Irwin celebrates sesquicentenial with series of ceremonies and events
As bloody battles between Union and Confederate troops raged for a third year through much of the South, a handful of the 500 people who had settled around the Pennsylvania Rail Road stop near Brush Creek felt a growing desire to formalize the place they called home.
Armed with a petition containing the signatures of 60 prominent residents, a Westmoreland County judge in 1864 approved the incorporation of a borough named for John Irwin, a British army colonel who had served at Fort Pitt before buying a large tract of land south of Brush Creek in 1799.
One hundred fifty years later, the people of Irwin are celebrating their town's sesquicentennial with a series of ceremonies and events.
Carl Huszar, president of the Norwin Historical Society, said the town's location at roughly the midpoint between Pittsburgh and Greensburg by horseback or wagon travelers was one of the foundations for the borough's early development and later growth.
“Going back to French and Indian War times, the early traders and settlers used many of the Indian trails that were in existence,” Huszar said. “And when the railroad came into the area about a decade before Irwin was incorporated, it was built along the relatively flat land near Brush Creek.”
Settlement of the western frontier was possible because of a treaty signed between the Iroquois and the English in 1768 – the year before Col. John Irwin bought the land that would become the town bearing his name.
While Irwin's location along the rail line and the road that would later become t he Lincoln Highway led to the development of a business district to serve travelers, the discovery of major coal and natural gas deposits was perhaps the most significant factor that contributed to the borough's growth, Huszar said.
“There were already a number of hotels, taverns, dry goods stores and other shops in Irwin to serve travelers,” Huszar said. “But after the coal mines began to open in North Huntingdon and Irwin, there was a great need for people to work the mines. That's when a lot of the immigrants from Europe began populating the area.”
Within four years of Irwin's founding, the population had doubled and there were three hotels, three churches and a one-room schoolhouse. By 1892, the population swelled to 4,000 and there were eight churches and eight hotels, according to early historical accounts of the borough. The borough's current population is about 4,000.
The thriving coal industry resulted in even more merchants opening shops and businesses in Irwin to serve the growing number residents.
“Irwin certainly had its share of industrial-type businesses, including tin mills, a foundry, a flour mill and the Crescent brewery,” Huszar said. “But unlike some other towns — such as Jeannette and McKeesport — it didn't directly rely on mining or manufacturing for its survival.
“Irwin was always a mercantile center and bedroom community that supplied the workers and goods for the surrounding industries. And to some degree, it did not suffer as much as other towns when industry began to disappear,” he said.
Irwin Mayor Dan Rose, who was born in 1921, says the town he remembers from his early childhood probably hadn't changed all that much from the time it was founded.
“There were still wooden sidewalks and dirt streets in Irwin when I was a little kid,” said Rose, 93, who grew up in North Huntingdon but “went into Irwin with my family every weekend to shop, take care of business or for entertainment.”
In addition to taverns, Irwin “had a lot of pool halls,” Rose said, and the drug store soda fountains — including the one where he worked as a soda jerk — were popular meeting places.
“Irwin had pretty much everything anybody needed,” he said. “People hardly ever went into Pittsburgh unless they had a particular reason. If they needed something that wasn't available in Irwin, they usually would go to McKeesport or Jeannette to get it.”
Rose also recalls seeing workers replacing the gas pipes and “mantles” used for lighting with electric lights and the transition from silent motion pictures with a live band providing accompaniment to “talkies.”
While many residents worked in the mines or other industries, they still clung to their agricultural heritage, Rose said.
“Once you got a few blocks out of downtown Irwin, you were basically out in the country,” he said. “People grew their own produce and had chicken coops and kept other livestock on their properties. And there was still a blacksmith shop still operating in town.”
Though the construction of major highways often result in the demise of small towns because travellers can easily bypass them, Irwin benefitted from the opening of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1940, Huszar said.
“One of the first exchanges built along the new road was in Irwin,” he said. “So it continued to benefit from travelers.”
Brian Butko, director of publications for the Heinz History Center and author of several books about the Lincoln Highway said the development of a paved, coast-to-coast roadway in 1913 benefitted Irwin “in a unique way.”
“At the time the Lincoln Highway was being established, every town wanted to be on it because people realized that being a mile or two off the highway meant all the traffic passed you by and nobody would be coming in to town to stop for lunch or to shop,” he said.
Butko said it took several decades for towns to realize that having the Lincoln Highway “running down main street” created traffic jams they were not equipped to handle.
But Irwin didn't suffer from that problem because it's main street runs perpendicular to the highway,” Butko said. “So it got the travelers who needed a place to stop, but little of the traffic headaches.”
The Lincoln Highway's designation as Route 30 came in 1926 with the creation of the federal highway system. Work to widen the road started in 1938 in anticipation of a turnpike system with an interchange at Irwin.
“Planners realized that you couldn't just dump all this traffic from the Turnpike onto a two-lane road,” Butko said. “So it was expanded to four lanes,” he said.
While outside forces have played a large role in shaping Irwin through the decades, Rose points to the “sense of pride” residents and community leaders posses.
“For as long as I can remember, there has been a people willing to step up and do whatever they felt was needed to keep the town going strong,” Rose said. “There's been a lot of talk about remembering the past as we organized things for this 150th anniversary. But even though I'm probably one of the oldest people in this town, I think this has really been about the future. Wouldn't it be great to have some people, especially the young ones, who come here for the anniversary and leave thinking that this might be a great to live?”
Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2360, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.