Not Much Remains Of Village With The Funny Name
By JEFF HIMLER, Blairsville Dispatch
For years, West Wheatfield Township’s tiny village of Climax remained lodged firmly in the back of Indiana County’s mind, a name known mostly to postal workers. But in 1994, it’s become the center of attention. Even the locals admit that their hamlet is smack in the middle of nowhere, cut off by bad roads from the rest of the township. But debate over new municipal water service recently generated some headlines for Climax tucked along the north bank of the Conemaugh River just west of New Florence.
“We’re getting on the map now, I think,” notes Elsie Howard, 65, who has been a leading voice in the community’s plea for water.
When a water line is installed - perhaps by the end of the rear - 37 homes in Climax, some of which have relied on a water buffalo for more than two years, will enjoy one more link to a world that had bypassed them for so long.
To today’s world, Climax seems very peculiar. Who would live in such a remote area? Yet, Climax started out as a much more ambitious concern. As a company coal mining town, it claimed an important place along the railroad tracks which now send trains unceremoniously by.
Settled by pioneering farmers and mill operators, the area now known as Climax enjoyed a peak of activity in the late 1800s and the early part of the present century when small to moderate sized mines dug into local coal veins. While those long-defunct mines remained in production, they created an influx of workers, many occupying company-owned houses.
According to a recent site inventory done in conjunction with the nine-county America’s Industrial Heritage Project, two Climax mines employed 64 men in 1914; those mines shut down in 1942, after producing 638,000 tons of coal.
Most of the wood company homes in Climax were in the “bottom” area close to the river, and they’ve been reduced to remnants of foundations. Eleven others, built of brick, remain along the town’s main road (S.R. 2008), though most are in need of repair.
Mrs. Howard resides in one of the more well-maintained brick company houses. After the coal company abandoned the homes, Howard and her husband bought one in 1946 for $2,000--just down the road from where she grew up.
Her father, George Mulligan, was a blacksmith for one of the main mines in town—Commonwealth Coal & Coke Co.
Skeptical that it didn’t hurt the animals, she “couldn’t stand seeing (her father) pound red hot nails into the horses’ feet.”
But she didn’t mind the end result of her father’s labors: round tokens redeemed for candy at the company store.
Her grandmother took in boarders at her home in Lockport, just across the Conemaugh from Climax.
According to the AIHP report, the Commonwealth Co. by 1914 had built a number of company houses in Climax. But David Harris, who operated the small Harris Coal & Coke Co. around the turn of the century, is credited with laying out the town, in 1891.
Clella Fulcomer Saxton, 92, who now resides with a daughter in New Florence, recalls a time in the early 1900s when the town had two stores plus its own church and school.
Climax’ religious center, the non-denominational Church of God, no longer stands. But the property was deeded to “forever remain a place of worship,” notes Walter Howard, a retired dairy farmer and railroader who moved into the community in 1947.
God-fearing folks now must journey elsewhere for spiritual enlightenment.
But, when they’re ready to take their final rest, they may return to the town’s
According to Saxton, it was named for the first person buried there — Isabel Harris of the local mining family.
Bruce Lute, a neighbor to the Fulcomers, operated a small general
store and Torn Harris, Saxton says, ran one of the coal company stores.
Industry records show that labor unrest in the coal fields did not bypass Climax.
There was a strike in April 1903, when the workers refused Harris
Coal’s offer of a 10 percent raise. By November 1904, Commonwealth appears
to have supplanted Harris.
Management also created problems. In August 1905, J. Blenkensop, superintendent of Commonwealth, skipped town with $1,300 in company funds.
In one serious accident at the Harris Mine, a man broke his neck in a rock fall.
Despite the often antagonistic relationship between mining companies and workers, Saxton remembers Tom Harris as generous to the townsfolk.
“He would get ice cream for the Fourth of July, and he gave it to the neighbors,” she says. “We always had strawberry and vanilla.”
The only other source for the frosty confection, which cost a nickel a dish, was Bolivar, an hour to 90 minutes away on foot.
Harris also was famous for the apples he grew at the top of Coal Hill.
