Maxo Vanka Murals: (1937, 1941)
St. Nicholas Croatian Church in Millvale
Perhaps the greatest work of art in our region graces the walls of St. Nicholas Church in Millvale. In two intense working sessions in 1937 and 1941, Croatian artist Maxo Vanka created a mystical vision of harmony and redemption rising out of the horrific realities of war, greed and injustice. Vanka, an illegitimate child of Austro-Hungarian nobility, was given a rigorous art education in Zagreb and then Brussels, where he witnessed the horrors of war during the 1914 German invasion of Belgium.
The second series of murals painted in 1941 reflect his revulsion at the butchery of modern warfare. The murals provide a powerful philosophic ensemble. Religious depictions of Christ and Mary’s suffering are juxtaposed to secular sufferings of soldiers and workers. The depictions of war and greed are countered by the maternal presence of Mary, Queen of Croatia, and by the stubborn endurance of nature and community. The church itself is represented as a gift of labor growing out of the communal table of the family. In contrast, the capitalist sits alone at a table groaning with food with a black servant and a hungry man begging for scraps at his feet. The most iconic mural, “The Immigrant Mother Raises her Son for Industry,” depicts Croatian women mourning over the body of a miner killed in an explosion. In the background, family members leave on a doomed rescue mission.
Harwick Mine Explosion (1904)
Coal mining in Pennsylvania took a terrible toll of death and injury for workers and environmental degradation for communities. For 26 years between 1890 and 1920, mining deaths exceeded one thousand per year in the Commonwealth. The worst coal mining disaster in Allegheny County occurred in 1904 at the Harwick Mine (18a) running under the towns of Cheswick and Springdale. On January 25, 1904, a methane gas explosion killed 186 miners and several rescuers as well. Heroic efforts of the rescuers inspired Andrew Carnegie to set up the Carnegie Hero Fund. The United Mine Workers erected a large stone memorial over the mass grave of 165 bodies, most burned beyond identification.
The Allegheny Valley was termed the “Black Valley” less for its coal than for the ferocious repression of worker organization. In 1927, over a thousand people gathered in Harmarville to protest the execution of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti and a trooper was killed while breaking up the rally on horseback. Harmarville miners were strong unionists whose heritage is honored by a statue dedicated in 2009 at the Harmar Fire Company. America’s most famous environmentalist, Rachel Carson, grew up in nearby Springdale and her father worked at the Harwick mine. In 2000, union painters, carpenters and sheet metal workers donated labor to restore the Rachel Carson Homestead.
Fannie Sellins Murder (1919)
Fannie Sellins was an effective and charismatic organizer for the United Mineworkers. A leader of a garment strike in St. Louis, she came to Pittsburgh in 1913 and worked for UMW organizing drives in West Virginia and southwest Pennsylvania. She described her work as the distribution of “clothing and food to starving women and babies, to assist poverty stricken mothers and bring children into the world, and to minister to the sick and close the eyes of the dying.” She was arrested defying an injunction against union organizing in Colliers, West Virginia. “I am free and I have a right to walk or talk any place in this country as long as I obey the law…the only wrong they can say I’ve done is to take shoes to the little children in Colliers who needed shoes. And… if it be wrong to put shoes upon those little feet, then I will continue to do wrong as long as I have hands and feet to crawl to Colliers.”
On August 26, 1919, as Fannie walked with miners’ wives and children to a striking mine in Natrona Heights, she saw a striker, Joseph Starzelski, being beaten. Rushing to his aid, the mine police shot her in the back and crushed her skull with a powerful blow. The picture of the murdered Sellins was hung in union halls during the 1919 Steel Strike that began just weeks later. The UMW beautifully marked the grave of Sellins and Starzelski in Arnold cemetery.
Pennsylvania Turnpike (1938)
The Pennsylvania Turnpike, a Franklin D. Roosevelt New Deal project, created the template that led to the creation of the Interstate Highway system under President Eisenhower. Begun in 1938, it was the first long-distance, limited access highway in the U.S. Modeled on the German Autobahn, it used a series of abandoned tunnels dug for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s South Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1880s. The initial section from Carlisle to Irwin east of Pittsburgh cut the drive time between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg by more than half.
Eighteen thousand workers were needed to build the road over rugged ridges and narrow valleys. Bulldozers and dynamite achieved the deepest highway cuts made up to that time. Nineteen workers lost their lives in its construction. Initially, the idea was to use WPA workers, but the complexity of the task prompted the use of private contractors that were union or became union. A Heavy and Highway Construction consortium included unionized contractors with the Operating Engineers, Carpenters, Ironworkers, Cement Finishers, Laborers and Pile Drivers. The building trades unions had seen many small locals in the center of the state go defunct during the Great Depression. The turnpike and increased economic activity due to military expenditures stimulated the steady expansion and consolidation of the skilled trades local unions.
Other Points of Interest
Workmen’s Circle Branch 975 Cemetery – workers’ association and insurance cooperative popular with Eastern European and Jewish immigrants. Irwin Lane, Reserve Township.
Glass Workers – Made the Pittsburgh region a major center for glass production throughout the 19th century. Many towns in the area made glass products, including Jeannette, Creighton and towns along the Ohio River. A historical marker for glass workers is near the Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant, 9th Street and 3rd Avenue, Ford City.
Allegheny Ludlum Steel – A large specialty steel mill on the banks of the Allegheny River. Major renovation and expansion is presently underway at the facility represented by the United Steelworkers. 100 River Rd, Brackenridge.
Alcoa – First made aluminum by an electrolytic process invented by Charles Hall in Pittsburgh’s Strip District in 1889. As the nature and properties of the metal became understood, the first major aluminum production plant was built in New Kensington in 1891. Downtown historic district, Fourth and Fifth Avenues, New Kensington.