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The Brownsville Road



THE PITTSBURGH PRESS

SEPTEMBER 23, 1900

REDSTONE ROAD IN OLDEN TIMES

Ancient Taverns and Log Houses Mutely Tell of Its Departed Usefulness - Once an Artery of Commerce

Written for the Sunday Press

by Charles R. M'Murtrie

Along the ridge of a series of undulating and picturesque hills stretching far to the south of Pittsburg, runs an old turnpike of more than ordinary interest and importance. Yet, aside from the fact that one of the first telegraph lines was brought into the city over this road, no special historic significance attaches. But Its past teems with the days of the stage coach and the old wayside tavern and along it are quaint landmarks of former days.

This is the Brownsville plank road - the Red Stone Road - but recently and more elegantly designated by incoming residents the Southern Avenue. The road starts from the head of Eighteenth street South Side, and pursues a devious course out through Mt. Oliver past the South Side cemetery to Brownsville, a distance of twenty-six miles.

Just how old the road is no one seems to know. Tales unnumbered are told of its past. Stories are rife they have it a once famous Indian trail - a road - over which Washington himself once journeyed to Venango. It has not always followed its present course. The extension of the turnpike to South Eighteenth street is an event of comparatively recent years. The road originally ran through Mt. Oliver and crossed to Brownsville avenue by what is now known as Arlington avenue and thence into Birmingham.

 

No little confusion has arisen over the distinction between Brownsville road and Brownsville avenue. [The latter is a mile distance from the former was, however, merely the continuation of the former prior to 1851, and the old name has naturally clung to both roads.

As one travels out the old road, so prominent in early days, many things that recall the past are noticeable. The old stone houses and wayside taverns where once the stage coaches stopped are of particular interest, and many are yet occupied, and in a fair state of preservation. Fronting on the road are nine cemeteries. Rows of tall poplars, oaks and locusts line the road for miles, and the old rustic hedge is still in evidence.

Although Baldwin-township, through which the road runs, was not organized until 1844, it had settlers long previous. Old residents still point out a site on Street's run near the road where

Jacob Crady' a Hessian, settled in 1782. One of the old characters living on the road was Squire Vamer, who for 55 consecutive years acted as justice of the peace at White Hall. His home stood near the little old German Lutheran church, near the present Windsor hotel. The church itself is still in existence, having been established in 1812.

Brownsville road, of the old Red Stone road, as it was generally called, was prior to 1855 ar highway of considerable importance. During the 30's, the road was constantly thronged with stage coaches, carrying mail and passengers to Brownsville. Here horses were changed and passengers proceeded by stage over the old National road to Washington arid Baltimore. In fact, the road was considered at one time the most direct route from Pittsburg to the east. Conestoga wagons loaded with freight and scores of vehicles used the road to Brownsville. For thirty years the road was in constant use.

But by the opening of the Monongahela river to Brownsville in 1844, the traffic was largely diverted to the river. In 1850 the boats carried 18,370 passengers alone to Brownsville. As the distance was 55 miles by river and only 26 miles by stage, many persons preferred the road route. Just how many passed over this route it is impossible to say but the number was certainly large. Then too, the river was usually very low in summer and frozen over in winter. The river traffic was then diverted to the Brownsville road. Until after the war, the stage-coaches continued to run.

Yet, in the spring, when the road was muddy, travel was slack. Stories are told of a few places in the road where a team with a wagon could make only five or six miles a day, and of many places where the mud and water were hub deep. In the autumn droves of stock were in sight along the road almost all the time. Often droves of from 100 to 200 head of hogs or cattle were seen on the way to an eastern market.

The great amount of travel brought much business to the old wayside "taverns." These hostelries, or inns, were numerous, and ample accommodations were provided for man and beast. Twenty to 30 guests would often be entertained at night. The stage coaches usually halted there to water the horses and to permit passengers to dine or breakfast. Of course, a little bit of something "warm" was always indulged in by the travelers.

The tavern to which the most interest attaches is the one known as "White Hall." This old landmark has but recently been razed to give place to the handsome residence of Mr. T. J. Coffin of Carnegie. This famous inn, located about five miles out the road, was originally a log house, built probably as early as 1820. In the 50's the building was remodeled and an old style double front porch added. To this porch was suspended the large, conspicuous sign which read, "Silas D. Prior, Tavern." This sign was shortly afterward changed to "White Hall," a name retained for the past 50 years. The house contained 10 rooms besides a large dining room or dancing hall. This room was fully 50x25 feet and was the scene of many an old military ball and revel. Before the war drills and musterings were common, and White Hall was a popular resort for Pittsburgers on such occasions.

