Editor’s note: The following story is part of an occasional series of articles that examine the people, culture and history of the small towns that dot the landscape of the Mon Valley.
A cold drizzle is falling over Van Voorhis, but Ron Tumidajski doesn’t let that deter him from taking his morning five-mile walk.
His stride is steady and powerful as he climbs an incline on Bentleyville Road. He is careful to keep a safe distance between himself and the occasional passing traffic. Across the road, Pigeon Creek gurgles as it splashes over a smattering of limestone rocks and fallen tree trunks.
“I used to walk with a rifle,” said Tumidajski, a Van Voorhis resident and retired high school Spanish teacher. “When a policeman stopped me one day and asked what I was doing, I told him I was practicing traffic control. The passing cars would stay clear of me when they saw the gun. It was a good way to stay safe on the road.”
These days, Tumidajski wears an orange raincoat and yellow-green baseball cap so he will stand out during inclement weather. And he now travels with a spiffy Nikon digital SLR camera rather than his old shotgun.
“I take pictures of anything that catches my eye,” said Tumidajski. “I’ll often cross paths with wild animals or notice some interesting scenery. When I look through the viewfinder, I see the town from a completely different perspective.”
Once in a while, Tumidajski will find something unusual to photograph — such as a long-forgotten building or old Indian bones.
“I got to know Charles Gersna, an amateur archaeologist and author of a book about Van Voorhis,” Tumidajski recalls. “Chuck unearthed an Indian burial ground on top of the hill, near a new housing development, and he asked me if I could take some pictures for him. The skeletons were buried on their sides, in a fetal position, with a flat stone covering the rim. It was unusual to see a copper bracelet around the wrist of one of the skeletons. We theorized that a white settler gave the copper bracelet to one of the Indians as a gift.”
Tumidajski paused for a few seconds to admire the rugged, natural beauty of the ridge above Pigeon Creek. “Chuck could keep me mesmerized for hours with his stories about Van Voorhis,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things that happened in this town.”
Land and legends
People who live in Van Voorhis never get tired of telling their stories. In Van Voorhis, stories are passed down from generation to generation, giving the town’s residents a sense of who they are and where they have come from.
“People come and go; businesses open and close,” said Tumidajski. “But it is our spirit that has kept our town going all these years. And it is our stories that keep that spirit alive and preserve our identity.”
Van Voorhis’ unique setting has always been central to its story. Located along gently rolling hills and fertile low lying bottom lands in the southeastern corner of Washington County, Van Voorhis has provided its residents with an abundant wealth of natural resources for thousands of years.
Legend has it that the “Paleo Men”—a group of nomadic Indians—migrated into Pigeon Creek around 16,000 B.C. to hunt for prehistoric animals. Over time, other Indian tribes such as the Adena mound builders and the Monyok (or Monongahela Man) set up camp along Pigeon Creek, where they lived off the wild game, fish, berries, nuts and natural grains.
By the mid 1700s, the Indian tribes started to drift westward and European settlers began to build outposts in the area. The grazing lands were perfect for raising sheep and cattle, while the creek was ideal for powering the grist mills. In the late 1800’s, word got out that the area also had a rich supply of coal, and people began to flock to Pigeon Creek for work. It was when Townsend Van Voorhis and his son, Luther (both farmers) established the town of Van Voorhis in 1878 that this settlement became a true community.
Mining way of life
Between 1900 and 1903, the Monongahela River Consolidated Coal Company had sold coal rights to the Harbison Walker Company of Pittsburgh, which started building cheap, two-story wood frame homes in the hope of attracting workers to the Hazel Kirk No. 2 coal mine. Many of the coal miners who moved into the patch community in Van Voorhis were immigrants from countries such as Italy, Poland, Hungary, Russia and Ireland. They quickly found employment at the Soudan mine, which was established at Van Voorhis in 1914.
Life was difficult for the coal miners who lived in Van Voorhis. The hours were long and mining accidents were commonplace. Workers were paid in scrip money, which could only be used at Soudan’s company store. While stores in neighboring communities sold groceries, clothing and furniture for much lower prices, coal miners and their families could face harsh retribution for shopping anywhere else than the Soudan store.
The company also tried to lower salaries, leading to fierce conflicts between the union and management. Workers who went on strike were not allowed to congregate in groups. Any worker who disobeyed the company was roughed up by the mine police, which were known as the Yellow Dogs. Strikers who refused to return to work were evicted from their homes.
When Soudan failed to purchase more land from the Maple Creek National Coal Acreage, the company decided to permanently close its mine. On June 30, 1938, more than 250 workers were laid off. Many families had no choice but to relocate to neighboring coal mining towns for work. It was the end of an era in Van Voorhis: the town’s future now looked grim.
