Monthly Archives: March 2012

Mile 75 – Brownsville Heritage Center, Brownsville, Pa.

The Flatiron Building, Market Street, Brownsville.

Like I mentioned in my previous post, Brownsville (and the entire Monongahela River Valley) is struggling with a massive population exodus due to the disappearance of heavy industry in the latter half of the 20th Century. These communities are struggling to find their place in the modern economy while also dealing with a surplus of real estate left over from a more prosperous time.

However, there are bright spots, and groups like the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corporation are working to promote economic growth and community pride in the Mon River Valley. In a part of downtown Brownsville known as “The Neck,” BARC has kept up with the continued use of the Flatiron Building, which houses two museums and has also been home to a cafe and other businesses.

The Flatiron Building was built in 1835, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. This building predates more famous buildings with similar structures, like New York City’s version with the same name. It is arguably one of the best-preserved older buildings in Brownsville, and is one of the few that has also  undergone extensive modernization.

One of the two museums in the Flatiron Building is the Brownsville Heritage Center, which is strikingly informative and well-designed, and contains hundreds of artifacts from Brownsville’s rich history.

The front of the Brownsville Heritage Center in the Flatiron Building.

The Heritage Center takes up the front part of the building (the part that includes the point of the structure), and is designed to feature three different parts of Brownsville history, depending on what visitors can see out each window. A section of the museum is dedicated to railroad history in Brownsville, and thus windows in that section face north and west across the access road to the railroad and the former Union Station. The second section is themed around coal and coke history, and those windows face south and east toward the hills along the Mon River, which at one time, were home to coal and coke production in Brownsville. Finally, a large section of the museum is dedicated to the National Road, and windows in that section face the National Road (Market Street). There is also a large interactive map that lights different sections of the region depending on this history/industry involved.

I didn’t really expect a whole lot when I first found out that this museum existed, but I ended up spending at least 40 minutes exploring what the museum had to offer. Since I’m big into history, especially that of Appalachia and the Rust Belt, all three exhibits were equally fascinating. It was also cool to learn about the variety of industry that once called Brownsville home – from coke/coal to steamboat construction to a brewery.

The museum is connected to the Frank L. Melega Art Museum, and admission is free, but donations are accepted (and likely appreciated). Since the museum is also the tangible representation of BARC, a slew of information on BARC and Brownsville-area activities are also available.

The Flatiron Building is located at 69 Market Street in Brownsville, and the building is too unique to be missed. Parking is available throughout downtown, and parking is also permitted in front of the old Union Station. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and can be reached at 724-785-9331. There is also a small gift shop within the museum.

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Mile 75 – Brownsville, Pa.

"The Neck," or Market Street, seen from the front of the Flatiron Building.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Brownsville, Pa., was a center of industrial activity along the Monongahela River. At its peak in the mid-20th Century, Brownsville had over 8,000 people, and had been a major producer of steamboats and flatboats (especially since the Monongahela is one of the two rivers that forms the Ohio in Pittsburgh), and had also become a major industrial center for the steel and coke industry.

However, beginning around the 1970s, the steel industry and the coal industry declined all across southwest Pennsylvania, and as industry left, so did the people. The Mon River Valley from Pittsburgh to West Virginia was hit especially hard, and dozens of towns like Brownsville line the river as shells of their former selves. The economic situation remains bleak, as the Mon River Valley is one of the most economically distressed areas in the state.

Today, Brownsville is a shell of its former self, with just over 2,300 residents as of the 2010 census. Most of the taller buildings along Market Street (particularly the section along the river) are boarded up and have broken windows. A former hospital on 5th Avenue is also abandoned (though Brownsville still has an operating hospital), and there aren’t a whole lot of local businesses, at least in the main part of town.

The former Union Station, across from the Flatiron Building, Brownsville, Pa.

But, there is still life in Brownsville, and the borough is one of many that are trying to move forward despite a high vacancy rate. Two great museums exist in the Flatiron Building in Brownsville, and community groups, like the Brownsville Area Redevelopment Commission (BARC) have been working to promote the town and make the town more inviting. Nemacolin Castle is also a gem in Brownsville, as is Fiddle’s Restaurant, which has been in existence since 1910. Additionally, the Mon-Fayette Expressway is nearing completion of the southern portion, which, although controversial, is expected to help improve the economy of the Mon River Valley.

When visiting Brownsville, it’s important to note that the original National Road is not the current routing of U.S. 40. Instead, follow (from east to west) National Pike, Broadway Street, Market Street, Bridge Street (over the Mon River) and Old National Pike. See the map for a visual idea.

Mile 68 – Searight’s Tollhouse

The Searight's Toll House, Fayette County, Pa.

The Searight’s Toll House just northwest of Uniontown is the third and final remaining toll house on the National Road from east to west, and the second of two remaining Pennsylvania toll houses (there used to be six in all in Pa.). Like other Pennsylvania toll houses, it was built in 1835, at the time when the federal government handed ownership of the National Road to the states. Pennsylvania then changed the National Road into a turnpike, or toll road.

