Monday, July 11, 2011

Home To New Mahoning

If I have a native place, it is the Mahoning Valley, where the Pennsylvania counties of Carbon and Schuylkill come together. It was a lovely place, and a place that did much to shape my soul. I left it in the early 1990s, soon after I had finished "Smokestacks and Black Diamonds", a history of Carbon County which had taken a great deal out of my health and stamina.
What was worse, by that time "development" had arrived. It wiped away much of the eastern end of the valley, including my family's house and the roads on which I had walked for many years. Embittered and sick, seeing old vistas disappear, I could not even walk away from the commercial carnage. It was literally not safe to step outside the door, and everything that was human sized and good to look at was disappearing fast. Instead, there arose shopping centers, industries, an airport, and all the the other trappings of "progress."
Angry, I wrote a small memoir called "Mahoning: Memories of a Lost Valley". It contained a lot of errors, since I had only my childhood memories to go on, and no way to research the details. But a lot of people took it for what it was, a tribute to a lovely place, and appreciated it.
I thought that was it, that I would never be back, that there would very shortly be nothing to come back to.
But on July 10 I WAS back, all the same. I had come with a friend to the Anthracite Festival at Lansford, and had suggested that we come up Route 309, turn right at Route 443, and come in the back door of the Valley, so to speak. And all the way up 309, the old-line highway that crosses the Blue Mountain a few miles west of the Lehigh Gap, I was both tense and exhilarated. The road was pleasantly lined with old-style commerce--produce stands, family restaurants, and the like--and beyond that was something I liked even better: great fields of corn and wheat, framed by woods in the distance, and the tall, imposing rock cliffs and forest of the Blue Mountain that loomed ahead.
All these things I found to be reassuring signs that at least remnants of my old, familiar world still existed. But I tensed at the thought. This was here; this was now. What mattered was the answer to this question:
What would I find on the other side of the mountain?
Then we were coming down that other side, gliding past the intersection to Route 895, and soon toward the intersection with Route 443, the "Main Street" of my home neighborhood.
I looked to my right; and, behold--Here was Paradise!
Here, the same sort of ribbons of dark green corn and golden wheat undulated across the hillsides, framed by forests atop the ridges; but there was less commerce than there had been on 309. I had walked this part of this highway decades ago--ridden on it, too. The years had passed, but the old vista seemed almost unchanged. Across the valley were scattered red barns and white farmhouses; and soon we could see the rosy, pink, Bavarian-looking St. Peter's Union Church off to our left.
Life is short. It behooves us, I think, to spend as much of our time as possible in such lovely, heart-lifting landscapes.
I hope I can come back for a visit soon.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Of the Making of Many Books....

Having just posted some observations about local and regional history on "Letters from Lyonesse", I thought I'd continue the subject here.
"Of the making of many books there is no end," the Bible tells us; and I am sure the writer of this particular proverb had local and regional histories in mind. In the other blog post I told how reading the work of Fred Brenckmann, the old-line historian of my native county, likely led to my writing my own Carbon County history, "Smokestacks and Black Diamonds", many years later.
A friend of mine, the accomplished journalist Len Barcousky, recently became the author of an interesting book, "Remembering Pittsburgh", of which more later. For all I know, Len might have been inspired in part by me, because "Smokestacks and Black Diamonds" came before his entry in the local/regional field; but it doesn't matter.
Len tells me that not long ago he found himself at a book signing which featured a great number of local and regional historians--enough to fill a room the size of two basketball courts, to be exact. Each had his or her own book to sign and sell. It must have been an impressive sight. And the best part of it is, I'll bet a lot of those books had interesting and useful information to offer. I know Len's did.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Courage In Many Guises

