Bettis Airfield

Decades before Pittsburgh International Airport began serving commercial air traffic, the first major airstrip in Pittsburgh was conceived of and built in West Mifflin. Clifford Ball, D. Barr Peat, and Harry Neel began developing Neel’s farm property into an airport in 1924. The Pittsburgh-McKeesport Airport officially opened to the public on June 19, 1925.

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Aerial view of Pittsburgh-McKeesport Airport

 

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Program from airport dedication, 1926

The airport was formally dedicated to 1st Lt. Cyrus K. Bettis on November 14, 1926.  Bettis was a decorated Army pilot who was leading a formation of three planes from Philadelphia to Selfridge Field when he encountered fog and crashed into a mountain near Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. He was taken by air to Walter Reed Hospital, where he died on September 1, 1926.

Bettis Field, as it was thereafter called, was the site of the first U.S. air mail route to Pittsburgh. The route was established and contracted by Clifford Ball and D. Barr Peat in 1927, and it connected Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  In describing the efficiency of the new system for the city of Pittsburgh, one reporter stated, “The time already gained is so astounding that one may dream of a 24-hour service across the country. Why not?”

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Postcard illustrating the first air mail flight between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, Ohio

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Charles Lindbergh at Bettis Field (Kenny Scholter of the Pittsburgh Butler Airport is at his right), 1928

Notably, Charles Lindbergh landed The Spirit of St. Louis at Bettis Field on August 3, 1927.  Lindbergh’s visit to Pittsburgh was marked by a dinner hosted by the Mayor and City Council at the William Penn Hotel.  The Sun-Telegraph estimated that around 100,000 people awaited Lindbergh’s arrival at the airport, while another large crowd gathered at Pitt Stadium to hear him speak on “the country’s air needs.”

The Pittsburgh-McKeesport Airport also played host to the National Elimination Balloon Races. Held on May 31, 1928, the races drew enormous crowds—approximately 175,000 people—despite the storm that made the contest “one of the most hazardous in the history of free ballooning.” Numerous newspaper accounts describe the aftermath of the race, in which two individuals died and many others were injured.

Spectators gather to witness the beginning of the National Elimination Balloon Race, 1928

Spectators gather to witness the beginning of the National Elimination Balloon Race, 1928

By 1929, Harry Neel and the other investors sold their interests in the airport.  Bettis Field continued to accommodate private air traffic in the 1930s after the Allegheny County Airport opened in 1932.  After World War II, the field was sold to Westinghouse and became home to Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory.

For more images and information on the history and development of the Pittsburgh-McKeesport Airport, consult the personal and administrative records that comprise the Harry Neel Papers at the Thomas and Katherine Detre Library and Archives.

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Collections Spotlight: the Civic Light Opera Records

Civic Light Opera Records, 1946-1996, MSS 955

Extent: 18 linear ft. [18 boxes]

History of the Civic Light Opera

The Civic Light Opera Association of Greater Pittsburgh (later the Civic Light Opera) was founded in 1946 by Edgar J. Kaufmann (owner of Kaufmann’s Department Store in Pittsburgh, Pa.) and City Councilman Abraham L. Wolk. At the close of World War II, Wolk advocated for the creation of a civic light opera in Pittsburgh in order to help foster the city’s post-war renaissance. Wolk partnered with Kaufmann, who donated $50,000 to fund the CLO’s first season. As early as 1939, Councilman Wolk had been able to attain $5,000 from the Pittsburgh City Council in order to coordinate summer concerts in Schenley Park in the spirit of the St. Louis Municipal Opera.  In September 1945, Wolk enlisted Max Koenigsberg of the St. Louis Municipal Opera to help launch the CLO in Pittsburgh.  Koenigsberg served as the CLO’s first managing director.