J.R. Schulze was the last proprietor, he having run it continuously from 1871 to 1891. During these years it was a favorite resort for sleighing and dancing parties driving out from the city.

It was no unusual event for a hundred couples to be present and the old "inn" fairly rang with laughter and merriment.

Another of the old houses along this road and about one mile this side of White Hall, is the old two-story stone house on the Bennett estate. At one time this served as a summer residence for one of Pittsburg's first mayors. The house was built by Jacob Flower, a German, during the ‘20's. For more than 10 years it was used as a tavern. Sometime in the ‘30's Judge John Snowden, who held the office of mayor of Pittsburg during 1825, ‘26, and ‘27, purchased the house along with some 70 acres of land, and used it as a summer residence for a number of years. The fare by stage from the city to this house was at that time 50 cents. About 1850 John F. Bennett, the first president of the Brownsville plank road of later years, purchased the property, which has since been regarded as the old Bennett homestead. For more than 10 years the farm was famed as a great cherry and fruit farm. George H. Bennett of this city was born and reared in the stone house and the old building is still in his possession. The house contains seven rooms and the interior is furnished in oak. The doors, windows and large portion in front are of an early style. A unique feature is the old time stone chimney. The house readily suggests the architecture of its time.

A short distance from this house, on the same side of the road, is a one-story stone house of the plan just described. This was built by a Mr. Woodford, an old settler more than [120] years ago, who used it, however, only as a residence. Several old log houses are also in the vicinity. The oldest, in fact, in that vicinity is the old Stewart log house on the left side of the road opposite the present Stewart residence. In 1820, William Stewart purchased some 100 acres of land and erected the house. It is a two-story log building.

About a mile beyond the South Side cemetery stands Concord church. The old frame edifice, which was built in 1832, has given place only recently to the present two-story church building. Clustered in the rear and to the side of the church is the old burial ground where all that is mortal of many of the old residents lies.

In the days of old there were many blacksmith shops along the road. Few of these now remain. The sound of the anvil is still heard, and the old bellows continue to fan the flames of the forges but not as of yore. About four miles out on the Cowan property are still seen traces of the once famous blacksmith shop of Mr. Cowan who built it in 1838.

The "Buck Tavern" is another of the old landmarks of the Brownsville road. For three-quarters of a century the site has served as a hostelry and tavern. The building is located on the old Noble farm, and is about a mile beyond the second toll-gate. The present structure is almost 50 years old, and in itself is a fair type of the wayside tavern. Originally the site was occupied by a log tavern, which was built about 1816. This was destroyed in 1852, when William Noble erected the present house. The building has the customary long front porch. Hitching posts and rails are provided, and almost in front of the inn stands the old weather-beaten sign with the picture of a stag and the words underneath, "Buck Tavern." The moss-covered trough and pump are picturesque features of the old hostelry. To the rear is a picnic grove with dancing pavilion, bowling alleys and stands. This was, at one time the chief picnic resort of the entire South Side, then it was customary to go out on the old hacks for a day's outing. Among the more prominent proprietors, who are associated with the old "Buck Tavern" are the Threnhausers, who conducted it for years. Since 1883 the tavern has been in charge of old Peter Troat.

Among other taverns along the road may be mentioned the old Mt. Oliver hotel. This is a two-story brick structure and occupies a prominent site near the Mt. Oliver toll-gate The plot of ground on which it stands is triangular and was purchased from Oliver Orrnsby, from whom the present borough is named, by Andrew Henger who built the house in 1853. In 1861 George Goldbach acquired possession and the family still maintain the old hostelry. The large swinging sign that once welcomed the belated traveler has likewise been recently removed.

Several other old homesteads and taverns might also be mentioned. Among these may be noted the old Swift mansion built about 1848, where the eccentric recluse, E. P. Swift, spent many years alone in his cellar; the Noble homestead; "Point View House," built about 1849 but which has since been much remodeled; the "Half-Way House," of F. Ahlhorn; and the more recent "Lion Hotel" and "Globe Hotel." Nearly opposite the site of old "White Hall," and whose location contributed doubtless to its popularity stands a more modem house. This is the Windsor hotel.

Just what the future has in store for the six or seven old taverns now along the road time will tell. Two of them have already been abandoned and the others will doubtless share this fate. With the entrance of the railroad in 1852 into Pittsburg and the opening of the river, the former demands upon the Brownsville road were considerably lessened. The highway was neglected and often impassable. An agricultural class was pushing out into the country and wished better facilities for reaching the city. A road company was accordingly formed and a charter procured in 1851 from the state legislature. The company was known as the "Birmingham and Brownsville plank and macadamized road," and was capitalized at $12,500. Wm. F. Bennett was the first president. Timber was plenty and soon the work of grading and planking the old highway was begun. James Trunick was employed to haul the timber and for four years he "planked the road." The planks were [10] feet long, one foot wide and three inches thick, and were laid side by side across the road for some five or more miles.

