Historical Markers Documenting the Polish Contribution to Pennsylvania
See photographs of markers with descriptions
by Peter J. Obst
Historical Marker Coordinator for the Polish Heritage Society of Philadelphia
A Brief Description of the Historical Marker Program (2014)
The Pennsylvania Historical Commission was established in July 1913, and among its mandates was to place appropriate markers at buildings and sites where historical events had transpired. Initially, the Commission placed bronze information tablets affixed to buildings and monuments and was concerned mainly with local history. By 1927 the Commonwealth of Virginia established a program that introduced modern self-supporting, twin faced signs fixed on posts along streets and highways. 1 Pennsylvania adopted this system in 1946 and started to install cast aluminum markers with gold lettering on a blue background. There are two types of markers: city type (27 x 41.5 inches or 68.5 x 105.5 cm) and roadside type (45.25 x 45.75 inches or 115 x 116 cm).
Initially the Commission selected the sites, often working with groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and local historical societies, however, in 1975 the site nomination process was opened up to the general public. The guidelines were revised requiring "that the person, event or site to be commemorated have had a meaningful impact on its times and be of statewide or national rather than only local significance." Closer attention was given to minority groups and significant events that had not been given proper mention before.2
Currently there are 12 members on the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). There is also a 6 member committee of experts who examine the applications that are submitted each year, and make recommendations.3 The number of applications often exceeds one hundred but only 20 were approved in 2014. Additional information about the application process may be obtained from the PHMC website, which also includes a searchable data base of all approved historical markers, and their locations.4
The application process requires that the nominating individual or organization submit a completed questionnaire along with selected supplementary materials to build a rationale for the subject being nominated, along with the proposed wording for the marker and its desired location. The application materials must be submitted in 12 copies, one for each commissioner. Deadline for submission is December 1, and the commission releases its decisions in March of the following year. On approval, the nominator has 2 years to submit a date for the dedication of the marker and proposed texts for invitations, programs and press releases. Costs for manufacturing and installing a marker run between one thousand and twenty-five hundred dollars. In past years the state would pay half of the foundry bill, but this practice has been discontinued due to lack of funds. On dedication, the marker becomes the property of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania which assumes responsibility for maintenance and replacement in case of damage.
In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania there are over 2,000 historical markers. At present only 15 mention Poles or Polish-American participation in its history.
Polish History in Pennsylvania
Poles took part in the history of Pennsylvania at many levels. The earliest such mention recorded on a marker is for Anthony Sadowski who was an explorer and Indian trader active in the colony founded by William Penn. Sadowski first settled on the Schuylkill River in 1712. Because of his knowledge of Indian languages he acted as an interpreter for the Governor of Pennsylvania in negotiations with the Native Americans. His body was buried, 1736, in the cemetery of St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church, in Douglassville, northwest of Philadelphia. His descendants moved west, eventually changing the family name to Sandusky. This marker was documented by Edward Pinkowski who has researched and written widely about the Sadowski Sandusky family. 5
The Revolutionary War period in America introduced two prominent names into Pennsylvania history - Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciuszko.
Pulaski is the better documented of the two men, as his name appears on five markers. The first is located at Moland House at Hartsville, a town north of Philadelphia, where Washington's army camped and where the general located his headquarters. The house is maintained as a museum by the Warwick Township Historical Society,6 and it was there that Pulaski first met Washington in August of 1777. The current marker, placed in 2006 is a revision of one installed in 1947. The new marker includes information about Pulaski and stresses his role as "Father of the American Cavalry" since before Pulaski's arrival the American army had no organized cavalry force.