 

CLO performance of The Wizard of Oz at Pitt Stadium, 1949

CLO performance of The Wizard of Oz at Pitt Stadium, 1949

Gathering business and civic leaders in the region, Wolk spearheaded a board that negotiated the usage of the University of Pittsburgh’s Pitt Stadium rent-free for CLO performances.  At the time of its founding, H. Edgar Lewis, president of Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, stated that the “light opera will open a new era in the cultural life of the entire Tri-State area.”

 

On February 20, 1946, the CLO’s first season of operettas was announced for the summer of 1946.  Ticket prices for CLO performances ranged from 60 cents to $3 and were sold at Kaufmann’s Department Store. As a professional theater company, the CLO staged productions of musical theater classics during its annual summer seasons. The CLO’s premiere performance in the summer of 1946 was Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta. Under Koenigsberg’s direction, performers Mimi Benzell, Morton Bowe, Rosemarie Brancato, Mack Harrell, Lansing Hatfield, Ralph Herbert, Bill Johnson, Lucille Manners, Richard Manning, Ruby Mercer, Muriel O’Malley, Wilma Spence, and Margaret Spencer were among the CLO’s inaugural cast. In its first season, the CLO attracted 270,000 people to watch its performances in Pitt Stadium.

 

CLO audience members enduring rain at Pitt Stadium

CLO audience members enduring rain at Pitt Stadium

Beginning in 1947, William Wymetal became the managing director of the CLO and would serve for the next 22 seasons until 1968. Wymetal is credited with bringing names such as Allan Jones, Jackie Gleason, Irene Manning, and Harry Stockwell to perform with the CLO. Karl Kritz served as conductor of the CLO from 1948 until 1968.

 

While the CLO endured inclement weather conditions at Pitt Stadium, the Edgar J. Kaufmann Charitable Trust proposed to make funds available for an arena to be owned and maintained by the city. The proposal called for a venue that would be outfitted with a retractable roof that could open or close depending on the weather.  City planners broke ground on the Civic Arena on March 12, 1958.

 

While construction continued on the Civic Arena, the CLO ascertained permission to build a tent in which to perform its 1959 season.  This second home for the CLO was a tangerine and green “Melody Tent” that was constructed in the lower Hill District, a neighborhood east of downtown Pittsburgh and adjacent to the future location of the Civic Arena. The CLO performed in this venue for three years until construction of the retractable, domed Civic Arena was complete. The CLO performed in the Civic Arena from 1961 until 1969.

 

Henry John Heinz II and his family funded the renovation of the old Penn Theatre on 6th Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. The new Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, the fourth home for the CLO, would also house the Pittsburgh Opera, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, the Youth Symphony Orchestra, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  The Civic Light Opera moved to its current home at the Benedum Center in 1988.

 

Collection Summary

The Civic Light Opera Records pertain to the history and function of the CLO from its founding in 1947 until 1996. Worthy of note is the photograph series that documents CLO auditions, rehearsals, fundraising events, performance venues, and most productions. The bulk of the material in the CLO Records is scrapbooks, press books, and photo albums. These press books and scrapbooks document the CLO’s publicity efforts while also highlighting the reception of CLO productions over time. In addition, the CLO Records also include administrative records such as meeting minutes, budgets, and newsletters that document the activities and functions of the CLO Guild. The Civic Light Opera Records consist of administrative records, photographs, contact sheets, negatives, drawings, news clippings, scrapbooks, press books, and promotional posters.

Series I: Administrative Records, (1959-1981)

This series is comprised of the Civic Light Opera administrative records that primarily pertain to the CLO Guild.

Series II: Performance Programs (1947-1996)

This series primarily consists of CLO performance programs and copies of the Civic Light Opera Review from 1947 to 1996.

Series III: Scrapbooks, Press Books, and Photo Albums (1947-1991)

This series contains CLO scrapbooks, press books, and photo albums that chiefly document CLO performances.

