Guest Blogger: Polly Hall

Since I am on vacation this week, I invited author Polly Hall to guest blog. Polly’s novel, The Taxidermist’s Lover, is the most unusual book I’ve read so far this year. The center of the novel is the relationship between Scarlett and Henry. And their relationship is deeply entwined in Henry’s profession of taxidermy. But Henry isn’t an ordinary taxidermist who’ll memorialize your eight-point buck with a nice mounting. With Scarlett’s encouragement, Henry begins to create bizarre hybrid creatures .

. The relationship between Scarlett and Henry felt sinister to me. The couple first meets and bonds over a dead creature washed ashore on the beach. Scarlett felt to me like she was attracted to darkness and – dare I say – monsters. I was curious about how Polly saw the love relationship when she was writing the book. If you like gothic romance, you will love The Taxidermist’s Lover. And if you’re curious about an author’s thought process as she creates this kind of chilling romance, read on. .

A brief analysis of Scarlett and Henry’s relationship by Polly Hall

In The Taxidermist’s Lover, Scarlett, looks back over the past year, from Christmas Day, to try and make sense of the spooky goings on and her ill-fated love affair with Henry Royston Pepper, the taxidermist. As the reader enters into Scarlett’s head, they are drawn eerily into her thoughts and hear her addressing Henry and effectively speaking directly off the page as if a one-sided conversation or monologue.

The novel is written in second person narrative to reflect the intensity and closeness of their relationship. From the first line, ‘You are a wonderful, complex f**ked up mess,’ you once said to me.’ [p.3] the reader should be aware that this is not a flowery romance. It’s edgy and slippery. ‘It was the silence within you that viciously penetrated me.’

The age difference between the two becomes apparent with their physical descriptions – ‘you with your steady hands, me with the flighty grace of a starling’ and their behaviour, ‘you clasped me about my waist and lifted me effortlessly as if I were a child.’ Even the interaction with the modern world attempts to show the age gap – ‘I suggested a website for your business, but you looked at me as if I were suggesting you sell your soul to the devil.’ p.12 Henry is not interested in the internet and has traditional approaches to his work, yet Scarlett is the one who encourages him to diversify into making hybrid creatures. She sees the market leaning towards the contemporary art of Felix, the rival taxidermist, and feels Henry could also do this, and better.

Scarlett and Henry meet on a beach looking down at a dead creature washed ashore. This is not a normal meet-cute and if you believe in love at first sight this could be construed as already ill-fated, with death in the foreground of their ensuing relationship.

The petty jealousies and rivalry play out in the flooded, atmospheric landscape which becomes a character also vying for attention and on the periphery, there are other contenders: Penny, Felix, and even Scarlett’s pseudo-incestuous relationship with twin brother, Rhett. The weather affects both Scarlett and Henry, the changing landscape isolating and freezing them down as the end of the year approaches. 

Secrets and other family relationships e.g. Rhett and Scarlett’s childhood are reflected upon and Henry shifts into a shadowy background role watching or making himself scarce by going to his workshop. Yet they are compelled back towards each other with an intense physical, almost animal attraction that is private yet exposed to conjecture by their choice to hide away on the moor. p.115 ‘There was not an inch of you I did not know, and I know you had mapped all of me too.’

And at the crux of the story the hybrid animals are there, silent witnesses to the unravelling with their cold, fake eyes staring out from the taxidermy mounts. Even in their intimate moments they are present.

‘When we made love, I’d somehow taste the essence of the creatures you’d been handling – the quick, acrid bite of a fox, the feathery scratch of an owl, the smooth perfume of someone’s beloved pet cat.’

Love is such a huge, indefinable subject but there is definitely warped obsession at play between Scarlett and Henry. All love stories have their dark, dirty secrets but THE TAXIDERMIST’S LOVER takes it to the extreme. I have been asked if Scarlett is suffering from mental health issues or were the supernatural elements ghosts of guilt? I’d like to let the reader decide here. The second person narrative lends itself to the unreliable narrator and seemed to fit the whole solipsistic viewpoint of Scarlett speaking to Henry from inside her head.

About the Author

Polly Hall is a published author and experienced adult education tutor. Her debut novel, The Taxidermist’s Lover, was #1 New Release in Amazon’s British & Irish Horror and Bram Stoker Award 2020 Finalist for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. She has been published in various anthologies and commissioned as part of interdisciplinary arts projects. She holds an MA in Creative Writing and a PGCE in Lifelong Learning. She lives next to a cider factory with her cat, Vishnu.

