the opening of Iselin mines #3, #4, #5, and Fritz #1 and #2, the Pittsburgh Gas Coal Company's need for manpower doubled. In 1904, total employment in and around Iselin mines #1, and #2 was 513 men. By the end of 1908, however, total employment rose to 1,203 and by the close of 1910, to 1,695. As the "native" population of Indiana County could not possibly meet the demands of this sudden labor shortage, immigrants arrived in Iselin constantly after 1906, the year Whiskey Run was opened.

Several men and women still live in Iselin who remember those early days in terms of their own personal experience. Victor Fello was four years old when his parents brought him to Iselin from a small village in Hungary. The year was 1911, and Victor's father was one of many heads of families who were met at a New York port of entry by a labor agent. Upon learning that there was plenty of work in Iselin, the Fello family boarded the BR&P train for Pennsylvania and a new life in a coal town. When Victor saw Iselin for the first time, he faced a town of about 300 houses, "and every house had 12 or 14 boarders!" He recalls, "One man would get out of bed to go to work, and another one would crawl in. That's how many boarders there were in Iselin."

Mealtimes for so many people were particularly difficult to manage. "They didn't have dining rooms then as they do now," Victor says. "The tables were made of the heavy wooden boards used for making mine cars. The company would give it to the men to make tables and benches from. They had a kitchen, with a cookstove, where everyone ate, and all the rest of the rooms were bedrooms." The woman who cooked, cleaned, and above all, washed, for more than a dozen men in addition to her own husband and family received relatively little benefit for her labors.

Sometimes, boarders divided the price of the groceries among themselves and this way, the housewife received free food, as she and her family shared the common meals. In another system, each boarder bought his own food staples. "Each man," Victor remembers, "would tie a piece of string on his piece of beef or pork in such a way as to identify that meat as his." Then, instead of paying for part of the grocery bill, each boarder paid a share toward the rent.

For some men, living as a boarder was only temporary. Almost all single men eventually married, while others sent for wives and families left behind in Europe. A few isolated cases were known of married men who never sent for the wives and children they left behind. "They lived like single men here in Iselin," Victor recalls, "and left their families over there to fend for themselves." Social organization in Iselin before World War I showed evidence of a rigid structure which disappeared as the passage of time equalized various nationality groups. But in the early days, native Americans, English and Scottish miners, having the dual advantage of language and, often, previous mining experience, quickly achieved positions as foremen. Outward signs of such advancement was usually the attainment of a single house on "English" Street - and no boarders.

Nationality differences were also reflected in working conditions at the mines. For inexperienced Hungarian or Czech miners, advancement to a position of responsibility was difficult until years of underground work prepared a man for a move to more skilled labor. Victor Fello's father, for example, had never been inside a mine until he came to Iselin. "You bought your pick and shovel at the company store and were told, 'There's the place - you load'." Each man also timbered his own room and "shot down" his own coal with a minimum of instruction, although it was the usual practice to give a new man an experienced partner in his first days on the job.

Exposure to the realities of life came early to children in early coal towns. Victor Fello was 11 years old when he went into the mines at Iselin. "My dad used to smuggle me into the mines to help him load road coal - that's the coal that fell off the cars onto the underground track. The track would fill up with coal and you had to load it out in order to keep the cars and motors from wrecking." Victor felt no fear of the mines the first time he went in; "I was used to it; I was around the mines all the time." Although working hours were long and difficult, Victor Fello remembers his youth in Iselin with pleasure as well. "This was a prosperous town, and a pretty town to live in. And people had fun. In the summertime, on a Sunday afternoon, there was a picnic under every good tree."

People came to Iselin from several European countries, but probably the highest concentration of new arrivals came from Italy. Many Italians sailed from Genoa and Venice at the recommendation of two brothers, Jack and Dominic Ritchey. These men were skilled masons, and were responsible for building the foundations of most of the houses in Iselin, as well as all the drifts in the mines.

Jack Ritchey was well known for his decorative cement work, such as the porch railings made for the Holy Cross Catholic Church. Dominic Ritchey was a talented artist who during his stay in Iselin produced several ceiling paintings. One particular work, recalled with detail by several Iselin residents, once decorated the ceiling of the downstairs kitchen in house #1. Although no sign of the picture remains, those who remember it describe the scene as that of two battle ships in full sail, complete with men armed for battle crowding the vessels as blue waves carried them out to sea. Other ceilings in Iselin houses still show traces of designs once painted there by Dominic Ritchey.

The brothers are best remembered, however, for the hand-crafted cement cemetery markers made for the Iselin cemetery. Their masterpiece, now sadly damaged, is a remarkable monument which covers the remains of the first man killed in the Iselin mines. The name of the dead man is uncertain, due to the ravages of time and vandals, but the eight-foot-high column of cement-covered brick remains, surrounded by six smaller columns topped by cement urns. An older generation of Iselin residents can remember the grave marker as it originally appeared, complete with realistic miner's cap, carbide lamp, pick and shovel, all carefully modeled in cement.