Series IV: Photographs and Film Reel

This series consists of photographs, contact sheets, color slides, and negatives that document CLO functions and activities. In particular, the images in this series document various CLO performances. Also included are photographs pertaining to the various venues in which the CLO has performed, including Pitt Stadium, the Melody Tent, the Civic Arena, Heinz Hall and the Benedum Center. This series also includes a 16mm film reel that contains footage of CLO award ceremonies, a fashion show fundraiser, Pink Frolics, and CLO performances.

Series V: Oversized Material (1946-c1980s)

This series consists of oversized material relating to the Civic Light Opera. Included in this series are two drawings of Downtown Pittsburgh from the Point that project the location of Civic Arena.

CLO performance of the Wizard of Oz, 1994

CLO performance of the The Wizard of Oz, 1994

This collection has been made accessible as part of an NHPRC-funded Basic Processing grant.  For more information on the Civic Light Opera Records, please see the collection’s finding aid.

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The Spencer Family Valentine Hunt

In the early 1900s on the corner of Amberson and Dahlia Avenues in Shadyside, an eclectic Valentine’s Day tradition thrived in the household of a local middle class family. Rather than simply exchange sentiments of love and other holiday pleasantries, the elder members of Shadyside’s Spencer family crafted an annual Valentine Hunt to enthrall and excite their children.

Spencer Family Home, 1890, G. M. Hopkins Company Map.

Spencer Family Home, 1890, G. M. Hopkins Company Map.

The Spencer family consisted of Charles and Mary Acheson Spencer and their seven children: Adeline, Kate, Ethel, Mark, Mary, Charles, and Elizabeth. The Spencer’s were among the increasing number of middle class families settling in the East End section of Pittsburgh in the late 19th Century.

Vintage Valentine, ca1870-1910, Spencer Family Papers

Vintage Valentine, ca1870-1910, Spencer Family Papers

In her memoir, The Spencers of Amberson Avenue, Ethel Spencer recalled with great fondness her family’s annual Valentine’s Day event. Together with the local McClintock, Macbeth, and Acheson children, Ethel and her siblings rifled around the family home in hot pursuit of hidden valentines. Reminiscing about their quest, Ethel remembered “Valentines hidden under cushions, behind shutters, and in other likely and unlikely places.” For the industrious child toting the most valentines, there awaited a special prize. In the spirit of friendly competition, all the children were ultimately awarded with celebratory ice cream and cake.

Vintage Valentine, ca1884-1915, Spencer Family Papers, MSS 44.

Vintage Valentine, ca1884-1915, Spencer Family Papers

Beyond the excitement of the hunt, Ethel also wrote of her fondness for these hidden Valentine’s Day cards. Varying in size, shape, and color, the valentines hidden around the Spencer family home provide a glimpse into the vintage greeting card industry.  These hallmark relics of Ethel’s youth the Detre Library & Archives’ collection of Spencer Family Papers, which include dozens of vintage valentines.

Vintage Valentine, undated, Spencer Family Papers

Vintage Valentine, undated, Spencer Family Papers

Throughout this Valentine’s Day weekend, History Center visitors are welcomed to the Detre Library & Archives to see a sampling of vintage Valentine’s Day cards. Unlike the Spencer Valentine Hunt of old, it is promised that these cards will be in plain sight.

For those interested in learning more about the Spencer Family Papers, the collection’s finding aid is available online.

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Sto-Rox Nationality Festival Records

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The 1st Sto-Rox Nationality Festival Committee.

Western Pennsylvania is home to a wide variety of ethnic groups that have all worked together to build the mosaic of culture, industry, and religion that characterizes our region.  In the 1960s and 1970s, cultural groups from McKees Rocks and Stowe Township would come together to hold the Sto-Rox Nationality Festival to celebrate this diverse heritage.  The festival began in 1969 with the aim to “generate a spirit of cooperation and sharing of cultural backgrounds and ideas from the many nationality groups and peoples in this area.”  Participants included groups representing the African-American, Carpatho-Russian, Croatian, German, Greek, Irish, Israeli, Italian, Lebanese, Lithuanian, Native American, Polish, Scottish, Serbian, and Ukrainian communities.

