Cresson, on the path of the Huntingdon, Cambria, and Indiana Turnpike in the late 1790s, lies one-half mile west of the summit of the Allegheny Mountains on tableland between Allegheny Mountain and Laurel Hill. Medicinal spring waters were discovered on the land, and Philadelphia philanthropist John Elliot Cresson convinced the locals that a resort would prosper here.
In an effort to compete with New York's Erie Canal, Pennsylvania built its own canal, but the Allegheny Mountains were a major obstacle. Engineering ingenuity led to a combined system of water and rail transportation, where canal boats were loaded onto rail beds and pulled by hoists or engines through the mountains. Ten inclines were built along the Allegheny Portage Railroad. Incline No. 6 reaches the summit ( CA8; and see CA11) near Cresson.
Inns were built along the pike and, later, the canal, but the era of large resort hotels began with the railroads in the 1850s. Established in 1854, the Allegheny Mountain Health Institute in the Mountain House Hotel was linked to the railroad by a plank sidewalk. The hotel, which ultimately housed 1,000 guests and was surrounded by three hundred forested acres, vied with Saratoga and Bedford Springs as a celebrated watering place in the 1880s. Demolished in 1916, the sole surviving element from the Mountain House Hotel is a conical tower preserved on a frame house of 1862 at 1220 Cottage Street. Several of the eight cottages remaining on the Mountain House grounds were built by the Cresson Springs Company in 1862.
The large frame house at 1225 3rd Street, with Shingle Style and Queen Anne elements, was built c. 1887 for Benjamin Franklin Jones, founder of Jones and Laughlin Steel Mills. Named “Braemar” (Scottish for “on the hill above the spring”), it is derelict but is an extremely important artifact of the resort era and an architecturally significant house for central Pennsylvania. Andrew Carnegie, who worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad in nearby Altoona, summered with his mother in Cresson during the 1880s to escape the heat of New York City. Carnegie's cottage was one house east of Jones's. After his mother died there in 1886, Carnegie never returned to Cresson, despite his extensive land holdings on a nearby hillside. In 1913, he donated his five hundred acres of land to the Pennsylvania State Sanitarium for tubercular patients. The sanitarium functioned for over fifty years, and today is a state correctional institution.
In the 1890s, coal mining and coke making became a major local industry, and with seaside resorts replacing mountain retreats in popularity, the stink of coke making replaced the fresh air of the grand hotels. Instead of shipping passengers, the local transportation industry began shipping tons of coal to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. By 1925, the Pennsylvania Coal and Coke Company, which had a local office in Cresson, counted 2,723 employees in Cambria County. The former office building (c.1910) remains at the northwest corner of Ashcroft Street and 2nd Avenue, now called the Calandra Building. A new set of corporate executives built brick houses in Cresson; the coal executives concentrated on Webster Hill. Cresson native Admiral Robert Edwin Peary (1856–1920) in 1909 was the first American explorer to reach the North Pole.
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