In the early 1900’s the schools of New Castle, Pennsylvania, started to become seriously overcrowded. In September 1911, to help alleviate some of the overcrowding a brand new high school (New Castle High School) was opened at the Berger site on Lincoln Avenue. The idea of a new junior high school (or schools) gained momentum in the coming years. The old North Street School, which had served as the city high school previous to 1911, was the only dedicated junior high in the city. In July 1917, the city took out an option on the 12-acre Cunningham Avenue site near East Washington Street in the southern part of New Castle. A few months later, in November 1917, the city purchased the property outright for $2,500 an acre with plans to erect a junior high school at the site.
In December 1919, local architect W. G. Eckles was selected for the project and things finally got underway. Plans were drawn up for a separate shop building, where students would learn practical mechanical skills. Construction on the shop building, which cost approximately $76,000, got underway in late April 1920.
By the late summer the shop building was completed and due to severe overcrowding it temporarily took on some elementary level students from the Thaddeus Stevens School. Construction soon started on the foundation of the main school building at a cost of $49,224. In May 1921, with the foundation completed, a bid was accepted at $218,690 for the construction of the school building. A month later, as construction was underway, the yet unnamed school was given its name: Benjamin Franklin Junior High School. On September 9, 1921, in the midst of construction, a huge ceremony was attended by thousands of people as the cornerstone of the building was laid in place.
The school, one of the most modern junior high schools in all the country, was finally opened for classes on Monday, September 11, 1922. Finishing touches continued into early 1923. A dedication ceremony – one of largest ever held in the city – was held during the afternoon of Tuesday, April 10, 1923, and attended by numerous dignitaries including U.S. Senator George W. Pepper, school board president O.P. Brown, and many high-profile executives from various industries around the city. That evening an open house was attended by well over 7,500 people.
The school soon opened for students in grades seven through nine soon with Frank L. Burton serving as the first principal. The shop building served as a technical learning center for high schoolers for many years, at least until a dedicated Lawrence County Vo-Tech High School opened near Cascade Park in 1966. The North Street School continued to serve as a junior high as well, until the new George Washington Junior High School opened in 1929. Ben Franklin and the massive George Washington served as the city’s twin junior high schools for many years to come.
Ben Franklin’s adjoining athletic field, named Franklin Field, was to be used by the junior high football team as well as the team from New Castle High School. The field, constructed by local contractor Michael “M.J.” Scanlon of Mahoningtown, was initially built as a running track in the summer of 1922. The inner portion was converted to a football field the following summer. The first football game took place on Saturday, September 22, 1923, when New Castle High, led by legendary coach Philip H. “Birdie” Bridenbaugh, took on the boys from Mars High School. New Castle won the game by a walloping 55-0 score, led by three touchdowns by quarterback Ralph Day. Ne-Ca-Hi finished that season with a record of 10-0-1.
Lights were installed at the field a few years later and one of the earliest night games in high school football history was played on Friday, September 20, 1929. As many as 12,000 or more fans packed the stands to watch what surely was a spectacle, as New Castle opened the season by taking on the boys from Grove City High School. The next day’s edition of the New Castle News described the scene like this, “…at 8:15 there was a swirling, surging mob around the entrances that defied policemen, guards, and what not. It would have taken a regiment of Marines to straighten out the maelstrom of humanity, but by the time the game was underway a few minutes, the crowd was in and seated.” As far as the traffic situation it was described like this, “From Washington street down to Old Pollock avenue, and from Long avenue over to Taylor street was jammed and packed with automobiles… The resultant traffic jam was one of the worst ever seen here.”
As far as the game goes New Castle, on the strength of two touchdowns by fullback Art Alexander, won the hard fought contest by a score of 13-0. The gridiron boys from Ne-Ca-Hi had a bit of a down year and finished the campaign with a record of 6-3-1.
In mid-December 1929 the school board voted to rename the field as Taggart Field (later Taggart Stadium) in honor of the late John Cannon Taggart Sr., an executive with Carnegie Steel and a champion of New Castle area education and athletics. Taggart, a prominent local civic leader and one-time member of the school board, had died suddenly on December 4, 1929, at the age of sixty-six.
