Once a Native American hunting ground, Monessen rises over a horseshoe bend in the Monongahela River.
[ Mouse over to magnify or click image to enlarge it. ]
Birds Eye View of Monessen Photo credit: Western Pennsylvania Historical Society
Monessen, named combining "Mon" for the Monongahela River and "essen" the German city of Essen, the famous German steel-making center. It was created by land speculators fairly late in the history of the Monongahela River Valley, after neighboring towns had already been settled. The East Side Land Company bought the land originally encompassing the A. MCMAHAN and W. J. MANOWN farms.
In 1894, a group of Pittsburgh capitalists, led by Colonel James M. SCHOONMAKER, a Civil War war hero and V.P. of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, formed the East Side Land Company to purchase the land on which Monessen stands with Philander C. KNOX, later President Roosevelt's U.S. Attorney General and President Taft's U.S. Secretary of State, his law partner, Judge James H. REED, Henry Sellers MCKEE, glass maker and developer of usage of natural gas in manufacturing, George B. MOTHERAL of Judge Reed's law firm and George O. MORGAN.
In 1896, William Henry DONNER, President of the National Tin Plate Company, came to the Pittsburgh area looking for a site for a new plant.
After visiting Judge REED, a meeting was set with Colonel SCHOONMAKER who was actively promoting the interests of the East Side Land Company to develop the land they had purchased to benefit his employer, the railroad. Colonel SCHOONMAKER proposed a free site of twenty acres and a cash bonus of $10,000. William DONNER saw the cheap freight rates, cheap coal and gas supplies, ample water supply and good rail and river transportation, so he agreed to the offer. He built a home at 435 Parkway and began construction of his new plant in the early Spring of 1897.
He joined the East Side Land Company, was elected to the school board and established the Monessen Water Company.
Four mills started running immediately tin, steel, chain, and fence. These mills filled the work positions by importing immigrants from various European countries. After just two years there were 10,000 people living in Monessen. The city was divided into groups depending on the ethnic origin such as Italian, Slovak, African American, Ukrainian, etc. All together there were 27 different nationalities. Each area had its own church, grocery store, and club. Here, immigrants enjoyed the highest per capita income anywhere in the United States.
The East Side Land Company hired M. J. ALEXANDER as their real estate manager and proceeded to hire engineers, as they opened an office. Sale Day for the real estate lots was set for 27 July 1897. It was Alexander, who named the community, "Monessen".
To assist development of the new town, Colonel SCHOONMAKER ordered the railroad tracks to the Pittsburgh, McKeesport and Youghiogheny Railroad moved towards the river to widen the area of the Monessen business district. The East Side Land Company secured John HEAD of the law firm, Moorhead and Head, to give a welcoming speech on Sale Day and outline the plans for the new enterprise. He spoke for nearly an hour. Gross sales outdid the projections of the East Side Land Company.
In May of 1898, the National Tin Plate Company began operations, using a new patented process introduced by William Henry DONNER, thus becoming Monessen's first employer. He came up with the idea of rolling sheets using a continuous process. The plant employed 550 men and had eight mills. Soon, however, the Company was sold to become part of the newly formed American Tin Plate Company. The Monessen plant would become known as the National Works. William DONNER became the first president and manager until his retirement in 1900, when his brother, Percy E. DONNER, took over until 1 March 1904.
Sales of lots began on 27 July 1897, for the general public and other employers. On 30 July 1898, a petition was presented to the Court asking for a borough charter, which was granted on 3 September 1898. A special election was then called for 8 November 1898, in Louttit Hall, at the corner of Eighth and Donner. John BEALL, Sr. was chosen as Burgess (Mayor).
The first record of Jewish arrivals in Monessen is found in 1898 when Abram NAYHOUSE and Emanuel FELDMAN settled here.
Max KRAUSE is also mentioned as an early settler.
By the turn of the century, Monessen was one of the most progressive of the smaller industrial cities in Western Pennsylvania's famous industrial Monongahela River valley.
Known for its cultural diversity, Monessen's predominantly immigrant population had the highest naturalization rate in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The vibrant neighborhoods established by the immigrants were entirely sustained by the local mills.
Monessen became a borough on 3 September 1898 and experienced rapid growth in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the population increasing from 2,197 in 1900 to 11,775 in 1910 and then to 18,179, in 1920.
