The village of West Pittsburg in Taylor Township, Lawrence County, a small but thriving manufacturing center founded in 1902, was initially served by small one-room schools in West Pittsburg and nearby Pleasant Hill. I believe the Pleasant Hill School was located just north of West Pittsburg at the northeast corner of the intersection of West Pittsburg Road and Mansfield Road. In early 1907 there was discussion of renovating a large home on Fourth Street in West Pittsburg for use as a schoolhouse, but it was soon decided to build a new brick school from the ground up. In late May 1907 bids were solicited from contractors to construct the school, which would be designed by architects C.C. and A.L. Thayer of New Castle.
Sometime in late 1907 the children of West Pittsburg were all brought together under the single roof of a new purpose-built schoolhouse. This two-story building, with five classrooms and known for its distinctive reddish-orange brick construction, was known as the West Pittsburg Public School (or simply as the West Pittsburg School) and served students up to the eighth grade. It was built just off of Main Street (later Center Avenue) and sat on Fourth Avenue.
In May 1914 it was finally decided to build two schoolhouses to serve the students in the northern reaches of the township. These one-room schools were known as the Valley Way School, built just south of Mahoningtown near Cherry Street and the West Pittsburg Road (Route 168), and the Sheep Hill School, built on Martha or Moravia Street in the Sheep Hill section of South New Castle. Both of these schools opened in the latter half of 1914 and the aging Pleasant Hill School was closed as result.
By 1920 the three schools of Taylor Township were overcrowded due to the growing population of the area. On Tuesday, January 2, 1923, the two-story Shenango-Taylor Joint District School, on Martha Street south of New Castle, opened as a consolidated venture to help alleviate school overcrowding in the northern part of Taylor Township and nearby Shenango Township. It absorbed the existing student bodies of the Sheep Hill School in Taylor Township (located just across the street) and the nearby Gaston School in Shenango Township. Both of those schools closed when the new school opened. The Valley View School near Mahoningtown was also closed within a few years and reborn as the Valley View Mission (later known as Fairview Chapel).
At the start of the 1922-23 school year the West Pittsburg school had 232 students enrolled and school board officials discussed the idea of enlarging the building. The principal at that time was twenty-seven-year-old Clare Book of Harlansburg, who went on be the longtime supervising principal at the high schools in Shenango Township and then New Castle. In the summer of 1924 the schoolhouse was enlarged, as a two-story, four-room addition was added to the rear of the building. The new section opened sometime in late 1924 and was officially dedicated during a ceremony on Friday, March 27, 1925. By that time teacher Blanche Allen of Wampum had assumed the position of principal, until succeeded by Paul L. Varnum in about 1933. Varnum was heavily involved with the First Presbyterian Church in New Castle and later taught Sunday School classes there as well.
In May 1937 the West Pittsburg Public School, then under the tutelage of principal Varnum, provided diplomas to twenty-seven eighth grade students, which I believe was one of its largest graduating classes ever. Students who desired to continue their education would do so at the New Castle High School because Taylor Township had no high school program of its own. Their tuition would be paid by the Taylor Township School Board, but the students were on their own when it came to providing transportation. This usually meant taking an early morning train up to New Castle and then walking a mile or so to the high school.
On the morning of Sunday, August 14, 1955, a fire started inside the West Pittsburg School and severely damaged a portion of the interior before it was brought under control by the West Pittsburg Volunteer Fire Department and various other firefighting units. The blaze was started due to some faulty wiring in the basement of the new section. The newer section of the school was gutted, while other portions of the old schoolhouse suffered extensive smoke and water damage. The insurance company paid out $23,000, but the Taylor Township School Board was forced to borrow another $17,000 to complete repairs and undertake upgrades and improvements to the building. Principal Paul A. Shenker, who formerly taught school in Chewton, had his work cut out for him during this time and his students had to attend nearby schools for the entire 1955-56 school term.
