Fayette at the Crossroads

County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

Fayette County has always been at the crossroads, both literally and figuratively, its destiny shaped by its location, the incredible riches of its natural resources and the vi­tality of a people descended from al­most every nation of Europe.

It has a son of dual personality, geo­graphically divided between mountains and lowlands, historically divided into two almost equal eras of economic dominance – farming and coal mining. Two nations clashed there in the open­ing round of the climactic struggle to control a continent, and in its early days Fayette County was even a bone or con­tention between two states.

Bituminous coal has been its main “reason for being” for a century, yet this county offers some of Pennsylva­nia’s most beautiful and spectacular scenery. In the southwestern corner of the state, bordering Maryland and West Virginia, it is bisected (northeast to southwest) by the westernmost ridges of the Allegheny Mountains. To the east stand the rugged, heavily forested slopes and deep valleys of Appalachia with their rushing streams; to the west are the gentler hills and ravines of the rolling lowlands that spread out to the Monon­gahela River, the county’s western boundary.

The wilderness of what would be­come Fayette County lay across the route from Virginia to the Ohio River, and that was the reason for the county’s first appearance on the “center stage” of history. From the earliest days, this section was a crossroads for the Indians, the place where the great Catawba Trail, running all the way from Canada to paths, the National Road and eventually modern highways roughly followed the earlier routes.

In spite of the wilderness, there was access to the western pan of the future Fayette County by water via the Mo­nongahela and its tributaries. This sec­tion was explored to some extent by the French traveling south from Canada, but the first settlers were Virginians. A land company founded in Virginia in 1748, the Ohio Company, had been promised vast acreage if it could plant settlers along the Ohio River. Wendell Brown and his sons Maunus and Adam settled along the Monongahela, and the great frontiersman Christopher Gist started a “plantation” on the western slope of Chestnut Ridge in 1752.

These settlers and others helped bring to a head the conflict between Britain and France over control of the conti­nent’s interior.

When the French embarked on a pol­icy of using the inland waterways to link their possessions in Canada and Louisi­ana, Virginia officials sent a twenty­-one-year-old surveyor named George Washington into the Ohio Country in 1753 to warn them off. Washington was rebuffed, but Virginia sent a second party to build a stronghold at 1he stra­tegic Forks of the Ohio (now Pitts­burgh). On the way this contingent erected a storehouse at Redstone Old Fort on the Monongahela, the first building of substantial size in Fayette County at the site of modern-day Brownsville. (In colonial days, the mounds left by prehistoric Indians were called “old forts.”)

The following year, Washington marched west from Wills Creek (Cum­berland) in command of a small force of Virginia militia sent to support the earlier expedition. En route, he met that force heading back to Virginia, ousted by a superior French force. Washington continued westward, building a crude road as he went and hoping at least to reach Redstone Old Fort. In May 1754, he ambushed a small French scouting party in a mountain glen atop Chestnut Ridge, three miles east of present-day Uniontown. The French, furious at los­ing their leader, Ens. Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, mounted a counter-attack and Washington hastily retreated to the Great Meadows, a natural clearing a few miles away. Here his men threw up a stockade of felled trees and awaited the arrival of the French and Indians. Badly outnumbered, despite the arrival of a small unit of British regulars from South Carolina, Washington was forced to surrender on July 3.

The French and their Indian allies burned the little, round fort to the ground, but the bottoms of the original posts were found underground in 1954 and it has been reconstructed as Fayette County’s foremost historical shrine – ­Fort Necessity, ten miles southeast of Uniontown.

In 1755, Washington was back again as an aide to Maj. Gen. Edward Brad­dock, sent from England to command a powerful detachment of regular troops, supported by militia, to chase the French away from the Forks of the Ohio once and for all. As it advanced, this army contributed to the county’s cross­roads tradition by hacking a road out of the forest for its cannon and supply wagons. This was Braddock’s Road, traces of which are still visible in the Fayette County mountains. Modern U.S. Route 40 roughly parallels this road from Cumberland to Fort Neces­sity.

Braddock’s expedition met with disaster at the present site of the town of Braddock, near Pittsburgh, when it was ambushed and decimated by the French and Indians. Washington helped lead the remnants back to Virginia but Gen­eral Braddock, wounded in the battle, died along the way and was buried in the roadway, with wagons driven over his grave so the Indians could not find it. This site, marked by a roadside monu­ment, is just two miles west of Fort Nec­essity. Braddock’s defeat sent the few English settlers in the area scurrying back to safety in Virginia, and western Pennsylvania was not reclaimed by the British until 1758, when the Forbes ex­pedition captured Fort Duquesne and renamed it Fort Pitt.

