History of Colonel James Schoonmaker: An Officer and A Gentleman and a Lot More

April 14, 2015

Speaker: Historian, FRANK J KURTIK

Colonel James M. Schoonmaker is not a familiar name to most Squirrel Hill residents, yet he was right up there with Frick, Carnegie, Jones and other leading industrialists of the Gilded Age. Mr. Frank Kurtik will talk about how this dashing young Civil War hero from the local area married into a wealthy Squirrel Hill family and amassed a fortune.

Colonel James M. Schoonmaker received the Medal of Honor for bravery at the Third Battle of Winchester during the Civil War. He married the daughter of Squirrel Hill coal and coke baron W. H. Brown, owner of the largest fleet of steamboats in Pittsburgh. Schoonmaker inherited coal mines and coke works from his father-in-law, which he sold to invest in railroads, becoming vice-president and general manager of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad. He was responsible for the railroad’s headquarters building at what is now Station Square. And that’s only a few of his many accomplishments in a lifetime full of achievements!

from Wikipedia: Born in Peebles Twp. (subsequently Pittsburgh) on June 30, 1842 to James Schoonmaker and Mary Clark Stockton. James was a student at the Western University of Pennsylvania when the American Civil War began and enlisted in a local company of recruits which was assigned to the 1st Maryland Cavalry, rising to the rank of lieutenant. During the next thirteen months, he proved himself repeatedly in battle and in command of his troops.

In August 1862, Schoonmaker was authorized by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to raise the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment, and was promoted to the rank of colonel. He later also commanded a cavalry brigade in the Cavalry Corps, under the command of Philip Sheridan. At the Third Battle of Winchester, September 19, 1864, Schoonmaker led his troops in a dismounted charge against Confederate artillery in Star Fort . It was for this action he received the Medal of Honor on May 19, 1899. The Medal of Honor citation reads: “During the Battle of Star Fort, Virginia, at a critical period, gallantly led a cavalry charge against the left of the enemy’s line of battle, drove the enemy out of his works, and captured many prisoners.”

About the Speaker, Frank Kurtik: Currently based in Fayette County, Frank works independently as a researcher, writer and lecturer. His special field of interest is the history of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Besides writing an introductory essay for Essence of Pittsburgh, a book about the work of the Lawrenceville-based artist, Ron Donoughe, Frank has written a number of articles for such publications as the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Carnegie Magazine and Western Pennsylvania History. His lecture topics have ranged from Western Pennsylvania iron furnaces to H. J. Heinz’s Sunday School work to Monongahela rye whiskey.

Prior to his current work, Frank was a Research Fellow with the Heinz Family Foundation in Washington, D.C., and before that, he was Archivist and Special Projects Manager for the Heinz Family Office in Pittsburgh. Holding an M.A. in History from Duquesne University, Frank’s initial professional position was as an archivist at the University of Pittsburgh, where he specialized in the care of historic photograph collections.

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