Connellsville walkers get dose of railroad talk, tracing trains' track
It may have been warm and muggy with rain showers, but that did little to deter the crowds who walked through Connellsville to learn about the history of the railroads that helped the city grow.
The walk was scheduled on Aug. 20 as one of the Fayette County Wednesday Walks, as set by the Fayette County Healthy Lifestyles Task Force.
Bill Sechler and Cathy Kumor began the tour, which included approximately 125 participants, near Crawford's Cabin in Yough River Park. The group went to the former P&LE station at the corner of North Seventh Street and West Crawford Avenue.
There, Sechler and Joe Klocek, assistant vice president and branch manager of Somerset Trust, which owns the station, gave talks about the history of the structure and what is happening to it. Somerset Trust is preparing to restore the station.
According to Sechler, the Pittsburgh, McKeesport and Youghiogheny, in a bid for rail traffic from the coal and coke industries, reached Connellsville. As part of the effort, a combination freight and passenger station was built of wood at the point where Route 119, Route 711 and Route 201 meet, about two blocks west of the P&LE station building.
Later, the Pittsburgh, McKeesport and Youghiogheny wanted to expand its service. Then taken over by its parent company, the P&LE, the brick station was built in 1911.
Sechler said the borough of New Haven, now the West Side of Connellsville, was built up, so the railroad was constructed on heavy piers that elevated the track level three stories above the town. There is a door on the tower in the back of the station that was built to be at track level.
The rails crossed West Crawford Avenue and, within a few years, were met by the Western Maryland Railroad, which had extended its tracks from Cumberland, Md., he said. The lines met above the sidewalk on the south side of West Crawford Avenue. Both railroads used the new station, which was known as the Union station.
Passenger service continued until 1939. From that point, the railroad used the tower as an interlocking tower (switch tower) until the P&LE went out of existence and the Western Maryland was absorbed into the CSX.
The piers that supported the tracks are still visible on the West Side.
The station went through different owners; became an auto parts dealer, an auto dealership and then an outlet glass store.
The glass business then built the smaller brick structure behind the station, which will become the Somerset Trust office, according to Klocek.
Klocek said the first thought was to convert the station into a bank. But the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, so adding a drive-thru banking facility and other amenities is not possible. The conversion of the smaller building has no restrictions. Work should be completed by October, he added.
Plans call for opening the station to the public again for the holiday season.
Work will begin in 2015 for the restoration of the station building, which will include some offices for the bank and a community room.
Next stop, Veterans Plaza
Following the stop at the P&LE station, the tour headed for Veterans Plaza near city hall.
There, Sechler spoke about the role the Baltimore & Ohio, later the Chessie System and then CSX played in railroad developments in Connellsville.
He said the B&O was the first common carrier of passengers in the United States. A subsidiary railroad, the Pittsburgh & Connellsville, first a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad, built its system around Pittsburgh, then began to build from Turtle Creek to Connellsville, with the objective of reaching Cumberland, Md.
The railroad was completed to Connellsville by 1871 with a branch from Connellsville to the Pennsylvania Railroad near Greensburg built to move products to the Philadelphia area. The B&O took over the line and extended it over the mountains to Cumberland, building tunnels through the mountains in the process.
Then the Chesapeake & Ohio took over the B&O and the Western Maryland and merged them into the Chessie System. The Chessie then evolved into the CSX.
Today, the yard in Connellsville is still in use. But Sechler said the main use is to hold empty auto racks before building trains to return them to automobile plants to the west to be reloaded.
Before the tour could continue to the Amtrak station on Water Street, the rains arrived. The crowds were then directed to the Connellsville Canteen, where Sechler provided a tour and information on the HO gauge model railroad, built by Harry Clark, a carpenter.
Sechler said the display had been headquartered at Nemacolin Woodlands in Farmington. But the construction of a casino there meant the model railroad had to move.
Clark's work was known by area businessman Tuffy Shallenberger, who arranged to have the display crated and moved to the Crawford Avenue site, where it was lifted into place by crane and the Connellsville Canteen building was then built around it.
Michael Edwards, president of the Connellsville Trust, spoke about the approximately 800 women who, during World War II, met the trains of soldiers that stopped in Connellsville while the equipment was serviced.
The women provided food and drink 24 hours a day at the B&O station and made arrangements for entertainment by the local Molinaro band. The women even provided a taxi service for local servicemen from Connellsville so they could spend a short time at home before returning to the trains.
The Connellsville Canteen is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. The drain display is only open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. Edwards said plans call for more extended hours in the future.
Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.