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100 years in the valley: Munhall celebrates upswing, rich memories after tough times

Wednesday, June 20, 2001

By Jim Hosek, Tri-State Sports & News Service

In 1950, about two-thirds of the residents of Munhall were steel workers. So, it was no surprise the 2.38-square-mile borough was in for some tough times when U.S. Steel's Homestead Works began closing in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Residents saw their numbers fall from more than 15,000 during the past 25 years to 12,264 in last year's U.S. Census. But the spirit of the people has never dwindled, said Ray Bodnar, who has been mayor since 1987.

"That's because we have great people -- great Americans," he said. "The makeup of the people is so strong, and that's what has kept this community alive and moving forward. We have so much to be thankful for."

As the borough celebrates its 100th anniversary this week -- with recorded roots stretching back 125 years before its municipal birth -- it is on an upswing.

In place of the steel mills is the successful -- and still expanding -- complex called The Waterfront. The once-decaying Carnegie Library of Homestead, which is in Munhall, is on the comeback to being the hub of the community for learning, exercise and arts and entertainment.

The once financially teetering borough is now on firm footing, and the downtrodden '80s-era spirit of the residents is gone.

Proof that the community is strong is that "not only do you have long-standing families still here, but people who have left the community are coming back," said Bonnie Boyle Harvey, the chief executive officer of the library. "In fact, I'm one of those people who came back."

Harvey's heritage in the area goes back to some of the original families in the area -- the Bosts, the Boyles and the O'Learys.

Harvey did a lot of research in preparing a hard-back centennial book that is selling this week for $30.

"You can see how people's lives were shaped by wars, depressions, the mills, the ethnic groups. Such a community fabric was created that it's something you can't bottle," she said.

"You can see how the community developed with the close-knit families and the closeness of the neighbors. There is so much history here, so many rich memories our elders hold are so significant. There are so many people with stories that I always say that when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground."

Munhall grew out of East Homestead, once part of Mifflin Township. It was incorporated as a borough June 24, 1901, and drew its name from John Munhall (1833-1904), an orphan who started a successful coal-mining business with his brothers in 1880 on land now in the borough.

He had an estate on what is now Wagner Street and provided the area's first low-cost housing project in 1900.

Harvey said the Munhall family name probably was Mulhall or O'Mulhall originally.

A number of other families settled in the area before they did. It is believed Sebastian Frederick, who erected a house and barn sometime before 1780, was the first settler on land within the borough's confines.

There's no question the steel industry shaped Munhall beginning in 1879 with two companies -- one owned by Andrew Kloman, the other Pittsburgh Bessemer Steel Co. -- which were bought by Andrew Carnegie in 1883.

He picked a site in Munhall overlooking his mills and the Monongahela River for what was, and still is, considered the treasure of the valley: the library complex with a music hall and athletic club. The stately building was dedicated in 1898.

Much of the borough's history emerges in the front pages of The Local News, Homestead News Messenger, Daily Messenger and The Messenger newspapers.

From 1885 come the names of all the Civil War veterans from Gen. Griffin Post 207 Grand Army of the Republic of Homestead.

In 1901, Munhall's charter was granted.

In 1918, a flu epidemic paralyzed the borough.

"So many events helped shape the community," Harvey said. "The biggest thing I've learned through all this research is, in one word, respect. I respect everyone and all their stories, which are such treasures."

Facsimiles of newspapers assembled by the history subcommittee of the centennial committee are being sold for $5.

The Munhall centennial celebration began last Sunday and will continue with daily activities through Sunday.

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