It looks like I’ll need to write an article today seeing how the world didn’t end last night. Thankfully I hedged my bets and started my research well in advance. Otherwise I’d be struggling with a suitable topic this morning.
I’ve start with a question: Who was Dr. Howder and why does he have a road? Readers only have to look at the domain name of this blog to understand why I might wonder. There are only a few hundred of us with the Howder or similar surname anywhere in the United States. I get excited when I stumble across a new Howder. Even one of the earliest real posting on the Twelve Mile Circle involved the Howder subject, a feature named after a person tangentially related to me.
I’ve checked various sources to uncover our mysterious Dr. Howder. I have some theories and educated guesses but I do not have any answers that meet any reliable burden of proof. I can’t even determine yet if I’m related to Dr. Howder although I generally do find a connection with most Howders if I search hard enough. If you require a level of certainty in your life then feel free to come back in a couple of days. If you want to come along for the ride and explore a working theory then let’s keep moving.
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This is Dr. Howder Road near the small town of Champion in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. The article from a few days ago makes a bit more sense now, doesn’t it? Indeed, I was poking around Fayette County for this very purpose when I discovered the county line maps. Everything on the 12MC eventually comes back full-circle even though it often takes more than twelve miles.
It’s not a remarkable road. I see a few houses bordering on a creek next to the Mountain Pines RV Park when I turn on satellite mode. That’s about it. I figured it would take me about ten minutes with the census records and I’d identify Dr. Howder and quickly close the case. However, as best I can tell, there has never been a Dr. Howder practicing medicine or living in Fayette County and I checked all the way back to 1850.
There was a Dr. Howder in southwestern Pennsylvania but he spent his entire life in the town of Elizabeth, outside of Pittsburgh. It’s in Allegheny County, not Fayette about forty miles away from Champion. The rarity of the surname creates an expectation or a possibility that he’s our man, but not a certainty. Why would someone name a street after him if indeed my assumption is even correct?
George Lewis Howder was born in Elizabeth, PA in 1883. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1905 and began his career in Dravosburg, a few miles north of Elizabeth.
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A few years later around 1917 he became the doctor at the Cincinnati Mine in Houston Run outside of present-day Courtney, PA. It sits along the western bank of the Monongahela River in neighboring Washington County. The image above shows the gap carved by Houston Run as viewed from the Mon-Fayette Expressway. It’s a beautiful place but the mines were also dangerous. Dr. Howder’s service at Houston Run was less than five years after the disastrous Cincinnati Mine explosion of 1913.
Dr. Howder would retrace his steps the few miles back to Elizabeth a decade later. He practiced medicine there for the remainder of his life. From his 1973 obituary in the Valley Independent newspaper of Monessen, Pennsylvania, I learned:
Dr. George L. Howder of 223 Second St., Elizabeth, one of the area’s oldest practicing physicians, died yesterday in McKeesport Hospital as a result of injuries sustained last week in an auto accident. He would have been 90 years old next week. Dr. Howder had practiced medicine in the area for 67 years and was maintaining regular office hours and still was making house calls at the time of his death…
He seemingly had no connection to Fayette County during his lifetime, but a little more digging offered some tantalizing clues. His father, George W. Howder, was born in Fayette County! The father later became a steamboat captain in Elizabeth before moving to Ohio to do the same thing. This older Howder had siblings, and my review of census records shows that the elder Howder’s sister Mary Jane married, remained in Fayette County for her entire lifetime, and had children who did the same. Thus the Howder surname disappeared from Fayette County but the family connection remained intact and unbroken.
I lived in an area that switched from rural route numbers to street addresses when I was school-aged. It was something the local fire department insisted upon so they could respond to emergencies more efficiently. Our address changed from Route 3 Box 372 to a more recognizable street name and numerical format. The neighbors got together and decided to name the street after a local civil war veteran who’d lived for many years in a lovely Victorian home he built on the corner. He passed away in the early 20th Century but the home still stood and by then it had become a local landmark.
The point is that people have an opportunity to name streets after whomever they please and the creation of street names has become increasingly prevalent in rural areas as a public safety measure. I can’t prove it yet, but I’m working under the theory that Dr. Howder had passed away during a period when rural roads were being converted in Fayette County and one of cousins decided it was a fitting memorial to someone who’d provided a public service for nearly 70 years.
I’m not sure I’ll ever solve this mystery short of a resident of Dr. Howder Rd. stumbling across this page randomly and filling in the details. Hopefully that will happen someday.