The Rockwell Family
By Frank Boyd
The Rockwell family came out of what is now West Virginia. During the Civil War the people of that area did not want to break away from the Union, they were part of Virginia at that time, so they separated and created their own state. Which is now known as West Virginia.
Granddaddy Rockwell's family, prior to the Civil War, lived in the area immediately below what is now the Pennsylvania border, the so-called Mason-Dixon Line. Following work, they migrated up into Fayette County. The reason for the migration to Fayette County was they were seeking work and the reason for seeking work was that they were living in a pretty poor area. The Appalachians always have been a poor or economically depressed area.
Fayette County was an attraction because the National Road was coming up out of the Cumberland area and going through Fayette County, through Uniontown and on up to the town of Washington. Later on of course, soft coal was discovered in the Fayette County area. A huge vein of it that went diagonally thru the middle of the county, and that soft coal was used to make coke. Now coke was what replaced charcoal in the making of steel; coke is made from bituminous coal or soft coal and it contains a lot of what is known as coal oil. It's actually combustible solvents. This crushed coal was poured into huge beehive shaped ovens which they lit off and burned. And what this did was burn out the combustibles the so-called coal oil and carbonized the coal similar to the carbonization of charcoal. That was then used to replace charcoal in the big Bessemer steel furnaces in Pittsburgh.
Your great-granddaddy Rockwell was born in 1889, prior to the turn of the century. He was born in Fairchance, Pennsylvania, which is just south of Uniontown. If it's not on the National Road, it is very close to the National Road; it's not to far from Fort Necessity.He went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad sometime around 1902 or 1904 when he was about 12 or 14 years of age. In those days they had no child labor laws, and as soon as a boy was able to do some sort of work, he went to work. Working and making money for the family was more important than going to school.
Anyway, granddaddy started out working for the Pennsylvania Railroad raking coke out of these coke ovens. What they did in the mornings after the ovens had been burning all night long, they went in with huge water hoses and they hosed the ovens down and put the fires out and cooled off the coke. The coke was then raked out of the ovens into railroad cars that had been pulled up along side of the ovens, and the coke was raked into these coal cars one at a time, by hand. There was not much in the way of machine labor. They did wear some sort of protective clothing, but that sort of thing was expensive and rather hard to come. So, granddaddy hands always were very hard and horny from handling these big long-handled rakes and handling hot coke.
My memories of great-granddaddy Rockwell, are of course, to a great extent, based upon my recollections as a young child. I remember that he seemed to be a very big, huge man. Actually, he wasn't, I think he was about 5 feet 8 inches or 5 feet 9 inches.As the years and generations have gone by, our family have all gotten much taller. But, he was a bull of a man. He was immensely strong from having started working at a very young age, and my recollections as a child and young man are that everything he put his hand to moved. He was short-tempered. He had a very fiery temper, but he was also a very kind and loving man.
He worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad for 50 some years. He worked his way up from raking coke out of the ovens, then he got to be gandy dancer along the railroad, then eventually he got to be a yardman in the yards. He finally went to work as a brakeman, then he became a conductor. After a while he got a chance to become a fireman and from fireman he went to engineer. I can remember, because he did not have much education, him sitting in the kitchen at the house in Uniontown in those early days with your grandmother Louella, who had graduated from high school, studying books and working on taking the examination. Because, by that time, it was required that you pass an examination to move from fireman to engineer. He had to know various kinds of switch signals and controls on the steam locomotives. Then later on of course, he had to know about controls and mechanisms on the diesel locomotives.
During World War II, he was a special yard engineer in the Pittsburgh yards, moving war material around.
One of the great tragedies, as I recall, was that he got a cinder in his right eye. On a steam locomotive the position of honor for the engineer is on the right-hand side of the locomotive. And, he looked out of the window of the locomotive to be able to see the areas high balls and light signals and flags that were necessary for traffic control. That was one of things that you had to know to be an engineer. The fireman if he sat at all, sat on the left-hand side and looked out of the left-hand window. Well, a hot cinder flew into granddaddy's eye, his right eye, and it impaired his vision. He wound up being furloughed from the railroad, and he wound up spending two years healing before he was allowed to go back to work as an engineer on the railroad. His eye, thank God, had healed. Of course, this was in the days when you had to work all the way through your years of service to make retirement. He had some degree of protection however because for many, many years he belonged to the Brotherhood of Firemen and Engineers.
He retired in 1955 at the age of 66, he worked for 50 years with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He didn't died until 1972 at the age of 83. To give you a little bit of a perspective, radio was sort of invented, if you will, a series of developments, but, if you will it was developed at the turn of the century about 1900, when he was about 10 or 11 years old. And commercial radio didn't come into existence until about 1920. I remember that one of the first commercial broadcast stations was KDKA out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I believe it was the first commercial radio station.
Your grandmother Louella and I went up there and talked on the radio to your grandfather Vernon at the South Pole in 1939.
Now, Kitty Hawk the first flight, sustained flight if you will, was in 1903 and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren landed on the moon in 1969. So, all of this occurred during the lifetime of your great-grandfather, to give you a better perspective.
Copyright © 2001 - Frank Boyd