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Local History

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Fayette County’s geographic location and the wealth of its natural resources have combined to produce two dominant periods of its history whose influences are still felt today - transportation via road and river, and the coal and coke era.

Parallel with both have been agriculture and commerce, and the opportunities inherent in the scenic beauties of the county, especially in the mountain area.

In the mid-18th century rivers were the only easily accessible means of transportation, and the French took the river routes down from Canada. The British struggled westward from the coast, over the mountains, toward the inevitable collision.

The one feasible land route from Virginia to the strategic point of the Forks of the Ohio (the future site of Pittsburgh) ran through the wilderness of what would become Fayette County. Early Indian traders, land agents and explorers blazed the way - Christopher Gist at Mount Braddock, William Stewart at Connellsville, Wendell Brown and his sons in Georges Township.

On their heels, in 1754, came George Washington, leading his Virginians to reinforce an earlier contingent sent to build a fort at the Forks of the Ohio, heading first for Redstone Old Fort (Brownsville), where a storehouse had been built. His expedition ended in defeat by the French and Indians at Fort Necessity. The following year, the British regular, Gen. Edward Braddock, improved Washington’s path as he marched toward another and greater disaster near Pittsburgh.

After the British finally won the French and Indian War, after capturing Fort Duquesne and renaming it Fort Pitt in 1758, the settlers came back over the mountains and set up subsistence farming. The Braddock Road from Cumberland wound northward from Fort Necessity down the mountain to the Gist Plantation and on to the north through Connellsville. A connector was needed to the west and Col. James Burd supplied that in 1759, with the help of the Indian chief Nemacolin, by laying out a road from Gist’s to Brownsville(where he built Fort Burd). These routes provided the basic network which the National Road would follow.

Communities grew up at natural geographical centers, sparked by mill owner Henry Beeson in Uniontown, Col. William Crawford and Zachariah Connell at Connellsville, John Brown and the trader Jacob Bowman at Brownsville, John Mason at Masontown.

In the 1770s the territory that would become Fayette County was claimed by both Pennsylvania and Virginia, with the spectacle of rival county governments existing at the same time and fighting each other. The dispute was settled in 1780 when the Mason-and-Dixon Line was extended to the original limit of Penn’s land grant, giving Virginia frontage on the Ohio River.

Times were hard on the frontier before and during the Revolution, when Fayette countains had to fight off Indian attacks, building forts for protection. On one punitive expedition into Ohio 1782, Col. William Crawford of Connellsville was captured, tortured and slain.

Fayette County was created out of the southern part of Westmoreland County in September 1783 and named for the young French hero of the Revolution, the Marquis de LaFayette. Uniontown, which had been founded on July 4, 1776, was chosen as the county seat.

The frontier farmers staged the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791-94, protesting a federal excise tax on whiskey with attacks on the tax collector. The insurrection ended in surrender to a federal army, and went down in history as having provided the first real test of the new U.S. Constitution.

At about the same time, the first industrialization appeared with the iron furnaces in the mountains, taking advantage of deposits of iron ore and abundant wood for charcoal.

Strategically located on the Monongahela River, Brownsville quickly became a center for construction and dispatch of flatboats, keelboats and later, the new steamboats.

The National Road was built by the federal government from Cumberland to Wheeling in 1811-18, with its route through Uniontown, Brownsville and Washington assured by the early Fayette County politician and statesman Albert Gallatin. It brought prosperity, creating an entire culture of its own, with freight-laden Conestoga wagons, stagecoaches, “movers” heading west, and huge herds and flocks of livestock. The road opened up the Northwest Territory, reaching vast areas not accessible to rivers. The National Road (it became a toll road, or Pike, after the states took it over in 1835) was the lifeline of a growing nation, and continued as such until the railroad reached Wheeling in 1852.

The presence of bituminous coal had been recognized early, and small mines were opened, but the soft coal could not withstand the rough handling of primitive transportation for long distances.

The breakthrough came with the discovery of the coke-making process, and Fayette County coke was one of the essential ingredients upon which the Pittsburgh steel empire was built.

