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Adapted from articles by Karl F. Overholt (Wooster 1891) in The Phi Gamma Delta

March 1909, Volume 31, Number 5, pp.439-442 and May 1909, Volume 31, Number 7, pp.712-719.

Sigma Chapter at Western University of Pennsylvania

1863-1870

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The Pittsburgh Academy was established in 1787. By 1819 it became the Western University of Pennsylvania, and in 1908, the University of Pittsburgh.

The University was reorganized in 1855 in a new building, the previous one having been destroyed by fire.  Operations were small in scale; only three men graduated between 1856 and 1864. There were no fraternities until our Sigma Chapter's arrival in 1863.

The founding of our Sigma Chapter was closely interwoven with the history of the Irving Literary Society. Three charter members of Sigma Chapter were also founders of the Irving Literary Society. Another was one of the most prominent members of the Philomathean Literary Society, while the fifth was apparently not a member of either. George W. Guthrie (Western 1866), the first elected member of Sigma Chapter, was also founder of Irving society.

John H. McCandless (Western 1864) was one of Irving's most enthusiastic members. An entry in his diary shows that he made "an indignant speech" against Dr. George Woods, the university chancellor, and the Greek professor, Joseph F. Griggs, because of their refusal to allow Irving to have a room in the university building for a hall. McCandless audaciously went over their heads and sent a letter to the board of trustees for the use of the hall. The trustees relented. McCandless was on the committee from the society to fit up and furnish the hall, and bought the carpet and furnishings. Irving first met in the new hall on May 1, 1863.

THE FOUNDING

Reverend Israel C. Pershing (Jefferson 1850), then a Methodist minister and also president of Pittsburg Female College, first approached a student at Western University of Pennsylvania, John R. Wightman, about Phi Gamma Delta.  He introduced Wrightman to A. Brown Riggs (Jefferson 1863) during the spring of 1863.

The charter of Sigma Chapter was dated October 2, 1863, at Jefferson College, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.  It was signed by S. D. Jennings (Jefferson 1864) and Tom S. Bracken, (Jefferson 1865), president and secretary of the Grand Chapter. The names of the founders appear in the following order: "John R. Wightman, Robert S. Sill, John H. McCandless, H. M. Howe, and George I. Whitney, students of the Western University at Pittsburgh, Penna."

The Grand Chapter at Jefferson College appointed A. Brown Riggs as legate (installing officer). He later became a faculty member at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati.

On October 15, 1863, four of the five charter members were initiated.  George I. Whitney was absent on account of sickness.  John H. McCandless (Western 1864) wrote the following in his pocket diary: "1863, Thursday, Oct. 15. Met Mr. Riggs, J. R. Wightman, Sill and Howe in hall, and was initiated with them into Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. Was elected . . . . Took papers in charge."

As suggested by the entry, McCandless was elected as Sigma's first president. The other officers were Wightman, treasurer, and Whitney, secretary. One week later, on October 22, 1863, Whitney was initiated by Brother Riggs.

MEETING LOCATIONS

McCandless confirmed many years later that "The hall alluded to in my diary was, of course, Irving Hall, the second room to the right of the center hall on the first floor of the university building, then located at the corner of Diamond and Ross sts." Chapter meetings were held there for the first few years. On a few occasions the chapter met in the recitation room of the Greek professor, Mr. Griggs. This was a side room on the second floor.

The university building, built in 1855, was three stories and brick, with a center hall and three rooms on each side. On the first floor to the right of the hall were, in the following order, the office of the chancellor, the Irving Literary Society room, and a room fitted up as a gymnasium. This Irving room was large for those days, about fifteen by twenty-five feet. It was on the far side of the building, overlooking a small yard adjoining what later became the Allegheny County court house annex. It was very handsomely furnished. The floors were carpeted with a beautiful body brussels, and the walls were fittingly paneled with the nine muses. The society had a substantial library. The room was well equipped with bookcases, tables and suitable society furniture.

Later the authorities gave part of the third floor of the university building to Phi Gamma Delta and Delta Tau Delta for meetings. This third floor was an assembly room.  The rear portion was accordingly partitioned off into two small rooms, and each assigned to a fraternity for its exclusive use.

CHAPTER SIZABLE

The chapter was a large one for the size of the school. In 1865, the collegiate departments had only 27 students, with another 14 in the scientific department. The enrollment during the entire period from 1863 to 1870 approximated 150 male students. Sigma Chapter's membership over its life totaled twenty-six, or about sixteen percent of the entire college enrollment.