By the mid-twenties, most of the houses in Iselin stood completed, and there seemed to be no place for a master mason and his artist brother. Leaving behind them a legacy of creativity unique among Indiana County's coal towns, the Ritchey family moved on to Rome, New York, where they presumably became involved in a construction business. The pre-World War I population of Iselin was predominantly male, but many women came to America with their husbands or came later as soon as they were financially able.

Mrs. Caroline Kaminski has lived almost her entire life in Iselin. "I came here in 1912; then, the town was booming!" she says. "I came from across because my dad was working here; he heard that the mines at Iselin were safe mines." Mrs. Kaminski's father, John Michalisczyn, whose name was, quickly shortened to Miller, lived two years alone in Iselin before he could send to Austria for his wife and three little girls. During that time, John was once buried in a mine cave-in for two days although his wife never knew of his close call. Another time, Mrs. Kaminski's mother received a communication from Iselin reporting that her husband had been killed in the mines. Weeks passed before another letter arrived canceling the information in the first one.

Caroline Kaminski will never forget the day she and her family arrived in Iselin: "What a shock!" she says. "We never even had a picture! No sidewalks, no bathroom -nothing! Coal stored under the porch. And the outside toilet - four boards, two holes, and a catalog hanging on the side!" Arrival in the town itself -was achieved only after a difficult and confusing ocean voyage on a crowded steamer. Upon landing in Baltimore, the Michalisczyn family boarded a train for Indiana. "And I couldn't speak English and my mother couldn't speak German; we always talked to her in Polish. We stood on the station platform in Indiana and someone came who spoke German. We spent the night in the old Moore Hotel. Next morning we came to Iselin."

Once settled in Iselin, the Michalisczyn family also kept boarders. "We had ten," Mrs. Kaminski says. Mrs. Michalisczyn had a special relationship with her boarders. "Many were young boys just come across. My mother was like a mother to them; she babied them and made special food for their dinner buckets." Mrs. Michalisczyn never adjusted to the move from the beautiful family farm in Austria, however, and, after only a year in Iselin, she died. "When she got sick the doctor said she was so lonely she couldn't fight the illness," says Caroline Kaminski.

In addition to the grief felt by her husband and three little girls, Mrs. Michalisczyn was sorely missed by her young boarders: "When my mother died, they all cried." After her mother's death, Caroline went to live with the Popachock family who kept a store "at the Y," about a mile outside of Iselin towards Clarksburg. There, at age 14 Caroline met and married Stanley Kaminski, Popachock's butcher. When Stanley went to work at the Iselin company store two years later, Mrs. Kaminski moved back to Iselin. She still lives there, but now resides on "English" Street with her son. The death of Caroline Kaminski's mother after only one year in America is a story that might be repeated by many others who can remember "the good old clays.

In the years before concentrated public health efforts, many small towns suffered epidemics of diptheria, measles and typhoid, and Iselin was no exception. A March 3, 1911, Gazette reported. "An Epidemic of Fever Down at Iselin - Water the Probably Source of Infection." At the time of printing, 20 people were ill from the disease, and four had died. One of the dead, in an incident all to common in mining towns, "was not claimed by relatives and was shipped to the State Anatomical Society at Philadelphia." By the next day the paper reported that a total of 50 persons were ill, and of that number, nine had been taken by train to the Adrian Hospital in Punxsutawney. By March 6, evidence of the epidemic had also been felt in Jefferson and Cambria Counties, although "Iselin had a larger number of cases than any other town."

In the midst of the typhoid outbreak, a second, unidentified disease appeared in Iselin, an illness "closely allied to it" except that it seemed to be "not contagious." At the end of March the epidemic subsided -with "A Total of Twelve Deaths to Date." The Gazette article ended on the note of hope that- "the fact that no additional cases have been reported . . . has removed all cause for alarm." Investigations into the causes of Iselin's epidemic were begun the next month by Indiana County health authorities. When completed, evidence seemed to indicate that the mysterious, non-contagious disease which appeared concurrently with the typhoid fever could be traced to consumption of pork from cholera-infected hogs.

Before the advent of modern medicine, many other diseases attacked Indiana County coal towns. Victor Fello can remember the 1918 influenza outbreak in Iselin. "Here in town, they carried them out every day," he says. Iselin residents who recall these epidemics note the tireless energies of several devoted company doctors and volunteer nurses who worked around the clock to restore health to the community.

Newcomers to Iselin in the years before World War I also witnessed some spectacular crimes and post-payday brawls which progressed beyond the ordinary. During this period, county newspapers often featured headlines like these: "Three Men Shot, One Fatally, in Iselin Riot," "Mob at Iselin Released Two Prisoners from Constable," "Serious Cutting Affray at Iselin Boardinghouse," "Iselin Men Used an Axe" and "Gambling the Cause of Iselin Stabbing."

Many misdemeanors involved the sale of illegal beer and liquor, for, even in the days before Prohibition, isolated coal towns were regular targets for this type of crime. For young miners with no dependents and a full pay envelope, whiskey often proved an irresistible temptation.

"Some men spent their money this way the day they got their pay," recalls a woman who worked in the Iselin company store. "Sometimes, then, on Mondays, they wouldn't even go to work. They had a pretty good time!"