Ben Franklin Junior High was in operation for many years until a decline in attendance brought about a consolidation of schools. In August 2004, the modern New Castle Junior-Senior High School opened on Lincoln Avenue for high school level students. In January 2005, after the old New Castle High School (1911-2003) was demolished and the new junior high wing of the new school was built over the same site, the seventh and eight graders from Ben Franklin transferred over to the new building. At that time Ben Franklin was reportedly the oldest junior high school in the entire country and finally closed down for good in June 2005.
The new school had all new furnishings and equipment so the entire contents of Ben Franklin were sold off during an auction in December 2005. The school then sat vacant as its future was decided upon. It soon went up for sale. Finding a suitable buyer proved difficult as the facility could legally be operated for only specific purposes – and not as an apartment complex for instance. Within a few years the old school (at least a portion of it) became home to the Ben Franklin Early Learning Center, a child care facility for low income families operated under the Lawrence County Community Action Partnership. The old school avoided demolition and its athletic field is still utilized by the sports teams of New Castle Junior-Senior High School. Today Taggart Stadium is one of finest football and track fields of its kind in western Pennsylvania.
To read about plans in 1922 to construct the athletic field (Franklin Field) at the school that later became known as Taggart Stadium click on: RUNNING TRACK AT THE JUNIOR HIGH ARTICLE. To learn more about who John Cannon Taggart Sr. was and to read the article/obituary that graced the on the front page of the New Castle News in December 1929 click on: COMMUNITY MOURNS ARTICLE. To learn how quickly the school board decided to change the name of Franklin Field to honor Taggart click on: SCHOOL BOARD HONORS MEMORY ARTICLE.
An early view of the Ben Franklin Junior High School from East Lutton Street. The property was purchased in November 1917 and the plans were drawn up by architect W.G. Eckles in late 1919. In June 1921, with the foundation previously completed, the construction of the school was began. (c1923) Full Size
Construction of the new Ben Franklin Junior High School on Cunningham Avenue was began in the summer of 1921. The shop building, seen at far right, was actually built first and completed by early 1921. (c1925) Full Size
The new school opened for classes in September 1922 and was officially dedicated during a ceremony on April 10, 1923. (c1930) Full Size
The Vocational School or “shop building,” part of the original plans for the new school, was opened first in August 1920. Junior and senior high school students learned various trade skills in the building. (c1930) Full Size
A report card, which belongs to eighth grader Mary J. Wright of Wilson Avenue, from Ben Franklin Junior High School during the 1934-35 school year. (1935)
The new and improved Franklin Field in the fall of 1925. This field was named in honor of local business executive and former school board member John C. Taggart Sr. in December 1929. (1925) Full Size
In this photo the gridiron boys from Ne-Ca-Hi take on Harrisburg Tech on Saturday afternoon, October 10, 1925. New Castle was led by senior quarterback Ralph Day, who scored on a spectacular 50-yard play in the first quarter. The hometown lads added a short touchdown run by fullback “Peg” Thomas in the third quarter and held on for a 13-0 victory. This was one of the best defensive teams New Castle has ever had. They finished 9-1 with nine shutouts. The only loss was a disappointing 14-0 showing against rival Ellwood City. (1925) Full Size
The auto mechanic class within the shop building, which was shared by the junior high and New Castle High School students. (1942)
New Castle High School students work inside the machine shop class in the shop building at Ben Franklin Junior High School. (1942)
The Ben Franklin JHS Patriots football squad from late 1977. (1977) (Photo courtesy of Grace Di Thomas-Di Virgilio) Full Size
The Ben Frankiln cheerleading squad from 1977-78. (1977) (Photo courtesy of Grace Di Thomas-Di Virgilio) Full Size
A group of teachers from the 1995-96 school year. (1995) Full Size
A typical classroom at the school in late 1995. (1995) Full Size
The basement pool. (1995) Full Size
A basketball game underway in the gymnasium. (1995) Full Size
The junior high boys basketball team from 1995-96. (1995) Full Size
A group of Ben Franklin cheerleaders from 1995-96. (1995) Full Size
The front of the old school taken from Cunningham Ave. (Jul 2010)
Just prior to closing for good in June 2005 the building was reportedly the oldest active junior high school in the United States. (Jul 2010)
The back of the old school and parking lot. (Jul 2010)
The former shop building behind the school where students from Ben Franklin as well as New Castle High School learned practical job skills. (Aug 2010)
(Oct 2012) Full Size