Tag Archives: fayette county

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 53 – Fort Necessity N.B., Farmington, Pa. (Part I)

The entrance to Fort Necessity National Battlefield, right off U.S. 40 - the National Road.

Until last week, I hadn’t been to Fort Necessity National Battlefield since the early 2000s, and I was expecting the site to look much the same as when I had last visited…nope. Instead, the park has built a massive new visitor center, complete with all kinds of interactive exhibits. So, instead of writing about Fort Necessity for one post, I decided to break it up into two parts, mostly to not have an overload with pictures.

In addition to travel in general, one of my specific goals is to see every unit of the National Park service. I’ve owned and kept an updated National Park Passport since I was 12 (2002), and I’m starting to run out of pages (but that’s another post). So, as any experience National Park traveler knows, every visit begins at the visitor center. Compared to just about every other park system in the country, NPS visitor centers are, for the most part, top-notch, and actually complete the entire park experience.

The beginning of the National Road exhibit in the visitor center.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield is one of two national park units that is actually located along the National Road or in a city through which it passes (this does not apply to the rest of U.S. 40, however). The other is Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park in Cumberland, Md. The park preserves the scene of the first battle that sparked the French and Indian War.

We’ll start with the visitor center, which, again, is very impressive.  Inside are several connecting walk-through exhibits, which focus on the entire history of the park – not just the battle and war itself. Exhibits include the area before Europeans, the battle and war and my favorite – the development of the National Road and historic preservation. I was really impressed with the amount of information and attention to detail in all aspects of the short tour.

Inside the Fort Necessity replica.

Then, of course, is the centerpeice of the entire park: Fort Necessity. For some reason, it’s always surprising to me how small these old forts actually are. “This protected an army?!” At Fort Necessity, you can walk in and around the replica fort, which is simply a wooden structure surrounded by a circular wooden fence and then earthworks on the outside. The trail to the fort from the new visitor center is pretty cool – straight through a grove of pine trees before breaking open to the battlefield and the fort itself.

The replica of Fort Necessity.

The next post will highlight the outer areas of the park: Mt. Washington Tavern, Braddock’s Grave and Jumonville Glen.

The relatively new visitor center at Fort Necessity.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield‘s visitor center is open  every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except federal holidays. The grounds are open for personal touring every day from sunrise to sunset.

Like some NPS sites, Fort Necessity does charge an entrance fee – $5 for adults, and children 15 and under are free. That fee allows for a weeklong pass to the park – well worth it.

Fort Necessity also teams with three other Pennsylvania NPS sites – Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site outside Altoona and Johnstown Flood National Memorialsoutheast of Johnstown – to offer a yearlong entrance pass for all three sites for up to two pass owners and three other adults – for just $15. Again, well worth the price.

The entrance to the walk-through exhibit.