Twitter: @PollyHallWriter
Facebook: #PollyHallWriter
Instagram: @Polly_Hall_Writer

The Taxidermist’s Lover (published by CamCat Books) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound and all good book stores.


The Origins of the National Road

In today’s post, we go back in time, to before Albert Gallatin conceived our nation’s first publicly-funded road, to a time before we were even a nation.

In the 1750’s, the British, the French and the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy disputed the ownership of today’s American Upper Midwest. French traders and trappers pressed down on the area from Canada. The Iroquois hunted and farmed. And the British moved relentlessly westward from the Atlantic Coast, seeking land that could be settled and farmed. The three nations lived in a tense state between war and peace. The Iroquois Confederacy played off the two European powers against each other.

All three powers knew the location of the key to the Midwest. Southwestern Pennsylvania, where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers flow together to form the west-flowing Ohio. The vicinity of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was about to be soaked with blood.

Monuments to the battle for the Midwest lie all along the National Road (present-day Route 40) between Uniontown and Farmington. If you want to see the important sites in chronological order, it’s best to see them travelling southeast from Pittsburgh on Route 40. Traveling in that direction, your first stop should be Jumonville Glen. This is where a young lieutenant colonel in the British colonial militia tipped the tense three-power balance into out-and-out war. His name was George Washington.

Jumonville Glen

On April 18, 1754, a British crew building a small fort at the site of present-day Pittsburgh was driven off by a larger French force. Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie sent Washington from Virginia to Pittsburgh with a small contingent of troops to protect the site. British and French accounts differ about how the skirmish of May 28, 1854 began.

We do know for sure that Washington’s forces ambushed the French who were camped at Jumonville Glen, about forty miles southeast of Pittsburgh. In the brief skirmish, Washington’s troops killed the leader of the French forces, Sir Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville.

The future Father of our Country won that battle – sort of. Imprecise accounts indicate that as many as a dozen Frenchmen were killed and thirty taken prisoner, against only one Virginian killed and a handful wounded. But Washington was forced to withdraw, and he had not heard the last of the Villiers family.

The short, wooded walk from the parking area to Jumonville Glen is very pretty, even in the early spring when the trees are still bare. Bright-green moss lines the path, and when you reach the overlook it is very easy to see how Washington could have taken the French by surprise here.

Fort Necessity

Driving southeast on Route 40, the next monument is Braddock’s Grave (see below). But, if you want to see the sights chronologically, your next stop should be Fort Necessity.

While Washington was skirmishing with Jumonville’s troops, a larger force of the French kept busy replacing the fort that the evicted British had started. They called their new fort Fort Duquesne. From there Louis Coulon de Villiers – Sir Jumonville’s brother – led six hundred troops southeast to avenge his brother’s death.

Washington expected the French to strike back and he made preparations. But he didn’t do a great job. He ordered his troops to rapidly erect a defensive fort at a site called Great Meadows. The location of the fort was a dream come true for the attacking French. It was flat and open, surrounded by trees that provided cover for attackers.

The ground was also swampy, and, as it happened, the coming battle would be fought in a driving rain. By the time Villiers offered surrender negotiations, thirty of Washington’s men had died in the flooded trenches, and seventy more were wounded.

Because he wasn’t sure when the British might be sending reinforcements, Villiers was surprisingly generous in his terms. The remaining Virginians, including Washington, were permitted to return to Virginia. But the light was poor, and the surrender document was written in French and poorly translated to Washington. So, he was unaware that he had just signed an admission to having assassinated Sir Jumonville.

Washington’s troops abandoned the fort on July 4, 1854.

The French had won – for the moment.

Fort Necessity National Battlefield Park

The national park at Fort Necessity has vastly improved since our first visit there. When we first visited in 1984, the park consisted of a reconstruction of the fort and a few signboards. Since then, the National Park Service has constructed a large new museum building with an ample parking lot, a movie theater, a fort-themed outdoor playground for children, and a gift shop. Excellent displays describe the history of the National Road and the fort. The grounds of the park also include Mount Washington Tavern. From the museum building, it is an easy walk to the fort reconstruction and a rather more strenuous walk to the nearby tavern (see below). You can also reach the tavern directly from Route 40. The grounds are lovely, dominated by stately pines, and knit together by well-shaded paths.