Sigma's chapter-motto might be well expressed in the word "conservatism." When she was founded, the complaint among the majority of the students in the university was that more men should have been included in the charter list of the chapter. When she continued the same policy in her membership selections, and required that all members should be of at least sophomore standing in the university, a local society was formed by certain students who did not receive invitations to Phi Gamma Delta.  This society thereafter became the Beta Eta Chapter of Delta Tau Delta. (That chapter later closed, and the designation transferred to another chapter.)

The personnel of Sigma Chapter were most select. Members were gathered from the oldest, most aristocratic and influential families of Pittsburgh. They were congenital, of sterling worth and of uniformly high standing in every respect. The most prominent leaders in Irving and Philomathean, and their respective representatives in the inter-society and collegiate contests, were Phi Gamma Deltas.

MEETINGS LITERARY IN CHARACTER

The minutes of the chapter record a literary program as a part of every meeting. The literary performances were volunteered in many instances by the brothers, and such were regularly announced one week in advance of each meeting. Some examples:

  • George W. Guthrie contributed essays on "Time," and "Pleasures of Memory," and on one occasion "read some verses on Love."

  • John R. Wightman declaimed "The Destruction of Sennacherib," and gave an essay on "The Coliseum," and another on "Consistency."

  • Robert S. Sill presaged his calling in the reading of a selection on "Advice to a Young Lawyer.

  • Dallas Sanders declaimed "The Pauper's Deathbed," and contributed a selection on "Worthy Ambitions." His ambitions were well realized thereafter in his election as district attorney of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.

  • L. D. Wilkins declaimed "Cataline's Reply to the Senate" and "Old Ironsides."

  • H. D. Gamble, declaimed "The Little Dog" as his first performance. He became one of the most literary members of the chapter, as well as one of the most loyal in his devotion thereto. He was later United States Circuit Court Clerk for the Western District of Pennsylvania,

  • John Gordon declaimed "The "American Flag" and Bro. R. C. Moore contributed an essay on "General U. S. Grant."

  • William G. Park gave many selections, always of interest. He is recorded in one meeting with "a reading of a selection from the captured minutes of Beta Theta Pi" (Possibly sent by the chapter at Wabash - quite the scandal of the day among Beta chapters.

The debates were spirited. "Is the existence of two parties beneficial to the country?" "Is iron a more useful metal than tin?" "Is moderate wine drinking sinful?" "Resolved, that the Fenian prisoners in Canada should be held as prisoners of war;" and "Resolved, that fictitious writings are beneficial," give good evidence as to the versatility of the Sigma brethren.

The minutes of a chapter meeting on November 19, 1867, record a lively debate on "the question of the hour," that being "is universal suffrage desirable in the United States?"

The debate was opened with a spirited and forcible argument by Frater Gamble, and was followed in able and earnest discussions by Fraters Moore and Murray. (Frater Moore was then excused and left the meeting. . . .) Frater Gamble, seeing so much opposition, hastened to defend his position. Frater Murray, unwilling to be outdone although now single-handed, then rose to overthrow the arguments of his opponent. Frater Gamble again took the floor, and closed the debate with a critical review of the whole argument. The other members present, although not participating, were evidently interested listeners. On motion of Frater Park, the chapter proceeded to vote on the merits of the question, the ballot standing four in favor of the affirmative to two against.

INVOLVEMENT

Sigma was active in the affairs of the Fraternity. They sent delegates to all the conventions, and played active roles in them.  All nine undergraduate brothers attended the 1864 meeting in Pittsburgh. More details of the conventions are given at the end of this article.

One brother from the chapter was instrumental in expanding the Fraternity to New York City. After graduating from Western, John H. McCandless attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City. There, he was legate for the chapters at the College of the City of New York (1865) and Columbia (1866).

The leadership of the early members spilled over to their involvement as Western alumni. The first meeting of the alumni association on June 27, 1866, elected George Whitney as president, John R. Wightman as corresponding secretary, and McCandless as secretary-treasurer.  (VPs were William Sawyer 1865 and John Gordon 1866.) According to the First Alumni Year Book of the Alumni Association of the Western University of Pennsylvania, the alumni group determined to hold an annual reunion. An orator and poet were elected, and competition was quite keen. The first orator was John M. Kirkpatrick(brother?) and the first poet was George I. Whitney 1865.

Phi Gam presidents of the alumni organizations included:

  • George Whitney - 1866

  • James W. Murray (Western 1865) - 1868

  • John R. Wightman - 1871.

  • George Guthrie - 1907 to 1909. During that time he was also mayor of Pittsburgh, and thus an ex-officio member of the University board of trustees.