The only other remaining toll house in Pennsylvania is the Addison (Petersburg) Toll House, not too far from the Mason-Dixon Line in Somerset County. (There is one other toll house still existing in Maryland, the LaVale Toll Gate House. Like the other toll buildings, the Searight’s Toll House is named for the small hamlet of Searights, Pa. In turn, Searights is named for William Searight, a prominent Fayette County resident who was the commissioner of the National Road in Pennsylvania from 1842 to 1845. Searight was later the commissioner of the National Road as well, but only in Fayette County.

A replica list of tolls at the Searight's Toll House.

The grounds of the Searight’s Toll House are open to the public from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is a parking lot behind the building that can be accessed right from U.S. 40. The building is currently owned by the Fayette County Historical Society, and tours are available from that group. There is no website for the society, but it can be reached at 724-439-4422.

A Legacy of Immigration: Eastern European Churches in Southwest Pa.

St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church, Brownsville, Pa.

Since I’ve been spending the last week or two in Fayette County, I started noticing something that seemed unusual to me – a disproportional amount of Orthodox and other Eastern European churches, especially from Uniontown west to the Monongahela River Valley. While it’s not unusual for Eastern European churches to exist anywhere in the U.S., it did seem odd too see so many of these churches in an area with a lower population. Of course, anyone local probably knew this already.

Anyway, I figured that these churches had to be related to some sort of immigration influx. Not surprisingly, that notion was right! When I was able to visit the Coal and Coke Heritage Center at PSU-Fayette, I asked Elaine DeFrank, a historian and a museum curator, about the reason behind the high number of these churches in a small, more rural area. DeFrank attributed the Slavic, Greek and other Eastern European immigration wave to the Connelsville Coalfield (which is discussed in-depth at the C&CHC). Basically, when the mines and associated industries ran low on labor, especially due to strikes, those industries would seek newly-arrived immigrants from larger cities on the coast. In this case, the beginning of an organized labor movement in the Connellsville Coalfield was generally about the same time as the wave  of Eastern European immigration from the 1880s to early 1920s, thus explaining the high Eastern European population in the area.

Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, W. Brownsville, Pa.

And it wasn’t just the mines themselves, industries up and down the Mon River Valley also pulled Eastern European workers, and really, the number of these churches is much, much higher than the most of Appalachia from as far south as Fairmont, W.Va., to as far north as Pittsburgh. Yet, it appears that the Eastern European immigrants never moved that far from the Mon River. The limited research I’ve done seemed like the churches are more concentrated in Greene, Fayette and Washington counties, contained in an area west of Chestnut Ridge and east of I-79, but usually not straying too far from the Mon River.

It’s also important to note that although this concentration of Orthodox and other Eastern churches is unusual on a national scale, in Pennsylvania, it’s not quite as unique. In fact, there are other pockets of these churches (and remnants of Eastern European culture) in east-central Pennsylvania and especially in Northeast Pennsylvania. In fact, Luzerne County (Wilkes-Barre) is the only county in the state where the majority of residents do not identify as having either African-American, German or Irish ancestry, and is the only county in America where the majority of residents report their ancestry as Polish, according to the 2000 Census.

St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Uniontown, Pa.

Most of these churches are really architecturally beautiful, and they do tend to stand out more than other churches in America. And still more interesting is the number of denominations of these churches – Byzantine Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Orthodox Church in America…the list goes on. I guess this diversity also says a lot about that set of Eastern European immigrants who all seemed to want to maintain connections with their home nations, despite being thrown into the American melting pot.

I’m pretty sure most of these churches still have active congregations, considering that they appear on various Orthodox denomination websites, and the properties seem decently-maintained. A few of these churches are also right along the National Road, including the three I’ve included in this post. I would really like to keep exploring the history of each of these congregations, so that’s another potential project for the future…

The Coal and Coke Heritage Center, Uniontown, Pa.

The Coal and Coke Heritage Center, located in the basement of the campus library at Penn State - Fayette.

Sometimes great museums and exhibits are off the beaten path. That’s the case with the Coal and Coke Heritage Center at Penn State – Fayette, just north of Uniontown along U.S. 119.

No, this museum isn’t right along the National Road, nor is it within the limits of a National Road city or town. However, this museum highlights an industry that brought phenomenal growth to Fayette and Westmoreland counties in Southwest Pennsylvania.

Like many areas of Appalachia, the stretch of land along the western base of Chestnut Ridge, roughly from Latrobe, Pa., in the north, to Fairchance and Uniontown in the south, was built on coal. This area was sometimes known as the “Connellsville Coalfield,” due to the city of Connellsville being the epicenter of activity within the field. What made this particular seam of coal special was its extremely pure quality – making it optimal for coke production (“coke” is essentially baked coal – like charcoal is to wood).