Two markers devoted to Pulaski are located in the vicinity of the site of the Battle of Brandywine just west of Philadelphia. Here Pulaski, even before receiving his appointment as Brigadier General of Cavalry from the Continental Congress, organized a rear guard action that is credited with preserving the American Revolutionary Army from annihilation by the advancing British. 7
Two more markers mentioning Pulaski can be found in the town of Bethlehem farther to the north of Philadelphia.8 Both reference a banner that was made for Pulaski's Legion by the Moravian Sisters, members of a religious community which made its home in the area and supported themselves through various handicrafts that included embroidering. The original banner has been preserved by the Baltimore Historical Society. A poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized Pulaski and the banner. Its last words are "the warrior took the banner proud; it was his martial cloak and shroud." 9
Thaddeus Kosciuszko is remembered on a marker located at his Museum on the corner of 3rd and Pine Streets in Philadelphia. Kosciuszko lived there from November 1797 to May 1798. A military engineer and general in Washington's army during the American Revolution, he returned to his native Poland. There he headed a revolt against the powers of Austria, Prussia and Russia. He came back to America after being released from prison in St. Petersburg where he was kept after the fall of the Insurrection in 1795. In this house he met many prominent Americans and later went on a confidential mission to France on request of his friend, Thomas Jefferson. The museum is maintained by the National Park Service. It and the marker exist because of the persistent efforts of Polish-American historian Edward Pinkowski. 10
Many Polish-Americans born in Pennsylvania served in the United States armed forces with great distinction. A notable example is Colonel Francis "Gabby" Gabreski. Born in the north-western PA town of Oil City, not far from Titusville where petroleum was first commercially extracted, Gabreski became a fighter pilot in the United States Army Air Force. After the attack on Pearl Harbor he requested and was allowed to fly with the Polish Squadrons who fought in the Battle of Britain. The techniques he learned he passed on to American pilots. He was the most successful American fighter pilot in the European theater of operations during WWII. His aircraft of choice was the P-47 "Thunderbolt," but later during the Korean Conflict he would become a jet ace flying the well respected F-86 "Sabrejet." 11
The marker was a cooperative effort between the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Kosciuszko Foundation and the Polish National Alliance (PNA) Lodge 905 in Oil City. Ceremonies were attended by PNA President Frank Spula from Chicago and Oil City Mayor Sonja L. Hawkins. After the unveiling, three aircraft did several fly-bys over the site. One of them was an AT-6 military trainer of WWII vintage. 12
Poles played a major role in the industrialization of Pennsylvania, often working as low paid manual laborers in the mines and steel mills. In 1897 dissatisfied with their low wages and terrible working conditions, immigrant miners in the Hazleton (north-central Pennsylvania) area staged a protest march that began at Harwood where this marker is placed. When they reached the town of Lattimer, sheriff's deputies opened fire at the unarmed crowd of 400, killing 19. The perpetrators of this outrage went unpunished. The marker was placed on the initiative of Edward Pinkowski who documented the events surrounding the incident now known as the "Lattimer Massacre." A second marker at Lattimer mentions the event but not the nationalities of the murdered protesters. 13
With the growth of the Labor Movement in the United States and the establishment of the United Mine Workers (UMW) came improvements in working conditions and pay. However, this did not lead to the elimination of corruption or violence. On December 31, 1969 UAW reform candidate Joseph A. Yablonski, together with his family, was murdered by perpetrators hired by union chief William A. "Tony" Boyle. The following year reformers won the UMW elections. A marker was placed in the Pennsylvania town of California where Yablonski was a long-time resident. 14
Polish pianist and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski is mentioned on a marker located on the south side of Pittsburgh, an industrial city in western Pennsylvania famous for its steel industry. At the onset of World War I Paderewski spoke there before an assembly of Polish Falcons. The speech is credited with starting a movement to create a force composed of Polish-Americans to fight alongside the Allies against Germany, and thereby liberate the Polish homeland. The army units assembled at Niagara-on the-Lake in Ontario, Canada and formed the core of Gen. Jozef Haller's Blue Army.15
Casimir Sienkiewicz, who died in 1974, was an immigrant who made an important contribution to Philadelphia area banking. In addition he was a well-known landscape painter. He was instrumental in selling United States War Bonds during both world wars. Later, he served as administrator of the South East Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA), one of the largest public transit companies in the country.16 This marker was placed through the initiative of Judge Edward Ludwig who was his longtime friend and fellow resident of Doylestown. Incidentally, this town, located to the north of Philadelphia, is the administrative center of Bucks County and home of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa maintained by the Pauline Fathers.
Ralph Modjeski (Rudolf Modrzejewski), civil engineer and son of actress Helena Modjeska has finally been acknowledged on a marker near the entrance to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge at 6th and Race Streets in Philadelphia. A brilliant engineer, he built over 40 major bridges in America. The bridge, opened in 1926 for the American sesquicentennial, joins Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ and is probably his most groundbreaking work, as it introduced several innovations to suspension bridge design.17 In fact, the bridge set the pattern for future American-style suspension bridges with its bare "form-follows-function" design. It is unusual, as it carries not only road traffic but an electrified light rail line, something not commonly found on suspension bridges. It also has two elevated walkways along the length of the span. These are a favorite among local joggers and runners. This marker was the first to be set up under an initiative of the Polish Heritage Society of Philadelphia.18 A lavish printed program was produced for the dedication which was attended by PHMC member Janet S. Klein and Krzysztof W. Kasprzyk, Consul General of Poland in New York City.19
Among Polish-Americans there has never been a shortage of inventors and entrepreneurs, but to date an undisputed leader in this elite group is Frank N. Piasecki, inventor of the tandem-rotor helicopter. In the late 1940s, while Igor Sikorsky was still working to get the bugs out of his vertical flight machine, young Frank constructed one of his own, and flew it around the Philadelphia suburbs. Later, he founded a company that manufactured his revolutionary twin rotor design, eventually selling it to the Boeing Corporation. The Chinook line of helicopters traces its roots back to Frank Piasecki's original work.20
The marker dedication ceremony was well attended and included Boeing executives, Piasecki family members and the late Senator Arlen Specter21 among the speakers. The Piaseckis produced a ten-minute film about their father and it was shown on a giant screen during the on-street dedication ceremony where over 200 persons were able to view it. Vivian Piasecki, Frank's widow, pulled the cord to release the cover from the marker.22 This was the second historical marker dedicated under the aegis of the Polish Heritage Society of Philadelphia.
