West Liberty Lumber Company

West Liberty Lumber Company - 1939.
The West Liberty Lumber Company stands in the distance along West Liberty Avenue, at Pioneer Avenue, in June 1939.
This picture was taken during the construction of the
West Liberty Avenue trolley ramp. John's Lumber Company,
north at the corner of West Liberty and Saw Mill Run Boulevard, had a storage yard out of frame to the right.

The West Liberty Lumber Company was incorporated on March 5, 1911 by W. G. Rebbeck, W. G. McNeely and C. W. Huff. The company originally set up shop along Hargrove Street in Beechview, just off West Liberty Avenue under the Palm Garden Trestle.

Along with Green and Evans Lumber (later John's Lumber Company) at the corner of West Liberty and Warrington, they provided much of the lumber and millworking for Brookline and Beechview's initial building boom.

West Liberty Lumber Company - August 1912.    West Liberty Lumber Company - April 1913.

West Liberty Lumber Company office and storage barns, along Hargrove Street in Beechview,
shown here on August 22, 1923 (left) and on April 29, 1913 (right and below).

West Liberty Lumber Company - 1913.

In 1923, the company expanded and constructed a main office building and wood-working factory. Along with additional storage barns, the new headquarters facility was located at 1211 West Liberty Avenue, at the intersection with Pioneer Avenue in Brookline.

The company remained at the West Liberty Avenue location for thirty-one years, growing into one of Pittsburgh's main suppliers of lumber products and building materials. Business also boomed as a result of the company providing direct financing to residential home builders on supplies.

West Liberty Lumber Company - 1924    West Liberty Lumber Company - 1924
The rear of the West Liberty Lumber Company main office and wood-working factory
as seen from Pioneer Avenue on January 7, 1924.

The success of the West Liberty Lumber Company, which by the 1930s was owned and operated by the Iams family (Mrs. C. W. Iams and her twin sons C. W. Iams Jr., president, and Taylor S. Iams, vice-president), was not without its share of bad luck and hardships.

Ill-fortune came in the form of three devastating fires in a span of just five years from 1940 through 1945 (documented below) that destroyed major portions of the business and a large supply of wood products, which were increasingly scarce during the war years.

West Liberty Lumber Company Ad - 1936

After rebounding from the fires, the West Liberty Lumber Company continued to lead the local industry in lumber and supply services. In 1950 the firm spent some time in the national spotlight. With home construction peaking in the late-1940s, a severe shortage of wooden doors became a serious issue. Domestic suppliers across the country could not keep up with the booming demand for that item.

With this in mind, company executives traveled north to Canada, where there was a slackening off in home building. There they obtained exclusive U.S. distribution rights for "Unik" Flushwood doors, manufactured at a rate of 6500 per week in Quebec by Canada Flushwood Door Company.

Soon, truckloads of doors were arriving at West Liberty Lumber and then sold to other lumber yards, including local competitors who could not obtain doors in this country. This went on for nearly a year until U.S. manufacturing caught up with demand.

West Liberty Lumber Company Ad - 1948

The company continued at the West Liberty Avenue location until 1955, when it was merged with the Hill Top Lumber Company and moved to 275 Curry Hollow Road in Pleasant Hills. The Hill Top-West Liberty Lumber Company spent five years at the new location before going out of business in March, 1960. The lumber and equipment was sold off to other firms and the 4 1/2 acre Pleasant Hills site sold to Quaker State Coca-Cola Bottling Company.

As for the former main office building and storage barns along West Liberty Avenue, they continue to appear on maps dating from 1957 and 1967. It's not sure in what capacity they served.

Matthews International built their Bronze Division Headquarters in the adjacent lot in the 1940s and at some point in time acquired the lumber yard property. The office and frame buildings were torn down sometime after 1967 and that land is now part of Matthews' expanded parking lot.

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Looking south from above the Liberty
Tunnels South Portals in 1932.
Looking south towards Brookline from atop the south portals of the Liberty Tunnels in 1932. Pioneer Avenue is visible
to the left. Marked are the West Liberty Lumber Company buildings at both Pioneer and along Hargrove Street.

West Liberty Lumber Company Fire
(August 8, 1940)

The Pittsburgh Press, on August 8, 1940, reported on a six-alarm South Hills blaze that swept the plant of the West Liberty Lumber Company at 1211 West Liberty Avenue. The fire, believed to have started about 2:45am, was not discovered until the interior of the huge two-story frame building, 200 feet long and 75 feet wide, was in flames. A mill truck driver sounded the first alarm, which was followed in quick succession by several other alarms.