At its peak, as many as 44,000 beehive coke ovens operated in the area, making the sky glow at night (there are photographs to prove it!). The last ovens closed in the 1970s, and little remains of the evidence of coal in the area, except for historic buildings and structures in Connellsville, Uniontown and smaller areas. If you are able to take a side trip to Connellsville, it’s interesting to see so many large buildings for a city of about 7,600 (at its height, Connellsville was about twice as large population-wise as today). However, both Uniontown and Connellsville are working to evolve their economies without coal. In Connellsville, the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail is rapidly becoming a major generator of tourism to the city, and last year, a new Amtrak station was opened.

An example of one of the exhibits at the museum. Exhibits range from women in the mines to the evolution of safety regulations and labor unions.

At the museum, I was given a tour of the exhibits and the history behind those exhibits by one of the curators of the museum, Oral Historian Elaine Hunchuck DeFrank – the daughter of a local coal miner and a lifelong Fayette County resident. DeFrank told me that the museum has its origins in the late 1970s by the mining program at PSU – Fayette. Three professors realized that students, particularly boys, weren’t getting much out of reading literature like Shakespeare, so the professors started assigning readings about coal mining instead. Those professors then sent out the students to interview and record oral histories of local still-living coal miners and their families.

The project has continued, DeFrank said, to include over 1,200 oral histories today. In addition, miners and their families began giving memorabilia and artifacts to the school, which were being stored in the library. Then in the 1990s, when DeFrank began working with the project, the museum took the form it is today. Memorabilia were organized, and a professional designer laid out the exhibits, and the museum has continued to expand. Interesting fact – the museum is located at the very center of this historic coalfield.

Today, the museum takes up about one-fourth of the basement of the PSU-Fayette library, and features a main room, which contains exhibits from a model coke oven, to household items typically found in coal company towns. There is also a working model of a shaft mine, and a full-size mannequin displaying the types of clothing miners wore. There is also a research room, which contains hundreds of historic maps and documents as well as interviews from miners themselves.

I think the part of the museum most interesting to me was learning about Connellsville and the region and its impact on the coal industry. Learning local history growing up in Cumberland, I knew that several railroads (especially the B&O, the Western Maryland) connected Cumberland and points east with Connellsville, but I wasn’t sure why. It’s always cool for me to see connections between places I visit and my hometown.

Examples of authentic safety signs that would have been found at the mines. DeFrank told me that the mines around Connellsville were the origin of the phrase, "Safety First!" - and she has documents to prove it!

The Coal and Coke Heritage Center is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It can be reached by phone at 724-430-4158. There is no charge for admission to the museum. Penn State University – Fayette is located on U.S. 119 just north of the beginning of the controlled-access part of the Uniontown Bypass. I found non-restricted parking near the Community Center – the large building at the back of the campus. To get to the library, just cut directly though the Community Center, and the library is the square, flat-roofed building on the left. A PSU-Fayette campus map can be found here.

Yes, the museum is small, but there so much information contained in the exhibits and people like DeFrank, that it’s well worth a visit by anyone interested in history, particularly local or coal history.

Mile 62 – Meloni’s, Uniontown, Pa.

Meloni's, Uniontown, Pa.

Meloni’s has long been a staple of the Uniontown culinary scene, serving near-authentic Italian food for over 60 years. Founded in 1950, Meloni’s has remained in the same Main Street location to the present. The restaurant remains under local ownership, and has been consistently voted as a favorite place for Italian food for locals, as reported by the Herald-Standard, the newspaper for Uniontown.

Obviously, Meloni’s in known for its Italian food, which patrons frequently rave about on various online reviews. And it’s true, the pasts sauce at Meloni’s has a more, what I would say, cream-like texture that is hard to find in most Americanized pasta sauces. Every dinner/lunch entree is served with your choice of pasta (I had spaghetti), a salad and Italian bread. Of the numerous specialties at Meloni’s, the veal parmigiana is probably the most renowned from what I’ve heard – so of course, that’s what I ordered. The dish definitely lived up to its reputation. The breaded veal cutlet was well-cooked and the salad and bread were fresh.

The veal parmigiana, a Meloni's specialty.

Though the dinner menu can be a bit pricey for a grad student with a fixed income (like me), lunch prices go the opposite – almost being underpriced, considering the quantity and quality of the food. Of course, though Italian food is featured at Meloni’s, there are other, more American-style, options available.

The inside of the restaurant is decorated for the most part in red, white and green – adding to the Italian nature of the restaurant. There is also a full bar area, which is separated from the dining room. Service is available in either section, and the wait staff is extremely attentive and efficient.

The dining room at Meloni's in Uniontown, Pa.

Meloni’s is located at 105 W. Main St. in downtown Uniontown – making it right along the original National Road. Takeout and reservations are available by calling 724-437-2061. Meloni’s is open for lunch and dinner (11 a.m. to 10 p.m.) seven days a week.

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