Despite its location just a few hundred feet from Route 40, the site of the fort was very hushed when we visited. It felt almost haunted to me in the stillness. I felt like if I stepped off the path onto the grass, I would step back in time and face the fort as it looked on that dismal July day in 1754, smell the wet gunpowder, and hear the cries of the wounded.

During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps made some improvements to the Fort Necessity site. They built an especially handsome, sturdy bridge, which still stands.

Mount Washington Tavern

The tavern standing on the grounds of Fort Necessity National Battlefield dates to the heyday of the National Road. Built in the 1830s, it served travelers on the Good Intent stagecoach line. It was closed when we visited, but is normally open May – October from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.

The Braddock Expedition

Backtracking northwest a little on Route 40, we come to the last chronological stop on our tour of the French & Indian War section of the National Road.

The battles at Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity triggered the world’s first true world war. Western Pennsylvania was the starting point and epicenter of the nine-year conflagration known as the Seven Years War or the French & Indian War. But the war ultimately pulled in Prussia, Spain, Austria and other allies of both the French and the British.

In the summer of 1755, early in the war, the British made another attempt to capture the all-important site of present-day Pittsburgh. General Edward Braddock set out from Cumberland, Maryland, with 2100 troops. How do you move that many men, along with their cannons, provisions and other equipment, through a heavily forested Appalachian wilderness? You build a 110-mile road, of course. And the road that you build becomes part of the route of the National Road six decades later.

The Braddock expedition included such future luminaries as Daniel Boone, Horatio Gates, and the 23-year-old bumbler who started the whole mess – none other than Lt. Col. George Washington. The presence of so many soon-to-be-famous men didn’t help Braddock much, though.

On July 9. 1755, soon after they had crossed the Monongahela about ten miles south of Pittsburgh, Braddock’s force was surprised by a much smaller force of French and their Indian allies. The terrain favored the French and Indians. After several hours of combat, Braddock was shot off his horse and killed, and the British began to withdraw. Only firm action by Washington prevented the withdrawal from collapsing into panic.

British victory at the forks of the Ohio would have to wait for the Forbes expedition, three years later.

Braddock’s Grave

The British originally buried Braddock on the road they had so laboriously built. In 1804, workers repairing the road discovered the body. They reburied it on a rise above the road, where it remains today under a granite monument.

A stop at the very-visible monument also gave us the opportunity to see a couple of hidden gems nearby: the original Braddock gravesite and some preserved remains of Braddock’s original road – mere feet from today’s Route 40.

Coda

In 1771, George Washington bought the land on which Fort Necessity had stood. He saw that the grounds lay along what would eventually be a well-travelled route west, and thought it would be a good investment. He visited the property in 1784, but sold it before his death in 1799.

The British won the Seven Year’s War and gained an empire. Ironically, their empire nearly bankrupted them just a couple of decades later, and it has since faded into history like all empires.

But the road that Braddock and his men started has survived, first as the National Road and now as Route 40. A traveler named Aldara Welby, quoted on one of the museum signboards, said it best in 1819. “The National Road is a work truly worthy of a great nation, both in its idea and construction.”

Next Up: I will be on vacation in early April, so Polly Hall will be my guest blogger. Polly is the author of The Taxidermist’s Lover, the most unique and imaginative book I’ve read so far this year.

And, finally, just for fun, here’s a picture of me on our first visit to Fort Necessity, in March of 1984. I was 8 months’ pregnant!

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Years%27_War

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braddock_Expedition

Vivian, Cassandra; The National Road in Pennsylvania; Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, 2003.

Also: the Pittsburgh Public School System. When I was student in the 1960s and 1970s, every Pittsburgh school child was taught this history and it is as familiar to me as a family story. I only needed my sources for exact names and dates.


The National Road in Uniontown

I wrote a little about Uniontown’ history in my last post about the National Road. This week, I continue with some detail about Uniontown’s architecture and its historic heroes.

Uniontown’s Architectural Gems

Uniontown’s loveliest building is the Beaux-Arts State Theater Center for the Arts. Designed in 1921 by prominent theater architect Thomas Lamb, it opened on October 30, 1922 to acclaim as the “largest, finest and most beautiful playhouse in Pennsylvania.”

