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How Mayor Lysle Became McKeesport’s Nine-Million-Dollar Man
By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
August 19, 2019
Posted in: History
© Tube City Community Media Inc., except where noted.
McKeesport Mayor George H. Lysle (left) in the Pittsburgh Bulletin-Index, Jerome Boulevard sign in 1949 (right) in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
What’s in a name?
For McKeesport, 80 years ago this week, it was nine million Depression-era dollars.
In August 1939, the federal government gave Allegheny County and McKeesport officials an ultimatum — either remove the name of Mayor George H. Lysle from Lysle Boulevard, or repay $9 million in infrastructure loans and grants.
Not surprisingly, the money won out, and McKeesport City Council voted on Aug. 16, 1939, to rename “Lysle Boulevard” as “Jerome Boulevard.”
It remained that way until Lysle died in 1947 — though it was a few years before the “Lysle Boulevard” signs went back up.
It is probably fair to say that no McKeesport mayor ever wielded the influence of George H. Lysle, with the possible exception of Andrew “Greeky” Jakomas.
But after all, Lysle’s family had been involved in McKeesport politics from the day the town was founded. In fact, he was a direct descendant of the family that gave McKeesport its name.
Lysle’s great-grandmother, Sarah McKee Whigham, was the sister of John McKee, the city’s founder, and a daughter of revolutionary war lieutenant David McKee, who first settled near the junction of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers in 1768, in present-day West Mifflin.
George H. Lysle, the son of Thompson Lysle and Salina Whigham, was born in 1866 on Camden Hill, not far from present-day Dravosburg.
Following two years of high school, George Lysle went into the real estate and insurance business, and in 1894, he was elected to his first term on McKeesport City Council — only three years after the city itself had been elevated from a borough.
Lysle remained on council until 1913, when he was elected mayor for the first time. He would eventually serve seven terms spanning 28 years — at the time, the longest tenure of any mayor of any Pennsylvania city, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and among the longest tenures in the nation.
Lysle was many things. He was a dapper dresser who, it was said, “looked” the part of an important big-city mayor, with pinstriped suits and a flower always pinned to his lapel.
He also was fairly fearless, answering his own phone at any hour of the day or night, brushing aside threats and crank calls.
And along with state Sen. William D. Mansfield, owner of the McKeesport Daily News, Lysle was a staunch opponent of any efforts to create a metropolitan government in Allegheny County, and defended the independence of the many small boroughs and cities outside of Pittsburgh.
Also like Mansfield, Lysle was a rock-ribbed Republican and a friend to McKeesport’s wealthy industrialists.
For its entire history, beginning in 1795, every mayor and burgess of McKeesport had been a Republican. Lysle's political leanings served him well for almost his entire career --- that is, until the Great Depression and the rise of the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Lysle spent his career as a bitter opponent of labor unions, which he considered “Communistic.”
And he wasn't alone in the Mon Valley. In 1919, when organizers from the American Federation of Labor tried to hold a rally in Duquesne, that city's mayor, James Crawford, declared, “Jesus Christ himself couldn’t hold a meeting in Duquesne!”
In McKeesport, Lysle reportedly ordered the police to confiscate union literature for its "subversive" nature --- the First Amendment be damned --- and when city employees began talking about joining a union, he threatened to fire anyone who went on strike.
In 1934, when the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee of the United Mine Workers sought to hold a meeting for workers in McKeesport, Lysle simply denied them a permit. The SWOC wound up meeting at a garbage dump on the shores of the Youghiogheny River; speakers set up their platform on the back of a dump truck.
Interestingly, although Lysle opposed most Democratic proposals and New Deal innovations, he didn’t object to accepting federal money for projects in McKeesport.
It was under Lysle’s administration that McKeesport began planning its first public housing projects, and started the process of creating what became the McKeesport Housing Authority.
And in 1934, McKeesport officials lobbied for money from the federal Public Works Administration to widen narrow Jerome Street into a boulevard.
Jerome Street on an 1874 map of McKeesport. (University of Pittsburgh Archives)
With the help of $689,000 from the PWA, the county was planning to replace the narrow Third Avenue Bridge across the Youghiogheny River with a new four-lane Jerome Street Bridge that would touch down on Market Street.
But Jerome Street itself was barely an alley, hemmed in on both sides by houses and commercial buildings.
If Jerome Street wasn’t widened at the same time that the new bridge was opened, McKeesport officials argued, it “would result in the worst traffic congestion in the history of the county.”
Jerome Bonaparte, later King Jerome I of Westphalia, and namesake of McKeesport's Jerome Street. (Wikimedia Commons)
Who or what was Jerome?
Believe it or not, Jerome Street was named for Jerome Bonaparte, the younger brother of French Emperor Napoleon I.
In 1803, Jerome Bonaparte became a minor American celebrity when he married Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson, daughter of a wealthy merchant from Baltimore.
Then, as now, a European prince marrying an American woman was a big deal. (Think about Meghan Markle's marriage to Prince Harry.)
So attorney Robert Sinclair, who was laying out the first streets in McKeesport, decided to name one of them in honor of Jerome Bonaparte.
Alas, the marriage of Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte wasn’t a happy one. An outraged Napoleon forbid Betsy Bonaparte from entering France, and in 1815, after Jerome Bonaparte married a German princess, Betsy Bonaparte was granted a divorce.
McKeesport's Jerome Street in 1934. (Pittsburgh Press photo)
The history of Jerome Street was unhappy as well.