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Folk dancers perform at the 1977 festival.

The Sto-Rox Nationality Festival was the combined effort of multiple religious and civic organizations hoping to not only highlight their unique heritage but also learn about and appreciate the culture of their neighbors and friends.  The festival consisted of food stands and informational booths created for each of the participating groups as well as a parade and several musical and dance performances.  A sampling of these performers includes the Masterson School of Irish Dancing, Trinity A.M.E. Zion Vesper and Youth Choir, Israeli Rishona Dancers of Hashachar, American Indian dancers, and Folklore D’Italia.  The festival lasted for three days in September with multiple groups performing each night.

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Volunteers help construct the Italian booth, sponsored by Mother of Sorrows Church, for the 1977 festival.

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Mrs. Typek, Mrs. Marszalek, Leona Bobrowski, Mrs. Coperich, and Sophie Glinski prepare Polish Ponczki pastries for the 1978 festival.

The Sto-Rox Nationality Festival Records in the Thomas and Katherine Detre Library and Archives consists of scrapbooks containing photographs of festival participants and events, programs listing brief histories of each nationality group and the daily schedule of performances, and newspaper clippings featuring stories about the preparation and events of the festival.   The collection’s finding aid can be found here.                                                                                                      

Each year the festival programs also contained recipes from the different cultural groups.  These recipes include desserts, entrees, appetizers, and side dishes that reflect the variety of culinary dishes found in each culture.  Below is a recipe from the Irish booth at the 1976 festival.  As the motto on the festival program states, the Sto-Rox Nationality Festival was indeed “Something to crow about!”

Irish Mocha Chiffon Cake from the 1976 festival program.

Irish Mocha Chiffon Cake recipe from the 1976 festival program.

Posted in Arts and Entertainment, Ethnic Communities | 1 Comment

Mrs. Soffel and the Biddle Boys in the Archives

It was a tale that reached legendary status well within its own time. With each newspaper edition, readers devoured reports that revealed the escape, capture, and ultimate death of the two most notorious criminals in Pittsburgh lore.  After 102 years, the many and varied protagonists of this factual melodrama live on in the records that remain.

Depiction of Ed Biddle that appeared in Arthur Forrest's The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel: the greatest tragedy and romance in history, ca1902.

Depiction of Ed Biddle in Arthur Forrest’s The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel: the greatest tragedy and romance in history, ca.1902.

Depicton of Jack Biddle in

Depicton of Jack Biddle in Arthur Forrest’s The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel: the greatest tragedy and romance in history, ca.1902.

Born in Ontario, Canada, Jack and Ed Biddle arrived in Pittsburgh having already embraced a life of crime. In April of 1901, their unlawful tendencies led them to the Mt. Washington household of a wealthy grocer.  Before complete, the brothers’ robbery turned to manslaughter when the grocer discovered them in his home.  Local detectives galvanized by Lt. Charles “Buck” McGovern tracked the Biddle Boys down, but not without losing one of their number, Pat Fitzgerald. Once apprehended, Jack and Ed were charged with murder, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging.

Charles "Buck" McGovern, 1920. Charles C. McGovern Scrapbooks, 1922-1949, MSS 988, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center.

Charles “Buck” McGovern, 1920.
Charles C. McGovern Scrapbooks, 1922-1949, MSS 988, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center.

In the months before their impending deaths, the Biddle brothers and other Allegheny County prisoners began to receive visits from an intriguing visitor. As the wife of the jail’s prison warden, Peter Soffel, Kate Dietrich Soffel ministered to the county’s prisoners under her husband’s authority. Throughout the course of their interactions, Kate became enamored with Ed Biddle. The extent of her affection could be best measured in the instruments she purportedly hid under petticoats to facilitate Ed’s escape.

Peter Soffel's bond of appointment to prison wardon, 1900.

Peter Soffel’s bond of appointment to prison wardon, 1900.
Allegheny County Officials’ bonds, 1853-1902, MFF 56, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center.