MEMBERSHIP CHANGES

In 1865, two years after her founding, Sigma restricted her chapter membership to students having at least sophomore classical or second year scientific ranking in the university. As a result there were no initiates into Phi Gamma Delta from Sigma chapter during the college year, 1865-1866.

In the fall of 1867, Sigma modified her chapter organization so as to admit to active membership brothers from her own and sister chapters, who had graduated or ended their college courses and were residing in Pittsburg. John R. Wightman, H. D. Gamble, R. C. Moore and other graduate brothers became active members again, and five brothers from sister chapters also joined Sigma chapter at once. These were S. S. Gilson (Jefferson 1866) and S. W. Elliott (Jefferson 1867), both students at Western Theological Seminary; W. F. White (Wabash 18__); Cyrus C. Clarke, Jr. (Allegheny 1867), working at Tradesman's National Bank; and Thomas T. Wightman (Jefferson 1869), a law student. Others joined from time to time.

As required under the new organization of Sigma, the first officers were John R. Wightman, president, and Robert C. Moore, secretary, from the graduate, and William G. Parke, treasurer, from the undergraduate membership.

On February 1, 1867, Sigma changed her meeting place from the university building to a second story front room in a three-story brick building at 92 Third Avenue, on the south side between Wood and Market Streets. (A later renumbering of addresses changed it to 230 Third Avenue.) In 1867 the building was owned by Mr. Robert Wightman, an uncle of John R. Wightman, who negotiated the chapter's lease of the room with him at a rental of $150 for one year. After that year, the chapter's meetings were held in different offices of graduate brothers, and for the most part in the office of the Clerk of the U.S. Circuit Court, where H. D. Gamble was the deputy clerk. This was on the second floor, front room, of the old post office building, then situated at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Smithfield Street where the Park office building now stands.

THE CHAPTER CLOSES

In 1870 Sigma voluntarily surrendered her charter to the national fraternity, owing to the decline of the university at that time. Sigma's measure of men was high, and rather than lower her standard, she gave over her charter that the national fraternity standing might not be lessened by her act. [We lack information on when Delta Tau Delta closed, although we suspect it was around this same time.]

The Sigma brethren continued in their associations long after the voluntary surrender of their charter. For many years, regular monthly meetings were held in the same enthusiastic manner as had been observed by the active chapter. The monthly rendezvous was the office of H. D. Gamble (Western 1866), president of the Sigma association after the surrender of the charter. Literary exercises were a feature; the papers read and debates had were most enjoyable. Graduate brothers from the surrounding chapters also attended; Cyrus E. Pershing (Jefferson 1850), then president of Pittsburgh Female College, General William McClellan (Allegheny 1870), Senator James W. Lee (Allegheny 1868), and Stephen Quinon (Allegheny 1871) attended these meetings regularly.

Thus by the continued loyalty of old Sigma brethren, and their lasting zeal for the welfare of the Fraternity, the true Phi Gamma Delta spirit was conserved and fostered in the city of Pittsburgh. It proved the foundation for our Omicron Graduate Chapter, the pioneer fraternity graduate association in the city.

EPILOGUE

The Greek-letter moniker of Sigma was reassigned to the chapter at Wittenberg when it was chartered in 1884. In October 1893, the Grand Chapter received (and denied) a petition from students at Western.

Western was renamed the University of Pittsburgh in 1908. Shortly thereafter it relocated to a new campus.

A local fraternity, Phi Zeta Phi, began petitioning Phi Gamma Delta in 1905. However, the three closest chapters had to endorse the petition before an Ekklesia could vote on it.  In 1905 and 1906 the local could not garner the endorsements.

Phi Zeta Phi soon became the poster child for the conservative expansion policy practiced by the Fraternity in those decades. They petitioned the Ekklesiai of 1909, 1910, 1911, and 1915. Each one turned them down. Finally, the 1916 Ekklesia in Cleveland, Ohio granted a charter. Phi Gamma Delta returned to the University as our Pi Sigma Chapter.  There it led a fruitful life until it ceased in 1998.

 

APPENDIX ONE: SOME MEMBERS OF SIGMA CHAPTER

  • J. H. McCandless (Western 1864), later an Episcopal pastor. While attending Union Theological Seminary in New York City, he was legate (installing officer) for the chapters at City College (1865) and Columbia (1866). Awarded honorary Doctor of Divinity degree by the University in 1916.

  • George Irwin Whitney (Western 1864), in the brokerage business at Pittsburgh.

  • John Russell Wightman (Western 1865), rector of the Episcopal Church of Our Redeemer in Pittsburgh. Honorary Doctor of Divinity in 1913.

