Ansel Arnold was an unmarried 32-year-old cattle dealer when, in 1825, he left his native German village of Jebenhausen and came to the United States. His first 15 years in this country went undocumented, but by the 1840 census he was living in Carlisle, Pa.
The agricultural town in the Cumberland Valley, just east of the Alleghenies, had recently become intertwined with the eastern seaboard. The Cumberland Valley Railroad had connected Carlisle to the outskirts of Harrisburg in mid-1837. With the addition of a bridge over the Susquehanna River in early 1839, travelers could reach Philadelphia in a day.
The railroad coincided with increased Jewish outmigration from Jebenhausen. The community had lost 30 members between 1825 and 1838. It lost 38 more in 1839 alone.
A rabbi in Jebenhausen lamented that his congregants could not see any future for their children in the crowded village. He noted that the ever-growing population of former Jebenhauseners in wide-open America was easing the burden of settling in a foreign land.
Typical of the 1839 crop was Ansel’s younger brother Marx. Marx (sometimes Marks, sometimes Max) Arnold was a 44-year-old peddler with six children. By the 1840 census, he was a merchant in Chambersburg, the terminus of the Cumberland Valley Railroad.
Research is like hiking. Sometimes you wander alone for days. Sometimes you meet fellow travelers coming the opposite direction, and they tell you what’s ahead. In trying to learn more about Marx Arnold, I encountered the work of a German historian named Dr. Stefan Rohrbacher. For decades, Rohrbacher has been tracking the 314 Jewish men, women and children who left Jebenhausen for America between 1825 and 1870.
According to his research, Chambersburg had between 40 and 45 Jewish residents in 1840. They were all part of the extended Arnold family, and a wider network of their relatives and townsmen lived between the Allegheny Mountains and Philadelphia.
By comparison, the Jewish population of the 26-county region we now call Western Pennsylvania was perhaps five, not counting any peddlers who were passing through.
The Jewish families scattered throughout the Cumberland Valley started a benevolent society in 1840 and dedicated a cemetery in Chambersburg in 1844. I visited the cemetery a few weeks ago and snapped a picture of Ansel Arnold’s stone from 1845.
To me, his grave marks a moment just before the story of Western Pennsylvania Jewry really gets going. He stayed in the Cumberland Valley because he had no reason to leave.
By 1850, the picture has changed significantly.
By 1850, “the picture has changed significantly,” as Rohrbacher dryly put it. The extended Arnold family had left Chambersburg. Some had moved to other small towns in the Cumberland Valley. Several went east to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.
Seemingly alone among them, Marx Arnold went the other direction. He was living in New Castle near his son-in-law and daughter Manassah and Sarah Henlein. It’s unclear who followed whom. But, as before, networks of family and railroads eased the journey.
My drive home roughly followed their path. Today, a trip from the Cumberland Valley to Pittsburgh slips easily through the Allegheny Mountains. The road gives little indication of what an impediment those mountains must have been for early travelers, how the miles and miles of ridges and valleys divided the state physically and culturally. Philadelphia was a metropolis. Pittsburgh remained an outpost even after a system of canals, railroads and inclines opened in 1834 and stitched together the faraway edges of Pennsylvania.
Marx Arnold left New Castle for Pittsburgh as early as 1855. He lived at 24 Pitt Street, which is now the northern end of Stanwix Street. He started a clothing company called M. Arnold & Sons at 66 Market Street, at the current site of the PPG Place ice rink.
The only Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh in 1855 was Shaare Shamayim, and shortly before the High Holidays that year it split along ethnic lines. The breakaway group of southern Germans became Rodef Shalom and elected Marx Arnold as its first president.
Marx died in 1860 and was buried in Pittsburgh. Within a year, his family had left for established cities in the east, either unwilling or unable to stick it out on the frontier. PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Sen. John Heinz History Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-454-6406. Follow the Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter for the latest stories.