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Olyer: Exhaustive reviews of a time period can miss vital information

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

We are frequently asked for the source of the early Bridgeville historical information that is presented in the “Bridgeville Remembered” series. Our answer generally is that we rely on the three commemorative books entitled “Bridging the Years.”

The first one was published in 1951; Volume II, in 1976; and Volume III, in 2001. I have copies of II and III, and rely upon the history center whenever I need to refer to the 1951 version.

Recently, I was able to purchase my own copy of the original “Bridging the Years” on the Internet. Perusing it, I have been surprised about how much information it contains that is new to me. I am particularly embarrassed to learn there was an operating water-powered saw mill in Bridgeville in the early 1800s, something my review of the history of that time period has ignored.

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, Johnson had been appointed deputy collector of internal revenue for Western Pennsylvania by Gen. John Neville. He is reported to be one of the collectors who was captured by the Whiskey Rebels and literally “tarred and feathered.” This incident is documented in numerous places in the historical literature of the period.

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 Johnson, on March 18, 1803, purchased a strip of land four rods wide (66 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 20 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 Dec. 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 list is a valuable record of residents of this area in the early 1800s.

My belated discovery of this information adds another clue to our solution of the mystery of what life was like in this region two centuries ago. It also adds several additional unanswered questions.

Reminder — the next talk in the “Bridgeville Remembered” series will be presented at 7 p.m. today in the Community Room of the Bridgeville Public Library. The topic will be “The Civil War Years — 1859 to 1875.” The public is cordially invited.

John Oyler, a columnist for Trib Total Media, can be reached at 412-343-1652 or

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