The town of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, was named for Captain, J. J. Vandergrift and many times, the question has been asked “WHY?” Why not “McMurtry” for the man who was so philanthropic towards the community and its inhabitants?”
I have heard my father (Joseph Murphy) tell that Mr. McMurtry said his name did not have the right sound for the name of a town. He liked Captain Vandergrift as an individual and as a business associate and he liked the name and was proud to call his model town “Vandergrift”. I agree with Mr. McMurtry. I, too, like the name Vandergrift and regret that Captain Vandergrift did not live to see his namesake grow to maturity.
Jacob J. Vandergrift was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., April 10, 1827, the son of William K. and Sophia Sarver Vandergrift. As a small lad he first attended private schools but later went to the public schools. His parents met with reverses and at the age of fifteen, he was thrown on his own and he turned to the river as steamboat travel was the principle means of transportation between Pittsburgh and the West. Starting in as a cabin boy he worked hard and industriously and his energy attracted the attention of his employers and he rose to the Captaincy of the boat in less than ten years. He was the first Captain to utilize the space in front of the boat and introduced the method of towing the barges. This innovation proved very satisfactory and gave impetus to mining in the Pittsburgh Coal Field. He had interest in several boats but the Red Fox belonged to him and he made many profitable trips in it up and down the Ohio. Through the newspapers he read of oil prospects in what is now West Virginia so he turned his boat over to his brother Joseph and set out to try his luck with oil, but the Civil War started and the U. S. Government chartered the Red Fox to carry war supplies and after making numerous trips the boat was lost near Cairo. The Confederate troops caused a lot of destruction in the oil region and Captain Vandergrift suffered severe losses and was forced to leave that territory.
Still interested in oil, he went to Oil City, Pa., which was then a little more than a wilderness and here again his energy and ability proved their worth and he became a shipper of oil. Companies were formed and they entered into extensive operations, laying miles of pipes for facilitating the transport of oil from the wells to the shipping depots. Although not the builder of the first pipe line, Captain Vandergrift was the first to make a pipe line profitable. He founded the Imperial Oil and Refinery Company and it was through the sale of this Company that he became a stockholder in the Standard Oil Company.
Natural Gas was one of his interests and he was instrumental in having a six inch pipeline laid from Saxonsburg Wells to Spang, Chalfant Company in Sharpsburg and here he demonstrated the use of natural gas to the manufacturer.
The Vandergrifts left Oil City in 1881 and returned to Pittsburgh, and the town of Oil City regretted their going but were grateful for them having done so much for their community. In Pittsburgh, Captain Vandergrift was a heavy investor in Real Estate and did much toward the making of Fourth Avenue the Wall Street of Pittsburgh. He built the Vandergrift Building and this building is still standing. Quite a few of the other buildings built by him have been torn down due to the revamping of the City.
Captain Vandergrift’s projects are too numerous to mention but was so interested to read that he had established the “Homewood Driving Park” of 100 acres out in the district of the present Homewood-Brushton District. It recalled to me an oft told tale of my father’s, how shortly after he came to Apollo (1883) he and Jim Gibson hired a horse and a runabout and drove to the Homewood Driving Park. Quite a trip and they had a full day and it was late when they started home, a pouring rain drenched them, Jim used the lap robe to protect his new suit and Papa drove through the mud. They were glad that it was the wee hours in the morning when the reached Apollo for they were bedraggled sights and poor Jim’s suit had shrunk.
Interested next in the manufacture of sheet iron, Vandergrift became associated with Geo. G. McMurtry, the president of the reorganized Apollo Iron and Steel Company. Some other financiers were in this company and they all helped to make the place successful. When the need of expansion was imminent and they decided to buy ground in Westmoreland County and build a large mill and a model town, Captain Vandergrift stuck with McMurtry and some of the others pulled out. Great sums of money were expended for the new mill, costing over a million and a half dollars and more than three hundred thousand for the laying out of the town. Without a doubt plenty of “Vandergrift’s” capital went into the new town, perhaps as an investment but at the same time a welcome aid to this new venture.
The large brick building at the foot of Washington Avenue bordering on Sherman Avenue was built by him, the first floor was occupied by the Post Office, the General Offices for the Mill and the Bank for which Captain Vandergrift applied for the Charter. The top floors were apartments very eloquent and spacious. More than thirty houses were built on the lower side of Sumner and Farragut Avenues by “Vandergrift” and some of his associates, these were well built houses, good size and very reasonable rents.
Of the personal life of this man, his first wife was Henrietta Virginia Morrow, whom he married on December 29, 1853, they had six sons and four daughters. Mrs. Vandergrift died on Christmas Day 1881. On December the 4th, 1883, Captain Vandergrift and Mrs. Frances G. Hartley, a socially prominent and philanthropic Pittsburgh were married.
In conclusion, Captain Vandergrift was a man with sufficient forethought to see the possibilities of his ventures and the courage to stand by those possibilities and to follow his forethought to complete success. His entire life was marked by the strictest integrity and honesty of both principles and practice. The trials and misfortunes of his own life as well as its triumphs and successes have been fountains of helpfulness and many a cheering word and many a helping hand was given to those with whom he shared past vicissitudes and with whom he was ever ready to share his blessings. With the conviction firmly rooted in his heart that wealth was the gift of God for high and noble use, he never with held his hand and the public enterprises of religion and philanthropy as well as the private necessities of poverty and misfortune always shared largely in his most generous and ostentatious giving. He was a familiar figure on Fourth Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pa., and made daily trips to his office and was there until noon of the day he died, – December 26, 1899. The Vandergrifts are buried in the Allegheny Cemetery, out Butler Street, Pittsburgh, Pa
After reading and writing of Captain Vandergrift, I like the name more than ever and am sure that our town was rightfully named.
Mrs. Clarence Gumbert, 1957
Paper read at a meeting of Port Hand Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, by Phyllis Murphy Gumbert.
The Vandergrift Block was torn down in 1967, to make way for a new highway.
The following is a list of the “Vandergrifts” buried in the ALLEGHENY CEMETERY, Butler Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A beautiful white towering stone or monument to Captain Vandergrift rises high above the white stones that mark the individual graves. The Vandergrift plot is in Section 8(?) and is very accessible from the Butler Street entrance of the cemetery.
WILLIAM K. VANDERGRIFT Born January 12, 1805
Died February 18, 1877
SOPHIA (SARVER) VANDERGRIFT Born July 5, 1804
Died June 19, 1895
JACOB JAY VANDERGRIFT Born April 10, 1827
Died December 26, 1899
HENRIETTA V. (MORROW) Born January 5, 1836
wife of Jacob Jay Died December 25,18_1
Children of Jacob Jay Vandergrift
Harry L Born 1852 – Died 1883
Benjamin Born 1856 – Died 1890
Rebecca Born 1857 – Died 1857
Jacob J. Jr Born 1858 – Died 1887
Daniel Born 1860 – Died 18_1
John H. Born 186_ – Died 1915
Jay Francis Born 1882 – Died 1886
Venango County History, Published 1890, (Indiana Library), Indiana, PA
Oil City Derrick, Published 1898, (Carnegie Library), Pittsburgh, PA
Derrick’s Handbook of Petroleum, 1898, (Carnegie Library), Pittsburgh, PA
Contemporary Biographies of Pittsburgh
Warren’s Allegheny County Biographies, Book II
Note: Jacob’s surname was actually Vandegrift but it was misspelled and remained as Vandegrift.