The pre-emience 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. The first great mines and cokeyards sprang up in the 1870s and 1880s in the narrow section from Latrobe south through Scottdale, Connellsville and Uniontown to the Fairchance-Smithfield area.

Later the coal fields expanded into the “Klondike” area, from Uniontown west to the Monongahela River. New towns appeared seemingly overnight to accommodate miners, many of them immigrants from Europe, and the county’s population exploded. Fortunes were made in coal land dealing, notably that of Uniontown’s J.V. Thompson.

The coal and coke boom continued through ups and downs until about 1950s, by which time almost all of the large Fayette County mines were worked out. The beehive ovens, which had reached a total of 44,000 at their height (28,000 in Fayette County, 16,000 in neighboring southern Westmoreland), disappeared as the more efficient by-product ovens took over.

At least 150 coal “patches” (housing communities built and owned by the coal companies) have been identified in Fayette County, of whom more than 50 remain as sizable communities, with the houses now individually owned. There were more than 300 mines.

Fayette County’s population dropped from a high-water mark of 200,000 in 1940 to an estimated 150,000 today.

Fayette County possesses some diversified industry, in glass, water meters, steel fabrication and other enterprises. Some strip mining remains, and miners commute to other counties. The county retains its position as an important wholesale and retail trading center, still a crossroads area despite substandard highways. The future hope for industrial development, enhancement of tourism and commercial prosperity is wrapped up once more in better road and river transportation.

(condensed from 1983 article for Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine)
Revised 6-22-92 By Walter J. Storey, Jr.
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The History of Uniontown

To the people coming over the last ridge of the Alleghenies, 200 years ago, the view of our valley must have been one of surpassing beauty. As far as the eye could see, there would have been the carpet of trees, undisturbed through the centuries, extruding Westward to the gently rising hills which border the Monongahela River.

Under the trees, among the wild flowers and tall ferns, the trails of the Delaware and Shuwanese Indians took their paths for this was a wonderful hunting ground. Also, two of the great Indian trails crossed here, at the site of the present Ben Franklin Jr. High School. They were the Nemacolin, East and West, from Cumberland to the river at Brownsville, and the Catawba or Cherokee trail, one of the very longest in the U.S., going North and South from Canada to Florida.

When William Penn came to America, he sent his son to offer to buy our valley from the Six Nations. They agreed to sell it for 10,000 English pounds, saying that since they had no Indian towns here but only hunting forests, they would move farther West. They kept their promise and did not return, and no one in Fayette County was ever hurt or killed by an Indian. Some years later, after the settlers were here, there was a rumor the Indians would come back, and the settlers, in panic, built block houses; but the Indians were still true to their word, and they never returned.

After the valley had been purchased from the Indians, families came to live in the country around. Henry Beeson and his wife and baby came over the Nemacolin trail in 1768, to live on the land he had bought the year before. He built his first log house where the Mt. Vernon Towers apartment house now stands; and his brother, Jacob, came a little later to buy land and live here.

Henry Beeson soon erected a mill on Redstone Creek where Gallatin Avenue now crosses that stream. The mill became a center for all the people in the country around, and there, on July 4, 1776, Mr. Beeson put up a sign saying he had laid out a town of two streets, Peter and Elbow, and 54 lots were for sale.

Of course, no one here knew what was happening in Philadelphia on that date. But our little town was thus begun on the same date as our nation. It is perhaps the only town in the United States which has that honor.

Some people bought lots and built houses, 20 feet square, with a good chimney and promise to keep the place in front swept clean.

During the Revolutionary War, few people came over the mountains. But after that, more people came to buy lots and open small shops--a cabinet maker's a cobbler's, a blacksmith's, a tailor's. There was also a doctor's office.

Two small log churches were built--the first a Baptist one on Morgantown Street near the old cemetery; the other, a Methodist on Peter Street beside the cemetery there. A small school was built beside this church. Also there was a school at the corner of Gallatin and Peter Streets and one held in the Court House. There was a Court House now since Uniontown had been chosen as county seat for the newly established Fayette County, taken from Westmoreland County.

In 1789, a much appreciated post office was set up. The rates were 40-451 miles for a 40 cent stamp. The mail came once a week.

