Bridgeville Remembered

Boom Town – 1875 to 1890

By John F. Oyler

Perhaps the most significant event occurring in these years was the construction and opening of the Norwood Hotel. Joseph Wright was born on a farm in South Fayette in 1838 and spent his youth working there. In 1861 he volunteered to become a member of Captain Boyce’s Company K, of the First Pennsylvania Cavalry, and went off to war.

Having safely survived his military career, Mr. Wright entered the hotel business following the War, as proprietor of the Mansion House in Washington County. His next job was at the Woodville House. In 1876 he purchased twenty eight acres of land in Bridgeville and built an elegant resort hotel, originally called the Norwood Springs Hotel. After operating it for a few years he lost control of its ownership and went to Greensburg as proprietor of the Zimmerman House.

The rest of his career included a stint back at the Norwood, followed by assignments at the Clifton Hotel in Uniontown; the Taylor House in Winchester, Virginia; and the Bowling Brook Hotel in Petersburg, Virginia. He eventually sold the Norwood to George Ritter, and retired to a handsome home on the corner of Bank Street and Gregg Avenue. His wife, Mary Ann Graham, was originally from Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Their daughter, Maria, was a classical dancer, who presented dance recitals at the hotel. She married a man named Robert Russell and moved to Troy, Ohio, where he ran a hotel.

The Norwood Hotel was an impressive institution for its time. Of Victorian architecture, it included about forty eight rooms for occupants, a dining room, a bar, and a ball room. Each room had a fireplace, and the entire hotel was provided with running water. A two inch pipeline led from Brandy Spring, high on the hill above Chartiers Creek at the end of Elizabeth Street, to the hotel. The spring was touted as a mineral spring, with the associated therapeutic properties claimed for its water.

The Norwood’s grounds were extensive. There was a covered outdoor bowling alley, well groomed lawns, an outdoor pavilion, benches and lawn swings, and a large stable where visitors could rent horses and buggies to tour the surrounding countryside. The walking trail from the hotel to Brandy Spring was quite popular, as were the concerts by the Bridgeville Band.

To appreciate the feel of hotels in the late 1800s one must visit the Conneaut Lake Park Hotel or perhaps the Riverside Inn in Cambridge Springs. The Norwood had a perfect location, far enough from the city to be “in the country”, yet close enough to permit commuting into the city by train practical. It was a popular site for summer vacations for Pittsburghers.

Even more significant to the development of Bridgeville was the advent of commercial coal mining. The Pittsburgh Coal Seam was perhaps the most valuable mineral resource in North America in the late 1800s. Ranging from forty inches to six feet thick it was located at an elevation that produced outcroppings on all the hillsides in this area. The most visible one today is along Painter’s Run Road.

Individuals finding these outcrops on their property mined them for personal use. Eventually they sold the mineral rights to entrepreneurs like A. J. Schulte. Born in Prussia in 1837, Mr. Schulte’s family emigrated to the United States when he was ten years old. A shipwreck off Galveston, Texas, resulted in the death of his father and the loss of all the family’s personal belongings.

The rest of the family somehow got to Pittsburgh, where Mr. Schulte went to work in a coal mine at the age of eleven, to support them. By 1869 he was superintendent of the Fort Pitt Coal Company, with ambitions to go into business for himself. In 1877 he opened the Bower Hill Mine at Woodville; two years later he came to Bridgeville to open a new mine there.

One of his first employees was a young man named Casper P. Mayer. Mayer was born in West Mifflin in 1857. He left school at the age of twelve to go to work in the mines. He arrived in Bridgeville “with a surveyor’s transit on his shoulder and his pockets empty”. A year later he was superintendent of the Schulte Mine, as well as being Mr. Schulte’s son-in-law as a result of marrying Philomena Schulte. Five years later the Schulte and Mayer Company opened a general store in Bridgeville, on Station Street, “catty corner” from the railroad station.

In addition to the two Schulte mines, a number of other diggings were opened in this time period. Katie Mine had its portal on the south end of Gould City Hill. The Melrose Mine was in South Fayette, just south of Bridgeville. The Slope Mine was at Hastings, along Chartiers Creek just north of Mayview. The Mayview Mine was located along the Creek at the south end of the property owned by the institution in later years.

Four mines were located along Painter’s Run. The portal for the Panhandle Mine was close to the point where the Run enters Chartiers Creek. The Essen Mine and the community named for it were farther up the Run, as was the Witch Hazle Mine. The opening for the Beadling Brothers Mine was located close to the intersection of Robb Hollow Road and Painter’s Run Road. The building housing its machine shop has survived as the headquarters of the Beadling Soccer Club.