Fayette County, then, was the site of some of the most important episodes in early American history, for the events of 1754-55 marked the start of the French and Indian War. This seven-year conflict determined that the lands to the west, from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi, would be British rather than French; it was the first instance in which the scattered colonies acted to­gether; it gave the colonists, and espe­cially young Washington, their first military experience. A new nation was born at Philadelphia in 1776, but a bat­tle fought twenty-two years earlier, almost to the day, in the lonely mountain forests of Fayette County was in many ways a prelude.

The pioneers – Scotch-Irish and Ger­mans, at first mostly from Vir­ginia, later from eastern Pennsylva­nia – flowed back over the mountains after the French and Indian War ended. Since they were in constant danger from Indian attacks until the end of the American Revolution, the countryside was dotted with blockhouses. Still, it was during this period that the settle­ment of Fayette County began in earn­est, developing around the three main population centers of Uniontown, Con­nellsville and Brownsville.

Henry Beeson rode over the moun­tains with his wife and child from Mar­tinsburg, Va., in 1769 and built a grist mill at a pretty and well-watered spot three miles from the foot of the moun­tains. There, seven years later, he founded the “Town of Union,” with two short streets, named for the “union” of his own and two nearby es­tates. It was common practice for pros­pective property owners to draw for their lots, and Beeson tacked up the no­tice of his “town lottery” on his mill. The date, by remarkable coincidence, was July 4, 1776.

Col. William Crawford, friend of Washington and one of the titans of the frontier, came to the area in 1765 and built a log cabin where Braddock’s Road crossed the Youghiogheny River. Crawford would die a horrible death in 1782, tortured and burned at the stake after the Indians defeated an expedition he had led into Ohio. Connellsville was founded at the site of Crawford’s prop­erty in 1793 by Zachariah Connell, whose brother had married one of Crawford’s daughters.

Brownsville had its beginnings as a military supply base. At first called Redstone Old Fort, it later became known as Fort Burd, after the explorer Col. James Burd. The settlement around the fort took the name of an­other pioneer leader, Col. John Brown. Here, the early trader Jacob Bowman built a log cabin atop the bluff over­looking the Monongahela, which in fol­lowing years was enlarged into a red­brick turreted marvel, preserved today as “Nemacolin Castle.”

Others also contributed to the devel­opment of the area. Gist resurrected his plantation, now the site of the village of Mount Braddock, about four miles northeast of Uniontown. Col. John Mason founded Masontown, on the Monongahela upstream from Browns­ville, and even Washington himself ac­quired land in Fayette County and built a grist mill at Perryopolis.

Young Albert Gallatin first came co the frontier in 1784 and five years later established his sprawling estate and mansion, Friendship Hill, overlooking the Monongahela in southwestern Fay­ette County. He started pottery and glassworks in the neighborhood, and named the fledgling town New Geneva for his native Geneva, Switzerland. Gal­latin was a congressman, secretary of the treasury under Jefferson and Madi­son, and a diploma! who helped to ne­gotiate the treaty that ended the War of 1812. Friendship Hill is now pan of the National Park system and the old man­sion is being restored.

Early settlers who located around these towns conducted subsistence farming, but as more roads were built they began to supply food to travelers and ship their produce to more distant markets. This agrarian economy was at the root of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, for farmers could make more money by distilling grain into liquor than by shipping it in bulk, and they re­sented the federal excise tax imposed on the whiskey. Although Fayette County was in the midst of that rebellion, opin­ion was divided. While some irate farm­ers chased tax collectors about and erected “Liberty Poles,” others held for the government. Uniontown was the first sizable settlement to “surrender” and be occupied by the southern wing of the federal army marching to put down the rebellion. Once again, Fayette County was at a crossroads of history; quelling the rebellion marked the first time that the new government of the United States successfully imposed its authority.