One of the works friends thrust at me lately has been Margaret S. Creighton's "The Colors of Change: Gettysburg's Forgotten History", a work which has angered and and upset some readers. But only because these readers have not yet accepted the fullness of the Gettysburg event. Professor Creighton has undertaken in her book--an extremely smooth read, and hard to put down--to tell the story of many of the people who were caught up in the battle, but whose contributions have been lost, forgotten, or twisted and scorned to this day.
Some of these people were Union soldiers--to be specific, the men of the largely German Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac. This Corps, attacked with fierce brilliance by Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Chancellorsville, ran. It seemed the rational thing to do at the time. And it no doubt was, so total was Jackson's surprise. But the Eleventh, to this day, has not lived down Chancellorsville. That the men became unjustly known as a corps of cowards was hard for them and their leaders, Oliver Otis Howard and Carl Schurz among them, to bear. Howard and Schurz were both men of high principle and great personal courage who could not stand each other. Both were also on the feckless side as generals. These personal factors did not make the situation of the Eleventh any better or more secure. One of the factors in this slur that seemed never to end was nativism. The men were Germans, foreigners. So they were disliked, considered cowards, dismissed. The scorned groups and their languages may change; the heart of humanity seems to remain the same forever. That we have learned nothing after millennia does not speak well for us.
Other "outsider groups" at Gettysburg included black men and women who lived in or near the town, and whose situation was uniquely precarious. Some were escaped slaves who had come via the Underground Railroad or by other means. Others were freemen, born in Pennsylvania, and sometimes the owners of farms, land, or businesses. None were safe. Their individual reactions ranged from fleeing to hiding, to fighting against Lee's troops if they had the chance. If they were caught, they might be killed or raped, or kidnapped and sent South to areas where slavery still held sway. It did not matter whether they had ever been slaves or not; they were now.
Black women were in the worst of all possible situations. That is because they suffered from both the social strictures against Blacks and those against women. But white women, too, were in a situation in which they were in constant danger--young Jennie Wade, for example, was killed on the first day of the battle while baking bread, and while her sister Georgia Wade McClellan lay nearby in labor. And, no matter how the women acted or reacted, whether they were white or black, whether they survived or not, they literally could not win in the court of their neighbors' public opinion. Ms. Wade herself soon was believed to be "no better than she should be," and her sister Georgia spent the rest of her life trying to vindicate her dead sister's reputation.
Were women patriotic, or did they collaborate with the enemy? Was their work of nursing and preserving important or not? (In the case of the second question, the implied answer was often "no.")
I'd suggest you read this entire book. It will not make you happy; but it may in some small way make you determined that humanity will do better next time.
I plan to feature some stories from Creighton's book from time to time, if only to remind you to look the book up and read it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Why Fracking is New and Different

You may or may not be an advocate of natural health. Whichever--it always pays to keep an open mind about information, especially when the information deals with a subject so portentous as fracking for natural gas.
The following information is from the Alliance for Natural Health-US, and tells why fracking is very different from the old methods of collecting natural gas in Pennsylvania. I have, by the way, found ANH-USA very good about providing information relating to their sources. We, the readers, can follow them online and read the articles and books they read in preparing their own articles. You will still have to come to your own conclusions, but you don't have to settle for simply believing or disbelieving this one organization.
In a recent article the editors took on the assertion that fracking is merely "a refinement of a very old technology."
To the ANH-US editors, there is a vast difference between the old, slow gas wells that dotted the Commonwealth for decades and modern exploratory techniques. Here is what they have to say about it:
"The old method of natural gas extraction was simply to dig a hole straight down into the trapped natural gas, which sits in a kind of natural reservoir, and then capture that gas as it takes the path of least resistance up to the surface. The modern method of hydraulic fracking is radically different. New drilling technology allows a hole to be dug straight down and then be turned sideways and extended in multiple directions horizontally. Here is a diagram:

(Diagram omitted here.)

"The holes are then pumped full of water, sand, and chemicals at very high pressure. This literally splits the rocks open to capture natural gas that was stuck inside them.

"The concrete and steel well linings used in hydraulic fracking frequently rupture under the violence of this mining method, and the 2005 Halliburton Exemption exempts these wells and sites from the Clean Water Act and other regulatory laws."

The url for the complete article is:

This particular article alludes to, but does not dwell upon, the wholesale pollution and destruction of scarce water by fracking. It also does not dwell upon how the combination of fracking techniques and the legal doctrine of Eminent Domain may make it possible for a corporation to siphon the gas out from under your feet, whether or not you give permission. Presumably you would be in a better position if you owned the mineral rights to your land, but it will take a lawyer to advise you on mineral rights.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Marcellus Shale: Two Takes, Plus....