Originally hosting vaudeville shows and silent films, the theater also showcased nationally-popular big bands like Paul Whiteman, Glen Gray, and the Dorsey Brothers in the 1940s. Like so many grand theaters, it lost much of its audience in the declining mill town and closed in 1973. The theater was purchase in 1988 by the Greater Uniontown Heritage Consortium. Today it presents everything from classic films to local dance recitals.

Here’s a gallery of some of the other little gems that we discovered on our walk through downtown Uniontown.

But, to my surprise, what impressed me the most about Uniontown was its history of heroism, and its commendable civic habit or honoring heroes.

Uniontown hero: General George Marshall

Uniontown’s best known local hero is General George Marshall. Marshall was born on December 31, 1880 and raised in Uniontown, where he was known by the nickname “Flicker.” Marshall’s father was a well-to-do coal magnate, who sold his mining business to invest in real estate. He lost enough of his money that the family begged food from a local hotel for a while.

Although he was a notoriously poor student, young George somehow managed to be admitted to Virginia Military Institute. There, his poor academic performance continued. But he thrived under the military discipline and a moral culture dedicated to service, chivalric courtesy, self-control and integrity. The young cadets were taught to emulate great men like George Washington and Pericles.

Marshall took his moral lessons to heart. He became so tough and self-disciplined that he once was injured early in a football game and nevertheless played the entire game.

Under the discipline at VMI, Marshall became fanatical about neatness, organization and attention to detail. This stood him in good stead in his military career, as he gained a reputation as an ace at logistics, planning and administration. These organization skills made him so valuable to his superiors that in World War One he never saw the combat that he deeply desired, although he was often at the front lines observing and reporting.

Marshall had a strong commitment to the Army, but he wasn’t necessarily a traditionalist. One the eve of World War Two, Roosevelt placed him in charge of Infantry School at Fort Benning. There, Marshall shook up the old-fashioned methods of training officers to lead troops in battle. Many of the most important officers to serve in WWII were trained under Marshall’s revised methods. He trained his officers to think or their feet and taught the maxim that a mediocre decision taken in time is better than a perfect decision that comes too late.

The Marshall Plan

Marshall was FDR’s Chief of Staff during most of WWII, and served as ambassador to Chine from 1945-47. But he is best known for the war recovery plan that he developed for Europe in 1947, known to history as The Marshall Plan. Between 1948 and 1952, the United States allocated over $17 billion ($130B in today’s dollars) to the economic recovery of war-devastated Western Europe. The Plan saved thousands of Europeans from starvation, allowed the end of rationing and reduced the influence of Communist parties in Western Europe. It was a precursor to NATO, the European Economic Community, the Bretton-Woods international monetary agreement and the European Union.

The Marshall Plan offered help to the USSR and the eastern bloc countries, too, but they turned it down. Seems like a bad decision. When the Marshall Plan began, per capita Gross Domestic Product in both the east and the west was $2000. By 1990, Western Europe boasted a per capita GDP of $20,000. The comparable figure in the East was only $9000.

A fine statue of Marshall stands in a little square in downtown Uniontown, honoring a man who started as a poor student in Uniontown and ended up changing the world.

Uniontown heroes: The 1894 coal mine strikers

I wrote in my previous post that coal mining was one of Uniontown’s main industries in the 1890s. In 1889, 65,723,110 tons of bituminous coal were mined in the United States, employing 300,000 miners and other workers. Nearly half of all naval ships in the world burned for fuel bituminous coal mined in the Appalachian region.

Back in the days before the Federal Reserve and floating currencies, Panics used to periodically hit the financial sector. These Panics then reverberated across the whole economy, and the Panic of 1893 hit coal mining especially hard. Factories reduced or ceased production and fewer trains criss-crossed the country, which reduced demand for coal. The mining companies reduced wages in 1893 and again in 1894. Miners who earned 79 cents per ton of coal in early 1893 were earning between 38 and 60 cents a ton by April of 1894.

For this paltry wage, the miners worked in dangerous conditions. Mines weren’t mechanized until the early twentieth century, so in the 1890s, the men were still working with pick-axes, hand drills and dynamite. They were susceptible to frequent fatal or crippling accidents and to “miner’s asthma,” what we call today black lung disease. Boys as young as twelve, called breakers, worked sorting coal from rocks, laboring outdoors in all weather. When they turned eighteen, they could go into the mines.

Coal miners were barely making ends meet even before the wage cuts. And, in many coal-mining settlements, they were captive to company stores and company rental property.