The remodeled schoolhouse was reopened for a public open house on Friday, August 31, 1956, and students were back at school the following Tuesday. Unfortunately, on the morning of Sunday, February 17, 1957, another fire engulfed the school. Over a dozen fire departments, from such distant locales as Slippery Rock Township and Hickory Township, arrived on scene to provide assistance. The fire, which started at about 8:30am, had apparently originated in the basement of the newer section. Unlike last time this fire was not contained in the newer section of the school and quickly spread to the roof of the old schoolhouse. From there it burned its way down through the two floors of the fifty-year-old structure. Firefighting crews were hampered by a lack of water, as only two fire hydrants were situated close to the school.
The blaze devastated the entire school before finally being extinguished later that day. Firefighters from West Pittsburg were called out again at 2:00am the next morning as smoldering embers ignited a small fire among the debris. Total damage was estimated at $165,000 and pretty much bankrupt the school board. The exact cause of the fire was never determined, but it was believed that faulty wiring in the basement of the newer section was to blame once again.
Beginning on Wednesday, February 20, 1957, students assembled at the West Pittsburg fire hall and were bused to other schools in the area. First and second graders attended the Mahoning School in Mahoningtown, third, fourth, and fifth graders went to the Pollock Avenue School in New Castle, and the seventh and eighth graders found a home at the J. P. Byers School in Shenango Township. The students were later consolidated at the Pollock Avenue School (which was rented to Taylor Township) and the recently-abandoned Shenango-Taylor Joint District School. Oddly enough a young boy from Taylor Township unsuccessfully attempted to burn down the joint school in February 1959 just as school was let out one day.
The fire-ravaged schoolhouse in West Pittsburg was unfortunately declared a total loss and was never rebuilt. The remnants of the brick structure were torn down and the property was cleared. A new modern-style schoolhouse was constructed at the corner of Main Street (Center Avenue) and 3rd Avenue and finally opened for classes on Monday, March 30, 1959. The school cost $250,000 and would serve the community for many years.
In the early 1960’s, with continued overcrowding being a serious issue, a debate started in Taylor Township about initiating a cost-cutting merger with one of the nearby school districts of New Castle, Ellwood City, or Wampum. A decision was soon reached and in early July 1962 the Taylor Township School District merged with the newly-renamed New Castle Area School District.
The new West Pittsburg School was re-designated as an elementary school (initially with 210 students), while seventh and eighth graders were now bused to Ben Franklin Junior High School in New Castle. Older students could now attend the New Castle High School free of tuition and with bus service as well. In the summer of 1971 the New Castle School Board decided to the use the school and the nearby playground as part of the Lawrence County Head Start preschool program. The local children were not allowed to use the playground when the Head Start kids from New Castle were in attendance, which led to a heated dispute between the New Castle School Board and a small group of angry mothers from West Pittsburg. I believe the issue was soon resolved and calm once again prevailed at the playground.
This West Pittsburg Elementary School served the community for most of the next three decades. After a consolidation plan was approved in the summer of 1987 the West Pittsburg Elementary School, along with the Arthur McGill, Rose Avenue, Lincoln-Garfield, and Mahoning Schools, was closed for good in June 1988. All five schools were advertised for sale beginning in October 1987, although the buildings would be occupied by school children until the next summer.
By November 1987 two substantial bids had been submitted for the West Pittsburg School, including $40,000 from Remacor, a company then operating a metals recycling plant in West Pittsburg, and $51,100 from Centrum Realty. Both groups were seeking to lease the facility to the federally funded Lawrence County Community Action Partnership for their Head Start preschool program. The Head Start program was seeking a new location at that time.
Of the five schools for sale the one at West Pittsburg featured the most debate and opposition by the local community. The New Castle News of March 5, 1988, reported, “During the consolidation process, West Pittsburg residents remained the most vocal. They understandably opposed the closing of their local school and then loudly protested proposals to sell the building to Remacor. They claimed the firm was responsible for pollution, and residents indicated concern about property values and the future of playground facilities if Remacor moved in.”
The bid from Centrum Realty, owned by Francis J. Lynch and Condi Augustine, was accepted in late February 1988, but the deal quickly hit a potential snag. The New Castle News of March 5, 1988, elaborated with, “Originally, Centrum intended to lease the school for the local Head Start program. But the latest word is that Head Start may not want to operate out of West Pittsburg. Under those circumstances, Centrum may refuse to accept the building, putting the district back at square one.” The Head Start program eventually took up residence in the former Lincoln-Garfield Elementary School beginning in November 1988, but Centrum Realty held onto the West Pittsburg property while seeking another tenant.
