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.
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.