On occasion, however, community police officers or county law enforcement agents caught up with evildoers. The Gazette reported, "Speakeasy Man Gets Salty Sentence," and described one raid on an Iselin house which unearthed "an hundred empty beer cases and a quantity of whiskey." "The Speakeasy Man," after pleading guilty to his crime, received a sentence of a $500 fine and six months' imprisonment in the Allegheny County Workhouse. The prisoner was evidently a well-mannered individual, as he politely thanked Judge S.G. Telford before being returned to his cell in the Indiana County jail.

In a sharp contrast to the notorious side of life in Iselin, the story of the building of the Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church stands as a testimony to the devotion and resourcefulness shown by community residents. In addition to Holy Cross, an inter-denominational Protestant church was also built at the top of the hill below the water tower, but due to the large number of Catholics in the town, Holy Cross parish remains the larger of the two. Longtime residents of Iselin recall that the first Mass ever celebrated in the community was said by a priest, whose name is now forgotten, who traveled out from Indiana in a horse and wagon. Far from finding accommodations even adequate, the priest was called upon to hold services in one of the tarpaper shacks near the tipple, part of a "shantytown," better known as "The Pig's Ear."

In 1904, an Iselin resident wrote a letter to the Bishop at Greensburg and requested that a priest be assigned to Iselin to care for "seventy-five Italian people, thirty Poles, and a few English."

The response from the Bishop was rapid, and within a month Father McNelis of Indiana began coming out to Iselin each Saturday night and remaining overnight, so that in the morning he would be available to celebrate Mass at Pat Carroll's house on English Street. Then, in 1905, R&P president Lucius Waterman Robinson responded to a written plea from the parish by indicating that the coal company was willing to help the people of Iselin erect a church building. Within three years the sanctuary was completed and in use. Father Francis Wieczorek was the first resident priest; he was followed by Father Anthony Baron who came to Iselin in 1911, During the pastorate of Father Baron, a rectory was built on Barber Street.

During the early part of 1918, both the church building and the rectory were destroyed by fire. Undaunted, Mass was said in Iselin's old town hall until, several months later, permission to rebuild was granted by the Bishop, together with a gift of $13,000 to help cover costs. In the late 1940s, the final mortgage on the church was cancelled by the R&P. "We really celebrated then," recalls a woman who attended the ceremony. "We had a big party, and the officials of the coal company came and helped us burn the mortgage."

The end of World War I, with a resulting decline in the demand for coal, marks the end of an era for Iselin. As the post-war economic slump gradually lowered Iselin's production, a few families began to drift away to other occupations. As the number of boarders in each house declined, life in the town grew less hectic. The population stabilized, and the refinements of community living were enjoyed in earnest.

Hungarian, Polish, Slavish and Italian lodges and fraternities met regularly. As war-time economies abated, three-day-long celebrations at weddings and christenings were the rule. The Iselin baseball team thrilled the crowds as part of the R&P league, and everyone enjoyed watching the game of "bocche" played by the Italian members of the community. A nickelodeon occupied part of the Theater Building near the Hotel. In the winter, children sledded down the "Store Hill," and gazed wide-eyed at the town Christmas tree lit faithfully each Yuletide by Mr. Barkley. Education of the young assumed greater importance, and more and more of Iselin's children went "over the hill" to the high school at Elders Ridge when the days spent at the town's elementary school were over.

Towns, like people, pass through several stages in the course of a lifetime, and by the 1930s, more changes were in store for Iselin. C. Merle Craig, who grew up in the West Lebanon area, went to work in Iselin in 1930 as Chief Clerk in the mine office. "It was non-union then," he remembers, "and a lot of picketing was going on." In addition to labor-management problems, economic hardship also struck the town about the same time. "By 1932 it was common for the mines to be operating only two days per month due to lack of demand for coal." Merle still feels that the good spirits retained by the people of Iselin during these dark days was "remarkable." He says, "People kept cows and planted gardens, and kept on playing baseball."

By 1934, however, the change from steam to diesel-powered locomotives made Iselin's Pittsburgh seam coal an obsolete product, and the mines closed down. "Fortunately," Merle notes, "the mines at Coal Run had just opened, and provided employment for Iselin miners who needed a job. Others went to the steel mills, or to Detroit, as they were able to make the adjustment to working in low coal after spending years in Iselin's eight and nine foot high seam." Houses soon stood vacant; the store closed and the tipple was torn down. Iselin's life as a coal town was over.

Although the center of the community is no longer coal production, Iselin's former identity is still unmistakable to all but the most casual observer. Unlike many of Indiana's coal towns, Iselin retains much of its former appearance. Many houses look basically as they did 75 years ago, while others, of course, have been changed by remodeling. But perhaps the most important reminders of the early days are not so obvious. The spirit of those turn-of-the-century immigrants is best seen in the carefully-tended churches, thriving gardens, and the pride shown by residents in the appearance of their homes. These quiet symbols exist today, less dramatic, perhaps, than the boarded-up company store and the vacant lot where the hotel used to stand, but all pointers to Iselin's past as "A Town fox, New Americans."

Iselin riot

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