For over an hour, 150 firemen from fifteen engine companies battled in vain against the roaring flames and intense heat to save the main building. Hampered initially by low water pressure that resulted from the filling of a nearby city swimming pool, the firefighters were still on location pouring water on the smouldering ruins of the building as late as 8:30am. The loss of the building alone was estimated at $20,000. Also destroyed were valuable machinery along with several finished and partly finished products.

West Liberty Lumber Company Fire - 1940
Firemen battling to bring under control flames which swept through the main building of the West Liberty Lumber Company.
The huge two-story frame structure, housing valuable machinery and lumber, was destroyed.

The fire ate into the superstructure of the building and caused the roof to collapse. Flames shot 300 feet into the sky and could be seen for miles. Hundreds of spectators attracted by the flame-lit sky gathered along Pioneer Avenue and the hillside along the P&WVRR tracks, but were quickly driven off by the scorching heat.

The low pressure situation was caused by the filling of the new swimming pool at Joseph F. Moore Park in Brookline. The pool was scheduled for a grand opening on August 9. Once that water was turned off, and pressure restored, firemen poured tons of water on the walls of the nearby lumber storage building and isolated piles of lumber lying about in the yard. Nearby businesses were also doused after being threatened by the flaming embers dancing in the air.

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West Liberty Lumber Company Fire
(April 5, 1943)

The Pittsburgh Press, on April 6, 1943, reported that two buildings were destroyed, a trolley roof set afire and a vital traffic link to the South Hills was threatened yesterday by a brush fire believed to be started by boys at play on a hillside near the Liberty Tubes. The home of John Moslander, 305 Hargrove Street, burned to the ground along with a 200 foot storage shed belonging to the West Liberty Lumber Company, also located on Hargrove Street.

West Liberty Lumber Company Fire - 1943
Firemen battle flames that engulfed one home and a lumber storage shed along Hargrove Street in Beechview.
Note the Pittsburgh Railways trolley car crossing the Palm Garden Trestle.

The roof of an inbound Mount Lebanon trolley car carrying fifty passengers caught fire from embers carried far by the high wind. The motorman drove the trolley, roof ablaze, into the South Hills Junction to the tunnel station, where the flames were extinguished and passengers transfered to another car.

Three alarms were turned in as the flames quickly spread and threatened the Pittsburgh Railways Palm Garden Trestle, which carries all trolley traffic for Brookline, Beechview, Dormont and Mount Lebanon. Automobile traffic along West Liberty Avenue was halted while firemen battled the blaze. Saw Mill Run Boulevard traffic was also halted on either side of the Palm Garden Trestle. Damages were estimated at $8000.

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West Liberty Lumber Company Fire
(September 26, 1945)

On September 26, 1945, the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph reported that on the previous afternoon a four-alarm fire swept through the lumber yard of the West Liberty Lumber Company, destroying thousands of dollars worth of lumber and scarce building materials as well as razing a storage shed. Damage was done to the main building, rebuilt only five years earlier after being destroyed by fire in 1940.

West Liberty Lumber Company Fire - 1945
Firefighters managed to save several stacks of wood located near the burning building.

The blaze began in a sawdust bin near the rear of the storage building at 4:10pm, apparently from spontaneous combustion. A still alarm was registered at 4:13pm, followed in rapid succession until the fourth alarm was sounded at 4:35. Flames shot 200 feet into the air and dense smoke was visible from the downtown district.

Fire loss, in addition to the lumber and building supplies, included saws and other machinery on the second floor of the main building. Although firemen could not prevent the destruction of the 150 by 50 foot storage building, filled to the roof with lumber and roofing materials, they were able to prevent the flames from reaching the company offices, located in the front of the main building, which was a brick and concrete block structure. They also saved a second storage shed under construction located nearby.

West Liberty Lumber Company Fire - 1945

Fifteen employees of the company escaped the fire, the company's third in five years. Four firemen were injured fighting the blaze. All traffic was halted along West Liberty Avenue and rerouted around the impacted area. Total damages were estimated at $25,000, but actually totaled twice that amount.

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NOTE: Interestingly, the anguish of the Iams family lumber empire did not end with the 1945 fire. They were also the owners of the Hill Top Lumber Company, located at Bausman Street and Knox Avenue in Knoxville. That location was also devastated by fire on January 3, 1947, incurring over $100,000 in damages. In the long run, both the Hill Top and West Liberty companies rebounded from their disasters and eventually merged in 1955, relocating to Pleasant Hills as the Hill Top-West Liberty Lumber Company.

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