One recent Sunday afternoon, Steelers fans parked in a gravel lot in the 700 block of Fulton Street on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Classic rock pounded from car speakers. A few people set up grills and cooked hamburgers and kielbasa. After a while, everyone walked to Heinz Field, half a mile away, to cheer an NFL team named in honor of the city’s industrial past.
A century ago, working-class houses lined this section of Fulton Street. One was home to a boy named Daniel Francis Jones Jr., who lived with his family at the street’s intersection with Ridge Avenue.
No one today remembers Daniel or the tragedy that thrust him into the news when he was 4 years old. His family’s house — and all of the others in this block — were demolished decades ago. Fragments of Daniel’s story survive, however, in aging documents and newspaper clippings. They reveal one family’s history of perseverance through a cascading series of losses suffered amid spectacular industrial advancement.
Painful as it is, the Jones family’s experience is worth remembering. It’s as reflective of Pittsburgh’s past as the name of the city’s famous football team.
‘Plaster blew in on us’
The story begins in the waning seconds of 1925, as Pittsburgh girded itself for a celebration.
Drivers in Model T Fords, Nash touring cars and Oldsmobile roadsters rumbled along the city’s cobblestone streets. Ropes attached to church bells grew taut. In mills and forges along the three rivers, workers readied factory whistles. Some people gripped firearms, ready to welcome 1926 by blasting lead into the sky.
Daniel Jones Sr., a 36-year-old crane operator, wanted his three young children to hear it all — the bells, the whistles, the horns. The family lived in a two-story, wood-frame house at 719 Fulton St. in an industrial neighborhood.
Nearby factories and mills produced hardened steel, caskets, toys, carbide lamps for miners, asphalt, paint and clay pots. Smokestacks by the river spewed black smoke and dust covered stoops and sidewalks in and around Fulton. Three gas storage tanks, one 200 feet tall, loomed over nearby Reedsdale Street.
Living on Fulton Street came with challenges, but it was an excellent place to hear the celebratory bawling of an industrial city.
In the minutes before midnight, Daniel Sr. and his wife, Catherine, roused their slumbering children — James, 10; Mary, 6; and Daniel Jr., 4.
Throughout the city, in speakeasies and clubs, in churches and homes, people counted down the seconds. When clocks struck midnight, industrial whistles shrieked and car horns honked. Church bells added righteous punctuation. Wobbly celebrants, discreetly gulping shots of bootleg whiskey, slapped each other on the back. Downtown, at Smithfield and Seventh streets, congregants bowed their heads in prayer at the Episcopal Methodist Church, known as “Old Brimstone Corner.” Gunfire crackled across Downtown and the North Side.
After several minutes, the noise subsided. Newspapers reported that two men were slightly wounded by bullets fired in celebration. Police booked 51 people on charges of intoxication. Factory machinery and moving rail cars hummed an industrial lullaby.
On Fulton Street, the three Jones children returned to their second-story bedroom. Daniel Jr. curled up in a crib while his parents drifted off to sleep in a bedroom down the hall.
At the McCutcheon Works steel mill on the North Side, 150-200 workers rolled steel into hoops and bands. The mill fronted on Reedsdale Street, two blocks from the Jones home. Its collection of buildings stretched nearly 800 hundred feet south, to rail lines along the Ohio River.
At approximately 3:30 a.m., a belt snapped in the mill’s engine room. The belt governed the speed of a flywheel — 14 feet in diameter — attached to a high-speed engine.
Without the belt, the flywheel spun ever faster. As its rpms rose to dangerous levels, some workers ran for cover behind piles of steel. Others fled into the mill yard outside. One employee rushed to pull a lever that would stop the engine and divert a disaster, but he slipped and fell. The flywheel spun faster.
It exploded into four pieces, each hurled with tremendous force on its own trajectory. Two chunks hurtled south and came down along the Baltimore and Ohio rail lines, one piercing a freight car and the other embedding itself deep into a coal bunker. Another traveled several blocks west and splashed into the Ohio River at the foot of Ridge Avenue.
The largest section — a curved slab of steel weighing more than 2 tons— tore through the mill roof and soared northward, arching over a plumbing supply business on Reedsdale Street and a row of brick homes on Ridge Avenue.
As it neared Fulton Street, the slab ripped through the air with a “shrapnel-like screech” and landed with a tremendous crash a quarter-mile from the mill.
People jarred awake thought they’d heard a gas explosion. Others, including Daniel Jones Sr., slept through the moment.