Frank Piasecki's long-time friend and fellow member of the Kosciuszko Foundation Board of Directors was Walter Golaski. A Drexel University graduate (in 1946) Golaski invented and improved commercial knitting machines. Eventually he would create a system for knitting vascular replacements to be implanted into the human body. His was the first practical device of this type.23
The dedication for Golaski's marker was organized by the Polish Heritage Society of Philadelphia. Among the persons participating were: Poland's Consul General Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, PHMC Commissioner Richard Sand, Kosciuszko Foundation President John Micgiel and City of Philadelphia Comptroller Alan Butkovitz. The marker stands on the Drexel University campus near the place where Walter had his machine-shop. This segment of the city street was transformed into a park-like promenade by the university and is now called Lancaster Walk.24
Having participated in several dedication ceremonies for historical markers this author can relate to their significance on several levels. One level is "Polish pride," the feeling of belonging to an immigrant group which has made positive contributions to the diverse American mix of people, cultures and nationalities. On another level is the idea of preserving American history for future generation.
But dedicating a marker is also an exciting event that unites people from various groups. For example, at the Modjeski maker dedication were present representatives from both Polish immigrant and American engineering societies who were delighted to see that Ralph Modjeski, once called the "forgotten engineer" in a newspaper article,25 was at last receiving some deserved recognition. A dedication is also the culmination of separate efforts expended by many individuals that come together at a certain designated point and acquire full significance. It also gives ideas to others who may have a subject for a future marker, and Polish-American history in Pennsylvania is rich enough to supply at least one subject for a marker each year for a long time to come.
At the time of this article, plans to dedicate the next marker for a historically significant person of Polish extraction are already in process. In March 2014 the PHMC approved a marker for Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), the legendary conductor and musical director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Though born in London of Polish-Irish parentage, Stokowski always identified himself as being of Polish background, even claiming that he was born in Krakow.26 On September 18, 2021 the marker was formally dedicated in front of the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Details of the ceremony are posted on: http://www.poles.org/DB/S_names/Stokowski_LAS/Stokowski_Ceremony.html
In addition it should be noticed that a marker for Stephanie Kwolek, the Polish inventor of Kelvar was dedicated near Pittsburgh in 2016. Two other Polish related markers were approved and will soon be added (though they do not yet appear on the PHMC dedication schedule): Stan Musial in Denora, PA, and Tom Gola in Philadelphia.
1. In 2012 the American Council for Polish Culture (ACPC) participated in the Commonwealth of Virginia Historical Marker Program by placing a marker to commemorate the arrival of the first Poles at the English Jamestown colony in 1608.
See: http://www.poles.org/Jamestown_Marker and also: "Historical Marker Unveiled at Jamestown" in Polish Heritage (periodical issued by the ACPC) for Fall 2012, vol. 63, no. 2, pp. 1, 7.
2. George R. Beyer, Guide to the Historical Markers of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2000).
3. The selection process is rigorous. In the past few years the PHMC has rejected proposals for markers listing: Helena Modjeska (2x), Gen. Wlodzimierz Krzyzanowski (2x), Henryk Dmochowski-Sanders, Isaac Asimov, the First Polish American Fire Company in PA, Pope John Paul II's 1979 Philadelphia Visit (3x), and Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Robert Von Moschzisker. However, during those same years, for reasons known to themselves alone, commission members approved markers for: Birthplace of Commercial Ice Cream Production (2012), The Banana Split (2013) and for perfecting the process for individually wrapping cheese slices - Arnold N. Nawrocki (2007).
4. Information about each marker includes its Global Positioning System (GPS) location. This information is accessible via applications that work on iPhones and similar portable electronic communications devices. The internet address for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) website is:
5. Edward Pinkowski, Anthony Sadowski Polish Pioneer (monograph), (Philadelphia: Sunshine Press, 1966).
6. The Warwick Township Historical Society holds a small-scale reenactment of the Revolutionary Army's encampment near the house every August, and maintains a website at: http://moland.org/warwick-township-historical-society/
7. Francis Casimir Kajencki, The Pulaski Legion in the American Revolution (El Paso, TX: Southwest Polonia Press, 2004), pp. 15-21.