On January 29, 1902, the Biddle brothers, with Mrs. Soffel in tow, broke out of the county jail and headed northward via trolley towards West View. Once they reached the end of the line, Kate and the Biddle boys stole a horse and sleigh from a local farm. Armed as well with a pilfered gun, the escapees seemed to be pursuing solace in Canada.   According to testimony recorded in Soffel’s divorce papers, the January cold prompted Kate and the Biddle’s to stop at the Stevenson Hotel on Butler Rd. After passing approximately four hours at the hotel, the escapees took to the snow-covered road once again. The Biddle Boys and Mrs. Soffel logged nine more miles on their escape route before Buck McGovern and his cadre of detectives caught up to the escapees, who had made a pit stop at the Graham family farm. Clashes between the two groups erupted in gunfire and this resulted in the fatal wounding of both Jack and Ed Biddle.

Official Inquest of Ed and Jack Biddle, 1902. Pittsburgh Police Historical Association Collection, 1880s-2000s, MSS 858, Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center.

Official Inquest of Ed and Jack Biddle, 1902.
Pittsburgh Police Historical Association Collection, 1880s-2000s, MSS 858, Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center.

Upon her apprehension and return to Pittsburgh, Kate Soffel was put on trial for her crimes. After serving her sentence, Soffel lived and worked as a seamstress in the North Shore neighborhood of Pittsburgh. In addition to her sewing abilties, Soffel also profited from her role in this saga. In a travelling Vaudeville era show entitled, The Biddle Boys, Soffel elected to play herself.

While Soffel cultivated an acting career, Buck McGovern harnessed his successful exploits as a detective to rise in the ranks of local leadership and government. Before his retirement, McGovern served as the chairman of the board of Allegheny County Commissioners.

Image of the Biddle Brothers' capture on January, 31, 1902. The stolen sleigh they used in their escape is an artifact in the Heinz History Center's Museum Collection.

Image of the Biddle Brothers’ capture on January, 31, 1902. The stolen sleigh they used in their escape is an artifact in the Heinz History Center’s Museum Collection.

An inquest. A sleigh. A county warden appointment. Photographs. Divorce Papers. News Clippings. All of these relics uniquely preserve glimpses into the tale that transformed the lives of the Biddles, the Soffels, and Buck McGovern. For as contentious and polarized as these individuals were over 100 years ago, what sweet irony that some of the key remnants of this narrative have found a home in the collection of the same museum.

Posted in Crime, Pittsburgh Police | Leave a comment

Collection Spotlight: Consolidated Ice Company Records

Consolidated Ice Company Records, 1814-1951, MSS 000                                             Extent:  11.5 linear ft. (12 boxes)

A view of the Consolidated Ice Company building in 1906.  Today the building serves as the home for the Heinz History Center.

A view of the Consolidated Ice Company building in 1906. Today the building serves as the home for the Heinz History Center.

History of the Consolidated Ice Company

The Consolidated Ice Company transported, stored, and distributed natural lake ice throughout the Pittsburgh region during the first half of the 20th century. The company operated out of the Strip District, with its main offices and primary facility located on 13th and Pike St. (now Smallman St.) within the building that is now home to the Senator John Heinz History Center.

The building was originally owned by the Chautauqua Ice Co., which sold ice harvested from Chautauqua Lake in Mayville, New York. Constructed in 1898, it replaced a nearly identical building that had been destroyed by a fire in the same year. Chautauqua Ice strategically designed its Pittsburgh operations for the optimal transport, storage, and manufacture of ice, as the Allegheny Valley Railroad lines provided its warehouse with convenient transport and delivery options. Its ice supply was shipped by rail from Chautauqua Lake as well as from Lakeville, Ohio and Sandy Lake in Mercer, Pa., and distributed throughout Pittsburgh on horse-drawn carts.