There are very few living Van Voorhis residents who remember the closing of the Soudan mine. Ron Tumidajski, who is 70, recalls hearing stories about the mine’s final days from his father, who was a coal miner.
“Soudan put the town up for sale a few weeks after the mine was closed,” said Tumidajski, who was now picking his mail up at the Van Voorhis Post Office, a small, wooden building that sits in the center of town. “Everything was on the auction block, including houses, the general store building, workshops and 88 acres of farmland. My dad bought a farm house for about $600. They say the entire town was sold for a little over $16,000.”
The Van Voorhis Post Office is one of the few remaining places in town where people can mingle and chat. Tumidajski is greeted by Elizabeth Torhan and Charles Loutitt — both longtime residents of Van Voorhis — who are also checking their boxes for mail.
Torhan, 67, also a retired school teacher and granddaughter of a coal miner, remembers Van Voorhis maintaining some semblance of activity during her childhood.
“Many of the coal miners found jobs in Ellsworth or Cokeburg but they continued to live in Van Voorhis,” she said. “Even after the closing of the Soudan mine, we still had some grocery stores and bars. Life managed to go on as we knew it for many years.”
Loutitt, 84, a retired coal miner, was one of the few lucky outsiders who managed to find his wife-to-be in Van Voorhis. “I just came out of the service and stopped at a dairy bar for an ice cream cone,” he recalls. “There was a girl there I knew I had to meet. We hit it off and we eventually got married. Fortunately, no one got in my way. I blended in nicely with the residents when I moved into Van Voorhis.”
A short distance south on Bentleyville Road, Joe Dobrinsky was sitting in the kitchen of his beige, two-story home, sharing stories about Van Voorhis with his brother, Frank.
“We had a great time growing up in Van Voorhis,” said Frank Dobrinsky, 73, a retired steel worker who now lives in Scenery Hill. “There was always something to do. We would go hunting in the woods and go swimming in Pigeon Creek. There were also plenty of places to go exploring but we were strictly forbidden to venture into the abandoned mines. You never knew if one of the mines would be filled up with water. That could be very dangerous for a kid.”
Joe Dobrinsky, 71, also a retired steel worker, remembers many of the other children by their nicknames.
“For some reason, practically everyone in Van Voorhis had a nickname,” he said. The other kids called me ‘Capone’ because I would always go around with this gangster hat. Some of the other kids got nicknames like ‘Hot Dog,’ ‘Tubby’ and ‘Little Tomato.’ You want to hear something else? The Mingo Indian chief who is buried on top of the hill was called ‘Pee Wee.’ Even he had a nickname!”
As years went on, some of the young people from Van Voorhis went on to become doctors, lawyers and business leaders. One of the town’s native sons even became a professional athlete. Myron Pottios, who grew up in Van Voorhis and graduated from Charleroi High School and the University of Notre Dame, played in the NFL for 12 seasons and was a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker.
“The kids I knew in Van Voorhis were very resourceful,” said Pottios, 78, who now lives in the state of California. “We didn’t have much but that didn’t stop us from building our own basketball court and soccer field. The other thing that I remember is how all the kids were treated equally. We had a close-knit group of young people that got along very well.”
Today and beyond
Today, Van Voorhis is a shadow of its former glory. At last count, the town’s census was roughly around 166 people. Only a few businesses remain active. Environmental Service Laboratories, a small water testing company, occupies the former general store. The Otter’s Club, a member’s only club, is the only place in town to get a drink or a bite to eat. Most of the residents are resigned to living in a town that offers few necessities.
“We live in a mobile society today, so it’s not much of a problem driving to Bentleyville or Monongahela to do our shopping,” said Torhan. “As long as I have a safe place to live, I’m happy.”
Wilbur Caldwell, chairman of the Fallowfield Township Board of Supervisors, said that Van Voorhis continues to be a vital part of the community.
“Like many other small towns, Van Voorhis faces its share of challenges,” said Caldwell, who has fond childhood memories of visiting Van Voorhis and floating down Pigeon Creek on an inner tube. “We would like to make some more improvements and maybe bring in some jobs. I’m optimistic Van Voorhis still has a bright future ahead.”
When asked if she has any concerns about the future of Van Voorhis, Torhan laughs and dismisses that notion with a wave of her hands.
“At my age, I’m not worrying about the future that much,” she said. “But I hope it will continue to be a nice place for future generations to live.”
Tumidajski said he always has his camera ready to document anything new that might take place in Van Voorhis.
“Who knows? The next chapter in Van Voorhis’ story could be its best yet,” he said. “I hope to be a part of it.”