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Memories of Beaver Falls Part 2

Milestones Vol 24. No.3

Editor's Note: Dr. Clarence Edward McCartney of Pittsburgh, noted pulpit orator and author of numerous books rich in historical lore of Western Pennsylvania, has written a series of fine articles for the News Tribune concerning Beaver Falls, his boyhood home.


One of Beaver Falls' famous manufacturing plants, but not running in my day, was the Beaver Falls Cutlery. It began its operations in 1868 in a large factory near the present Brighton-Beaver Falls station. The office building still stands. In 1870 the Cutlery passed into the ownership of the Harmony Society, of the Economites. Under their management 400 Chinese coolies were imported to work in the cutlery. The Cutlery ceased to operate in 1886. I never saw any of the Chinamen; but I can remember whistling to keep my courage up when sometimes at night I passed through their place of sepuichure on the hill at the end of College Hill, in the direction of the old Geneva station. There were, however, two Chinese students at Geneva College. They lived in a house just beyond the present McCartney Library, and I can see them running toward the college when the bell was ringing, their pigtails behind them. One of them, Huey Kin, became a Presbyterian minister, and for many years was the pastor of the Chinese Presbyterian Church in New York City. He married a woman of one of the fine Dutch families of New York, and all his sons rose to distinction in China.

The Harmony Society, or the Economites, played an important part in the industrial development of Beaver Falls. They gave the ground on which Geneva College was built. One of my earliest recollections is that of driving with my father to the Henrici summer home, which must have been back of Rochester or Baden.

In those days there were certain visitors who came at fixed times annually. One was the knife grinder and the umbrella man, with his little foot machine, and the bell with which he announced his advent. Another was the Italian with a grind organ and a red-capped monkey. But the visitor who created the greatest stir was the Italian who came with a trumpet, a pole, and a bear. Some of the students once offered me a quarter if I would get on the bear and ride him. I foolishly accepted their offer, but was quickly precipitated on the ground by a side-sweep of one of the bear's forepaws, but without any disastrous results.


The picnic places of those days were Brady's Run, where Aaron Burr built some of his barges, Aliquippa, with a great steamboat ride up the Ohio River from Rochester, and picturesque Rock Point. What a place it was! Beautiful walks through the forest and along the hillsides and graceful bridges across Connoquenessing. Sitting on the lawn of our home we used to watch on summer evenings the long procession of passenger trains bearing the multitudes from Rock Point homeward to Pittsburgh, all waving their handkerchiefs out of the windows.

The first time that I attended the circus, Barnum & Bailey's, it was held down near the Beaver Falls P. & L. E. Station. We saw the beasts only, and were not permitted to look upon the unholy sights of the ring. But once peering through the canvas, I saw a young woman, clad in less clothing than I had been accustomed to, jumping from the back of a horse through a paper hoop. In later years the circus pitched its tent on the site of the present Geneva football stadium. Like many other boys, I earned my way in by carrying water for the elephants and the camels. The performance that I remember most vividly was that by a young woman, who with her arms clasped across her breast and holding to something with her mouth, came down a wire from the top of the main tent to the ground.

It was a stirring sight when the fire engines, drawn by big gray horses, came out of the engine-house on the corner of Eleventh Street. It was a common sight in my boyhood days to see the farmers driving up Main Street in the winter with bobsleds and the colts running loose along side their mothers. Bennetts Run, too, was a favorite picnic ground, for there was a beautiful cascade that flowed, and I suppose still flows over the rocks there. Wallace's Run was another beautiful glen. It always appealed to my mother and made her think somewhat of the beautiful glens of Scotland. We boys used to take delight in finding our way through the tunnel under the Pennsylvania railroad. The Wallace house stood a little further along on the road leading to Homewood. On the Sabbath afternoons we would see the Wallace surrey with the Wallace family that lived in Beaver Falls on Sixth Avenue, I think, driving slowly along for a visit to the Wallace farm and homestead at Wallace's Run.

