Ghost towns dot western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh’s landscape and history

When Ron Ross was 8, he used to climb a hill overlooking the family farm in Westmoreland County and watch the houses being moved from the small village of Cokeville.

“It was like watching a baseball game,” said Ross, 78, of Blairsville, who lived on a 13-room, three-story farmhouse.

The procession was part of an early 1950s exodus where residents were forced out of the township village of Derry to make way for Conemaugh Dam.

In total, more than 100 families were forced to relocate – some leaving everything behind while others moved on – so they were no longer inside the flood retention area.

“Everyone knew everyone and they loved this little town,” Ross said. “They were blown away by the fact that they had to move. … It was a very emotional time for them.

Throughout the region, improved transportation and the depletion of coal mines have left communities without the resources that sustain them.

“There are more of these core stories than we realize,” said Leslie Przybylek, senior curator at the Heinz History Center. “To me, what makes it really interesting about Pittsburgh is that they are reminiscent of the kind of geographical and geological connection that Pittsburgh has to the larger kind of Appalachian social cultural context that we don’t always think of in the same way. .degree than places further south and west.

changing landscape

According to Przybylek, the phenomenon is common throughout the region after settlers in the early 1800s established communities of three or four houses.

“A post office will be born, a store will be born, and it’s a city,” Przybylek said. “Based on our estimates today, some of them were incredibly small places. But in a time when communities needed to be more self-sufficient and transportation wasn’t as easy, it made sense.

Immigrants attracted by work

Coal towns were created after the coal industry took off around the 1840s.

According to Abby Tancin, a contractor at Penn State Fayette’s Coke and Coal Heritage Center, coal quickly became the area’s main industry, bringing waves of immigrants to the area to work. As the industry grew, so did the small, isolated towns that the workers called home.

“Because of this mass of immigrants coming in and the increase in population, these coalfields, or coal towns, have started to grow because it’s easier for businesses to create living spaces for the communities. That way, all the workers are in one place,” Tancin said.


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The landscape began to change in the 1940s and 1950s with the growth of the steel industry. Transportation has also become easier, meaning workers don’t have to live near mines.

As the landscape changed, the coal towns were often abandoned. Others have been sold to municipalities or individual owners.

In Westmoreland County, several were located in what is now Murrysville and Export, said Mike Mance, a history buff who grew up in Delmont. Mance, who blogs about his travels in western Pennsylvania’s hidden industrial past at coalandcoke.blogspot.com, pointed to places like New England in Murrysville.

New England was a company town for Skelly Coal Co.’s No. 2 Elizabeth mine, Mance said.

The mine opened in 1900. It grew from 19 workers to over 100 at its peak. In 1932, however, it had 11 employees.

“After 1932, the Elizabeth Mine will never again be seen in mining reports,” Mance wrote in a research paper. “The area was heavily stripped over the following years, further disrupting the landscape, making it difficult to locate Skelly’s original transport routes. The large slate dump still exists behind the Friends Thrift Store in Export.

Other places are still part of the landscape.

White Valley, Ringertown and Dunningtown — built around 1911 to house workers from New York’s Delmont mines and Cleveland Gas Coal Co. — are now residential communities in the eastern part of Murrysville, Mance said.

Similar communities are located in West Deer, including Russellton, Curtisville, Bairdford and Superior, said Jim Thomas, chairman of the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society board. He also pointed out Kinloch in Lower Burrell. All five are still residential communities.

Yellow Dog Village, however, located near Kittanning, is largely abandoned.

According to a 2015 Tribune-Review article, the city was built in the early 20th century by the Pittsburgh Limestone Mining Co., which owned and operated the mine along Buffalo Creek. The company built the village for the workers on the condition that they promise never to unionize.

The Great Depression, however, caused the company to go bankrupt, leading to the demise of the village, which was bought and sold many times over the years.

“Once the coal starts coming out or the industry starts to slow down, the coal companies start selling the houses, whether it’s to the city or just to individual homeowners,” Tancin said. “There is no longer a need for this community idea.”

Megan Tomasic is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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