During the early 1770s, Virginia and Pennsylvania squabbled over the area, creating the spectacle of two dif­ferent county governments operating simultaneously in the same territory. Virginia formed the West Augusta Dis­trict in 1774, dividing it into the three counties of Monongalia, Youghiogania and Ohio. The southern portion of pres­ent-day Fayette County fell within Mo­nongalia, while the northern section was included in Youghiogania. At the same time, Pennsylvania administered the area as pan of Westmoreland County from the county seat at Hannastown, near Greensburg. Differences were sub­merged to a great extent during the Revolution, and the dispute was finally settled in 1779 with the westward exten­sion of the Mason and Dixon Line and the awarding of Ohio River frontage (now the West Virginia panhandle) to Virginia.

Continued Indian peril provided resi­dents with a rationale for their own “separatist” movement; inhabitants be­lieved they would be better protected if they had their own government. Conse­quently, Fayette County was formed from the southern region of Westmore­land County on September 26, 1783. Originally the northeastern border of the new county followed the Youghio­gheny River, but a large tract 10 the northeast was added in the following year.

Fayette County was named after the French hero of the Revolution, the Mar­quis de Lafayette. To this day, the coun­ty’s famous patron is honored in Union­town in the form of an eight-foot, two­-inch statue carved out of wood in 1847 by David Blythe, one of the nineteenth century’s foremost genre artists. The statue of Lafayette was perched atop the steeple of a former courthouse, but now, when it is not traveling to muse­ums and art shows around the country, it is on display in the county courthouse lobby.

Uniontown, in the center of the coun­ty, was chosen as the seat of govern­ment, but it was still a frontier village in 1783. In that year Gen. Ephraim Doug­lass somewhat sourly described the town as “one of the most obscure spots on the face of the globe.” Douglass, who had served in the Revolution, was awarded the position of first prothonotary of the new county for his wartime service; later he would become the first burgess (mayor) when Uniontown was incorpo­rated as a borough in 1796. The court­house, located along Main Street, was built on land donated by Henry Beeson as the “central public grounds.” The present courthouse, the third to occupy that spot, was constructed in 1891-92. Its old section, a landmark in its own right, serves as an outsLanding example of “courthouse gothic” architecture.

Fayette County’s crossroad location was responsible for its surge of prosperity in the first half of the nineteenth century. The development of the Mid­west soon made obvious the necessity of finding an overland route to link east and west; Washington had foreseen this as early as the 1780s. Accordingly, Con­gress approved the National Road, to be built from Baltimore to Wheeling under the direction of Army engineers, as an early public works project. The road followed existing highways as far as Cumberland, and from there the gener­al direction of Braddock’s Road into Fayette County. Where that old trace turned north, the National Road fol­lowed a newer road from the mountains to Brownsville, which had been laid out by Colonel Burd in 1759.

The stone-based road over the moun­tains from Cumberland to Wheeling was built, with back-breaking labor, be­tween 1811 and 1818. Sections were con­tracted to construction men of the area and one old book notes the efforts of Fayette County’s “Mordecai Cochran and his brigade of one thousand immor­tal Irishmen.”

The National Road carried a never­-ending stream of lumbering Conestoga wagon!>, dashing stagecoaches using relays of horses, and vast herds of cattle, hogs and sheep being driven to market on the hoof. It produced a culture of its own, giving rise to taverns, wagon stands and inns, with farmers becoming innkeepers. For thousands of migrants, called “movers” in those days, it was the “gateway to the West.” Prominent figures of the day, including three presi­dents (Polk, Harrison and Taylor) who rode to Washington for their inaugura­tions, used the road regularly. Union­town became a stagecoach and wagon center and Brownsville bustled with travelers boarding boats to float down the Monongahela to Pittsburgh. The first cast-iron bridge in the United States, still in daily use, was built in Brownsville in 1839 to carry the road over Dunlaps Creek.

The federal government, finding maintenance costs burdensome, turned the road over to the states it traversed in 1835, and it was converted into a toll road, or “pike.” Two of Pennsylvania’s six tollhouses have been preserved – one at Addison in Somerset County, now owned by the Daughters of the Ameri­can Revolution, the other, restored by the state but operated by the Uniontown Area Historical Society, at Sea rights in Fayette County. The National Road was extended across Ohio and Indiana and reached Vandalia, Ill., on its way to St. Louis, before the railroad sounded its death knell as a cross-country highway. After the B&O Railroad reached Wheel­ing in 1852, the road declined to the status of a local market route, and it was freed of tolls in 1905. Eventually, it became part of coast-to-coast U.S. Route 40.