By 1920, Monessen had thirteen large manufacturing plants, employing thousands of men and whose pay roll was of enormous proportions.
Tin plate, steel, wire and steel fence mills; foundries, machine shops, lumber companies, breweries, brick works, box factories, are just some of the industries that have made this town one of the busiest for its size in the state.
The population was composed of an up-to-date, aggressive and progressive citizenship that took pride in their city and their homes. All the most modern and up-to-date improvements that belong to every well-governed city was found in Monessen, such as well-kept streets, good street car lines, filtered water, free mail delivery, electric lights, well-conducted newspapers, 20 church organizations, good hotels, a fine school system, good police force and a well-organized volunteer fire department. The principal streets were well paved with Belgian block and vitrified brick.
By this time, there was almost three hundred merchants in this city and they all took an active interest pertaining to the welfare of the community. Monessen's industries were called upon more than ever to support the war effort and to supply the enormous demand that the world required for its reconstruction efforts.
While there were many companies operating in Monessen at this time, the largest employer was Pittsburgh Steel Company, later renamed Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel. In a practice that is shocking by today's standards (and not limited just to Monessen), pay was determined by ethnic background.
For example, a Welsh immigrant would be paid more than an Italian immigrant. A normal workweek was 84 hours (7 days times 12 hours). Employers did not adopt the eight hour workday until the 1920s.
Monessen's status changed from "borough" to "city" on 16 September 1921.
In 1927, the Jewish population of Monessen was 265 inhabitants.
Business continued to grow into the 1930s when the population peaked at about 23,000.
In 1944, after the hard fought election campaign, Hugo J. PARENTE was elected Mayor of Monessen, a position he held for over twenty-eight years (1944 to 1971). Against insurmountable odds, he was instrumental in cleaning up Monessen—a city known for vice and organized crime—to making it an honorable place to live and work for all of its citizens.
Mayor PARENTE's success was due to his dedication to the city and its residents—the right politician, at the right time—to effect such a tremendous change.
In the years following World War II, the region's manufacturers, especially the steel industry, found it harder to compete, leading to a period of employment cut backs.
President John F. KENNEDY gave a speech in Monessen, on 13 October 1962, to a large crowd gathered in the center of the town.
In 1972, the closure of Page Steel and Wire Company was a major setback to the city. A far greater blow to Monessen occurred when its largest employer, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, closed nearly all its Monessen operations in 1986. (The company's rail mill did not close until March 1987.)
The mill's closure marked the end of an era in Monessen's industrial history.
Today, Monessen is a still a small city with about 8,669 inhabitants (2000) and is currently trying to revitalize itself. The city has made efforts for several years to clean up abandoned properties in hopes of revitalizing the city. In January 2010 the first female mayor, Mary Jo SMITH was sworn in at the Monessen Municipal Building.
Popular tourist attractions in and around Monessen include the Greater Monessen Historical Society, the Monessen Public Library, Monessen City Park which has the Veterans' Memorial, a walking track and other amenities and the refurbished Monessen High School Stadium which was built in the 30's as a WPA project. The Monongahela River, sometimes called the "Mon," riverfront at Monessen has boat docks and a fishing area.
Temple Beth AM, a merger in the 70's of the Monessen and Charleroi Congregations, is still active with 20 members. Only five Jewish families live within the city limits of Monessen today. (2011)
(Click the images below to view a larger image.)
Notable citizens (listed alphabetically):
Christian B. ANFINSEN, (b. Monessen, 26 March 1916) was an was an American biochemist. He shared the 1972 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Stanford Moore and William Howard Stein for work on ribonuclease, especially concerning the connection between the amino acid sequence and the biologically active conformation.
Edgar DUNCAN, (b. Monessen, 1 February 1932) was his high school valedictorian and became the first black student to graduate from Duquesne University with a Bachelor's degree in Pharmacy (he graduated magna cum laude) and the first black graduate of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health in 1956. After stepping into his professional life, he did a stint in the U.S. Public Health Service's Commissioned Officers Corps where he ascended to the rank of Assistant U.S. Surgeon General, the first pharmacist promoted to the post. For the next 44 years, his career grew, crossing from New York to Chicago to Washington, D.C. and eventually back to Pittsburgh. He earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Pittsburgh in 1990.
