The Unimaginable Grief of One Mon Valley Family in the early 1900s

The Unimaginable Grief of One Mon Valley Family in the early 1900s

The first half of the twentieth century saw tremendous growth in Donora and the greater Monongahela Valley. Donora itself sprang into being in 1901 and rumbled from just four homes and about a dozen people to more than 1,000 homes and 6,000 people in three short years. With that growth, though, came untold anguish.

Times were hard those days. Families throughout the valley experienced horribly sad events. Mothers died during childbirth, children died from whooping cough and diphtheria, and fathers and uncles were killed or lost limbs in mill accidents. Such devastating incidents were regrettably common. Less commonly a “freak” accident would take a loved one. Howard and Iva Hart experienced one of each kind.

Howard Hart was an engineer with Donora Southern Railroad. For a time he and his wife, the former Iva Dail Coughenour, lived with their growing family in Newell, a tiny town south of Donora. By 1937 Howard and Iva were parents to five children, with another on the way. Their first child, Harold, had perished from pneumonia at sixteen months, when Iva was pregnant with her second child, Robert.

In Newell the family lived near the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie (PL&E) switching yard, a track-filled area where engines could pick up and drop off cars. PL&E was part of the massive New York Central Railroad, which connected rail systems in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and West Virginia, as well as locations in Ontario and Quebec. In southwestern Pennsylvania the PL&E line curls along the eastern edge of the Monongahela from Brownsville north through Newell, Monessen, Webster, Pittsburgh, and on to Youngstown, Ohio. A few miles above Brownsville the gently meandering river turns markedly west into a sharp, finger-shaped curve. Newell, a village of not quite a thousand citizens at the time, occupies the very tip of that finger. Trains without stops in Newell would slow as they entered the bend, move along at a slow, steady pace through the town, and then accelerate past the bend. Trains that needed to pick up or drop off cars, though, angled off into the switching yard.

Newell from across the Monongahela River

It was March 18, 1937. Howard gave his ten-year-old son, Billy, a nickel to buy some penny candy at a shop downtown. Billy’s older brother, Robert, was a crossing guard and had been assigned to help kids cross railroad tracks near the switching station. Robert might have brought his younger brother with him that day, or perhaps Billy met Robert there. In any case, Billy tried to cross the tracks just as a switching engine was moving through the area.

Old switch near railroad tracks

Billy caught one of his high-buttoned shoes near the tracks, perhaps a switching lever, and fell beneath the engine’s wheels. A woman saw the accident and started screaming. The train’s engineer, George Blake, heard the screams and yanked the brake handle as far right as he could, trying to stop the train, but it was too late. The wheels had cleaved the boy diagonally, from shoulder to hip. It was four o’clock in the afternoon.

The coroner brought the body to the Hart home and placed it on the family’s large, heavy wooden library table. In small towns without a funeral home, people who died were often laid out at home, so the body could be cleansed and the family could stand vigil overnight. The vigil served as a show of respect for the deceased and also gave gravediggers a chance to hollow out a final resting place in a cemetery or back yard. The funeral would be held at home the following day, usually in the parlor, and burial would follow immediately thereafter.

Iva and Howard Hart

Howard and Iva must have felt unspeakable grief as they watched Billy’s mutilated body, his knickers still on, placed on the table, a table they had dined on, folded laundry on, and gathered around as a family and with friends. Fate saw to it that Iva was pregnant when she lost Billy, just as she was pregnant when Harold died. Iva would deliver a second daughter, Nancy Lee, just five months later.

The Harts remained in Newell for a time, but their grief proved too much to bear. “We moved from Newell when I was four,” recalled Bonnie Rozik, one of Billy’s sisters, “because my mother couldn’t stay there any longer, where my brother was killed on that railroad.” The distraught family fled to a log cabin in Eldora, near American Steel & Wire’s playground, Eldora Park, and eventually settled into a modest twin in Monongahela.

Little Billy’s death left the family forever changed. Howard carried a burning guilt inside him until the day he died, believing that Billy’s death had been his fault. Howard’s last words embodied his anguish: “I should have never given Billy that nickel.”

Leave a Reply