Fayette County’s transportation his­tory is not confined 10 land, however; it has also been tied to river traffic. The Monongahela carries a high tonnage of freight cargo, mostly coal in long tows of barges, continuing a tradition which began in the earliest days before modern diesels, when paddlewheel steamers graced the water. The Youghiogheny, turbulent in its upper reaches, was also opened to light boat traffic in the nine­teenth century from Connellsville down­stream.

The next crossroads faced by Fayette County was industrial and eco­nomic, followed inevitably by wide­spread sociological and cultural change. The stirrings of industrialization were felt in 1789, when the first of some two dozen iron furnaces was built. These stone-built furnaces used iron ore from the area and smelted or “cooked” it with charcoal from the abundant for­ests. Their products, ranging from kitchen utensils to shells for army artil­lery, were shipped as far as New Orleans via the river network. However, these small operations disappeared with the development of large-scale iron and steel plants around Pittsburgh.

The abundance of bituminous (soft) coal in Fayette County was recognized in the very early days; Burd noted camp­ing along a stream paved with “fine stone coal.” Mines were opened, but the soft coal could not withstand the rough handling of primitive transportation for any long distances. The breakthrough came with the discovery of the coke­making process, in which coal is burned with a controlled air supply, driving out the impurities and leaving behind the silver-gray light coke, which is almost pure carbon. Fayette County coke was one of the essential ingredients upon which the Pittsburgh steel empire was built.

The beehive coke ovens, so named from their distinctive conical shape, transformed a nation as well as a re­gion, only to disappear within a hun­dred years. Ironmaster Isaac Meason experimented with coke at Plumsock (Uppermiddletown), four miles north of Uniontown, in 1815, but the first bee­hive oven was not built until 1841 at Connellsville. Some local iron furnaces began to use coke, but the first success­ful “export,” opening the doors to fu­ture expansion, came in 1843 when “Little Jim” Cochran of Dawson float­ed a boatload down the rivers and sold it to Cincinnati foundries.

The pre-eminence of Fayette County and the adjoining section of southern Westmoreland County in the coal and coke industry was. based on Connells­ville Coking Coal – the best metallur­gical coal ever discovered in the world due to its high carbon content and low percentage of sulfur and other impuri­ties. This deposit of super-pure coal covered only 137 square miles at the foot of Chestnut Ridge. The field, thirty miles long by three or four miles wide, ran from Latrobe in the north, past Scottdale, Connellsville and Uniontown to the Fairchance-Smithfield area. This section became the site of the great bee­hive coke region, which at its zenith spread to 44,000 outdoor ovens in long banks spewing smoke by day and a fiery red glow by night.

The coke industry expanded dramati­cally in 1870 when Henry Clay Frick, at age twenty-one, bought some coal land and started a coke plant at Broad Ford, on the Youghiogheny below Connells­ville. “Coke’s the thing,” a biographer quotes Frick as saying. “They can’t make steel without coke.” He was right, and it made his fortune. Frick’s opera­tions became pan of the new United States Steel Corporation, the behemoth of the Fayette County coal fields.

The first mines in the county were slope or drift mines, digging into the veins of coal where they outcropped at the surface and were easily recoverable. As this supply was mined out, deep mines, with vertical shafts descending 300 feet and more, became a necessity. The Klondike Field, with millions of tons of rich Pittsburgh Vein coal, was developed from the Uniontown area west to the Monongahela River. It resulted in the growth of a new population center, Masontown.

The coal and coke industry reached its height in Fayette County in the first twenty years of the twentieth century. The H.C. Frick Coke Company mined 19,170,740 tons of coal in 1906, the highest annual production ever achieved by the firm, and this at a time before coal mines were mechanized. Some 40,000 Fayette countians worked such mines.

The beehive ovens declined with the development of by-product ovens, which captured the gas, ammonia and coal tars lost in the beehive process and created a new and lucrative chemical market. Beehives, however, had a renaissance with the demand for coal and coke during World War II, but most of them were gone by 1960 and the last lone oven, near Scottdale, was ex­tinguished in 1982.

The demand for coal also eventually depleted the great Fayette County mines, most of them by 1950, leaving only marginal operations and transfer­ring the coal-mining center of gravity westward into neighboring Greene County.

