Jump to content
American Road Magazine
Celebrating our two-lane highways of yesteryear…And the joys of driving them today!
Steve_Colby

Random Rant - Brownsville, Pa Is Haunting Me...

Recommended Posts

We recently ventured into Brownsville, PA as the Traveling Dingleberries push westward.

 

I've seen photos of the state of Brownsville but the personal experience truly disheartened me. We build magnificent structures to attest to our economic prosperity and prowess and then cast them off like yesterday's garbage.

What does that say about us as a country?

 

The "Neck" (Market St. - The National Road) in the downtown commercial district:

 

dwntwn-brownsville5_lrg.jpg

 

dwntwn-brownsville1_lrg.jpg

 

dwntwn-brownsville4_lrg.jpg

 

union-station1_lrg.jpg

Former Union Station

 

To see additional photos of Brownsville, go to the Cumberland Road Project/Brownsville Photo Library

 

~ Steve

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

When I was traveling a lot from central Pennsylvania to Wheeling, WV (it was for a girl, mostly), I would take side trips to Antietam and then take the National Road to Wheeling. Brownsville always disturbed me. Maybe I watched too many zombie movies - but the place freaked me out.

 

On my 2008 trip across the country and back, the only place where people were outright mean to me was Brownsville on my last day. Three guys with as many teeth between them in a pick up truck making fun of me for riding a Vespa. They actually circled around the block to go for a second and third barrage (I was parked on the main street).

 

Still, there is something about Brownsville that I enjoy. It's depressing in all the right ways. Like Asbury Park, NJ or Shamokin, PA, the desolation is fascinating.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Brownsville is kind of a sad place, like a ghost town, but I found it haunting just the same. I couldn't believe my eyes the first time I drove through it and saw a freight train rolling right down the middle of a residential street past a gold-domed church. On another trip there, I stopped and took some pictures Nemacolin's Castle, which is a really fascinating building with some gothic features, such as a turret. There are a number of elegant old homes along Front St., including the home of Philander Knox, with a plaque explaining who he was. While I was nosing around, shooting pictures, a man came up to me and struck up a conversation. He proceeded to give me a history of every house on Front St., when it was built, who lived in it, etc. If I'd had a recording device I could have learned something. As Front St. passes Nemacolin's Castle it descends sharply, with the original brick paving meeting a stone retaining wall on the Nemacolin's Castle property. There are some very picturesque views of the castle to be had from here, and if the road were still open to traffic, it would lead down to the Flatiron Building and the rest of the (former) business district. Now they seem to be in the process of knocking down the old abandoned store fronts. In 2008 they had already torn down the store next to the Dunlap Creek Bridge, which had actually jutted out over the creek bed, obscuring half of the bridge itself.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Brownsville is kind of a sad place, like a ghost town, but I found it haunting just the same. I couldn't believe my eyes the first time I drove through it and saw a freight train rolling right down the middle of a residential street past a gold-domed church. On another trip there, I stopped and took some pictures Nemacolin's Castle, which is a really fascinating building with some gothic features, such as a turret. There are a number of elegant old homes along Front St., including the home of Philander Knox, with a plaque explaining who he was. While I was nosing around, shooting pictures, a man came up to me and struck up a conversation. He proceeded to give me a history of every house on Front St., when it was built, who lived in it, etc. If I'd had a recording device I could have learned something. As Front St. passes Nemacolin's Castle it descends sharply, with the original brick paving meeting a stone retaining wall on the Nemacolin's Castle property. There are some very picturesque views of the castle to be had from here, and if the road were still open to traffic, it would lead down to the Flatiron Building and the rest of the (former) business district. Now they seem to be in the process of knocking down the old abandoned store fronts. In 2008 they had already torn down the store next to the Dunlap Creek Bridge, which had actually jutted out over the creek bed, obscuring half of the bridge itself.

 

Mark,

It looks like Brownsville may have ended the demolition with the building over Dunlap Creek. There didn't seem to be any work in progress when we were there.

 

dwntown-brownsville18_lrg.jpg

 

dwntown-brownsville32_lrg.jpg

 

I'm assuming the original iron bridge is under there somewhere...

 

We're heading back to Brownsville in a week or two to explore some more.

 

~ Steve

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

When I was traveling a lot from central Pennsylvania to Wheeling, WV (it was for a girl, mostly), I would take side trips to Antietam and then take the National Road to Wheeling. Brownsville always disturbed me. Maybe I watched too many zombie movies - but the place freaked me out.

 

On my 2008 trip across the country and back, the only place where people were outright mean to me was Brownsville on my last day. Three guys with as many teeth between them in a pick up truck making fun of me for riding a Vespa. They actually circled around the block to go for a second and third barrage (I was parked on the main street).

 

Still, there is something about Brownsville that I enjoy. It's depressing in all the right ways. Like Asbury Park, NJ or Shamokin, PA, the desolation is fascinating.

 

I had an old guy say something to me which I interpreted to be "You must not be from Brownsville... You're not beat-up looking enough." But he did have a smile on his face when he said it. :lol:

 

A second guy in the "Neck" asked if I was from the newspaper. If so, I was supposed to call such-in-such a liar.

 

~ Steve

Edited by Steve_Colby

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

What is the cause of Brownsville's decline? Is it a former steel town?

It isn't by chance the faded Pennsylvania town where parts of "The Deer Hunter" was filmed, is it?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

What is the cause of Brownsville's decline? Is it a former steel town?

