Brownsville, Pennsylvania

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Brownsville, Pennsylvania
View of Brownsville from across the Monongahela River.
View of Brownsville from across the Monongahela River.
Etymology: Thomas Brown
Location of Brownsville in Fayette County
Location of Brownsville in Fayette County
Brownsville, Pennsylvania is located in Pennsylvania
Brownsville, Pennsylvania
Brownsville, Pennsylvania
Location of Brownsville in Pennsylvania
Coordinates: 40°1′12″N 79°53′22″W / 40.02000°N 79.88944°W / 40.02000; -79.88944Coordinates: 40°1′12″N 79°53′22″W / 40.02000°N 79.88944°W / 40.02000; -79.88944
Country United States
State Pennsylvania
County Fayette
Established 1785
 • Mayor Lester Ward
 • Total 1.1 sq mi (3 km2)
 • Land 1.0 sq mi (3 km2)
 • Water 0.1 sq mi (0.3 km2)
Population (2010)
 • Total 2,331
 • Density 2,100/sq mi (820/km2)
Time zone EST (UTC-4)
 • Summer (DST) EDT (UTC-5)
Area code(s) 724

Brownsville is a borough in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, United States, founded in 1785 a few years after the resumption of westward migration at the site of a trading post near Redstone Old Fort along Nemacolin's Trail. Brownsville is located 35 miles (56 km) southeast of Pittsburgh along the east bank of the Monongahela River, and until the 1850s steel boom—because it sat atop the first water routes west—totally eclipsed Pittsburgh in importance, size and population.

From its founding, well into the 19th century, as the first reachable population center west of the Alleghenies barrier range on the Mississippi watershed, the borough became quickly grew into an industrial center, market town, transportation hub, outfitting center, and river boat-building powerhouse. It was a gateway destination for emigrants heading west to the Ohio Country when a trading post, and the new USA's Northwest Territory and their 'legal successors' for travelers heading westwards on the various Emigrant Trails both to the Near West and later far west from its founding until well into the 1850s. As outfitting center, the borough provided the markets for the small scale industries in the surrounding counties—and also, quite a few in Maryland shipping goods over the pass by mule-train via the Cumberland Narrows toll-route.

Brownsville from a became a major center for building steamboats through the 19th century, producing 3,000 boats by 1888.

The borough developed in the late 19th century as a railroad yard and coking center, with other industries related to the rise of steel in the Pittsburgh area. It reached a peak of population of more than 8,000 in 1940. Postwar development occurred in suburbs, as was typical of the time. The restructuring of the railroad and steel industries caused a severe loss of jobs and population in Brownsville, beginning in the 1970s. The borough has a population of 2331 as of 2010.


View of Market Street historic district.

Because colonial settlers believed that earthwork mounds were a prehistoric fortification, they called the settlement Redstone Old Fort; later in the 1760s–70s, it eventually became known as Redstone Fort or by the mid-1760s, Fort Burd— named eponymously after the officer who commanded the British fort constructed in 1759.[1] The fort was constructed during the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War) on the bluff above the river near a prehistoric earthwork mound that was also the site of historic Native American burial grounds.[2]

In 1774, a force from the Colony of Virginia garrisoned and occupied the stockade during Lord Dunmore's War against the Mingo and Shawnee peoples. It commanded the important strategic river ford of Nemacolin's Trail, the western path to the summit; this was later improved and called Burd's Road. It was an alternative route down to the Monongahela River valley from Braddock's Road, which George Washington helped to build. Washington came to own vast portions of the lands on the west bank of the Monongahela; the Pennsylvania legislature named Washington County, the largest of the state, after him.

Entrepreneur Thomas Brown acquired the western lands in what became Fayette County, Pennsylvania around the end of the American Revolution.[3] He realized the opening of the pass through the Cumberland Narrows[4] and war's end made the land at the western tip of Fayette County a natural springboard for settlers' traveling to points west, such as Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. Many travelers used the Ohio River and its tributary, the Monongahela. Eventually the settlement became known as Brownsville after him. In the 1780s, Jacob Bowman bought the land on which he built Nemacolin Castle; he had a trading post and provided services and supplies to emigrant settlers.

Redstone Old Fort is mentioned in C. M. Ewing's The Causes of that so called Whiskey Insurrection of 1794 (1930) as the site of a July 27, 1791, meeting in "Opposition to the Whiskey Excise Tax," during the Whiskey Rebellion. It was the first illegal meeting of that frontier insurrection.[5]

Brownsville was positioned at the western end of the primitive road network (Braddock's Road to Burd's Road via the Cumberland pass) that eventually became known as the National Pike, U.S. Route 40. As an embarkation point for travelers to the west, Redstone/Brownsville became a center in the 19th century for the construction of keel-boats. Its boats were used even by those intending to later take the Santa Fe Trail or Oregon Trail, as floating on a poleboat by river to St. Louis or other ports on the Mississippi River was generally safer, easier and faster than overland travel of the time.

