The History of Uniontown
BY: MISS JEAN BROWNFIELD
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