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Book Review: Iselin

Iselin is Sara Lambert Bloom’s love story for her hometown.  Filled with memories, enriched with history, and enlivened with many photographs, the book reminds readers that small towns matter. Bloom links her memories to larger issues: access to housing, clean water, and air that is healthy.  These two elements of her book—local history and advocacy by ordinary citizens for what seem like basic rights—provide the two sub-titles of IselinThe Rich History of a Western Pennsylvania Coal Town in Appalachia and The Inspiring Story of Unrelenting Citizen Advocates for Social Justice

Born in 1944 in Indiana County Hospital (now IRMC), Sara Lambert was raised in Iselin and graduated from Elders Ridge High School.  She went on to have a distinguished career as an oboist and to marry another distinguished oboist, Robert Bloom. Iselin started as a “patch town,” with houses hastily erected for workers in the mines.  It was named after Adrian Georg Iselin, a banker from New York.  He was the chief investor in Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal and Iron Company (R & P).  In 1902, R & P owned the land, everything built on the land, and, through limiting what businesses could operate on that land, they controlled the commerce.  A letter Bloom includes in her book makes it clear how ownership and control worked from the very beginning.  Mine executives wanted “mainly good Italians, Polanders and Hungarians.  We do not want any colored help, or Irish, under any circumstances, nor do we want any hard coal strikers.  We do not care for any English-speaking labor being sent here, for it is too apt to be strikers and cast-off labor from other mines.”  It is difficult to organize against dangerous working and living conditions when you are in a new country with a new language and without your family.

By 1911, there were three hundred housing units and approximately 1700 miners.  The peak population in Iselin was in the 1930s, when it reached 5000 people.  R & P supported building a school, the church, and other civic institutions, as these things encouraged miners to stay and fostered a safer, more law-abiding environment.  The company owned the general store and forbid any other competing store from opening in the town limits.  Money was deducted from each paycheck to support the church.  Housing was allotted based on your importance to the company hierarchy.  Small duplexes housed large families along with many boarders in crowded conditions.  Housing units were all owned by the company and none had indoor toilets, showers, or bathtubs.  Despite these hardships, as a child, Bloom found much joy and permanent friendships.  She shows us a town where differences in ethnic backgrounds and language were enriching, not divisive. 

Bloom’s father, James P. Lambert, worked for decades as Town Manager. Because of his status, her family was able to rent “the Big House,” the original large home on the property that became Iselin.  Later he served as a Justice of the Peace and, later still, as District Magistrate in Indiana County.  His dedication to serving the people of Iselin runs through this book, but it is particularly detailed in Chapters 14-17.

Iselin and several other mining towns were sold to Nick Kovalchick in 1947.  In the 1960s, according to Bloom, the Kovalchicks  began allowing renters to purchase the properties they lived in.  However, they were unable to replace outhouses with indoor toilets.  A sewage system was not yet available, and the tiny yards didn’t provide space for septic tanks and leaching fields.  The air was fouled by the simmering fires in the boney dump, and wells were contaminated by leaking outhouses.  In the mid-1970s, the Department of Mines and Mineral Industries (now the Department of Environmental Protection) conducted Operation Scarlift,  putting out the fires in the boney dump.  James P. Lambert was the contact person for Iselin.  The Indiana County Municipal Services Authority (ICMSA) was formed by people Bloom characterizes as “citizen advocates.”  Her father served as Treasurer, and ultimately, the group was able to create a new water system. Though in failing health, Lambert then began to push for a new sewage system for the town.  Though he did not live to see it completed, his widow received a plaque honoring her husband’s efforts. 

The rest of the book details historical advocacy by members of the extended Lambert family and provides us with a wonderful glimpse into the joys of historical research.  Bloom includes a long epilogue that offers more information about the interviews she conducted as well as the archival sources she drew from.   

Ultimately, Iselin is a hopeful, celebratory book, balancing nostalgia with clear-eyed understanding of economic and class systems. 


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