“I was awakened by my wife and in an instant the dust from the rear room plaster blew in on us,” he said in a hand-written statement later filed with the Allegheny County Coroner’s office.
Daniel Sr. rushed to his children. James and Mary, terrified and covered with debris, crawled across their bedroom floor. Winter air blew in through a gaping hole in the room’s far corner. A twisted portion of Daniel Jr.’s crib was embedded in the foot of the older children’s bed. Daniel Sr. did not see his youngest son.
An August day
Heavy industry had shaped the life of Daniel Francis Jones Sr. He was born in 1889 in Dunbar, a Fayette County town dominated by the Dunbar Furnace Co., which produced pig iron, coke and silica sand. His father, James, worked there as a laborer, as did his uncles and his grandfather. It was a dangerous gig. The 1880 census includes a short statement about the physical condition of grandfather Daniel Jones, an Irish immigrant: “Lost a hand.”
By 1900, James Jones had quit the iron business and was working as a lineman for the Bell Telephone Co. He lived on the North Side, then known as Allegheny City, with wife Agnes and the couple’s three children, of whom Daniel was the oldest. On Saturday, Aug. 9, 1902, James Jones rose early and traveled 10 miles southeast to the Mon Valley steel town of Braddock to repair telephone lines along Braddock Avenue.
He arrived before 9:30 a.m. and climbed a utility pole near a department store called The Famous. Below him, the sidewalk surged with people flowing in and out of storefront shops selling groceries, tobacco, booze, clothing, paint. While working 25 feet above street level, James’ leg touched an electrified trolley wire.
He threw up his arms, witnesses testified. His pants burst into flames and he fell, plummeting through the awning of the Fritzius and Noland furniture store and landing on the sidewalk. He died within minutes, leaving Agnes a widow and 13-year-old Daniel and his siblings fatherless.
That accident punctuated a day of tragedy in the industrial towns south of Pittsburgh.
A few hours earlier, two men died at the Homestead Works steel mill, three miles from Braddock, when an overhead crane jumped its tracks and plunged 30 feet to the mill floor. One worker died instantly; the other lingered for nearly two hours while his fellow workers attempted to free him from the wreckage. He died a short time later. Less than an hour before James’ death, a railroad worker died after being struck by a freight train east of Braddock.
The carnage caught the attention of newspaper editors accustomed to stories of workers being crushed or impaled by the machinery of industry. “Death Abroad in Valley of Monongahela,” read a headline in the next day’s Sunday Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette. A dozen other workers received serious injuries that day, one by falling into a vat of boiling water at the Edgar Thomson Works steel mill, less than half a mile from where James was killed, the newspaper reported.
It was an extraordinary day in a dangerous city. Crystal Eastman’s landmark study, Work-Accidents and the Law, reported that 526 workers died on the job in Allegheny County between July 1, 1906, and June 30, 1907 alone. By comparison, a total of 23 people in the Pittsburgh area died in work accidents in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A shared experience
By 1910, Daniel Jones was earning his living as a laborer in a steel mill. He lived with his mother and two siblings on Fayette Street on the North Side. A draft registration card describes him as a tall man with dark hair.
Several blocks south, Catherine Sinz lived on Ridge Avenue with several other young women, all listed in the 1910 census as servants at the home of Louis Dalzell. Details of the romance between Daniel and Catherine are lost to history, but the two shared at least one experience — the sorrow of sudden loss as children.
Catherine’s occurred in 1901, when her family lived on Buchanan Street in the North Side’s Troy Hill neighborhood. On the evening of Nov. 6, residents noticed the smell of natural gas. The next day, Catherine’s mother, Christina, tried to find the source of the leak. She lit a candle and, at approximately 3:30 p.m., opened a door leading to the cellar, according to newspaper reports.
The resulting explosion blew out one side of the house, knocked pieces of the foundation into the street, and ignited a fire that spread to the cellar of a neighboring house.
Burned on her face and neck, Christina lay covered in debris until she was pulled her from the wreckage. She lingered for days at Allegheny General Hospital and died Nov. 13, 1901, at age 40. Her daughter Catherine was 13 at the time.
Daniel and Catherine married and, by 1917, had moved with their 2-year-old son James to Fulton Street. Daniel then worked as a foreman at the Crucible Steel Co. on Reedsdale Street.
Searching for Daniel
In the first hours of 1926, confusion filled Fulton Street. Firefighters arrived at the Jones home within minutes of the crash. The search for Daniel Jr. began.