The lure of good jobs in a growing industry brought numerous families from Europe to the Bridgeville area in the 1880s. Florian Kopach came from Slovenia; Casper Klein, from Germany; Macedonia Maioli, from Italy; Thomas Sullivan, from Ireland; Joseph Pompei, from Italy; Thomas Allender, from England; Joseph Hofrichter, from Germany; and John Oelschlager, from Germany. The influx of “foreigners” was the beginning of the “Melting Pot” process in Bridgeville, which culminated in the successful integration of many ethnic groups without incident.

As Bridgeville grew, the opportunity to provide services for the new residents grew as well, attracting many other families. The Poellots’ wagon making business prospered, and in 1888 they opened a new hardware store on the west side of the Pike. Originally operated as H. Poellot and Sons, the sons – William and Washington Poellot – soon established a reputation for quality service that has been continued by the Sarasnick family.

The James Gailey Murray family came to Bridgeville in 1867 and established a store at the corner of Bower Hill Road and Washington Avenue. Mr. Murray grew up on a farm before entering the mercantile trade in Allegheny City, on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. He then opened a successful general store in Clifton before relocating to Bridgeville to participate in the business boom here. He also managed a saw mill and a grist mill. Mr. Murray was a successful politician as well, serving as Allegheny County Commissioner and Treasurer for several terms.

The Murrays purchased 423 Washington Avenue, currently the oldest surviving house in the community, and then the Middleswarth mansion, in the 1870s. By 1890 their son Albert B. Murray and his family were in the Middleswarth house. He followed his father’s footsteps in the mercantile business. Another son, George Piersol Murray, became a successful attorney; he built a mansion at the corner of Hickman Street and Washington Avenue. It ultimately became the Gumbert Funeral Home. It was demolished to permit construction of the Post Office in 1939.

Close to the Albert Murray home was the mansion of William Webster “Webb” Murray. He was a cousin of the Bridgeville Murrays, son of Henry Harrison Murray. The elder Murray was another successful politician, also serving as Allegheny County Commissioner. The Webb Murray home ended its life as the Lavelle Funeral Home. It is unfortunate that these lovely old houses did not survive “progress”.

In the late 1870s Henry Poellot sold a lot on Hickman Street to Upper St. Clair Township, on which was constructed a two story frame building that served Bridgeville as its school. The two teachers there were Sadie Rogers and Harry Couch. A photograph of the student body in front of the school includes about forty students.

In 1875 the Bethany Presbyterian Church, located on the Presto-Sygan Road, was operating a successful mission in the “Lord’s Barn”, at the south end of Washington Avenue. Reverend John F. Hill replaced Reverend Cyrus Braddock as pastor. A year later the Lord’s Barn congregation was established as an independent entity, the Bridgeville Presbyterian Church. Its session included Samuel Collins, William Andrews, Henry Poellot, John Dunlap, Lysander Foster, and John Lesnett. They promptly built a manse adjacent to the Lord’s Barn.

In 1888 the Bridgeville congregation merged with Bethany; the mission had outgrown its parent. The next year they constructed a large new brick building to serve as sanctuary and to house the Sunday School. James Campbell was the architect; Joseph Ross, the builder. The new facility cost $15,085.

Not to be outdone, the Methodist Church elected to also serve the Bridgeville area. In 1878 Reverend R. C. Wolf was assigned to it and soon organized the Bethany Methodist Episcopal Church. Its initial elders were Jesse McMillen, E. Rell, Reuben Pugh, and Frank Lyda. The congregation met initially in Fryer’s School, then at the Valley School on Miller’s Run Road. By 1886 they were able to purchase land at the intersection of Hickory Grade Road and Miller’s Run Road and build a church there. Its first service was on New Year’s Day, 1887. The building eventually became the home of St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church when the Methodists moved into Bridgeville.

Dr. William Gilmore purchased Judge Baldwin’s home, “Recreation”, from the Foster family in 1879. When he died, his daughter Capitola inherited the home. She married Ulysses. L. Donaldson, the son of Dr. David Donaldson in 1884. He had a successful career as a locomotive engineer before going into the real estate and insurance business. Their daughter Jessie married Harry Poellot; their children were David, Capitola, and Marjorie.

Destruction of the Shaffer fulling mill by fire in the 1870s, development of commercial properties at the corner of Washington Avenue and Station Street (the Baird Block), and construction of rental properties by Mary Jane Lesnett helped transform the sleepy Washington Pike into a busy Washington Avenue during these years.

The Author

  • John Oyler's column,
    "Water Under The Bridge",
    appears weekly in the
    Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication.
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