It isn't by chance the faded Pennsylvania town where parts of "The Deer Hunter" was filmed, is it?

 

The cause of Brownsville's decline is similar to that of other National Road towns and is rather complicated.

 

In a nutshell, the National Road was a primary transportation artery from the west to the port of Baltimore. Local industry sprung up centered on the use on natural resources available in the area. (i.e. coal, iron, sand for glass, etc.) Service industries like banks and breweries supported the new found prosperity.

 

With the growth and extension of the railroad, the Road's importance declined. Road cities that were able to maintain their status as transportation hubs along the railroad continued to grow.

 

As the US and the transportation network grew, the advantage industries along the Road once held diminished. In the period from the 1930s to the 1950s, many Road towns were bypassed altogether by new highways.

 

The loss of status as a primary shipping route, combined with a failure to update manufacturing technology and other factors, resulted in the loss of both manufacturing, population and support industries.

 

~ Steve

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Some historical info can found at brownsvilleboro.com, follow the link to an archive of newspaper columns concerning Brownsville, and at brownsvillepa.net, which has several pages.The wiki for Brownsville has 1 interesting fact: the population was over 8,000 in 1940, it is only a little over 2,000 now.

While Brownsville experienced its 1st boom from the NR, it was also the head of navigation on the Mon River for many years, the steamboat building trade was very active. The 2nd boom(early 1900's) came from coal mining, coke ovens, and railroads all tied to the Pittsburgh steel industry.When that industry died in the late 1970's, much of the Mon valley from Brownsville to Pittsburgh fell on hard times.

In 2001 and again last year, I visited the 2 Volunteer Fire Depts.in Brownsville to photograph their apparatus and find out about their operations. These 2 companies use both fundraising and whatever gov't assistance can be found to maintain their stations and equipment. IIRC, 1 of the chiefs is the code enforcement officer, also gov't grants have paid for building stabilization, a new fire engine, police assistance, etc.

Another fact of interest is that the crime rate has been cut in half in 10 years, it was evident in 2001 that Brownsville had a "problem". Any serious effort to market what's left of this burg as an NR mecca will depend on visitors being safe.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Brownsville has indeed been rather saddening on my few visits. I seem to recall some activity involving creation of a park at river side not too far from the metal Dunlap Creek bridge.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Mark,

It looks like Brownsville may have ended the demolition with the building over Dunlap Creek. There didn't seem to be any work in progress when we were there.

 

dwntown-brownsville32_lrg.jpg

 

I'm assuming the original iron bridge is under there somewhere...

 

 

~ Steve

 

Steve,

 

The railing of the original iron bridge is visible in your picture as a shadow. What you're looking at here is the foundation of the building that they had knocked down in 2008 that jutted out over Dunlap Creek.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Mark,

Here's a different shot of the street. Is the railing, lower left corner, a section of the old bridge or a railing that was added later?

 

dwntown-brownsville31_lrg.jpg

 

It's hard to relate the street-scape now with that in the old postcard below.

 

brownsville-iron-bridge1_lrg.jpg

 

~ Steve

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Steve,

 

Clearly the railing is not the original railing, but one which replaced the original railing some time in the 19th or early 20th century, but the railing is attached to the original bridge. The point is, in your top picture, the camera is pointed parallel to the bridge, at roughly a 90 degree angle to the viewpoint of the lower picture. If you wanted to make a "deja-view" shot to the lower picture, you probably couldn't do it today, because there have been too many other structures put in the way since then, including another bridge carrying another street across the creek, which wasn't there in 1839, but if you were able to do it, you would be standing in the creek itself looking west, whereas your picture is taken from the south bank of the creek looking north. The Library of Congress has some good shots of the Dunlap Creek Bridge. Frank Brusca had one of them in his old US 40 website.

 

 

http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=pphhphoto&fileName=pa/pa1400/pa1412/photos/browse.db&action=browse&recNum=0&title2=Dunlap%27s%20Creek%20Bridge,%20Spanning%20Dunlap%27s%20Creek,%20Brownsville,%20Fayette,%20PA&displayType=1

 

The first of these shots (numbered HAER,PA,26-BROVI,2-1 ) is the closest you'll get to a deja-view of your lower picture. The picture gives a vivid illustration of one important fact about Brownsville: it occupies a narrow valley between the hills and the river and so space in the commercial district was at a premium. You can see, even in your postcard view, that structures are being built out over the water on the western side of the bridge. In HAER,PA,26-BROVI,2-1, you can see that foundations have been put up in the creek itself and buildings have been erected directly upon both sides of the bridge. The bridge itself was in danger of being swallowed up by the building boom of the early 20th century. HAER,PA,26-BROVI,2-2 gives a closer view, and you can see the building in the foreground was a florist shop, with the FTD logo on the side. The concrete slab in your picture is all that remains of that building. It existed as late as 2004, the first time I passed through Brownsville, but four years later it was gone. The other pictures in that group on the Library of Congress Historic American Engineering Record site show the underside of the bridge, demonstrating how the modern roadway was literally clamped on top of the original bridge.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Mark,

Thanks for the info! it appears I couldn't see the trees for the forest.

BTW, here's a link to the Dunlop's Bridge/LOC site with larger photos and downloadable high-res images.

memory.loc.gov/

 

~ Steve

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

×