A toll gate was placed just where Arlington avenue now crosses the Brownsville road and up to the present day this road is one of the turnpikes of Allegheny county on which toll is still collected. The road was also extended to South Eighteenth street. A mere ledge of shelf was cut along the sloping hill sides, following every curvature of the hills, until the present terminus was reached. This accounts for it present tortuous course up through the hollow. Later this toll gate was removed and a new one substituted in its stead at the east end of Pius street nearer the city. A second toll gate was built in Mt. Oliver and a third three miles farther out at the present hamlet of Carrick.

The original toll houses are still in use, and are intact save that the old bars which were lowered for cattle or sheep in order to obtain the count have been removed. The quaint old signs with rates of toll are still legible.

The new plank road did not long withstand the heavy traffic passing over it and in 1863 the work of macadamizing the road was begun. The planks ware covered with stone. A few of the "old" planks can still be seen projecting from the stone at several places. With the improved condition of the road in 1851, new life seemed to be infused into the section. A hack or "bus" line was started and for 30 years the old hacks rattled back and forth from the Mt. Oliver Inclined plane to "White Hall." During the ‘80's an electric road was built from the second toll gate to Concord church or Spiketown. After operating for about 10 years the electric line passed into the hands of the present Suburban company.

Shortly after the civil war a portion of the road enjoyed a small-sized "boom." Joseph Keeling, the coal operator, purchased at that time a tract of land near the Concord Church. Lots were plotted and a number of houses erected for the use of the miners working in the Keeling pits near-by. A little mining village sprang up along the road at this point and whether true or not, because of the stealing of many spikes used in the construction of the houses, the village was dubbed "Spiketown," a name by which it is yet known.

The abundance of coal in the surrounding hills near the road led to a very novel and yet highly successful undertaking in this little village. This was no less than the erection of a large glass factory in 1860 by John Agnew of the firm of Chambers & Agnew. Two furnaces were built and green glass and prescription ware were made. For 20 years, the factory was in operation giving employment to no less than 100 hands. The factory stood in the rear of the present residence of John Agnew, Jr., on the road near Concord church. To-day a huge pile of bricks is all that is left of the old bottle works.

     

No less than nine cemeteries front the road within a distance of only five miles. The first cemetery on the road is St. Michael's cemetery. It was plotted in 1885. It is the chief Catholic burial ground of the South Side. The oldest and most interesting from a reminiscent standpoint, is the old Methodist graveyard which fronts on the road a short distance beyond the second toll gate. This cemetery, now known as the Bingham Street Methodist cemetery, was owned by the trustees of the old Center Street Methodist church now south Fifteenth street. The charter was procured in 1838. At one time a special act had to be enacted by the state legislature to put an end to hostilities between the trustees and lot owners in the cemetery.

When the Duncan Glass Works on the South Side were destroyed by fire in the 80's, all records of this cemetery were burned as Mr. Duncan was acting secretary of the trustees. Considerable confusion resulted and even to this day the matter of several records has not been settled satisfactorily to many lot owners of the cemetery. Little space is now left for graves. Many of the old stones bear quaint epitaphs.

The South Side cemetery is the largest on the road, and is in the hands of a company whose charter was obtained in 1873. Among the more recently opened cemeteries along the road are those of several prominent congregations. The St. Joseph's, St. George's and St. Adelbert's cemeteries are three of these. The Lutheran and Concord Presbyterian graveyards are somewhat further out. About four miles out the road, a little to the right is the new Jewish cemetery.

A transformation is in progress. The old landmarks of the Red Stone road are giving place to modern residences. Electric cars glide over the road where once the lumbering hack and stage coach jogged along. The old plank roadbed is replaced with miles of brick and Belgian block.

A few of the old haw and poplar trees that once lined the road still greet the eye. Some of the old residents still linger in the homes of their childhood. Picnics, hay rides, and sleighing parties still enliven the road. New names - Carrick, Brindle, Crailo and South View Place greet the visitor, and new hamlets are springing up. A few of the old landmarks will doubtless remain for years to herald the past but the old is indeed rapidly merging into the new.


Latitude40.3951727
Longitude-79.98676710000001
Linked toFamily: Agnew/Chambers (F200)
AlbumsBios and Histories

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