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Welcome to America

The Story of One Mahanoy City Family

by Ed Conrad

 

Ralph Kundrata was a young Lithuanian merchant marine when his ship docked in Baltimore in the early 1880s. While taking shore leave in the city, he and two of his shipmates decided to "jump ship" -- not return to their vessel (and because of it, probably never again to see their homeland and their loved ones). Fearing problems if they were apprehended by personnel on the ship, they walked to Philadelphia where they hoped to land jobs but, after a few days,encountered a very serious problem. None of them spoke or understood English and therefore weren't hired because of the language barrier.

 

After a few days -- growing extremely desperate -- their bad luck suddenly changed when they encountered an elderly man with a cane who spoke Lithuanian. Kundrata and his companions explained their predicament and the old man smiled and told them: "You want jobs? I can help all of you get jobs. Follow me!" The old man began walking -- at a snail's pace --and Kundrata and his two companions tagged along right behind. They walked three-four blocks when the old man stopped at a railroad crossing and began beating one of the rails with his cane. He then lifted his cane and pointed it in a northwesterly direction. "Walk along these railroad tracks for three-four days," he told them. "When you see small hills of black, get off the railroad tracks and look for jobs." The old man had pointed the men in the direction of the Pennsylvania anthracite region and, after they followed his instructions and walked for several days, they eventually did see "small hills of black." Only then did they leave the railroad tracks and head for a town in the distance.

This was their introduction to Mahanoy City. Over the next few days -- despite their language barrier -- they were hired to work underground in the coal mines. Their inability to know the English language no longer was a barrier to employment. They were also delighted that they were in a town where there were many Central Europeans -- and a lot of Lithuanians --the vast majority of whom worked in the mines. Ralph became very involved in the growing Lithuanian community and was one of six men who lifted the cornerstone and put it in place when St. Joseph's Church was dedicated on Sept. 30, 1888.

 

A few years later, a 16-year-old Lithuanian girl named Ella had come to America to serve as a housemaid for distant relatives in New Philadelphia. After a few weeks, however, she became homesick because only a handful of people spoke Lithuanian. One of her neighbors was Lithuanian and, during a conversation while both were hanging clothes, she reluctantly admitted she didn't like New Philadelphia and wished she lived in a town where there were more Lithuanians.

 

The neighbor told her she knew of such a town and Ella told her she was anxious to move there. The neighbor told her to pack her suitcase and walk in a northwesterly direction. She suggested Ella start out just after dawn and, if she keep walking all day, she should reach the town with many Lithuanians before nightfall. The very next morning, Ella did as the neighbor suggested, carrying her suitcase in the general direction of where the woman had pointed. She eventually got on the Catawissa Trail -- heading in the right direction -- and, just before 6 p.m., entered a small town (Mahanoy City). Just then she heard bells ringing and Ella believed it was a sign from God that she was safe and that her life would be changed for the better. Little did she realize that she had entered the town precisely at 6 p.m. when the bells in the town's Catholic churches were ringing to celebrate the daily Angelus.

 

It isn't known what Ella did when she first arrived -- how she survived -- but eventually a few years later she met Ralph Kundrata and they were married. They would have six children: Louis (their first), Peter, Joseph, Helen, Edward and Florence.

 

 

In 1906 the family name was changed from Kundrata to Conrad in the snap of a finger. Mrs. Kundrata went to enroll Louis in the first grade at St. Joseph's parochial school and a nun asked how to spell Kundrata. When Mom was hesitant to spell it because she didn't know the alphabet in English, the nun looked over the child, then said: "Louis Kundrata . . . Hmmm! We'll make your last name Conrad."

 

The family lived in a row home in the 600 block of West Pine Street City and, for many years, their ground floor was exactly that -- dirt!

 

Unfortunately, Ralph was seriously injured when burned by gas during an underground explosion at a colliery near Gilberton around 1915. He lingered for more than a year before he passed away in 1917. Since the family no longer had an income, both Louie and Pete -- then not yet teenagers -- dropped out of school and got jobs as slate pickers earning 50 cents a week.

 