One anonymous Pennsylvania miner, telling his story in 1902, reported that he earned $33.52 per month in 1891. His rent was $10 per month, his average monthly bill at the company store was $20, and coal for his furnace cost $4 per month. So, the average miner was constantly in debt. When his wife was sick for eleven weeks in 1896, the doctor’s bill was $20 and medicine cost $18. He didn’t say where he conjured up the money from. One imagines the passing of a hat, the 1890s version of Go Fund Me.

The 1894 Strike

So, the wage reductions left the miners truly desperate. The United Mine Workers was a new organization at the time. They had only thirteen thousand members and only $2600 in their treasury. Nevertheless, they called a strike, demanding a return to the wages that prevailed on May 1, 1893.

More than 180,000 miners in Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania went on strike on April 21, 1894. Most of them weren’t dues-paying members of the UMW; they were just desperate men.

On May 23 in Uniontown, the strike turned violent. Fifteen guards with carbines and machine guns opened fire to hold off an attack by 1500 striking miners killing five and wounding eight.

Meanwhile, the mine owners, squeezed between their workers, their freight costs, their bankers and their own desire for profit, refused to budge.

Five families buried a husband, father or son, and the miners went back to work in late June at the 1894 wage level. But more strikes followed, with another major one in 1933. Today, coal mining is still a dangerous job, but it is much safer than it was in the 1890s, and much better renumerated, thanks to a union movement that was born of desperation and courage in the 1890s.

And Other Local Heroes

Sources

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bituminous_coal_miners%27_strike_of_1894

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_coal_miners#Coal_mining_in_the_19th_century

https://ehistory.osu.edu/exhibitions/gildedage/content/MinersStory

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Plan

Brooks, David. The Road to Character. New York; Random House, 2015.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_Plan

https://fee.org/articles/comparing-the-economic-growth-of-east-germany-to-west-germany-a-history-lesson/

http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~beeson/genealogy/utown.html

https://www.nemacolin.net/places/uniontown.html


National Road part two

On January 22, I published the first of a planned series of blog posts about the National Road. I never dreamed that it would be more than a month before I would publish the next one. Hasn’t this been a winter? Cold, snow, snow, snow – and black ice, on which I

slipped and broke my wrist. It felt amazing to get back out on the road again this week.  Warm breeze, melting snow, sunshine – and the sky! After a month of looking at the same four walls, the sky looked so BIG!

Wharton Furnace

Al and I focused on the Uniontown area on this week’s drive. First, we stopped at the Wharton Iron Furnace, one of the many furnaces that operated in the area during its iron and coal heyday.  One of twenty iron furnaces in Fayette County in the mid-nineteenth century, the furnace operated from 1839 to 1873, and produced cannonballs for the Civil War in the 1860s.

The Fayette County iron industry went into decline in the later nineteenth century. Pittsburgh steelmakers built bigger, more modern furnaces, and their mills were closer to railroads and cheap river transportation. The drive to the furnace, along Wharton Furnace Road, right off Route 40 near the Summit Inn, was beautiful on a sunny day in late winter. Bare trees cast tangled purple shadows on the pure white blanket of snow, and a little black creek meanders in parallel to the road for a couple of miles.

Left: Wharton Iron Furnace. Right: Pretty stream near the Furnace in Forbes State Forest

Searights Tollhouse

Next, we visited another National Road tollhouse, the Searights Tollhouse.  Its design is very similar to the Addison Tollhouse that we saw on our last drive, but this one is built of brick instead of stone. The tollhouse was built near the tavern of William Searights, who just happened to be the state commissioner in charge of the roadway. Searights earned $730 a year for his job as commissioner. Between that and operating a tavern conveniently located to the tollhouse, he became one of the wealthiest men in Fayette County in the 1830s. Addison and Searights are the only remaining of the original six tollhouses along the Pennsylvania section of the National Road. The Searights Tollhouse now operates as a museum, open Tue-Sat 10-4 and Sun 2-6, mid-May through mid-October.

Left: The Searights Tavern, early 20th century. Right: Searights Tollhouse

Thanks to the rates still posted on the tollhouse, we know what this guy would have paid to transport his sheep: six cents for every 20 sheep.

