(Above: Scene in the East End of McKeesport, below Highland Grove, during the March 1936 flood.)
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The winter of 1936 was like a lot of winters in Western Pennsylvania --- gloomy and cloudy, with rain and snow, alternating with snow and rain. But in mid-March, a storm center traveling south from Canada collided with another storm moving north from the Gulf of Mexico. Then two smaller storms merged into those.
And beginning March 9, 1936, and continuing for the next two weeks, parts of New England, New York and Pennsylvania were drenched with up to 12 inches of rain. It saturated the ground and filled creeks and streams. And when another storm system moved through on March 16, 1936, the water had nowhere to go.
The end result was the so-called "St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936" --- the worst ever seen in Western Pennsylvania. More than 80 people in the Pittsburgh area died in that flood, 80 years ago this month, including a McKeesport police officer, and property damage was estimated at well over $100 million.
(Above: Crowd watches the Monongahela River rise at the end of Market Street. This area was redeveloped in the 1950s and is now part of U.S. Steel's idled McKeesport Tubular Operations plant.)
At the beginning of March, snow was 4 to 6 inches deep in parts of the Allegheny and Applachian mountains.
Then came the rain. On March 16 and 17 alone, more than 2 inches of rain fell in McKeesport. Clairton reported 2.5 inches and Irwin nearly 3. More than 4 inches of rain was recorded in Somerset and 2.5 inches in Connellsville.
The combination of rain and warmer-than-usual temperatures melted that snow quickly. From the hills, the rain and melted snow flowed into creeks, and then into the Allegheny, Monongahela, Kiskimenitas, Youghiogheny and Conemaugh rivers, which all ultimately drained into the Ohio.
Carrying his trademark golf club in what he described as "the world's largest sand trap," comedian Bob Hope waves to the crowd as he is escorted to the stage at Eskan Village by U.S. Central Command Commander-In-Chief, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. The general and the entertainer are surrounded by staff members, and security forces provided by the Saudi Arabian government. (Photo by Mike Mauer)
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Twenty-five years ago, many people had something more to worry about than a sluggish economy and Christmas shopping. The usual brightness and bustle associated with the holidays were marred by dark clouds of war gathering over Southwest Asia.
On Dec. 22, 1990, oil prices rose to $26 per barrel and looked like they would shoot higher during the cold winter months. Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army was test firing its much-vaunted Scud missiles, and United States troop deployments to Saudi Arabia were approaching the 300,000 mark.
For families in the United States with loved ones being sent to the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Desert Shield, Christmas of 1990 may have seemed an empty holiday. Service members sweltering in the desert heat 8,000 miles away had an even harder time getting into the spirit of seasonal cheer.
Because of fears that Muslim forces in the coalition against Iraq might be offended, open celebration of Christmas by United States troops stationed around heavily populated areas in Saudi Arabia was discouraged. Additionally, 18-hour duty days, a ban on the consumption of alcoholic beverages and a definite lack of snow in the forecast helped quell the chances of Desert Shield troops enjoying any type of holiday whatsoever.
On Oct. 31, 2015, our Internet radio station, WMCK.FM, will present the famous Oct. 30, 1938, broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" as part of a special evening of old-time radio programs beginning at 5 p.m.
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In the days before television, people listened to the radio in the evenings. In fact, as crazy as it seems, many of them even listened to a ventriloquist.
Edgar Bergen -- maybe best-known today as the father of actress Candice Bergen --- was one of America's most popular comedians in the 1930s and '40s. His "dummies," including mischievous, wisecracking Charlie McCarthy, were as famous and beloved as The Muppets today.
In 1938, Bergen and McCarthy were featured on a weekly, Sunday night hour-long variety show sponsored by Chase and Sanborn Coffee, and heard over NBC. The program was so popular that CBS, the major competing network, couldn't even find a sponsor for its show.
So, CBS countered with a series of hour-long plays produced by Orson Welles under the title, "The Mercury Theater of the Air."
At 8 p.m. Oct. 30, 1938, Edgar Bergen presented a Halloween-themed program called "The Haunted House," featuring singer Nelson Eddy and a short play called "There's Always Juliet" with Madeleine Carroll and Don Ameche.
In Pittsburgh, it was carried on WCAE (which later became WTAE), which was then at 1220 kHz AM.
WJAS, then at 1290 kHz AM in Pittsburgh, was the local CBS network affiliate. At 8 o'clock, Welles and his actors presented a play based on the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells (no relation) called "The War of the Worlds."
To spice things up, Welles and his actors moved the setting of Wells' novel up to their present day (1938) and made it sound like a 1938-style news broadcast.
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All was well, apparently, until listeners of the Edgar Bergen "Chase and Sanborn Hour" tuned out when that show took a musical break.
In Pittsburgh, they turned their dials just a few spaces, from 1220 to 1290, and found Welles and his presentation of "The War of the Worlds." They were just in time to hear the actors, playing news broadcasters and eyewitnesses, giving the details of an invasion of Earth by Martians.
It should have been hard to mistake for a real news bulletin --- in fact, four times during the show, the CBS announcers explained it was fictional --- but thousands of people did reportedly make that mistake.
(White Oak Park photo courtesy Allegheny County Parks Foundation)
The communities that now include White Oak, East McKeesport, North Versailles Twp., Wilmerding, Wall, South Versailles Twp., Versailles and much of McKeesport were part of one large township until the 1800s.
"Versailles Twp." was one of seven original communities created when Allegheny County was formed in 1788, and stretched from the mouth of Turtle Creek, down the south bank of the Monongahela River to the Youghiogheny River.
Over the years, though, as white settlers moved into the region and established towns and industries, communities were carved away from Versailles Twp., beginning with the "borough" (not city) of McKeesport in 1842 and continuing until 1948, when the remaining seven square miles of Versailles Twp. became White Oak Borough.
Local authors (and brothers) Frank Kordalski Jr. and Mike Kordalski have written a book called Old Versailles Township. They were our guests last week on "Two Rivers, 30 Minutes." We asked them how they became interested in the subject, and about some of the colorful events and places that shaped more than 200 years of history.
"Two Rivers, 30 Minutes" airs at 8:30 a.m. Fridays on WEDO (810) and at 8 a.m. Sundays on WZUM (1550), and is also available as a free podcast from Stitcher and iTunes.
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ADVERTISEMENT: Support for "Two Rivers, 30 Minutes" comes in part from the McKeesport Hospital Foundation. Since 1976, the foundation has addressed key concerns that affect our good health, as well as our education, social needs, recreation, and safety and security. The foundation partners with UPMC McKeesport and other agencies to eliminate barriers to all services for all residents of the Mon Valley. Visit www.mckhospitalfoundation.com, or call (412) 664-2590.
Ken Curcio and Rami Nassar before a recent VFW Honor Guard event at Kennywood. Twenty-five years ago, both served during Operation Desert Storm. (Mike Mauer photo)
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The coming months will note a unique anniversary for two life members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 914 Intrepid West Mifflin. The former warriors are marking 25 years since their service during Operation Desert Storm.
Rami Nassar and Ken Curcio, both of West Mifflin, served in Saudi Arabia during the first Persian Gulf War two-and a-half decades ago. And although much of the world seemingly remembers the conflict as a sanitized news blip on television, the military experiences of both these men have impacted them for the rest of their lives.