Arthur FELDMAN (b. Monessen, 1913), was a basketball standout for the Monessen Greyhounds, 1928-1930, and led them to three straight section titles. After graduating, he attended Duquesne University and was a member of the basketball team, 1932-1934. In his final two seasons, the Duquesne Dukes—coached by Chick DAVIES—had a record of 34-3. In 1934, he spent a year in Boston playing pro basketball in the old Eastern League, a precursor to the NBA. Then he accepted a teaching/coaching job at East Pike Run High School in Washington County and two years later, he returned to Monessen High School to become head basketball coach. In 1966, he was inducted to the Mid-Mon Valley All Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1984, in the Duquesne University Sports Hall of Fame. In 1986, he was inducted to the Western PA Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. In the early 1980s, living in Florida, he was president of the Jewish Synagogue in Lehigh Acres and a member of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. He passed at the age of 92.
Frederic FELDMAN (b. Monessen, 1910), was a 1928 graduate of Monessen High School and a basketball standout for the Greyhounds three seasons before attending college. After college, he returned to Monessen where he taught for 40 years, retiring in 1973. While teaching, he coached the Monessen Junior High basketball team, the senior high school's tennis coach and started the first intramural high school basketball program in 1935. The Monessen City Council and Board of Education lauded FELDMAN for his service in 1986. In 1989, he earned the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Monessen Veterans Council for his participation in veterans' activities as past commander of the Monessen VFW, president of Monessen Veterans Council, chairman of Memorial and Veterans Day programs, B'nai B'rith, American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, the Monessen Association of Retired Seniors and the Paralyzed, Blinded and Disabled Veterans associations. He was also inducted into the Western PA Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1999. He passed at the age of 100.
Michael MOORER, (b. Monessen, 12 November 1967) became first left-handed boxer to win heavyweight title when he scored majority decision over Evander HOLYFIELD on 22 April 1994. He lost the title to George FOREMAN on 10th round knock-out (KO) on 5 November 1994. He then won the IBF belt in 1996 and defended it twice, before losing it to Evander HOLYFIELD on 8 November 1997. His impressive professional boxing record was 47-4 (wins-losses) with 37 KOs.
Armand NICCOLAI (b. Monessen, 8 November 1911), attended Duquesne University and after graduation, was a guard who played nine seasons in the National Football League for the Pittsburgh Pirates/Steelers leading the team in scoring in four years, including posting a personal best, 28 points in both 1935 and 1936. He booted a Steelers'-best seven field goals in 1936, a record that lasted for the next 14 years.
Blanche THEBOM (b. Monessen, 19 September 1915), was an American operatic mezzo-soprano, voice teacher, opera director and part of the first wave of American opera singers who had highly successful international careers. In the U.S., was associated with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City for 22 years. Opera News stated, "An ambitious beauty with a velvety, even-grained dramatic mezzo, Thebom was a natural for opera: she commanded the stage with the elegantly disciplined hauteur of an old-school diva..." After in 1967, she was an opera director in Atlanta for 6 years, then taught singing on the music faculties of the University of Arkansas and San Francisco State University. She also co-founded the Opera Arts Training Program of the San Francisco Girls Chorus and served on the board of the Metropolitan Opera for nearly four decades. She passed at age 94.
Major General Jessica L. WRIGHT, (b. Monessen, 1953 ?) was selected and promoted to command the 20,000-member Pennsylvania National Guard. She began her military career in 1975 when she entered the Pennsylvania National Guard and became the first female aviator in the National Guard, the first female maneuver brigade commander in the United States Army and the first female member of the Pennsylvania National Guard to attain general officer rank. In 2004, Major General Jessica L. WRIGHT became the State of Pennsylvania's first female Adjutant General.
In addition, Monessen has the distinction of having four other general officers born here, they are Lt. Gen. Joseph L. YAKOVAC Jr., Maj. Gen. Nicholas KAFKALAS (National Guard), Maj. Gen. Harry J. MIER Jr. (National Guard) and Maj. Gen. John W. BURKHART (Air Force).
Robert A. ALPER, USA
Jack BERGSTEIN, USA
Steven BERGSTEIN, USA
Jeffrey L. COHEN, USA
Donna COWAN, USA
Marshall KATZ, USA
Steve LIEBER, USA
Brenda (née CRAMER) MILLER, USA
Ken STAMPFER, USA
Gail (née HOFFMAN) STORCH, USA
Elaine (née STAMPFER) SYLVETSKY, USA