By 1901 Chautauqua Ice merged with other local ice companies to form Consolidated Ice Co. Advances in refrigeration technology allowed Consolidated Ice to make its own ice on demand, so the company shifted its focus from ice storage to merchandise storage, establishing Consolidated Storage in 1907. Consolidated continued to sell distilled water until 1948, as well as iced box cars for distributors in the Strip District. The company’s assets were ultimately sold to Adelman Lumber Co. in 1950.

Consolidated Ice Company coupon book

Consolidated Ice Company coupon book

Collection Summary

The Consolidated Ice Company Records contain inventories, correspondence, payroll records, and real estate records including property deeds, appraisals, and lease agreements. Much of the material documents the activities of the ice companies that merged to form Consolidated Ice. Several ledgers in the collection document the company’s ice shipments, financial transactions, and stockholder information. Box seven, containing payroll and tax information, has been placed on restriction. Also included in the collection is an oversized reproduction of a photograph of the Consolidated Ice Co. building in the Strip District.

Series I. Business Activity Records (c.1890-1950), Box 1 and shelf

Series one includes shipment journals, tonnage ledgers, and transportation records.

Series II. Consolidated Ice Companies (1843-1951), Boxes 1-3 and shelf

Series two includes records of merged ice companies, including business journals, by-laws, correspondence, and merger records.

Series III. Financial Records (1886-1951), Boxes 3-8 and shelf

Series three includes financial records for the Chautauqua Ice Company and the Consolidated Storage Company, including accounts payable records, tax records, cash books, and ledgers of receipts, sales, and stockholders.

Series IV. Incorporation Records (1871-1924), Boxes 8-9

Series four includes incorporation documents, charter records, and contracts for the Chautauqua Ice Company and the Consolidated Ice Company.

Series V. Real Estate Records (1814-1951), Boxes 9-12

Series five includes property deeds and appraisals, including the deeds for lots 23-29 of Smallman St. (formerly Pike St.) in the Strip District.

For more information, please see the finding aid for the Consolidated Ice Company Records.

Posted in Business and Industry, Hidden collections | Leave a comment

Two New Digital Image Collections

The Heinz History Center’s Detre Library and Archives recently posted two new image collections to Historic Pittsburgh: The Congregation B’nai Israel Photographs and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Building Inspector Photographs.

A view of the B'nai Israel synagogue, a stone Byzantine-design structure with a copper done. The congregation constructed this building at 327 North Negley Avenue in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood in 1924.

A view of the B’nai Israel synagogue, a stone Byzantine-design structure with a copper done. The congregation constructed this building at 327 North Negley Avenue in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood in 1924.

The Congregation B’nai Israel photographs contain 89 images dating from c.1920 until 1992. Many of the images are of confirmation classes, Hebrew school classes, and bar and bat mitzvah students. Other images are of B’nai Israel’s religious leaders, congregation events, and the exterior and interior of the synagogue.

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Building Inspection Photographs contain 225 images of residences and businesses, many of which show obvious signs of disrepair, that had been inspected by the bureau from 1940 until 1947.

A view of 105 S. 12th St. (on the left) in Pittsburgh's Southside neighborhood. Posted on the building are advertisements for Kennywood Park, Westview Park, and Penn Valley Whiskey.

A view of 105 S. 12th St. (on the left) in Pittsburgh’s Southside neighborhood. Posted on the building are advertisements for Kennywood Park, Westview Park, and Penn Valley Whiskey.

The entire collection contains approximately 1,080 images that depict buildings across the city of Pittsburgh, including those in the neighborhoods of the Southside, North Side, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, the Hill District. Many of the structures photographed have since been demolished.

A view of the front of 41-43-45-47 14th St. in Pittsburgh's Strip District neighborhood.

A view of the front of 41-43-45-47 14th St. in Pittsburgh’s Strip District neighborhood.

The finding aid includes a list of the addresses of all the buildings represented in the collection.  The rest of the images will be uploaded in future installments.

Posted in Digital Collections, Rauh Jewish Archives, Uncategorized, Urban Redevelopment | Leave a comment