Marcellus shale, plus the new kind of gas-bearing shale that has been discovered beneath it in places--is this new fact0r in the life of Pennsylvania (and in 30 other states as well) a godsend or a curse? I have been spending a little time trying to find an answer, and will be sharing any insights I gain with readers. Starting now.
Let me begin, then, by talking about Josh Fox's acclaimed (and vilified) documentary film "Gasland". Fox, who owns a house in at Milantown, PA along the upper Delaware River, first became aware of Marcellus shale and the natural gas "rush" when he was offered somewhat above $100,000 to permit the leasing of his 19- plus acres for natural gas exploration. Surprised, he began to investigate the origin of this offer. He was naturally concerned because he had been born in the house he still lives in and has a deep attachment to it, and to his plot of land.
His research was carried out in the newspapers, in courthouses, and in the homes of fellow Pennsylvanians who had signed leases with gas companies earlier. Eventually his exploration led him far afield--to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arkansas, Texas. He made a film of the things he encountered: sick and despondent people, sick and dying animals, ravaged landscapes, homes so damaged they could never be either lived in or resold, flammable water. He also, in the process, interviewed at least two or three very experienced scientists, whose views ought to count for a good deal. Especially since there is no obvious material benefit for them to hold these unpopular views. There is a hypnotized rush for the perceived benefits of the gas in the shale, and it seems that standing in its way might even be dangerous.
Fox returned home to the Delaware Valley, wondering whether everything he had loved was already lost. He concluded that that was up to the film's viewers. And perhaps it is; we surely should make our best effort to save our heritage. The question is whether we are already too deeply caught in a snare to do so.
This film, then, is the take of the victims--at least, the victims to date. I recommend you see "Gasland" and try to relate to its message. Or at least to understand it. The film is available online for sale, and that is how I got it. It can most likely also be rented on or offline, or borrowed through a library or another organization. Corporations don't like it, and have attacked it. It would be strange if they admired it and promoted it.
Now, here is the take of some people on the other side. Many of them have actually obtained jobs through gas exploration and production in the Marcellus shale. I recommend that you watch this, too. These people were featured on "State of Pennsylvania", a public affairs program on public television station WVIA-TV; the segment is called "Marcellus Shale: Where are the Jobs?" Go to, click on "television," and you should be able to find it online. The program participants, for the most part, have their own stories of stress and loss, from which they now seem to have been rescued--at least temporarily and, I hope, for a good long time. Having known nothing myself but economic stress, I don't ever wish against anyone who seems to have gotten a break.
These, then, are the two takes I promised on Marcellus shale and what goes with it. Now for the "Plus", which is my own take. I am a lifelong student of history, which I find challenging and of endless interest. As such, though, I can hardly remember a time when, at a crossroads like this, humans have chosen wisely. We need jobs, and we need power. Developing this power source can give us both--at least for the time being.
But at what cost? How healthy can it be to lace millions of gallons of water with no fewer than 596 chemicals and then inject the chemicalized water into the soil? Can this result in anything other than the poisoning of the soil and the water? Not to mention the sheer loss of water that will never resurface, a loss to a planet where water is an ever-diminishing commodity.
Who will pay for this loss and destruction? Josh Fox's people, first of all. They are poor, they have no way of defending themselves; and to the"average" American--whoever that is--they may come across as "aging hippies", or some other contemptuous and dismissive name.
(We are so full of such things... )
At any rate, having given them dismissive names, we will no longer have to care about what happens to them.
Union workers we can also dismiss; unions are not popular. Bill Kelly of WVIA did not even try to answer the query of the man who called in asking why union workers could not seem to get jobs. It was a sane question, but Kelly could no more answer it in the context of that particular program than the unhappy Gabrielle Giffords could answer Jared Laughner's crazy question to her.
Let us not forget city dwellers in their millions, the New Yorkers and Philadelphians and Baltimoreans, who certainly will not mind having no water and atrociously expensive food. Or will they?
These are some of the certain losers. Who, then, will profit by this natural gas rush? In the long run, I fear, nobody. In the short run, perhaps corporations and their stockholders. But in the last analysis even executives and stockholders must eat and drink. The triumph of fracking may place such activities beyond the reach of most of us. Even, perhaps, executives and stockholders.
What do I think SHOULD be done, in this crisis of jobs and the environment? We should be investing in new technologies and alternate energy, and putting workers to work in these areas. Only to the extent that these efforts do not generate enough energy or jobs should we delve into the Marcellus shale for what we need. And this should be done only with careful planning and control.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Small Book about a Great City: Pittsburgh

