VALLEY NEWS DISPATCH
When a relative stumbled across a treasure trove of old
postcards from a slew of towns in the Alle-Kiski Valley, Charles "Skip"
Culleiton of Lower Burrell was intrigued. A popular form of communication
until about the 1930s, the postcards speak a great deal about past places
and people: Culleiton has several different postcards featuring just the
old YMCA building in Tarentum, now Gatto Cycle Shop along East Seventh
Avenue in Tarentum. He has collected 250 historical postcards from
Tarentum alone. "I thought they were really nice pictures and after that,
I just started to collect them," says the 71-year-old Culleiton.
Word got around that Culleiton, a retired research
chemist for Alcoa, had amassed quite a collection and, subsequently, a lot
of local history. He was tapped to contribute to a book commemorating the
150th anniversary of Tarentum, which he ended up writing in 1992. And he's
been writing about local history ever since. In the past decade, he lent a
hand with Brackenridge's 100th anniversary book as well as Lower Burrell's
50th anniversary history, and penned "Greetings from the A-K Valley"
published by Creighton Printing in 2003, among others.
Culleiton's latest offering, "Historical Natrona," is
a massive collection, by local history standards at 256 pages, covering
the town's fabled and prosperous history. Culleiton spent more than two years researching the
history of Natrona, interviewing locals and combing through old
newspapers. Culleiton shines the light on the high times of the
town, in the first half of the 20th century when the Pennsylvania Salt
Manufacturing Co. offered not just jobs, but a way of life. The book explores the town's many industries -- salt,
oil, coal and steel, even the town's lesser-known role as a stopover for
workers who floated rafts of timber down the Allegheny River from Tionesta
and Warren to Pittsburgh.
Culleiton explores the roots of the steel giant
Allegheny Technologies before it was Allegheny Ludlum, when it was just
Allegheny Steel. But residents know the historical star of the town,
the Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Co., established in 1850. With two salt wells and a few company houses for
workers, the company prospered with more workers, more company-owned
homes, really company-owned everything: In 1913, there were 113 retail
businesses in Natrona, and Penn Salt owned most of them, according to
Culleiton's account. In that same year, people and goods poured into the
town in 24 passenger and freight trains rolling through the area daily.
What accounted for Natrona's staying power? A
combination of factors, according to Culleiton. "Natrona was the first town in the valley to have a
large industry," he says. "People from all the neighboring communities
worked at Penn Salt." Although Penn Salt closed the Natrona plant in 1959,
selling the site to the steel mill, now Allegheny Technologies, the
company left a long-lasting footprint in the town. "The salt company took care of its people," Culleiton
says. "It provided medical service and housing -- people were proud to
work for them. And they did well for over 100 years."
Culleiton adds that the geographic nature of the
town, somewhat isolated, with the river on one side and hills on the
other, brought everyone together for a long time. "There wasn't room for expansion, the community was
close-knit, and it just continued through the years," he says. The strong
community bonds were evident in the high number of social and fraternal
organizations in the town.
"People were proud of their heritage, and many were
religious," he says. A good chunk of Culleiton's book is devoted to the
history of Natrona's schools and churches. Culleiton observes: "At one time in the 1900s, there
were three different catholic grade schools, a catholic high school, a
Lutheran grade school, Natrona high school and then two public grade
schools, and today, there are no schools there."
Of course, culling through so much information,
Culleiton has favorite historical nuggets about Natrona: During World War
II, Penn Salt was manufacturing fluorine gas for Freon and refining
high-octane aviation fuel. "But they were making much more fluorine than they
needed for those uses," Culleiton says. "It was found out later that there
was a building located in Natrona called the House of Secrets, and they
were experimenting with developing the atomic bomb." Also in the national-security vein, Natrona made the
top of a German list for sites to sabotage in the United States, targeting
Penn Salt and Allegheny Steel.
"Historical Natrona" is available from the community
group Natrona Comes Together, and the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical
Society in Tarentum for $25.
Mary Ann Thomas can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-782-2121 x1510.