A large flatboat building industry developed at Brownsville. This was followed by its rapid entry into the building of steamboats: local craftsmen built the Enterprise in 1814, the first steamboat powerful enough to travel down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and back.[6] Earlier boats did not have enough power to go upstream against the river's current. Brownsville developed as an early center of the steamboat-building industry in the 19th century. The Monongahela converges with the Ohio River at Pittsburgh and allowed for quick traveling to the western frontier.[7] From 1811 to 1888, boatyards produced more than 3,000 steamboats.[6] Steamboats were not thoroughly supplanted by diesel until the late 20th century.

Plaque commemorating the first cast iron bridge built in the United States

The first all cast iron arch bridge constructed in the United States was built in Brownsville to carry the National Pike (at the time a wagon road) across Dunlap's Creek. See Dunlap's Creek Bridge. The bridge is still in use in 2016.

After the 1853 completion of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad to the Ohio, outfitting emigrant wagon trains in Brownsville declined in importance. The rise of the steel industry in the Pittsburgh area led Brownsville to develop as a railroad yard and coking center. It gradually lost its diverse mix of businesses but generally prospered during the early 20th century. Brownsville tightened its belt during the Great Depression, but the economy grew with increased demand for steel during World War II.

In 1940, 8,015 people lived in Brownsville. Its postwar growth led to the development of cross-county-line suburbs such as Malden, Low Hill, and Denbo Heights, which were mainly bedroom communities within commuting distance. With the restructuring of the steel industry and loss of industrial jobs, by the mid-1970s Brownsville suffered a severe decline, along with much of the Rust Belt. By 2000, the population was 2,804, as younger people had moved away to areas with more jobs. In 2011, Brownsville has a handful of buildings that are condemned or boarded up. Abandoned buildings include the Union Station of the railroad, several banks, and other businesses. The sidewalks around the town are still intact and usable.

Brownsville attracted major entertainers in the early postwar years, who also were performing in nearby Pittsburgh. According to Mike Evans in his book Ray Charles: The Birth of Soul (2007), the singer developed his hit "What'd I Say" as part of an after-show jam in Brownsville in December 1958.[8]


Brownsville is located at 40°1′12″N 79°53′22″W / 40.02000°N 79.88944°W / 40.02000; -79.88944 (40.020026, -79.889536)[9] situated on the east (convex) side of a broad sweeping westward bend in the northerly flowing Monongahela River at the westernmost point of Fayette County. The river's action eroded the steep-sided sandstone hills, creating shelf-like benches and connecting sloped terrain that gave the borough lowland areas adjacent to or otherwise accessible to the river shores. Much of the borough's residential buildings are built above the elevation of the business district.

The opposite river shore of Washington County is, uncharacteristically for the region, shaped even lower to the water surface and is generally flatter. A small hamlet called West Brownsville developed on the western shore, with a current population of 420. Historically the area was a natural river crossing and it was the site of development of a ferry, boat building and a bridge to carry roads. When the nascent United States government appropriated funds for its first road building project, in 1811 Brownsville was chosen as an early intermediate target destination along the new National Road. Until a bridge was built across the river, Brownsville was the western terminus.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the borough has a total area of 1.1 square miles (2.8 km2), of which, 1.0 square mile (2.6 km2) of it is land and 0.1 square miles (0.26 km2) of it (9.91%) is water. Lester Ward was elected Mayor in 2009.

Redstone Creek is a minor local tributary stream of the Monongahela River. Its color came from the ferrous sandstone that lined its bed, as well as the sandstone heights near the Old Forts. The valley of Redstone Creek is U-shaped, characteristic of a glaciated valley. The Creek was wide enough for settlers to use to build, dock and outfit numerous flat boats, keel boats, and other river craft. Its builders made thousands of pole boats that moved the emigrants who settled the vast Northwest Territory. Later Brownsville industry built the first steamboats on the inland rivers, and many hundreds afterwards.[citation needed]

Colonists used the term "Old Forts" for the mounds and earthworks created by the prehistoric cultures who were called mound builders. Archeologists and anthropologists have since determined that many prehistoric Native American cultures in North America along the Mississippi River and its tributaries built massive earthworks for ceremonial, burial and religious purposes over a period of thousands of years prior to European encounter. For instance, the Mississippian culture, reaching a peak about 1150 at Cahokia in present-day Illinois, had sites throughout the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys, and into the Southeast.


