"Nothing ventured, nothing gained" is a proverb that has roots that date back to before 1,000 AD - it's been around a long time!
The proverb seems apropos for the efforts of Representative James Leland Quinn (D-PA) who, in February 1936, introduced a bill in the House that called for the striking of half dollars "in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the borough of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania."
Wilkinsburg is not often on the tip of one's tongue when discussing great American municipalities that have had a national impact, or even those with singular local accomplishments. But that didn't stop Quinn (or his constituents who wanted a coin)!
The Borough of Wilkinsburg is located to the east of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania. It is a small borough of just 2.25 square miles with a current population under 15,000. It should be noted, however, that Wilkinsburg is the largest Borough in Pennsylvania (from an area standpoint). In 1900, the Borough's population was ~12,000 - it has never been a large population center.
The Borough of Wilkinsburg was formally established on October 5, 1887, when it completed the process of legal incorporation as a Borough vs. its former status as a village. This date/event is the impetus behind the coin. In 1871, Pittsburgh annexed the village. James Kelley, a significant local landowner, was against the annexation and fought it. Eventually, he won his battle to return Wilkinsburg to independent status after taking his fight all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court! After that, local residents began to push for legal "Borough" status which led to the 1887 incorporation.
There is debate among historians as to whether the Borough was named in honor of William Wilkins or his brother, John Wilkins, Jr. with the majority of current historians being in the "William Camp."
John served during the American Revolutionary War (1780-83) and later became Brigadier General of the Allegheny County militia (1793-96) before being appointed Quartermaster General of the United States Army by President George Washington; he served in the position from 1796 to 1802. John was a successful store owner and land speculator before and after his time as Quartermaster.
William Wilkins was a prominent businessman and political figure of the area who began his professional career as a lawyer, was the first president of the Bank of Pittsburgh, served as a Representative to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (1819-20), a US Senator from Pennsylvania (1831-34), was appointed as the US Minister to Russia under Andrew Jackson (1834-35), elected to the US House of Representatives (1843-44) and was then appointed US Secretary of War under President John Tyler (1844-45). He later served as a Pennsylvania State Senator (1857-1858).
William's impressive career notwithstanding, it's important to note that the name "Wilkinsburgh" was in public use as a reference for the area by circa 1810. This predates William's political career/accomplishments, while John's noteworthy military career had been completed by such time.
I can seen both sides of the argument, but it's a debate best left to the historians!
As mentioned above, It appears "Wilkinsburgh" was referenced in public documents in 1812 with use before then likely. The area had previously been known by various names reflective of local land owners and/or prominent citizens. The Borough area was once referred to as Rippeyville (based on the local Rippey family and its ownership of a popular tavern in the area). It was also known for a time as McNair Town or McHairsville (after Dunning McNair who was then the primary land owner in the area). The names did not gain long-term traction, however, and "Wilkinsburg" (originally with an "h" at the end as noted above) came to the forefront and remained.
Representative Quinn's bill called for the striking of 25,000 half dollars of standard specifications. The bill's language allowed for the coins to be struck at multiple Mint facilities, did not explicitly indicate a date to appear on the coins and did not include an expiration date for coining authority. In addition, the bill did not place restrictions on coin orders, allowing the authorized representatives of Wilkinsburg to order coins "in such numbers and at such times" as desired. If such open-endedness had been left untouched in an approved bill, it would have been possible for collectors to have been faced with annual three-coin Wilkinsburg sets (P/D/S) for multiple years - how does 2,000 coins per Mint for 1937, 1938, 1838 and 1940 sound? (I think the most likely outcome, however, would have been that all coins would have been dated "1937" to recognize the 50th anniversary year.)
The bill was referred to the House Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures. It was discussed by the Committee, viewed favorably and reported out with a recommendation to pass. The Report included one recommended amendment: removal of the bill's "in such numbers and at such times" language. It did not suggest replacement language, however.
Though it had more than two months before it adjourned, the House of the 74th Congress did not act upon the reported bill - a sign of just how far the popularity of commemorative coins had fallen in Congress. When Congress did adjourn on June 20, 1936, Quinn's Wilkinsburg bill officially died for lack of action.
Quinn tried again in the 75th Congress, introducing a duplicate of his non-amended 1936 bill in January 1937. As in the 74th Congress, Quinn's bill was referred to the House Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures. The Committee of the 75th Congress did not report the bill out and it eventually suffered the same fate as Quinn's previous bill.
Though it was unsuccessful in its bid to secure a US coin to help mark its 50th anniversary, a brass Wilkinsburg commemorative medal was struck to celebrate "Pennsylvania's Largest Borough" (as per the medal) and the Borough did hold an anniversary celebration. Once again, life went on without
a legal tender coin to mark an event of purely local significance!
For other of my posts about commemorative coins and medals, including more What If? stories, see: Commems Collection
- Gilchist, Harry C. History of Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania.
Self published, 1927.