The borough was incorporated in 1796. It was still a little town, with bumpy, dusty streets and it was hard to reach from other places.

Then a wonderful thing happened. Henry Clay, Andrew Stewart and Albert Gallatin persuaded our government to build a fine, long road to the West, and it went right up Main Street. It brought new life to our town. People on horseback, emigrating families in covered wagons, people in stage coaches all came riding through and some stopped awhile for rest for themselves and their horses. Many inns or taverns were built for their entertainment.

The most noted of the visitors to our town at that time (1825) was General LaFayette, who had helped win the Revolutionary War fifty years before. He was given a great welcome and expressed appreciation that our county was named for him.
A small college was established about this time (1827) with buildings where the Greek Catholic Church now stands on East Main Street. It gave the first course on agriculture presented by any college in the United States. One of its students, Matthew Simpson, walked ninety miles to attend. He later was a minister in Washington, D.C., becoming the friend of President Lincoln and the one chosen to give Lincoln's funeral oration in Springfield, after Lincoln's assassination.

The National Road or "the Pike" had given much life to Uniontown, but in 1860, it was superseded by the coming of a railroad from Connellsville, East from Pittsburgh. It took the colorful traffic and the interest from the Pike, bringing more people to live here and more things for newer stores. It ran at the "dizzying rate" of twenty miles per hour!

But without the road, life became more quiet and settled, and moved at a more leisurely pace. Log houses were replaced by brick; water was brought from the mountains to replace the pumps in yards; some streets were paved. There were a few factories; glass and ice plants, brick works and for a time, a potter shop. But with all these, it was a very quiet place.

Then Mr. Taylor of Dawson found how to produce coke, and it was found that under our town and in the few miles up and down our valley there lay a bed of what was called the Connellsville coking coal--the best in the world for making steel.

How the town grew and how busy it became! With many new people--workers from Europe; with new stores, new banks, new churches, new schools. People hurried to try to buy "coal land" and tracts became very valuable so that at one time Uniontown was said to have more millionaires per capital than any town in the United States. Gas and electricity became available for elaborate homes being built and for lighting the streets.

No thought was given to establishing other industries except the mining of coal, nor to the time when all coal might be mined out. But the time came soon after; and the town had a little private depression of its own due to the failure of Mr. J.V. Thompson's First National Bank.

The town really became quiet! Very gradually new industries were induced to come; the miners still lived here but traveled to other places for work. Then the buying power built up and our town has prospered. It's future seems bright!

There have been many fine citizens of Uniontown, but there is one born here known abroad as well as in our country. He is General George Marshall, author of the Marshall Plan, which helped many people of Europe after World War II. We are always proud to honor him.

Some of the distinguished guests who stopped as they journeyed along the National Pike in the older days were:

PRESIDENTS: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Van Buren, Monroe, J. Q. Adams, Tyler, Polk, Lincoln

OTHER NOTED PEOPLE: Henry Clay, Black Hawk, Jennie Lind, P. T. Barnan, General Sam Houston, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, John C. Calhoun, Robert E. Lee, Davy Crockett Back to Top

The History of Connellsville

Less than two hundred years ago, the site of Connellsville was a part of a vast wilderness. A powerful­ tribe of Indians known as the Iroquois claimed it. By permission of these Indians, several tribes of Delawares and Kanhawhas made it their home. One of these tribes located their village about five miles east of Connellsville. Here is an extensive burial ground where it is believed more than one thousand­ red men slept. Another, and smaller village, was located on the banks of Youghiogheny River about two miles above the mouth of Bear Run. In both of these places, a large number of flints have been found.

It is believed that some bold French traders from the Canadas settled in Fayette County as early as 1730. Another tradition is a German trapper who built his solitary cabin at what is now the end of the street car line in South Connellsville.

When the French built their forts in this section, George Washington was sent to warn them that they were on English land. On the trip out he spent a few days at the home of Mr. Gist at Mount Braddock, a house still standing.

During the French and Indian War, a retreat was necessary and Washington's soldiers, upon reaching Great Meadows above Uniontown, were so exhausted that it was decided to fortify themselves as best they could, while waiting for reinforcements and needed supplies. Because of these conditions, their fort was named Fort Necessity. It was near this fort that General Braddock lost his life and here he lies buried.