Historical population
Census Pop.
1810 698
1820 976 39.8%
1830 1,222 25.2%
1840 1,362 11.5%
1850 2,369 73.9%
1860 1,934 −18.4%
1870 1,749 −9.6%
1880 1,489 −14.9%
1890 1,417 −4.8%
1900 1,552 9.5%
1910 2,324 49.7%
1920 2,502 7.7%
1930 2,869 14.7%
1940 8,015 179.4%
1950 7,643 −4.6%
1960 6,055 −20.8%
1970 4,856 −19.8%
1980 4,043 −16.7%
1990 3,164 −21.7%
2000 2,804 −11.4%
2010 2,331 −16.9%
Est. 2014 2,292 [10] −1.7%

As of the census[12] of 2000, there were 2,804 people, 1,238 households, and 716 families residing in the borough. The population density was 2,796.6 people per square mile (1,082.6/km²). There were 1,550 housing units at an average density of 1,545.9 per square mile (598.5/km²). The racial makeup of the borough was 85.95% White, 11.41% African American, 0.11% Native American, 0.07% Asian, 0.21% from other races, and 2.25% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 0.82% of the population.

There were 1,238 households, out of which 24.7% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 36.2% were married couples living together, 17.0% had a female householder with no husband present, and 42.1% were non-families. 38.0% of all households were made up of individuals, and 20.5% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.24 and the average family size was 2.97.

In the borough the population was spread out, with 23.2% under the age of 18, 9.0% from 18 to 24, 25.6% from 25 to 44, 21.1% from 45 to 64, and 21.1% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 40 years. For every 100 females there were 83.1 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 77.7 males.

The median income for a household in the borough was $18,559, and the median income for a family was $32,662. Males had a median income of $31,591 versus $21,830 for females. The per capita income for the borough was $13,404. About 28.8% of families and 34.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 51.2% of those under age 18 and 17.9% of those age 65 or over.


Dunlap's Creek Bridge (1839), carrying old U.S. Route 40 over Dunlap's Creek in Brownsville, is the nation's oldest cast iron bridge in existence. (Capt. Richard Delafield, engineer; John Snowden and John Herbertson, foundrymen) Historic American Engineering Record (HAER).[14] The bridge has an HAER engineering significance like that of the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and Hoover Dam.

The Flatiron Building (c. 1830), constructed as a business building in thriving 19th-century Brownsville, is one of the oldest, most intact iron commercial structures west of the Allegheny Mountains. Over its history, it has housed private commercial entities as well as public, such as a post office. It is the unofficial "prototype" for the flatiron buildings seen across the United States. The most notable is the Fuller Building in Market Square in New York City.

After nearly being demolished, the building was saved by the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corporation (BARC). Throughout two decades, via private and public grants, BARC has restored the Flatiron Building as an historic asset to Brownsville. The Flatiron Building Heritage Center, located within the building at 69 Market Street, holds artifacts from Brownsville's heyday, as well as displays about the community's important coal and coke heritage. The Frank L. Melega Art Museum, located with the Heritage Center, displays many examples of this local southwestern Pennsylvanian's famous artwork, depicting the coal and coke era in the surrounding tri-state region.[15]

In addition to the Dunlap's Creek Bridge, Brownsville is the location of other properties on the National Register of Historic Places. They are Bowman's Castle (Nemacolin Castle), Brownsville Bridge, St. Peter's Church, and Thomas H. Thompson House. There are two national historic districts: the Brownsville Commercial Historic District and Brownsville Northside Historic District.[16]


The Brownsville Area School District serves Brownsville as well as several nearby communities. Schools within the district are:

  • Brownsville Area High School (9–12)
  • Brownsville Area Middle School (6–8)
  • Central Elementary School (3–5)
  • Cox-Donahey Elementary School (K–2)



Brownsville is located on the banks of the Monongahela River, a major tributary of the Ohio River, one of North America's most important waterways. The Monongahela is fully navigable at Brownsville, and offers inexpensive barge transportation to Chicago, New Orleans, St. Marks in Florida, Minneapolis, Tulsa, Kansas City, Houston, and Brownsville, Texas, on the border with Mexico. The shipyards of Brownsville, Pa., provided Captain Richard King of Brownsville, Texas (founder of the King Ranch), with powerful new-built riverboats to navigate the fast currents of the Rio Grande, in 1849.

Brownsville is connected to West Brownsville by the Brownsville Bridge completed in 1914, which spans the Monongahela River. In 1960, the Lane Bane Bridge was constructed just downstream, and U.S. Route 40 was moved to the new high-level structure.