Lute and his wife Lottie similarly paid special attention to neighbors, such as the Fulcomers. They “sold things to my mama for wholesale because we were friends,” Saxton notes. “They had any kind of groceries you’d want, and yeast and flour to make your bread.
“We were all neighbors then. You’d go to a neighbor and tell them
you’re out of bread, and they’d give you some until you could make more.”
Though now it seems barely large enough for one name, the community at various times has had four identities.
AIHP researchers found that Climax initially was known as Lincoln. A Commonwealth mine opened in 1909 also bore the Lincoln moniker.
The entire area along the Conemaugh west of New Florence today is generally referred to as Climax. But to some older residents, and to previous state mapmakers, a cluster of homes on the eastern end of the community are more properly known as India or Bruce.
Walter Howard occupies a portion of the original 360-acre homestead of the wilderness - clearing Andrew W. Reid. He cites an 1804 buckskin deed for the property, which, identifies it as “India,” probably a reference to the natives who tried to drive out white settlers.
That area was briefly known as Bruce in the early 1900s, when Bruce and Lottie Lute established a post office and general store in their home.
The last letters were mailed from that office sometime before 1920, when rural delivery came to the town by horse and buggy from New Florence. But one of the Lutes’ daughters, Iva Henderson, reclaimed the building as her home in 1947 and still recalls some of the excitement which resulted from neighbors bringing their correspondence and grocery orders to one’s front parlor.
Henderson, now 80, recalls her fascination with some “doll babies”
her mother kept in a showcase. “I begged my mother to let me hold one. But,
she said, “You’ll only break it.”
After all, it was already on order for another mother whose daughter had coveted it.
Letters brought in by the townsfolk were placed in sacks and shipped out in the morning. William Crawford loaded the mail on his wheelbarrow and pushed it all the way to New Florence, Henderson says.
While Lottie took orders and sorted the mail, ‘Bruce earned wages in the same role George Mulligan took on--blacksmith for a local mine. “He shod the horses and sharpened the picks and so on,” Henderson explained.
While the sources for the names Indiana and Bruce are documented, residents are less certain why mining operators chose Climax as the eventual name for the western portion of the village.
“‘I always heard it was called Climax because it was the end of the town,” Elsie Howard offers.
That theory holds weight based on the current state of transportation.
Most of the main Climax Road is paved, but it changes to a dirt surface just a few properties west of Mrs. Howard’s home. It eventually resumes its paved form for its final leg down Jericho Hill, ending at Rt. 259 north of Robinson.
Mrs. Howard notes the dirt section has poor drainage, is not plowed by the township and is used by vehicles “at your own risk.”
Yet, in the past, getting in or out of town could be as easy as walking over a bridge to the south bank of the Conemaugh, and passage on the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Before the Lutes set up their shop, most people walked just across the Conemaugh, to Lockport, to mail parcels and buy goods.
Beginning with completion of the Pennsylvania Canal through the area in 1830, residents of India and Climax could use a canal aqueduct for an easy crossing to Lockport. The alternatives could be dangerous: wading or fording on horseback.
Years later, after the canal was abandoned in favor of rail transit, residents were angered when PRR officials dynamited the aqueduct.
But in a pinch they could walk across a new railroad bridge which replaced it. Another way across the river was “the bug,” a homemade mini-skytram which consisted of a small wooden car suspended from a rope. It was built by farmer Davis Clawson, who charged a nickel for acrossing.
Saxton says it was used until 1936, when it was washed away in the St. Patrick’s Day Flood.
In 1881, the Pennsylvania Railroad built a new line from Blairsville east to Robinson and Bolivar, using much of the former canal bed along the north bank of the Conemaugh. In 1895, the line was extended to Johnstown.
When it passed through India and Climax, a number of residents, including the Lutes and the Clawsons, had to relocate their homes.
At the height of traffic, the PRR operated four tracks along the north side of the Conemaugh, near Climax; two tracks ran on the south side. Now those numbers have been reduced to two tracks on the north side, one on the south.
Lockport was the closest station on the railroad, and many Climax and India residents caught the train there.
A nickel fare each way would provide a Saturday shopping trip
to Bolivar. Elsie Howard and her companions would leave at 11:30 a.m. and
be back at 6.