Recently I heard somebody comment on the radio that "we wouldn't like to be like Pittsburgh." I forget the context--I was just too aggravated to listen to the rest. I have only been able to visit the place once, and that was after the steel mills that for decades had made it famous had already shut down. I found it a pleasant, attractive place, with one of the more spectacular settings of any U.S. city. With what part of this did the radio commentator have a problem? I'll never know, I suppose.
Pittsburgh also happens to be one of Pennsylvania's greatest historical sites. Empires clashed here, and shaped the destiny not only of our nation, but of an entire continent.
It was all because of its location. The future city grew up where two great rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela, came together to form a still greater one: the Ohio. Anyone who wanted to control access to the territory west and south of here would need to control this spot, today known by residents as The Point.
In the 18th century two great European powers--Great Britain and France-- were waging a series of what amounted to world wars, hoping to attain land, power, and wealth around the globe. The best-known of these wars, and the one that affected Pennsylvania the most, was the last, which ended in 1763. In Europe it was known as the Seven Years' War, and here as the French and Indian War. During it the entire future Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was a battlefield--and no place more than the western region, around Pittsburgh.
Initial European settlements at The Point were military, as both sides battled for control of the vast territories to the west. First the French established Fort Duquesne. After the British drove them out, Fort Pitt succeeded on the site. It was named after William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, who was the British Prime Minister at the time.
The British, of course, won that war; and the United States later had to tussle with its former mother country to win its own access to the west.
Much of this history has almost been forgotten. But not by Len Barcousky and his employer, the "Post-Gazette" newspaper. And it is not surprising that they have long memories. The newspaper and its antecedents have been around Pittsburgh since 1786, Barcousky in its newsrooms for at least 20 years. For both the institution and the man who works for it these are newspaper careers of unusual length. Especially given the way things are going these days.
Now, for the sake of full disclosure, I'd like to say that Len Barcousky and I have been friends for close to forever, and he has been instrumental in helping me accomplish some of my own work. I am about to plug his recently published book on Pittsburgh, but I am not profiting from it in financial terms. All I have is the satisfaction of helping a friend's good work--which is plenty for me.
"Remembering Pittsburgh" is the name of the book, and it is subtitled "An 'Eyewitness' History of the Steel City". It was made possible by the long-lived and farsighted "Post- Gazette", and seems to have originated as a column. Its pieces, which are based largely on stories in the "Post- Gazette" and its rivals, thus are short. and can be read on an individual basis in just a few minutes. (Probably an asset in our fast-moving times.)
"Remembering Pittsburgh" recalls both the great (Washington, Lafayette, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt), and the famous of their time, such as brilliant singer Jenny Lind and triumphant woman journalist Nellie Bly. (Bly, originally Elizabeth Cochrane of Armstrong County, had set out on a challenge to beat the hero of Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days" at his own fictional game. She did just that. Her own journey was completed in a mere 72 days.)
The book also chronicles fires, explosions, hangings, and other matters of civic interest and concern. And it does not forget to commemorate the founding of the "Post-Gazette" itself.
This is a wonderful introduction to an American--and Pennsylvania-- city it is too easy to sell short. (As the man on the radio did.) If you are in the Pittsburgh area, it is most easily acquired--so I assume--at an office of the "Post-Gazette". If not, you will find it on, although I had a little trouble locating it there. Look it up under "Len Barcousky".

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pennsylvania the War Zone II

A young Virginia officer named George Washington began to make a reputation during the French and Indian War, and on Pennsylvania soil. His role in the next war, the Revolution, would continue the process of making his name immortal. His reputation, again, was enhanced by events here in Pennsylvania. Losing a major encounter like the Battle of the Brandywine might not seem a great qualification for immortality--but holding the army together and shepherding it through the grueling winter at Valley Forge do qualify for candidacy.
The War of 1812, our second against Britain, may seem to have little to do with Pennsylvania; but appearances are deceiving. For a time the British blockaded Philadelphia because it was so important an American port. And their attempt to gain control of the Great Lakes--thwarted so ably by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie--was part of an overall strategy to cut Americans off from access to the West.
We are about to enter the 150th anniversary commemoration of the American Civil War, during which Confederate forces burned Chambersburg, threatened Harrisburg, the state capital, and clashed with the Union army in the titanic Battle of Gettysburg. The Union, of course, won.
To date, this has been the most recent experience of warfare on Commonwealth land. I hope it remains the last for a very long time. Pennsylvania has played host to too many hosts already.