I am the only member of our family who was not at sometime either a student or a teacher in Geneva College. But, in a certain sense, I was born in the college. One of the ambitions of boyhood was to walk clear around the college on the stone curbing, which ran about four feet above the ground. How desperately and eagerly we clung with our bare feet and our bare hands to the outjutting rocks as we aimed at the great goal, to get clear around the college without once falling to the ground.

My mother raised the bell that still rings the hours at Geneva College, and what a beautiful and melodious bell it is! Whenever I hear it now, pealing softly over the hill and dale and river, the memories of the past begin to vibrate within my breast. And, as of old, it summed the students to their studies and their ambitions, so down to this very day, the magic of that bell seems to tell my soul to press on and upward.


Although we were but children, we were permitted to attend the meetings of the two literary societies, the Aletheorian and the Adeiphic. They met in beautifully decorated halls on the third story of the college, with an open, iron-grilled balcony - quite a place for college lovers, too, on a moonlight night - running between them. The meetings were conducted with much pomp and dignity. The Scriptures were read and prayer was of fered. The program consisted of essays, orations and debates, with criticism by one of the professors, or by the students. Both societies managed to have good orchestras, too. The annual contest was undoubtedly the great event of the college year. As a child I used to sit in the front seats in the college chapel and listen to the college orators. How they stirred my soul! Among those I remember were Frank Agnew, Wesley Marlatt, Walter McCarroll, my brothers Ernest and Robertson, and William Cox. I can still hear Billy Cox, describing the Scottish girl in her delirium, and who had caught the sound of the bagpipes in the distance, crying out, "The Campbells are coming!" when Lucknow was relieved during the Sepoy mutiny.

The students had no.. . kindred diversion. . . and they... chicken roasts, putting cows in the belfry, and gates on top of the college. The day after Halloween it looked as if Samson had been abroad, for all the gates of Gaza (and every home had a gate in those days) were on display, clear up on top of the college building.

I have always been grateful that my boyhood days were spent on the banks of a river, and a beautiful river it then was, and with a beautiful name. People who live in Beaver Falls get so accustomed to the name of their town that they do not realize how beautiful and melodious a name Beaver Falls is. In the early days, of course, the Beaver was a much more beautiful stream that it is now.

On Sabbath afternoons, after we had come home from church in Beaver Falls, we would lie resting on the lawn in front of our house, towards the river. Presently we would see the big covered carriage of Deacon White, drawn by powerful coal mine horses, passing along the road across the river, lost for a little in the foliage of the trees, then reappearing again, rounding at length the house on the hill at Bennetts' Run; then, lost for a while in the Bennett's Run valley; finally emerging again and winding slowly up the steep road till it came to a red gate where grew a butternut tree; stopping there for a little while one of the family got out to swing the gate; then on up the hill to the house and out of sight to the barn. There were three boys and two girls in the White family, John, a scholarly fellow, studied at Johns Hopkins and taught for a time at Geneva, and then for many years at St. Johns in Annapolis. I remember preaching once in the church at Annapolis, and sitting in the pulpit, I saw a man coming up the aisle of the church. There could be no doubt about it! It was John White. I went with my family to California before I was ready for high school or preparatory school; but I took some Latin lessons from John White, and remember his lessons with gratitude. There were two sisters, Mary and Margaret, and two others, Will, a professor at State College, I believe, and Hugh. Once when roughnecks from Beaver Falls were raiding the White orchard Hugh opened on them with a shotgun, wounding one of the marauders.


In the summer days we spent much of our time in the river. Before the P & LE railroad was rebuilt and the dam below the Fetterman bridge was built, there were pleasant meadows along the riverside, and at certain times of the year you could almost ford the river. There was an island, too, of which today no trace remains, just above the Fetterman bridge. We used to see the cattle fording the river and going over to browse the lush grass on that island.

