Category Archives: Brownsville

Mile 75 – Frank L. Melega Art Museum, Brownsville, Pa.

A portion of the recreated studio at the Frank L. Melega Art Museum in Brownsville, Pa.

Most towns have monuments, statues or signage to commemorate the accomplishments of past residents of the said town. In Brownsville, a museum and art gallery is dedicated to a long-time resident of the area, Frank L. Melega, an artist who lived across the Monongahela in West Brownsville. An Indiana (the state, not the Pennsylvania city) native, Melega’s family moved to West Brownsville during his childhood; his father worked for a local coal mine. Melega produced art for  myriad of institutions, concentrating in Southwest Pennsylvania, and received various honors for his work. Melega also operated an art shop in Brownsville.

The Melega Art Museum features a variety of work from the late Frank Melega.

Melega dabbled in a variety of media during his life, including mosaics, sculpture and paint. His work focused particularly on the region, notably the period when coal and coke reigned in Fayette County and surrounding areas (a history chronicled by the Coal and Coke Heritage Center north of Uniontown). All types of Melega’s work is featured in the gallery, which even includes a recreated portion of the artist’s studio, using actual furnishings.

Exhibits are rotated throughout the year, and the museum is home to the National Road Festival Juried Exhibition, which occurs this year from April 21 to May 27, with the award ceremony taking place on Friday, May 18, from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The art gallery itself is located in the back half of the historic Flatiron Building in Brownsville, and is open to the Brownsville Heritage Center, which takes up the front of the building. In other words, both museums are in the same building and open to one another, making it easy to visit both facilities in the same visit.

An exhibit at the Melega Art Museum.

The Frank L. Melega Art Museum is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. There is no charge to visit the museum. Appointments outside scheduled hours are available by calling 724-785-9331, or by e-mailing barcinfo@barcpa.org or manager@barcpa.org.

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Mile 75 – Fiddle’s Confectionery, Brownsville, Pa.

Fiddle's Confectionery on Bridge Street in Brownsville, Pa., located under the Intercounty Bridge.

During my time in Brownsville, I struggled to find an older, historic eatery that was not part of a chain. I drove what seemed like all over town looking for a place that is local, along (or near) the National Road and has a significant historic connection.

Enter Fiddle’s Confectionery – almost hidden under the Intercounty Bridge that runs between Brownsville, Fayette County, and West Brownsville, Washington County, over the Monongahela River. (It is important to note that this bridge carries the original National Road routing, versus the newer U.S. 40 bridge upriver.)

Fiddle’s isn’t actually a confectionery in the literal definition of the word. Instead, it is a full-service restaurant with a significant emphasis on an American favorite – hot dogs. For myself, I had the chili dogs, which were made up of a toasted bun, a hot dog split open down the middle and then loaded with chili. Of course, Fiddle’s does have many other options besides hot dogs, especially breakfast food.

What makes Fiddle’s special is the attachment the restaurant has to the community. Fiddle’s has been in operation since 1910, and although owners have changed, Fiddle’s is one of those restaurants that has retained a similar atmosphere throughout its existence. The booths along the front window of the dining area have been in use in the 1920s, and a dining counter is also still in use (though the arrangement of the restaurant has been moved around since the 1960s).

Chili Dogs at Fiddle's Confectionery, Brownsville, Pa.

In addition to the restaurant’s literal history, there’s something to be said about a community business that has weathered the ups and downs of the economy, and still operates despite the business’s home town losing roughly two-thirds of its population since the early 1900s. When I stopped by on a Friday afternoon, there were only three other patrons in the whole place, all of whom were older men who fit the stereotype of a former blue-collar worker in a Rust Belt town (though this doesn’t mean the crowd is the same all the time!). Even the location of Fiddle’s speaks for itself, as the restaurant is more or less under a bridge built after the restaurant’s home, and is smack in the middle of a town (and a region) with too many buildings and not enough tenants.

That being said, the simple existence of Fiddle’s, plus the great taste of the food, makes the restaurant a great stop along the National Road, if for nothing else than to get a nostalgic taste of a bygone time.

To get to Fiddle’s (101 Bridge St.) – which can be confusing for out-of-towners – turn on to Water Street from Market Street, which is one block east of the Intercounty Bridge (see the map). Follow Water Street around a left curve, and Fiddle’s will be directly in front of you. Parking is available under the bridge by turning left upon reaching Fiddle’s. To contact Fiddle’s by phone, call 724-785-2020. It’s also important to mention that debit and credit cards are not accepted. However, there is an ATM inside.

Fiddle’s is open all week; 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday.

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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.


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…