An unforgettable family tragedy occurred in August 1932 when Joseph Conrad, 25, a State Highway Patrolman -- now known as State Police -- was involved in a motor vehicle accident near Temple, a suburb of Reading) and lost his life.. Stationed at the Spring Valley barracks in the Reading area, he and another trooper were on motorcycles providing an escort for an automobile carrying a state official from Harrisburg when they stopped at a stop sign at an intersection near the edge of a hill in Temple. Suddenly, a car made a turn too tightly at the intersection and struck the motorcycle on which Joe's companion was sitting, causing it to be swiftly thrown against Pete's cycle. The impact sent both Joe and his motorcycle over the embankment and he suffered brain damage, a severe wound to the right side of his chest and knee, and multiple contusions. He was taken to a Reading hospital where his right knee was amputated at the knee, then it was amputatd to the hip. He died the very next day. Joe's funeral -- from St. Joseph Lithuanian Church -- was perhaps the largest funeral in Mahanoy CIay up until then. Uniformed troopers from all over the state had gathered to pay their respects -- crowding the streets and sidewalks for parts of two blocks of West Mahanoy Street near the church -- and each carrying a bouquet of flowers. However, just as the casket was about to be carried into the church, the Rev. Pius Chesna, pastor, appeared at the entrance and held up his hands, signaling "Stop!". He told the troopers closest to the church's entrance that he doesn't allow anyone to bring hand-held flowers into his church. Everyone was somewhat stunned but then one of the commanders walked right up to the pastor, pointed his finger at his nose and told him: "This may be YOUR church, Father. But he's OUR man. We're bringing in flowers." Troopers, each in turn, walked down the center aisle and placed his bouquet at the communion railing. It was said to be the largest funeral in the town's history up until that time -- and for decades afterward.

 

Another significant event for the Kundrata (Conrad) family occurred in 1945, only a few weeks before the end of World War II. Eddie, the "baby" of the family, had enlisted in the U.S. Navy just after the outbreak of the war. He was assigned to the U.S.S. Twiggs, a destroyer, and, after Germany surrendered, it was sent to the Pacific.

 

While participating in the conflict at Okinawa -- eventually won by the Allies -- the vessel was anchored only a few miles offshore on a beautiful evening. Suddenly, a strange sound could be heard in the distance and, in a few moments, a Kamikaze was spotted heading in the Twiggs' direction. The plane, operated by a Japanese "suicide pilot" willing to give up his life for his country, first fired a torpedo at the ship which was a bull's eye and killed a number of sailors as well as causing extensive damage. But the worst was yet to come. Moments later the enemy aircraft plowed into the side of the Twiggs. It penetrated the powder room where torpedoes and other explosives were stored, causing a major explosion. The destroyer soon sank -- along with Ed and many of his shipmates -- and they were officially classified as being "buried at sea." More Naval officers perished in that Kamikaze attack than in any other attack in the entire history of World War II.

 

Pete Conrad later became a member of the Mahanoy City Indians, also known as the Curley Indians,semi-pro football team in the mid-1920s. He worked in the mines all week, then played halfback on Sunday afternoons (the team's home games played at the old West End Stadium). Pete was an outstanding passer (throwing a ball with either hand) and an excellent blocker. However, one day his football career abruptly ended in the mines.

 

He and two other men behind him were picking up pieces of coal to load a buggy when there was a sudden rumble and a multi-ton slab of slate started sliding down toward them. "I was nearest the slate and yelled for the other men to run back," he once recalled. "But I couldn't escape and, as I was running away from it, the slate sliced off the entire back of my foot. "I was in the hospital for a few months - my heel connected to the side of my body - to graft skin back to my foot." It was an injury that forced Pete to give up football and, every day for the rest of his life, he had to clean pus exiting his foot and put on a new bandage. Later, he became a coal-and-iron policeman - actually a detective -for the Lehigh Valley Coal & Navigation Co. and Coal Co., a position he held for many years until he retired.

 

One of the fondest moments for Pete's friends was the time he had a few beers and was driving to a saloon on North Main Street in the early 1950s, then hit the concrete railroad bridge head-on. Since it was Saturday evening and the town was crowded because it was the night drawing of the winners of the town's three lottery pools, a crowd quickly congregated at the crash scene as Pete was carefully removed from his car, quite shaken but not seriously injured. That's when he uttered perhaps the most famous quotation in the entire history of Mahanoy City: "Who MOVED the goddamn bridge?"

 

 

 

 

Curley Indians.¬† The Mahanoy City Indians dominated local football from 1924-27. The town’s pride and joy were more commonly known as the Curley Indians because of the team’s two star players: quarterback¬† James Curley and his brother John. The team pictured was coached by Frank Sieck. In 1927 under the tutelage of future borough mayor William Sheehan the Indians won the Coal Region championship. Ed Conrad's father, Pete Conrad is seated in the second row from the bottom , second player from the right.(MHS.)

Ed Conrad started his newspaper career at the Mahanoy City Record American in 1959 at the age of twenty-one. Ed told me that the day he was hired he had gone to the Record American offices in the first block of West Pine Street expecting to be interviewed for a position in the press room, having recently graduated from Steven's Trade School in Lancaster.

 

On the way up the steps to the offices on the second floor, Ed encountered Ted Stevenson, the managing editor. Ted asked Ed the purpose of his visit to the paper that day.When Ed replied that he was applying for a position in the press room, Ted said that the position had been filled, but there was a job opening for a sports writer. So began Ed Conrad's more than fifty- year career in the newspaper business.

 

Below you will find a sampling of Ed's writing at the Record American in 1959.

 

As I See It and Ghostly Glimmers - Sports Columns by Ed Conrad in the Record American -1959