The slab of a broken flywheel had sliced through the back of the Jones house at a 45-degree angle and continued through the back of an adjoining house owned by Emma Kunkel. It wrecked a rear room, knocked the house from its foundation and came to rest after striking a third house at 723 Fulton.
A 19-year-old man named Michael Chesmar lived in the back room of the Kunkel house and was asleep when the flywheel tore away the floor, dropping his bed 10 feet to the ground. He told police he slept through the incident and woke only when water from a broken pipe dripped on his head.
Firefighters found Daniel Jr. in the debris of the back bedroom, newspapers reported. Coroner’s records state Daniel Sr. found his son. Either way, the unconscious boy was rushed to the children’s ward at Presbyterian Hospital.
On Fulton Street, curious residents were joined by more than 100 workers from the McCutcheon Works who wandered over to gape at the damage. As daylight arrived, so did reporters and photographers. A police officer posed with the twisted remnants of Daniel Jr.’s crib. An employee of the city’s welfare department stood next to the hulking piece of metal that had caused so much damage.
Doctors tried to save Daniel Jr., who arrived at Presbyterian Hospital in “a state of profound shock,” records state. The boy died at 6:35 a.m. of “surgical shock and extensive brain injury,” according to his death certificate.
The next day, Saturday, Jan. 2, Pittsburgh newspapers published two photos of Daniel Jr. They show a serious-looking boy with a plump face and a head of thick, dark hair. In one image, he wears a sailor suit. In the other, taken days before his death, he straddles a three-wheel push scooter his father had given him for Christmas.
Less than two weeks later, Daniel Sr. testified at a coroner’s inquest. No record of his testimony exists, but newspapers reported the comments of others called before the jury. Inspectors said the McCutcheon Works met all safety requirements. One inspector testified his investigation found the engine powering the flywheel had been equipped with at least three safety devices, The Pittsburgh Press reported. The story did not explain why or how those devices failed.
On Jan. 13, a jury ruled Daniel James Jr.’s death accidental. The Carnegie Steel Co., owner of the mill, bore no responsibility for the incident, the jury determined.
Disaster from the sky — again
The Jones family repaired the damaged room and remained on Fulton Street. Catherine gave birth to a daughter named Elizabeth Ann in 1927, but peace proved elusive in a neighborhood so close to heavy industry.
On the morning of Nov. 14, 1927, less than two years after Daniel Jr.’s death, workers repairing a 5,000-cubic-foot gas storage tank on Reedsdale Street set off an explosion that killed 28 people and rocked the entire city. The blast destroyed several homes and hurled pieces of the metal tank skyward. A few crashed through roofs. One crumpled chunk of steel the size of a bus landed on Wolfendale Street, three blocks away.
Newspapers filled their pages with stories about the blast. One small headline buried in the Nov. 15 Post-Gazette read, “Home wrecked second time.” The story explained that pieces of the tank had landed on the Jones house, demolishing the rebuilt room where Daniel Jr. had slept.
“Members of the Jones family, like others in the stricken district, calmly cleared away the debris in the homes yesterday afternoon, making the places habitable,” the newspaper reported.
Daniel and Catherine and their children lived on Fulton Street until at least 1930, according to census reports. By 1940, the family had moved to the suburb of Avalon, 10 miles north. Daniel Sr. continued to work as a crane operator. From there the family story becomes difficult to trace.
At some point, Daniel and Catherine moved to the Detroit area. Daniel Sr. died there Nov. 28, 1961. Catherine followed three months later, on Feb. 20, 1962. Both are buried at Michigan Memorial Park in Flat Rock, south of Detroit.
The only reminder of Daniel Jr.’s presence in Pittsburgh is a headstone at Greenfield’s Calvary Catholic Cemetery. The inscription, eroded by 96 years of the city’s weather, whispers the extent of his life: “1921-1926.”
Sources include Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette; The Pittsburgh Press; The Gazette Times, The Pittsburgh Post; U.S. census reports from 1880, 1900, 1919, 1920, 1930, 1940; Daniel F. Jones Jr. certificate of death; Daniel F. Jones Sr. draft registration card, July 5, 1917; Allegheny County coroner’s reports on the deaths of Daniel F. Jones Jr. and James Jones, accessed at University of Pittsburgh’s Archives Service Center; G.M. Hopkins Co. Maps, accessed through historicpittsburgh.org; Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, accessed through Penn State University’s digital collections.
Steve Mellon: firstname.lastname@example.org