In February 1990 the large, open property behind the West Pittsburg School was transferred from the New Castle Area School District over to Taylor Township for municipal purposes. A few years later Centrum Realty decided to convert the schoolhouse into a 13-unit apartment complex for senior citizens. Renovation efforts got underway in early 1995 and the new Center Avenue Apartments opened by November of the same year.
The Center Avenue Apartments are still in use today. The West Pittsburg playground now occupies part of the location where the original school once sat from 1907 until 1957. Remnants of the concrete foundation are still visible next to the basketball court.
My maternal grandfather George DeMarc and nine of his siblings attended the old West Pittsburg Public School during their formative years. Several members of the Hake family of Mahoningtown, on the paternal side of my family, also attended the school for a time.
To view a school report from West Pittsburg in December 1904 click on: 1904 SCHOOL REPORT ARTICLE. To read about Miss Jessie Sweeney being elected teacher of the West Pittsburg schoolhouse in July 1905 click on: TEACHER ELECTED ARTICLE. To read an article about the West Pittsburg school directors decision to build a new school in February 1907 click on: BUILD NEW SCHOOL ARTICLE. To read a mention about the proposed new school in the West Pittsburg “personals section” of the New Castle News click on: NEW SCHOOL MENTION. To read a brief article about accepting construction bids for the new schoolhouse in May 1907 click on: NOTICE TO CONTRACTORS ARTICLE. To learn more about the April 1908 closing of the West Pittsburg School for the summer click on: SCHOOLS HAVE CLOSED ARTICLE. To read a short article about the teachers being selected for the Taylor Township schools in June 1911 click on: TEACHERS SELECTED ARTICLE. To read about a Sunday church service being held in the West Pittsburg schoolhouse in September 1912 click on: CHURCH SERVICES ARTICLE. To read two articles from July 1913 concerning the school board coming under fire for its expenditures and teachers being named for the township schools click on: UNDER FIRE/TEACHERS NAMED ARTICLE. To read about the students of the West Pittsburg School preparing for their upcoming Christmas program in December 1916 click on: CHRISTMAS PROGRAM ARTICLE. To read a related article about the decision to build two small schools – Valley Way and Sheep Hill – in the northern reaches of Taylor Township click on: NORTH TO GET SCHOOLS ARTICLE. To read an attendance report from the West Pittsburg School for the month of September 1914 click on: 1914 SCHOOL REPORT ARTICLE. To read about a moving picture and stereopticon (slide projector) exhibition at the school in January 1915 click on: EXHIBITION ARTICLE. To read about Miss Blanche Allen being reelected as teacher for the upcoming school year in June 1915 click on: ALLEN REELECTED ARTICLE. By the early 1920’s the West Pittsburg School was very overcrowded. To learn more about this ever-worsening issue and the plan to alleviate it click on: SCHOOL OVERCROWDED ARTICLE and SCHOOL PLANS ARTICLE. To read about a cake and ice cream social held at the newly enlarged West Pittsburg School in August 1924 click on: SCHOOL SOCIAL ARTICLE. To read about the re-dedication of the school in March 1925 click on: DEDICATION ARTICLE.
The two-story West Pittsburg Public School was designed by the Thayer architectural firm and opened in late 1907. (c1910)
The eighth grade class of 1941-42. My aunt Jayne (“Jay-nee”) Hake is standing fourth from left end in 2nd row, and my uncle Charles DeMarc is seated third from right end with the sly Italian look on his face.
Firefighters at the scene as the West Pittsburg School burns on the morning of Sunday, Feb, 17, 1957.
The new West Pittsburg Elementary School, located on Center Avenue, opened for classes on Monday, March 30, 1959. The school closed in 1988 as local elementary-aged children started attending school in New Castle. The building was later renovated to become the Center Avenue Apartments. (c1985) Full Size
View of the West Pittsburg Elementary School a few years before it closed in 1988. (1984) Full Size
This building was the home of the West Pittsburg Elementary School from 1959-1988. The former school was renovated and opened in October 1995 as the 13-unit Center Avenue Apartments. (Feb 2016) Full Size