Oftimes as a child I was puzzled, when the wind was blowing up the river, at the way the waves and whitecaps were going, because it looked as if the river was flowing upstream. In winter we had skating parties on the river, sometimes as far as Homewood. The great thrill was when the ice was what was called "hickory bender," that is, swaying up and down as we skated over it. Every now and then the demon of the river stretched forth his merciless hand and drew someone under, both in summer and in winter. I remember seeing a man who had been dragged out of the river drowned, lying on the bank. Those who had pulled his body out, decently covered his staring eyes with a handkerchief. An impressive gesture to the majesty of death and the sacredness of life, which I have never forgotten.

Across the river ran the old Pennsylvania Canal from Rochester to New Castle. It had fallen into disuse in my days; but living not far from our home, was an old canal boat man, Captain Boyle. He told my brother Albert and me that if we put salt on a robin's tail, we could catch him. Plentifully supplied with salt, we sallied forth one morning to pursue the robins in the meadow next to our home. But alas, we never caught one. After some years, however, we realized that old Captain Boyle had not deceived us; for if you get near enough to a robin to put salt on his tail, you can also take him by the tail.


In our school we were sometimes reminded of the fact that James A. Garfield had ridden the mules along that towpath. He became President of the United States; and if we were industrious and faithful, perhaps the same high honor might come to us. One cold winter night in 1847, a canal boat packet, the "Evening Star," came slowly up to the locks at Rochester (I think Rock Point. dmc). The horn blew, and a husky lad in his teens came up from below to take his turn as bowsman. As, still half asleep, he began to uncoil the rope before paying it out, the rope caught on an obstruction, or ledge, or the edge of the deck. The boy gave it a jerk, then another, and another. Suddenly the rope went free, and the young bowsman, with the strength of his pull, fell over backward into the black and muddy waters. As he sank beneath the water he made an earnest prayer that his life might be spared. He was still holding onto the rope on which he had been pulling; and suddenly, to his immense relief, he felt the rope tighten in his hand, and soon pulled himself up to the deck. After he had helped to work the boat through the locks he went back and picked up the rope again, and tried to see if he could throw it once more into the same crevice where it had caught when it had saved his life. Several hundred times he threw the rope, but never again did it catch. He, therefore, concluded, that the odds were against it catching again, and was convinced that he had been saved by a miracle, and that God must have spared his life for some good purpose. Sure that that purpose was something other than the lot of a mule driver on the canal towpath, he ... job and went back to his widowed mother's home in ... Ohio. After that he ... due time became President of the United States. It was James A. Garfield.

My most vivid memories of the Beaver River are the times when it was at the flood. First you would hear a great groaning and rumbling before the ice went out. Then the gorges gave way, and the ice cakes came roaring down the river. When the ice was gone, and the spring rains came, then the river began to rise again, and soon it covered both the P. & L. E. tracks and the "low grade" Pennsylvania tracks across the river. Then came the boats that had broken loose, logs, trees, chicken coops, and even barns.

In the early nineties, when the river was deepened by the building of a new dam, a steamboat, the "City of Eliwood", made its appearance and ran on regular daily trips up the river as far as Rock Point. Once we took our camping outfit with us, several of us boys, and went up the river on the "City of Ellwood", and established our camp in a valley on the banks of the Connoquenessing. One night a terrific thunderstorm came up, and we took refuge in a farmer's barn, but we slept little that night, for after the thunder had subsided we heard the loud roaring of a man, like the wild Gadarene of the gospels. He turned out to be the father of the farmer, insane, and confined in an outhouse.

Still the Beaver flows on, down to the Ohio, to the Mississippi, to the Gulf, and to the Ocean. So the river flows silently away, like the river of a man's life. On the late afternoons, lying on the lawn of our home, Fern Cliff, and looking up towards the White house on top of the hill across the river, we could see the windows of the house aflame with the reflection of the westering sun. So, as we say farewell once more to the Beaver River, we can see those windows still aflame, symbol of the windows of life, all golden and aflame with memory and with hope.