In addition to ice cream, Bolivar enticed youngsters with a movie theater.
But Henderson didn’t have a chance to indulge her youthful fantasies in front of the silver screen. “Our parents wouldn’t let us go that far at night.”
Saxton’s father, Scott Fulcomer, caught the train at Lockport to his job at the rail yard in Derry. But she and her grandmother often walked to Bolivar, rather than board the train.
“Back then, you thought about walking to go to places,” she explained.
That changed once Bruce Lute became one of the first in India to own a Ford automobile. He took Saxton for a drive when she was about 6.
Her own father steered the way for bicycle enthusiasts in the village. She and a sister soon had a bike of their own to share.
Saxton and her siblings also passed the time by drawing on pieces of slate blown from the roof of their home.
“We had as nice a house as there was around there,” with 2 1/2 bedrooms, she notes with pride.
It was a step above the company houses in the Climax bottom, which were positioned in two rows and totaled about 25, according to her recollection.
But the Fulcomer domicile was not as elaborate as that of one of Saxton’s close girlhood chums--Mabel Hoel, daughter of Howard Hoel, who managed the Commonwealth Co. mine. The Hoel house, fitting the status of its tenant, had six bedrooms.
According to Elsie Howard, the Hoels were “the big shots. They had running water and bathrooms.”
Local mine owners were credited for constructing a two-room schoolhouse in Climax, just in time for Henderson to attend.
There was a recreation area on the lower floor and on the top floor two classrooms which, between them, housed eight grades with about 40 pupils in each room.
When weather permitted, the children played baseball. The boys’ team had a field laid out for it, but the girls had to settle for “the hill. We didn’t mind.
‘“They put me up to be the pitcher because I always threw for them to hit the bat.”
Elsie Howard figures Climax school closed about 45 years ago, just before her son reached school age. “They closed it down and brought a bus in from Robinson.”
Saxton attended the one-room India School, which preceded the schoolhouse at Climax.
Saxton lived “five lots from the school.” She estimated 40 to 50 scholars from all the country around” attended classes there.
In each case, remains of the community schools became part of a new home built in one of the nearby towns.
When she was growing up, Elsie Howard says, her immediate neighborhood in Climax sometimes took ribbing as Johnny-come-latelys from the enclave in India.
But she’s stuck by her community, despite its water woes and its decline from a bustling coal town to a backroad dead end.
After fixing up the old company house for her family, she’s never thought of leaving.
“We’ve managed,” she says, noting that quality water was scarce even before the town got its water buffalo. “I carried water from Fulcomer’s spring and caught rain water.”
Marion Marsh, who is 83, rents out four of the other brick company houses. Because of the poor water, he charges only $100 per month.
He previously provided water to as many as 20 residents from a private well, but blames mine sludge for gumming up the well’s pump a few years ago. At that point, state environmental officials closed down the well.
Marsh hopes that once the water line is completed, he’ll be able to sell the homes to some one who can make improvements.
“When I was young, every thing was up to date down there,” Marsh said. “Those houses still could be fixed up.”
Henderson and Walter Howard were attracted to Climax in the post World War II period.
“People like it because it’s away from everything,” Howard notes.
After years away during her early adult life, Henderson reclaimed
her childhood home in 1957, purchasing it after her parents passed away. “This
is my home,” she notes simply.
Saxton didn’t feel isolated growing up in the Climax/India community. “It never bothered us being out in the country.”
On trips back to see Henderson and other older residents, Saxton was discouraged to see how far the Climax of today falls short of her memories.
But one thing she envies Henderson: being able to hear the nearly constant train traffic on the tracks which now are owned by Conrail.
The sound, irritating to those not used to it, was a comforting companion to a young girl on a summer evening.
“The trains were going all the time, with all that steam,” she recalls. But “We never complained about it. I’d lay at night and listen to the whistle, and I’d hear the cows at Alexanders’,” a nearby farm. “I enjoyed it, listening to those things.”
Grazing cows no longer be can found in Climax, since Walter Howard
phased out his dairy herd. But the trains keep rolling, just like changing