Notable people[edit]


  1. ^ Site designed by Meghan Hoke on April 21, 2001. The French and Indian War in Southwestern Pennsylvania. "Fort Burd in The French and Indian War in Southwestern Pennsylvania". Retrieved 2009-07-02. In 1759, the Pennsylvania Militia constructed Fort Burd south of Pittsburgh high atop a hill overlooking the Monongahela River. The fort was used as a supply depot for the British Army during the French and Indian War and made river transportation to Pittsburgh possible at that time. A sturdy square fort, its curtain walls were 97.5 feet and its bastions had thirty-foot faces with sixteen-foot flanks. This stockade was surrounded by a ditch. Fort Burd was constructed on the same site as an even earlier Indian fortification known as Redstone Old Fort. 
  2. ^ "Nemacolin (Bowman's) Castle". Brownsville Historical Society. The site itself is steeped in history, once the location of Indian burial grounds and fortifications, the area was the intended destination of Chief Nemacolin when he guided the Cresap expeditions across the mountains, establishing the Nemacolin Trail which later became the approximate route of the National Road. In 1759, during the French and Indian Wars, Fort Burd was constructed very near the Castle's current site. In 1780, Jacob Bowman purchased a building lot from Thomas Brown, co founder of Brownsville for 23 English pounds. He named the site in honor of Chief Nemacolin, setting up a trading post and later building the Castle around it. 
  3. ^ Official borough website. "Welcome to Brownsville". Retrieved 2009-07-02. Brownsville situated, at the western most point of Fayette County, on the National Road and overlooking the Monongahela River was the gateway to the west. Thomas Brown, realizing that pioneers would be drawn to the Brownsville area to get to the Ohio Valley and the state of Kentucky, purchased land in the 18th century and by mid-18th century a settlement was being mapped out. It was then, that the community of Brownsville (named for Thomas Brown and formerly known as Redstone Old Fort) became a "keel-boat" building center as well as other businesses for travelers. The businessmen from Brownsville supplied transportation and supplies to the traveling pioneers, and the settlement became very prosperous. The steamboat industry soon took over to facilitate traffic along the Monongahela River. The very first steamboat, the 'Enterprise,' to travel to New Orleans and return by its own power was designed and built in the Brownsville boatyards and launched from the Brownsville Wharf in 1814. 
  4. ^ See Nemacolin's Trail. the French and Indian War (causes) and the history of George Washington as Lieutenant and Major in the Colonial Virginia Militia.
  5. ^ "Timeline", Whiskey Rebellion
  6. ^ a b Mary Pickels, "Oral history project focuses on Mon Valley's steamboat era", Pittsburgh TRIBUNE-REVIEW, 26 July 2010, accessed 8 February 2012
  7. ^ Marc N. Henshaw, The Steamboat Industry in Brownsville Pennsylvania: An Ethnohistoric Perspective on the Economic Change in the Monongahela River Valley, Ypsilanti, Michigan: Western Michigan University, 2004
  8. ^ Mike Evans, Ray Charles: The Birth of Soul, London: Omnibus Press, 2007
  9. ^ "US Gazetteer files: 2010, 2000, and 1990". United States Census Bureau. 2011-02-12. Retrieved 2011-04-23. 
  10. ^ "Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for Incorporated Places: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2014". Retrieved June 4, 2015. 
  11. ^ "Census of Population and Housing". U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved 11 December 2013. 
  12. ^ a b "American FactFinder". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 2008-01-31. 
  13. ^ "Incorporated Places and Minor Civil Divisions Datasets: Subcounty Resident Population Estimates: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2012". Population Estimates. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved 11 December 2013. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ "BARC Flatiron Building", Flatiron Center
  16. ^ Staff (2010-07-09). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  17. ^ Alfred Hunt's obituary "The announcement of the death of Alfred Hunt, president of the Bethlehem Iron Company, will be a shock to his numerous friends throughout the Lehigh Valley and the State. The sad event occurred last evening at the home of his brother, Mordecai Hunt, in Moorestown, N. J." "Mr. Hunt was born of Quaker parentage, at Brownsville, Pa., on April 5, 1817, and was consequently in the 71st year of his age."
  18. ^ Hunt family history
  19. ^ Specht, Neva Jean (1997), Mixed blessing: trans-Appalachian settlement and the Society of Friends, 1780-1813, Ph. D. dissertation, University of Delaware
  20. ^ Specht, Neva Jean (2003), "Women of one or many bonnets?: Quaker women and the role of religion in trans-Appalachian settlement", NWSA Journal 15 (2): 27-44

Further reading[edit]

  • Brownsville Historical Society (1883). The three towns: a sketch of Brownsville, Bridgeport, and West Brownsville. Brownsville, Pennsylvania: Tru Copy Printing. (1976, second edition; 1993, third edition)
  • Ellis, Franklin (1882). History of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, with biographical sketches of many of its pioneers and prominent men. Philadelphia: L. H. Everts and Company.

External links[edit]