Among the pioneer settlers of this region was William Crawford, who built a log cabin in what is now West Side Connellsville. He was a born leader of men. When danger from the Indians threatened, he was quick to respond to the call of his fellow men and organized them for self-defense. He served his country well and true patriots mourned his tragic death at the stake on the afternoon of June 11, 1782 all over the land.

Another early settler was John Gibson, who built a gristmill near the site Sodom Shops that he operated with water drawn from Montz's creek. He also built a small rail factory and an oil press, at which great quantities of castor oil were made from the beans grown in surrounding country. In 1805, he built a forge on the east bank of the river, below Montz Creek, which was operated successfully for twenty years.

The founder of the Borough of Connellsville was Zachariah Connell, who was born in the state of Virginia in 1741. His humble cabin home was where the Trans-Allegheny Hotel now stands (Water Street). It is for him that Connellsville is named. He donated the ground for City Hall, the Cameron School and the Carnegie Library. It was on his farm that emigrants coming over the mountain built their rafts to float their goods down the river. It was he who secured the charter for the Borough of Connellsville. As originally­ planned Connellsville contained 180-quarter acre lots and formed almost a perfect square. Its boundaries were North Alley, East Alley, and the Youghiogheny River.

Other early citizens of Connellsville were Daniel Rogers, John Page, David Barnes, Anthony Banning and Peter Stillwagon. At the time of the incorporation of the Borough, a number of its citizens were wholly engaged in the construction of boats and rafts on which emigrants floated their goods down the river on their way to Kentucky and Ohio.

Among the early industries of Connellsville was a carding and spinning mill built by Nortons on Connell Run. Later it was converted into a foundry. Many people believe that the first coke oven in the Connellsville­ area region was not built near Dawson but in the very heart of Connellsville itself, not three hundred feet from the old stone house on West Fairview Avenue built by Zachariah Connell. From its birth as frontier settlement, Connellsville might properly be called a manufacturing town. Boat builders might be said to be the first notable industry of the town. The business was continued for fifty years or more quite successfully. All the iron furnaces within a radius of ten miles might properly be said to have been Connellsville's industries, for it was to Connellsville their output was brought for shipment down the river and here supplies were purchased and men secured.

The first tannery in Connellsville was built sometime between 1791 and 1799.
In the hills about Connellsville are many valuable deposits of fire clay, silice rock and other excellent brick making materials. The first brick house was built shortly after the founding of the town by Anthony Banning.

As early as 1810 Daniel and Joseph Rogers established an extensive paper mill on the fight bank of the Youghiogheny River, a short distance above the present boundaries of South Connellsville. The paper manufactured was a superior quality and was shipped by boat to New Orleans and other points on the lower river.

In 1869, Samuel Crossland began the manufacture of good road wagons on the left bank of the Youghiogheny River near Bradford. The largest lock factory in the world was established at South Connellsville in 1896 and operated steadily and successfully until the fall of 1898, when it was almost completely destroyed by fire.

On August 14th-17th, 1906, Connellsville celebrated its centennial. These four days mark the greatest event in the history of Connellsville and while not as lasting as the coke, which has made Connellsville's name famous, they will long be remembered by her citizens. Back to Top

General George Catlett Marshall

The great soldier-statesman was born December 31, 1880 and reared in Uniontown, his boyhood home being located on West Main Street where the West End Theater later was built in 1903 and the VFW Home is now located.

Gen. Marshall went from here to Virginia Military Institute at the age of 17 and then into the Army. He was marked for greatness after his service in World War I, and in 1939 he became Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.

He was the architect who guided American and allied armies to victory on every front in World War II.

After the war, Gen. Marshall’s service to the nation was not over. He became Secretary of State and authored the Marshall Plan--the aid program that saved western Europe from Communism. Later he was recalled to serve as Secretary of Defense during the Korean War. In 1953, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, the only professional soldier ever so honored in recognition of the Marshall Plan.

Gen. Marshall’s triumphant homecoming to Uniontown in 1953 was a red-letter day in the recent history of the city.

The general died in retirement on October 16, 1959, at the age of 78 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery

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