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The Story of Crow Island

(Present day site of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, West Aliquippa, Is detailed for us here In this edited 1947 letter by W.D. Craig.)
Milestones Vol 10 No 3--Summer 1985

October 13, 1947

Mr. David 1. Day,
River Editor,
The Work Boat,
Dale, Indiana

Dear Mr. Day:

The story of Crow Island would be pretty much the history of my life. I was born at Baker's Landing just below Crow Island. My grandfather was the wharfmaster there. I spent all of my formative years on the island and have seen it almost every day since.

Crow Island is the southernmost of two islands, the other being Hog Island. Hog Island lies immediately to the north of Crow Island and is separated from it by a branch of the Ohio River. The two islands are almost identical in size and shape. For the first twelve years of my sixty-five, my father farmed Hog Island, and for the next twenty-five years farmed Crow Island. Practically all of my waking hours were spent there.

To put you straight on the historical sequence of ownership, I can tell you that Crow Island, which contained 70 acres and 156 perches, was patented by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Jonathan Hill on the 3rd day of April, 1811. It had been settled and cleared long before that. The old gentleman. by his will dated June 30, 1836, authorized his executors to sell his real estate. They sold the upper or southern most half of the island to Thomas McKee on March 30.1852. Mr. McKee sold it on November 1, 1872 to William W. Irons, John D. Irons and James D. Irons. James D. Irons sold his undivided one-third of the island to George C. Hill in 1892. George C. Hill died and left his one-third interest to his widow, Lavina. John D. Irons sold his interest to my father, Joseph A. Craig, on November 26th, 1894, and Harper S. Irons, who was the devinee of William W. Irons, his father, sold his interest to Father on November 30, 1894. Mrs. Hill then sold Father her interest in the island. My father sold his part of the island to the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation on August 10, 1917. Jonathan Hill's executors sold the lower or northern -one-half of the Island to John R. McDonald on March 30, 1852. John R. McDonald's executors sold it to Joseph Lincoln Grimm on September 14, 1900. Grimm sold it to Harrison Miller March 1st, 1901. Miller sold it to August J. Minke September 20, 1901; Minke in turn sold it to the Freedom Oil Works February 26, 1913, and the Freedom Oil Works sold it to Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation October 1, 1929. The Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation now owns the entire island. you see what a dry uninteresting recital of title that is. It does not tell you anything about the island and leaves no picture in your mind.

When I knew it first, both sides of it and both ends were covered with huge willows next to the water and with a profusion of iron woods, locusts, maples and sycamores - not the puny oriental plane of today, but old-fashioned sycamores. The island was separated from the mainland by the West Branch of the Ohio, which we called the Back River, and the Back River in turn divided into two branches, one of which separared the southern end of Hog Island from the northern end of Crow.

The old town of Baden stood on the mainland on the eastern side of the Ohio directly opposite the island. The village of Aliquippa was later built on the western bank of the river overlooking the island. The town was on the site of an old Indian encampment and was named after the old Seneca queen, Aliquippa.

Before the building of the town, the young men from the settlements along the river were farmers during the season of low water and "ran the river" in the winter and spring. Upon their retirement many of them built palatial homes on the very edge of the bank overlooking the river which they knew so well. They spent the days of their declining years on their porches looking at the scenes of their boyhood and watching the river craft go up an d down. Among these, which I remember well, were Captain Tom Jones, Captain U.C. Jones, Captain David McDonald, Captain John Douds - and on the Baden side of the river, Captain Cal Blazier and Captain-John Dippold. Some of your very aged readers may remember these men. They were all forceful characters.

During the periods of great floods, steamboats going up the river used the back channel between the island and the mainland in order to save distance and avoid the strong currents of the main river. Among these boats, that I remember, was the old Tornado and the Joseph Walton.

During the winter, the Back River froze completely over, and the children from the villages on both sides of the river spent many happy hours skating there.