The National Road in Uniontown

Our next stop was the Fayette County seat, Uniontown. At the Historic National Road Headquarters in Uniontown, we learned more about commerce along the National Road. Many stage companies competed for the fastest times between cities, and the ride wasn’t comfortable for any passengers. The road was rough, muddy and poorly graded in many places. In spite of the rough road, stage coaches sometimes covered as many as sixty-five miles in a day, changing horses about every fifteen miles in the mountains.  Drivers earned about $12 a month plus room and board at inns contracted to their stage line.

In those early days of our national postal service, the government often contracted with private coach operators to deliver mail over long distances. In 1836, L. W. Stockton’s National Stage Company got a four-year contract. The contract was worth $63,000 per year, a huge sum on money at that time, but only on the condition that he could carry the mail from Wheeling at a speed of four miles per hour or faster.

A Little Uniontown History

This was our first stop in Uniontown in many years, so we had a lot to explore and a lot to learn.

Founded on the historic date of July 4, 1776, Uniontown was originally named Beesontown, after its founder, Henry Beeson.  Beeson purchased the land from the Six Nations in 1768 and built the town’s first log house at the approximate site of present-day Mount Vernon Towers apartment building. Beeson built a grist mill along Redstone Creek and started selling lots.

Another early settler, Thomas Gaddis, built the area’s second log building in 1769. Gaddis served in the American Revolution and later took charge of defense for the Uniontown area. His home was also known as Fort Gaddis because it was a site for meetings and shelter in time of emergency.

Settlement increased after the end of the American Revolution, and the growing town soon boasted a cabinet maker, cobbler, blacksmith, tailor and doctor, as well as two small log churches: Baptist and Methodist.

Uniontown blossomed with the coming of the National Road, and grew further when the railroad from Connellsville and Pittsburgh came through in 1860. But the real boom started when a seam of coking coal was discovered nearby in the 1860s. By 1906, 40,0000 Fayette County men worked the coal mines.

The H.C. Frick Company alone mined over 19 million ton of coal that year, and Uniontown was the home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States.

 Like so many other Pennsylvania towns, Uniontown declined along with the decline of coal and steel. Its 2010 population was 10,372, about half of its 1940 peak.

When Al and I started our stroll through Uniontown’s historic downtown, it seemed unimpressive at first. Just another dreary old industrial town long past its glory days, lined with unused streetcar tracks and rows of sad, grimy nineteenth-century buildings. But, if you are patient, Uniontown slowly opens your eyes, not just to its architectural gems, but to its heroes.

Coming soon: Uniontown’s hidden charms and heroes

Sources

New Meadow Run School; Mountain Pike; Farmington, PA: Bruderhof Foundation, Inc., 1990.

https://littlebitsofhistory.blogspot.com/2012/11/searight-tollhouse.html

http://menallen.org/historical-sites/searight-tollhouse-museum-information-center/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Searights_Tollhouse%2C_National_Road#:~:text=Designated%20PHMC.%20n%2Fa.%20The%20Searights%20Tollhouse%20of%20the,the%20historic%20National%20Road%2C

http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~beeson/genealogy/utown.html

https://www.nemacolin.net/places/uniontown.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uniontown,_Pennsylvania

https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=1115#:~:text=This%20historical%20marker%20is%20listed%20in%20this%20topic,right%20when%20traveling%20west%20on%20East%20Main%20Street.

https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.pa1916.photos/?sp=9


The National Road – part one

Have you ever driven between Pittsburgh and Ohiopyle State Park? Then you’ve travelled one of the oldest roads in the United States and our nation’s first federally-funded highway.

Today’s US 40 was, in the early nineteenth century, The National Road, an important route for traders and settlers. Conceived by Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin and built between 1811 and 1818, the 600-mile National Road started in Cumberland, Maryland. It then crossed present-day Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana, before arriving at its terminus in East St. Louis, Illinois.

You can still drive the whole length of the road today. We may do that someday, but, for now, Al and I decided to drive just the Pennsylvania section. Today’s blog post covers the eastern section of the road between Addison and Confluence. Future posts will cover other sections of the road.

Addison

We started on a snowy January day in Addison, PA, near the Maryland border. Long before the arrival of white people, Indians hunted along the nearby Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers. Signs of Indian encampment and burial ground exist on Fort Hill, but there is no evidence that a fort ever stood there. The earliest white settlers named their little town Turkeyfoot. Later town leaders renamed it Peterburg after Peter Augustine, who laid out the town.

