By Mary Ann Thomas
Valley News Dispatch
Monday, December 21, 2009
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 email@example.com or 412-782-2121 x1510.