At first, the street, which passed behind the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad station, was lined with businesses and shops. But as Fifth Avenue became more important, Jerome Street decayed.
By 1934, it was being described as “a slum.”
In November 1934, the PWA awarded approximately $500,000 to widen Jerome Street to four lanes. The improvements to Jerome Street would eventually total $1.6 million in federal funding, according to contemporary newspaper stories.
McKeesport officials allocated $150,000 to condemn and acquire 120 wood-frame houses and 48 brick structures that would need to be demolished — including the old McKeesport Daily News Building, then located at 401 Walnut St.
(The Mansfield family began construction of a handsome new newspaper plant next door.)
And on Dec. 1, 1934, at its last meeting of the year, McKeesport City Council voted to rename Jerome Street “George H. Lysle Boulevard,” in recognition of the mayor’s efforts to secure the federal funding.
(Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph photo)
A little over three years later, on May 4, 1938, the new Jerome Street Bridge opened for traffic.
John J. Kane, chairman of the Allegheny County Commissioners, formally "presented" the bridge to Lysle, and rode with the mayor in a parade along the boulevard that had been named for him.
No one seemed to mind until August 1939, when someone in the Roosevelt administration pointed out that federal law prohibited any public works built with taxpayer funding from being named after a living person.
Who was the snitch? It’s probably impossible to know, but a few educated guesses can be made.
Under FDR’s administration, union organizing received the official protection of the federal government, and union-busting tactics by companies and big-city mayors were restricted.
Ordinary workers in McKeesport, realizing they now possessed clout previously reserved to business owners, began exercising their political strength.
In 1937, noted the Pittsburgh Bulletin-Index, voters in cities and boroughs up and down the Mon Valley --- including Clairton, Duquesne, Homestead and Rankin --- tossed out Republican mayors and burgesses in favor of Democratic candidates endorsed by the steelworkers' union.
The only exception in the Democratic wave, reported the magazine, was McKeesport's George H. Lysle.
It turns out that union members were no longer afraid of mill bosses and old-time union-busting politicians.
Maybe a union leader complained about the name of "Lysle Boulevard," or maybe one of the newly elected Democratic politicians complained.
(And in fairness, Lysle wasn't the only one to be targeted. When the federal government began constructing a dam on the Colorado River in Arizona and Nevada, it was originally called "Hoover Dam" in honor of then-President Herbert Hoover. By the time the dam was completed in 1935, Hoover was out of office, and the Roosevelt administration was referring to it as "Boulder Dam.")
But no matter who blew the whistle in McKeesport, the PWA was adamant: If the city didn’t remove Lysle’s name from the recently completed boulevard, the money would need to be paid back.
And not just the $1.6 million that the federal government had committed to Lysle Boulevard, but also $800,000 spent on the Jerome Street Bridge, $2.5 million for the newly constructed Highland Park Bridge in Pittsburgh, $2.5 million for the Homestead High-Level Bridge, and about $1 million spent on improvements to Banksville Road in Pittsburgh’s South Hills.
In all, the federal government said, Allegheny County was on the hook for almost $9 million that would need to be repaid.
Indexed to inflation, that's equivalent to roughly $167 million 2019 dollars.
Federal officials also stopped payments on another $3 million in infrastructure projects.
County Commissioner Kane protested that the decision to rename “Jerome Street” for Mayor Lysle was a local decision, made by McKeesport, and that the county shouldn't be penalized.
Perhaps so, the federal government replied, but the funds were distributed to Allegheny County on McKeesport's behalf.
Kane referred what he called the “embarrassment” to McKeesport city council. One week later, council members voted “reluctantly” to strip Lysle’s name from the street.
“Far be it from me to in any way put additional taxation on the people of Allegheny County for any selfish reason,” Lysle told reporters.
The story became national news, with the Somerset (Pa.) Daily American joking that “Jerome Bonaparte … though dead for more than a century, won a victory in McKeesport.”
But it wasn’t the end of the controversy. In October, federal officials noticed that signs reading “Lysle Boulevard” were still posted at intersections in McKeesport. Unless the signs themselves came down, grants totaling $162,340 would remain on hold.
McKeesport public works crews pulled down the Lysle Boulevard signs a few days later.
It wasn’t the final indignity that Lysle would suffer: Two years later, Lysle's political luck ran out when McKeesporters voted him out of office.
In 1941, Frank Buchanan was elected McKeesport's first Democratic mayor. (Buchanan would go onto be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946, where he served until his untimely death in 1951 at age 48.)
"For 28 years, Mayor George H. Lysle has been 'Mr. Big' to the citizens of McKeesport, but the days of that dynasty are now numbered," reported United Press.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photo, Oct. 9, 1949.
Yet Lysle remained a political power broker in Republican circles. "Me quit now?" Lysle told UP. "Why should I? I'll keep driving the Republican Party in this town if I'm the last man left."
On the evening of Sept. 24, 1947, Lysle, 80, was relaxing at his home on Shaw Avenue when he suffered a heart attack. He died before an ambulance arrived.
The following week, at its October meeting, city council passed a unanimous resolution urging the city planning commission to ask Allegheny County for permission to return Lysle’s name to the boulevard.
By December 1947, the name "Lysle Boulevard" had been restored, and it's been Lysle Boulevard ever since.
Two years later, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted that signs saying “Jerome Boulevard” were still present at intersections.
The newspaper poked fun, saying the signs demonstrated McKeesporters' "resistance to change."
Maybe. Or maybe they were just worried that some politician would change his mind and make them update the signs again?
Jason Togyer is the editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published August 19, 2019.
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