Category Archives: Uniontown

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.

Meloni's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Mile 62 – Uniontown, Pa.

Part of the Main Street corridor in downtown Uniontown.

Uniontown, Pa., (pop. ~10,000) is the county seat of Fayette County, Pa., and one of the larger historic cities along the National Road. Coincidentally, Uniontown was founded on July 4, 1776, and was originally named “Beesontown” after Henry Beeson, its founder.

Like most National Road cities, the arrival of the road translated into rapid growth for Uniontown through the 19th Century. In addition, Uniontown’s geographic location, allowed it to feed off the steel, coke and coal industry in Pittsburgh and the Monongahela River Valley. The presence of heavy industry continued in Uniontown and Fayette County, and at its peak in 1940, the county had just over 200,000 people. The Fayette County Chamber of Commerce has a more detailed history of the county, Uniontown and other communities on its webpage here.

Uniontown was the birthplace of Gen. George Marshall, who is credited for the Marshall Plan, which provided aid to Europe after World War II.

Today, although Uniontown is smaller than its peak, several indicators of its industrial past and explosive growth remain. Despite de-industrialization’s negative effects throughout the Rust Belt and Appalachia, many cities are finding ways to transition into a different economy than that on which they were built. Uniontown has done a pretty successful job (at least aesthetically) to preserve its downtown area, with clean, modern parks, mostly-filled storefronts and a variety of attractions.

The original routing of the National Road – now Business U.S. 40 – runs along Main Street, which is now one-way east to west. The west to east complement in downtown is Fayette Street, to which Main Street connects at both ends. Most of the larger historic buildings in Uniontown are located on Main Street, but streets branching off from the main drag also have significance of their own.

The Fayette County Courthouse in Uniontown, Pa.

Today, downtown has a variety of things to do to fill an afternoon and evening, from dining at newer and older establishments, to shopping opportunities at a number of small businesses, to catching a performance at the historic State Theatre. Uniontown also seems poised for reversing its population decline, through the addition of the Mon-Fayette Expressway from Morgantown, W.Va. to Pittsburgh, increasing accessibility, and efforts by local governments to promote business and fight blight downtown.

To travel downtown on the National Road: from the east, exit U.S. 40 at the base of Chestnut Ridge toward Hopwood; from the west, continue straight on Business U.S. 40 instead of entering the Uniontown Bypass, which carries U.S. 40 and U.S. 119 around the city. Parking is available on streets throughout downtown, and a parking garage is on South Street, one block south of Main Street.

Uniontown as seen from the summit of Chestnut Ridge. This overlook is accessible from U.S. 40 eastbound.