  • Robert S. Sill (Western 1866), a successful attorney in Pittsburgh.

  • Howard Marshall Howe (Western 1866), Pittsburgh; son of the Thomas M. Howe, congressman and major-general of Pennsylvania militia, and one-time University trustee.

  • George W. Guthrie (Western 1866), first mayor of Greater Pittsburgh, later ambassador to Japan. Chapter president during his senior year.

  • Thomas Bakewell Kerr, of the well-known legal firm in New York City, Kerr, Page & Cooper.

  • William G. Park, chairman of the Crucible Steel Company of America.

  • Dallas Saunders, district attorney for Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania.

  • James W. Murray (Western 1865).

  • Robert C. Moore (Western 1867), Asheville, North Carolina.

APPENDIX TWO - CONVENTIONS OF THE 1860s

The following is included from the original articles due to its details on conventions that are otherwise poorly documented in our records.

Sigma's prominent part in the national conventions of Phi Gamma Delta should be noted. In the first year of her existence, she had the distinction of hosting the convention on August 17 and 18, 1864. This was held at the historic Monongahela House, located on Smithfield Street between First Avenue and Water Street. William E. McLaren (Jefferson 1851) - then pastor of the Westminster Presbyterian Church at Detroit, Michigan, and afterwards, for many years, the Episcopalian Bishop of Chicago - presided over the convention. Only northern chapters were actively represented, including Sigma, Alpha at Jefferson College, Beta at Washington College, Lambda of DePauw (then called Asbury), Xi of Gettysburg, and Pi of Allegheny. The attendance was about sixty. The entire membership of Sigma chapter was present, nine in all.

Some of those present were:

  • Hon. James H. Hopkins (Washington 1850), an attorney and then Democratic congressman from Pittsburgh. He was quite active in the convention.

  • Judge J. J. Henderson (Allegheny 1862), then a recruiting officer in the U. S. Army, later one of the prominent judges of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.

  • Samuel D. Jennings, M. D. (Jefferson 1864), past president of the Grand Chapter.

  • Thomas D. Davis, M. D. (Jefferson 1866).

  • Rev. S. S. Gilson (Jefferson 1866).

The Gettysburg brethren gave glowing accounts of the battle of Gettysburg, which some of them had seen in July of the previous year. The great valor of the men on both sides, and the effect of the battle on the trend of the war were much commented. As was the custom those convention days, each chapter had an orator and a poet on the convention program. John H. McCandless and George I. Whitney were Sigma's orator and poet. 

The business sessions were chiefly occupied with reports, chapter, financial and otherwise. The customary closing banquet was held, not at the Monongahela House, but at a then-celebrated restaurant, Hubley's, on the northerly side of Fourth Avenue, and the second door eastwardly from Ferry Street. At this banquet the speaking was largely impromptu, very general and most enjoyable.

John R. Wightman was Sigma's delegate to the next national convention, held in August, 1866, with Pi chapter at Meadville, Pennsylvania. The sessions were at the McHenry House, then famous for its cuisine. This house was situated opposite to the Atlantic and Great Western railroad station, later the Erie railroad depot, and was owned by it. This was the first convention after the close of the Civil War. Chapters from all parts of the country were again represented, and fully 150 brothers were present. The convention fully realized the import of its sessions at that time; and the influence which its deliberations would have upon the Fraternity nationally. It was imbued with the purpose of re-establishing the utmost fraternal cordiality between the chapters and brothers in the fraternity, north and south. The outcome was a sympathetic resolution to that effect, which appropriately began with the preamble, "Whereas we recognize the right of revolution . . . ." This preamble admitted the right of the south's side theoretically, for successful revolution is always justifiable. The resolution proper deplored the war, and pledged loyalty to fraternity and country evermore. The convention was successful beyond all expectations, and ended with the customary banquet. Wightman later recalled especially as delegates to that convention William H. Clark (Columbia 1871), now deceased, with whom he shared a room in the MacHenry house; Samuel R. Hiett (DePauw 1867), of Lafayette, Indiana; and Charles H. Smith (CCNY 1865), with whom he traveled through Ohio for a week, immediately following the convention.

J. W. Murray, 1865 and Robert C. Moore, 1867 were the chapter's delegates to the next convention of the fraternity, which was held with Lambda Chapter at Greencastle, Indiana, in the summer of 1867. The chapter minutes record that Murray and Moore each "had the privilege of choosing their parts, either orator or poet." Their choice is not stated, but the minute shows the continuance of the custom of making much of the literary side of the conventions.

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