Six thousand Federal troops camped out on Augustine’s farm in Addison in 1794, on their way to stop the Whiskey Rebellion. Augustine himself was Whiskey rebel, so the troops apparently didn’t feel much remorse about eating his produce and trampling his fences. The Augustine family sent the government a $500 invoice for damages. It was never paid.

 The town’s name changed one more time, in 1831 when it was renamed Addison, after Judge Alexander Addison. Ironically, Judge Addison had defended the law during the 1791-4 Whiskey Rebellion. So, the renaming of the town was another, posthumous defeat for the Whiskey rebels.

The Addison Tollhouse

the tollhouse

Addison is a tiny town, with a pretty little park across the street from its main claim to fame: the Addison Tollhouse. The toll house dates to 1835, when tolls were first collected on this part of the road. It has been rebuilt and repaired to reflect its 1835 appearance.

A sign hung on the tollhouse wall shows the 1835 toll rates: twelve cents for a chariot or stage coach, four cents for a horse and rider, six cents for every fifteen hogs, and so on.

The town is also known for its National Chainsaw Festival every year in June.

Nearby Pumers Pub looked to have a good menu, and we hoped to get some lunch, but it was closed – apparently due to the pandemic – and we were freezing, so we got back into our car.

Somerfield

Our next stop on the old National Road was the Somerfield Dam and Bridge, a few miles west of Addison on Route 40. 

The drowned town of Somerfield had an interesting history. Like most of Western Pennsylvania, the area was originally inhabited by the Monongahela people. Later, the Shawnee, Seneca, Delaware and Erie camped and hunted there.

In 1753, George Washington and Christopher Gist crossed the Youghiogheny about half a mile upriver from the future site of Somerfield. Washington was on his way to warn the French to vacate southwestern Pennsylvania. The ignored warning led to the French & Indian War, and in 1755 General Braddock also forded nearby on his march to Fort Duquesne.

White settlers started to arrive after the Fort Stanwix treaty of 1768. One of the first settlers in what became Somerfield was Jacob Spears. Spears bought a piece of riverfront land on the east side of the Youghiogheny in 1789 and named his homestead Nobbley Nowl (or Knobby Knoll).

The National Road Comes to Somerfield

The construction of the National Road brought the first bridge to Somerfield. Great Crossings Bridge, a three-arch stone bridge, commemorated Washington’s and Braddock’s crossings. The bridge was dedicated on July 4, 1818, with President James Monroe in attendance.

Also present at the dedication of the bridge was Philip Smyth, who had bought out Jacob Spears and renamed the town Smythfield. The name of this town also changed later. In 1830, the town applied for a post office and discovered that there was already a Smithfield post office elsewhere in Pennsylvania. They renamed the town Somerfield in honor of a local reverend.

Relay station houses still dot the National Road, in various states of repair

The National Road brought prosperity to the little river town. Drivers needed to change horses every 10-12 miles when travelling over the mountains, and we saw the remains of many relay stations along Route 40. Somerfield was home to one of these: a stone tavern with an inn and stables,

built by the bridge contractor, Kinkead. A Virginia tavern keeper named Thomas Endsley bought the tavern from Kinkead in 1823, and apparently ran it with the help of eight enslaved people he brought with him from Virginia.  

The National Pike declined with the coming of railroads, and Somerfield declined along with it. By the 1880s, only 80 people lived in the town.

The Drowning of Somerfield

Mabel McKinley

But, as the railroads take, so they also give. By the early 20th century, a rail line came through and Somerfield began to grown again. The town transformed itself into a resort area for sportsmen: fishermen, hunters, boaters. President William McKinley spent six weeks in Somerfield each summer. He had relatives in the area, including a niece, Mabel Mckinley, who later became a renowned singer and composer.

Somerfield’s next change of fortune was less lucky. In the 1930s, local governments and the Army Corps of Engineers became concerned about flood control along the Youghiogheny. The Corps determined that the river should be dammed. Somerfield would be drowned by the river that had first given the town its life.

Somerfield in the 1930s

The dam and bridge project started in 1939, halted temporarily during World War II, and finished in 1946. By then, Somerfield had been torn down and all 142 (some sources say as many as 176) residents relocated.

A new bridge spans the lake today, and new marinas, camp grounds and inns house our century’s sportmen and their boats.

But in dry years, when the Youghiogheny Lake is especially low, the foundations of Somerfield’s houses and the remains of the old three-arch stone bridge re-emerge like ghosts.

The remains of the three-arch stone Great Crossings Bridge, uncovered during a drought

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