When I first trapped muskrats on the island and gigged frogs in the Back River, there was the remains of Jonathan Hill's settlement house on the west side of the island near the lower end. The foundation and remains of some of the old buildings still stood there until a few years ago. On the upper end of the island, on the east side near the head, in a group of locust trees and ironwoods, were the remains of Thomas McKee's house. Nothing can be seen of either of those settlements today. The deed for the upper half of the island contained a clause reserving to the owner of the lower half a cart-way over the upper half and the right to load freight and "wood of any kind" at the bar and beach at the head of the island. At the head of the island on the east side along the main river was the old Greenwood Landing, a port of calI for the river packets, which were in the early days the only means of reaching Pittsburgh, twenty miles away, from the settlements along the river. The wharf and the other buildings at the Greenwood Landing were gone when I first knew it, but many a log and piece of driftwood Father and I tied up at the old landing when the river was in flood.

The soil was very sandy and- when fertilized produced wonderful crops of almost everything but the so-called grass crops. They were always short in the straw and light in the head. It was not good for wheat or oats - the soil was too sandy, but it produced marvelous crops of millet and corn. The principal crop was corn. It was raised for the market. About twothirds of the island was planted to corn, the rest of it to garden truck, principally cabbage and tomatoes. We shipped these crops to the commission merchants in Pittsburgh.

Beginning about 1905, the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation built a huge steel mill on the mainland just south of the island. When the mill was completed and in operation, our island became useless as farmland. The dirt, graphite and smoke from the steel plant and the railroad yards of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Company covered all vegetation on the island with a thick graphite-like scum, so that its usefulness for farming purposes was practically at an end.

You must know that almost every year the island was innundated at the time of the February flood and on more than one occasion by the "June Raise".

In these early days, every flood brought compensation to us for the damage it did.The river was full of boards, logs and other driftwood. Father, my uncle and I would set out in our skiff and land these logs along the willows on both sides of the island. I well remember helping land three barges which had escaped from the harbor at Pittsburgh. These were profitable captures. The coal companies paid us as much as thirty-five or forty dollars for saving one of their barges. The water would pile logs all across the head of the island and down both sides. In the spring, we would haul these logs out to the edge of the river and pile them up. If the owners of the branded logs did not claim them, and they seldom did, the floating sawmill would tie up to our landing in the late summer and turn these logs into lumber. Another source of riches which the floods brought us was coal. Every big flood would strew the head of the island and the willows along the upper end of the island with fifty to one-hundred tons of lump coal. We were glad to have it. It took a lot of lumps of coal to keep our family warm.

The river around the island during my boyhood teemed with fish of almost all kinds. Two well known gentlemen who lived in the community at that time, whose names I will not mention because their descendants still live here, had a shanty concealed in the woods and underbrush at the lower end of Crow Island and made their living seineing the waters of the Back River. I have seen them load bushels of fish at each drawing of the seine. They sold these fish at Rochester and what was then Phillipsburg. When the fish warden and Ike Lazarus, the county detective, investigated their activities, as they frequently did, these men were peaceful farmers. Their seine was hidden in the upper branches of the very tree under which the officers stood while seeking evidence to arrest these men.

We never found arrowheads or any other evidence of Indian occupancy of the island. I have often thought that that was probably due to the annual floods which took such things away or covered them up with sand. There was plenty of Indian relics on the mainland to the west.

A huge sycamore stood on the side of the island and there was a circular hole about nine or ten inches in diameter about eight or ten feet above the ground. The old timers said that a cannon ball fired by General Anthony Wayne's army, which had quartered for the winter across the river at Legionville, had been embedded in the trunk of the tree. The tree is gone now, as areallof the other trees which once covered so much of the island.

I am sure, Mr. Day, you wouldn't be interested in hearing much more about Crow Island. The day of back-breaking toil which I spent there. the tragedies and sorrows that come to me and the pleasures which I enjoyed in the harvests there mean much to me, but would mean little to you or your readers.

I have written this because it has given me a little pleasure to recall my boyhood, and it gives me a great deal of heartache now to stand upon the river bank and see the ghastly ruins of what once was a boyhood paradise.

Yours very sincerely,

W.D. Craig