Fortunes were made and lost in the great speculations for coal land. One of these coal barons was Uniontown’s fabulous J. V. Thompson, a small-town banker who made millions for himself and his friends buying and selling great blocks of coal. He created a truly baro­nial estate at the edge of Uniontown, but his financial empire came crashing down in 1915 and he died penniless in 1933. His estate, Oak Hill, is now Mt. St. Macrina, motherhouse of the Byzan­tine Catholic Order of the Sisters of St. Basil and the scene of an annual Labor Day pilgrimage which draws tens of thousands of visitors.

The coal boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries trans­formed Fayette County from an agrari­an to an industrial economy and changed its appearance from bucolic countryside to thrusting tipples, man­made mountains of slate dumps and fiery coke ovens. The boom also diversi­fied its population, adding thousands of immigrants from central and southern Europe as well as waves of blacks, brought in to work the mines, to the pre­dominant British and German base.

The miners lived in company towns, or “patches,” in long rows of identical homes. They shopped at company-owned scores and for many years lived in a closed environment. Today, the company houses that remain are pri­vately owned and renovated co individu­al tastes. Company stores are also a thing of the past and Fayette County has achieved a homogeneous popula­tion, as a microcosm of the great Ameri­can “melting pot.”

The history of labor organization in Fayette County runs parallel to the growth of the coal industry, often tur­bulent and sometimes violent. The United Mine Workers of America won their organizing battles in the 1930s, and headquarters of the UMW’s District 4 is now located at Masontown.

The effect of the coal boom can also be seen in census figures. Fayette had 20,159 residents in 1800 and the popula­tion had risen to only 43,284 by 1870. By 1900, after coal prosperity took hold, the figure increased to over 110,000 and to the high-water mark of 200,909 in 1940.

Fayette County has had other indus­tries besides “King Coal” – steel, for example, in the northwestern Mon Val­ley section centered in Monessen (West­moreland); glass at Connellsville and Point Marion, and a bygone glass plant in Uniontown; and boat and barge facil­ities in Brownsville. Nevertheless, the economic well-being of Fayette County has for a century or more been tied to coal. As is often the case, however, with a boom there is frequently a bust. The precipitous decline of coal, as the mines were worked out, brought Fayette County its own mini-depression in the early 1950s. This led to a disastrous de­cline in population, as the county lost almost a quarter of its residents by 1970 when the census figure dropped to 154,667.

The mini-depression of the 1950s and 60s sparked a boot-straps search for new, diversified industry. Although coal continues to be the county’s leading employer, with many residents commut­ing to mines and steel mills in other counties, in more recent years, Fayette countians have found jobs in the auto­motive industry in neighboring West­moreland County. The effort to attract new industry has also been somewhat successful in bringing in smaller plants which make such things as water meters, tanker trailers, steel scaffolding and steam cleaners. Thus, bit by bit, though still economically worse off than most of the rest of the nation, Fayette has be­gun to make progress. The population has even starLed to inch back up again, to 160,395 in 1980.

Through it all, the county has re­tained its incomparable scenic and recreational sites. Ohiopyle State Park, started with land provided by the West­ern Pennsylvania Conservancy, was created around the falls of the Youghio­gheny, the “wild river” which has at­tracted whitewater rafting enthusiasts from all over the country. Nearby Fallingwater, “the house over the wa­terfall” designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and operated by the Conservan­cy, has become one of the nation’s great architectural shrines.

The most recent recession, however, brought another “down” in the eco­nomic roller coaster which Fayette County has been riding for two cen­turies; in early 1983, unemployment rose to over twenty-eight percent, the second-worst county record in the state.

So now Fayette County is once again at a crossroads – that which lies between the basic industries, like steel and coal on which it has depended in the past, and the “high tech” and service econ­omy, which is predicted for the future. Modern highways are badly needed in a county which was once the proud possessor of the National Road; recon­struction is needed for aging and inade­quate locks and dams on the Mononga­hela River; and the potential of the tour­ist industry in the area has yet to be realized.

In the face of these things and the fluctuations in the economy, there is still something permanent about the hills and valleys that produced Indian fighters, frontier farmers, wagon driv­ers and generations of hard-working coal miners. The quality remains there today in the cough, resilient people who are Fayette County’s greatest asset.


Walter J. Storey, Jr. is editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Stand­ard, and has been a member of its news-­editorial staff for more than forty-three years. He and his wife have collaborated in several historical programs about Fayette County and the area.