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Fayette County

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Fayette County is a study in contrasts: farms interspersed with coal patches and vernacular buildings between architect-designed houses. It contains many architectural delights, from the Isaac Meason House ( FA27) to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater ( FA28) and Kentuck Knob ( FA29). In addition to Wright, three nationally known architects—Daniel Burnham, Richard Neutra, and theater designer Thomas White Lamb—designed buildings in the county.

Named for the Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of our Revolutionary War, Fayette County, southwest of the Youghiogheny River, was carved from Westmoreland County in 1783; the northwest corner was added in 1784. Geographically, the land is mostly rolling hills typical of the Appalachian Plateau of western Pennsylvania. It is crossed from southwest to northeast by Chestnut Ridge, a 2,000-foot-high spine of land that looms over Uniontown and Hopwood and is referred to by locals as “the mountain.” Following the rivers and such Native American trails as the Nemacolin Path, explorers and traders were joined by European settlers beginning in the 1750s. Virginia's Ohio Land Company induced eleven families to settle in what became Fayette County, led by Christopher Gist, their scout, who built a log house at Mount Braddock in 1753. In the 1780s and 1790s, flatboat and keelboat trade began on the Monongahela River from Brownsville, utilizing a river network that extended through the interior all the way to New Orleans. Items manufactured in western Pennsylvania thus found markets to the west and south.

However, confusion over land titles and which state, Pennsylvania or Virginia, would take precedence hindered settlement. And the area's isolation from the eastern coastal states fostered an independent attitude that continued after the American Revolution. In 1791, when the newly formed federal government levied a tax on whiskey, one of the largest income-producing items in the western farmer's inventory, federal troops were called out to quell the rebellion that ensued. To bind the western counties to the eastern seaboard, a road extending from Cumberland, Maryland, to the Ohio River was needed. Between 1810 and 1850, the National Road brought prosperity to several Fayette County towns: Hopwood, Uniontown, and especially Brownsville, the point of departure for travel on the Ohio River. Initially bypassed by the Pennsylvania Railroad, Fayette County eventually secured rail service from Pittsburgh to Connellsville in 1855, although it was not joined directly to the national lines until 1871, when the Pennsylvania Railroad extended south from Greensburg, Westmoreland County, to Uniontown. In 1875, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad finally established itself in Fayette County by leasing three feeder lines. The two major railroads monopolized transport of the county's exceptionally pure coal.

While coal was mined for personal use from the late 1700s, commercial coal mining boomed only after 1843, when it became common to use coke (hard-baked coal) in the production of iron and, eventually, steel. One-hundred-and-fifty coal patch towns existed in Fayette County c. 1900. Eighty survive, which is surprising because the towns were isolated and intended to last only as long as the mines they supported. Many have become communities of closely knit families who now commute to other jobs in the region. Some villages were absorbed by neighboring towns or cities. For example, the small coal patch of Leith became a suburban neighborhood of Uniontown. Today, its double-chimneyed patch houses abut the Uniontown County Club and golf course, which is connected by footbridges to the former patch. The grid pattern of the company town was expanded with middle- and upper-middle-class housing dating from the 1930s to today.

In the twentieth century, the beauty of Fayette County's landscape and its relative isolation from urban sprawl have made it a desirable spot for rural retreats, with locations such as Fallingwater and the lesser-known Deer Lake (1938), a development on 107 wooded acres near Chalk Hill. Tourists continue to stop at inns dating from the 1790s to the 1990s located along the National Road.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Lu Donnelly et al.

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