Bridgeville Remembered

The Johnson Saw Mill

By John F. Oyler

The first volume of the “Bridging the Years” series, published in 1951 contains information on the first operating saw mill in Bridgeville. According to an article on page 46, entitled “Bridgeville’s First Factory”, a man named Robert Johnson purchased a long, narrow strip of land in 1803 and constructed a working saw mill. Prior to the Whiskey Rebellion Mr. Johnson had been appointed Deputy Collector of Internal Revenue for Western Pennsylvania by General John Neville. He is reported to be one of the collectors who was captured by the Whiskey Rebels and actually “tarred and feathered”. This incident is documented in numerous places in the historical literature of the period.

For example -- “In the fall of 1791 (September 6), Robert Johnson, a tax collector, was assaulted by a group of 16 men dressed as women. He was beaten, stripped, shaved, tarred and feathered, and then forced to denounce the United States Government and rip up his records. Johnson was lucky to live through the ordeal.”

Mr. Johnson is reported to have lived on a farm in (South) Fayette Township, a property that was divided up among his four children when he died. There is no record of anyone named “Johnson” in South Fayette in the “Warrantee Atlas for Allegheny county, although a man named John Johnston did acquire a warrant for a site called “Euphrasy”, in 1785. Also, in 1810 John Campbell patented 374 acres “At the Mouth of Miller’s Run” to Robert Johnston.

At any rate we are told that Mr. Johnson, on March 18, 1803, purchased a strip of land four rods wide (sixty six feet) from Robert Ramsey, the son of Thomas Ramsey. The strip led from a place “near the fording where the road from Pittsburgh to Canonsburg crosses Chartiers Creek” to a point on Chartiers Creek “near the mouth of McLaughlin’s Run”.

Assuming this information is correct, it appears that the first bridge across the creek at the south end of Bridgeville hadn’t been built by 1803, and that the farmers’ dispute was with Robert Ramsey, not his father as we have believed.

The article we are quoting also reports that “when excavations were made for the present Rankin Theater, the excavators encountered the remains of this old mill race”. Indeed a straight line from the old ford of the creek to the mouth of McLaughlin Run would pass through the site previously occupied by the Rankin Theater.

Ramsey’s warrant ended somewhere between Station Street and Bower Hill Road. It is reasonable to assume the mill was located close to what is now Triangle Park, with the water discharged from it finding its way into McLaughlin Run. To deliver water to the mill from Chartiers Creek would have required digging a canal perhaps twenty feet deep at its south end, probably following the current location of Washington Avenue. It is strange we have no other record of such a project.

According to the article Mr. Johnson also had an agreement with Daniel Herbert, the owner of “land northwest of this artificial water course” in which Johnson “promised not to take so much water out of its natural course as to cause stagnation and pollution of said water in the bed of the Creek rendering it unhealthy and unfit for cattle.” Here too we are surprised – we have no knowledge of anyone named Herbert in this area at that time.

The unidentified author of this article reports that entries in the mill’s account book run from June 1, 1803 to December 5, 1809. Many familiar names are included in the list of customers – Presley Neville, John Fife, William Herriott, Moses Middleswarth, Moses Coulter, George Vallandingham, and Francis Lesnett. The complete list is a valuable record of residents of this area in the early 1800s.

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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