8. "Pulaski Marker in Bethlehem, PA," in Polish American Journal, December 1974. The organization responsible for the "Pulaski's Banner" marker was the Central Council of Polish Organizations, a Pittsburgh-based group which later transformed into the Polish Cultural Council (PCC).
9. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hymn of the Moravian Nuns of Bethlehem. It should be noted that the "Moravian Sisters" were not "nuns" (in the strict Roman Catholic Church sense) but merely single women living communally. They were not bound by vows of celibacy or a set of monastic rules. See also: http://www.bartleby.com/356/13.html
10. "Kosciuszko Shrine Dedication, Oct. 22 in Philadelphia," in Polish American Journal, October 14, 1967, vol. 56, no. 21, p. 1. Edward Pinkowski is the founder of the Poles in America Foundation which has been very helpful in providing documentation for historical marker applications. It is located at: 127 North 20th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103; its website is: http://www.poles.org
11. Francis Gabreski and Carl Molesworth, Gabby: A Fighter Pilot's Life (New York: Orion Books, 1991).
12. "Colonel Francis S. Gabreski Historic (sic) Marker Unveiling Ceremony" in Polish American News, Sept. 2011, p. 11; and Charlotte Murray, "Historical Marker to Honor Polish American Pilot" in Polish Journey (published by the Polish Cultural Council of Pittsburgh - PCC) vol. 9, Summer 2011, p. 2. For photographs and detailed description of the event see: http://www.poles.org/DB/G_names/Gabreski_FS/Gabreski_Marker.html
13. Edward Pinkowski, Lattimer Massacre (Philadelphia: Sunshine Press, 1955). See also: http://www.poles.org/Lattimer/
14. Arthur H. Lewis, Murder By Contract: The People v. 'Tough Tony' Boyle (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1975).
15. Wieslaw S. Kuniczak, My Name is Million (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1978), pp. 96, 134-135.
16. "Casimir A. Sienkiewicz Dies; Retired Bank Chairman," in Gwiazda, July 4, 1974.
See also: http://www.poles.org/DB/S_names/Sienkiewicz_CA/Sienkiewicz_CA.html
17. Jozef Glomb, A Man Who Spanned Two Eras [Czlowiek z pogranicza epok] (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Chapter of the Kosciuszko Foundation, 2002), translation from the Polish language by Peter J. Obst.
See also: http://www.polishcultureacpc.org/books/Modjeski_book.html
18. "Official Modjeski Marker Unveiled in Philadelphia," in Polish American Journal, November 2007, p. 17.
19. Copies of the program published for the Modjeski marker dedication luncheon and two others (Piasecki, Golaski) are stored in the archives of the Pennsylvania Historical Society, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107.
20. Jay P. Spenser, "Whirlybirds: A History of the U.S. Helicopter Pioneers" (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998), pp. 94-182. See also: http://www.poles.org/DB/P_names/Piasecki_FN/Piasecki_FN.html
21. Senator Arlen Specter earned the ire of the Polish-American community in 2008 when he started telling "Polish jokes" during his presentation at a Pennsylvania Society luncheon in New York City. Though he admitted his error and issued an apology, he never fully regained credibility among Polish-American voters. He died in 2012. See: James O'Toole, "Specter's ethnic jokes lay an egg," in Pittsburgh Post Gazette, December 17, 2008.
22. "Philadelphia honors aviation pioneer Frank N. Piasecki," in The Post Eagle, vol. 48, no. 21, May 26, 2010, p. 6. For photographs and a detailed description of the event see: http://www.polishcultureacpc.org/Piasecki/
23. Sigmund A. Wesolowski, A Tribute to Walter M. Golaski (Program for the 1992 Gold Award Banquet), (Madison Heights, MI: American Polish Engineering Association, 1992), pp. 2-6.
24. "Historic marker to honor Dr. Walter Golaski," in The Post Eagle, April 29, 2014. Also see: "Walter Golaski Historical Marker," in Polish Heritage (periodical issued by the ACPC) for Spring 2014, vol. 65, no. 2, pp. 4, 9. For photographs and a detailed description of the event see: http://www.poles.org/DB/G_names/Golaski_WM/pix.html
25. Murray Dubin, "The Forgotten Bridge Builder," in The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 17, 1987, sec. C, pp. 1, 10.
26. James S. Pula, editor, The Polish American Encyclopedia (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2011), pp. 504-505. This excellent groundbreaking book contains concise well researched biographies of Leopold Stokowski and other persons of Polish extraction found on PA Historical Markers. However, it is not complete. There are no entries for Casimir Sienkiewicz and Walter Golaski both of whom were deemed sufficiently important by the independent state commission to warrant publicly displayed, state sanctioned markers. It is hoped that in the future an updated and expanded (perhaps 2 volume) edition of the encyclopedia will be produced. See also: http://www.amazon.com/Polish-American-Encyclopedia-James-Pula/dp/0786433086