Column #28 -May 2, 1999
THE FAILURE OF
THE MONONGAHELA NATIONAL BANK LEFT BROWNSVILLE STUNNED
by Glenn Tunney
The aged bank deposit book's cover reads "Monongahela National Bank." It once nestled in the pocket of a 10-year old boy named Ralph. Eachweek on "Bank Day," Ralph left his 521 Broad Street home with a fewcoins and his tan 3" by 5" bank book and walked to Prospect Street school. His teacher marked the deposit in his book and returned it to him. On June 3, 1931, when school dismissed for the summer, Ralph's fortune totaled $2.11.
Today, Ralph Simpson is 78 years old. Retired from the post office, he lives with his wife Alma in South Windsor, Connecticut, but he still remembers the Monongahela National Bank's school savings program. The Monongahela National Bank was Brownsville's oldest bank. Founded in 1812 by Jacob Bowman and others, its president in 1931 was Charles L.Snowdon. Its grandiose building, dedicated in 1925, stood opposite the Snowdon Building in the Neck.
After the Jubelirer Brothers bank and the Brownsville Trust Company failed in the summer of 1930, the Monongahela National Bank and the Second National Bank merged. The resulting "new" Monongahela National Bank had $7 million in resources. South Brownsville's National Deposit Bank boasted $8 million, so the community's two national banks were worth $15 million. The Brownsville Telegraph boasted that "the new alignment places the three boroughs (South Brownsville, Brownsville and West Brownsville) in the strongest financial position of any similar size community in Western Pennsylvania if not in the entire state." It was late August 1930. It was the beginning of the bank's final eight month slide to oblivion.
The late Earnest Coulter Grafinger and his wife, the late Della Busti Grafinger, were my great-uncle and great-aunt. Earnest worked in the Union Station building as freight agent for the Monongahela Railroad. In 1979, I recorded a conversation with him in which he remembered the afternoon of Monday, April 6, 1931.
"I kept money in the Monongahela Bank all the time," he told me. "When I got married, I had $1800 cash. Dell was working in South Brownsville for the railroad."
"Oh, she worked for the railroad too?"
"Yes. She was a stenographer. I was working second trick, four to twelve. I had just gotten up. She had been working. She called me up and said, 'The bank is closing.' I said, 'It's not a holiday.' She said, 'The bank's closed. It went under.' I said, 'That bank couldn't close, it's been here forever.' I got up and got dressed, went downtown. People were standin' there lookin' at it."
He shook his head and grimaced. After a moment, the passage of years since the trauma of that day permitted his expression to soften into a wry smile.
"I went in that bank on Saturday night about ten minutes to nine. I was going to get some money for the weekend. Every cage was busy with storekeepers putting in deposits. I walked out. We went out that night. When I came home I had thirty-five cents in my pocket. And the bank didn't open on Monday. We had checks outstanding to Kaufmann's and Horne's that didn't clear the bank."
He paused. He leaned toward me, his grandnephew, and spoke in a quiet voice. "Here's what happened that week. Dell lost her job, her brother lost his railroad job, Dell's mother died, the bank went under, and I was cut down to two days a week."
I shook my head slowly at the suddenness of it. I asked him if merchants were understanding.
"We didn't have any money," he said. "I had "trust" in this fellow at the store down the street. He trusted me for groceries. When I started to work, I was only working three or four days a week. It took me five years before I paid off all the money we owed him. I wrote letters to Pittsburgh, explaining the situation. Gimbel's and Kaufmann's wrote very nice letters back, saying they understood the situation. Banks were failing everyplace. Wouldn't do any good to arrest you. You couldn't do anything about it."
"Did Dell get her job back?"
Across the street from the closed bank, stunned citizens stood on the sidewalk in front of R. S. Goldstein's "Women's Store," staring at the bank's locked doors. Inside the store, Reuben "Ruby" Goldstein talked with a group of men. One of them was John Claxton of Brownsville, who worked at Bush and Marsh Drug Store.
"Ruby Goldstein's store was next to the drug store," John told me, "and they used to all loaf over there. They were talking." John's voice suddenly changed and he imitated Ruby's slow, drawn-out phrases. 'You know,' Ruby said, 'I didn't mind losing my money. But they waited. They pulled the shades down. I'd knock at the door, and they'd run up there and open the door and let me make my deposit. Now, they KNEW they were going to close,' he said dramatically, 'and STILL they took my money!'"
The daily Telegraph confirmed the awful news. "The Monongahela National Bank," it reported, "Brownsville's oldest bank, was closed this morning by action of its board of directors after 119 years of service in this community. Heavy and continued withdrawals, extending periodically during the last eight months, brought the decision to close the bank before its liquid resources were exhausted."
The newspaper's report implies that the withdrawals extended back to the previous August, when the Second National and Monongahela National merged.
On April 16, 1931, a federal receiver was appointed for the bank. On May 4, 1931, the doors of the bank opened "for the convenience of the public" for the first time since April 6. News reports gave no indication that depositors were able to withdraw any of their money. Unhappy depositors did not take events lying down. After a summer of hopeful waiting for a dividend plan, a public meeting was held in October at the Brownsville High School on Front Street. Sponsored by 25 depositors who had already met five times themselves, it attracted over 700 depositors.
At that meeting, Dr. L. N. Reichard was chosen to head an inquiry board. Enoch H. Easler was elected secretary; Pauline Klaas, recording secretary; Charles L. Dorsey, treasurer. The permanent citizens' committee included Chairman Reichard, David K. Orr, Thomas McCune, John Matta Sr., William J. Forsythe, Edward Ryan, Dan Riley, Harry Yoho, and H. H. Baer.
According to the Telegraph, the committee planned to investigate "alleged irregularities that are reported to have taken place prior to and after March 22, 1931, and 'if any person is found to have violated the banking laws, to prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law.'" The committee intended to "arrange to get records to show dates and notices of withdrawals before the bank's formal closing, to put to rest rumors of the manner in which money was loaned and the report regarding collateral certain relatives put up for loans, and to find whether each and every transaction of the officials was handled legally and with honest intent."
On Tuesday, December 1, 1931 the bank opened its doors for several days and distributed an initial dividend of 15% to approximately 6,000 depositors. I have searched the Brownsville Telegraph archives through issues of March 1932, a full year after the initial closing of the bank, seeking notice of further dividends or results of the committee's investigation. As of March 1932, only the initial 15% dividend had been declared. I am requesting any readers who can supply additional information regarding these bank closings of 1930 or 1931 to contact me.
When the Monongahela National Bank's doors did not open on that morning of April 6, 1931, it shocked the people of the Three Towns. Yet unbelievably, many of the citizens who assembled on Brownsville's sidewalks that morning were not staring at the Monongahela National Bank building. Instead, they were a block away, shaking their heads as they discussed a second disaster that had befallen the town that same morning. It was that calamity, not the closing of the bank, which stole the headlines in the Brownsville Telegraph. Next week, more about the day the Telegraph called "Blue Monday."