This past June Barbara Frederick and I were in Saltsburg, Indiana County attending a stakeholder meeting for the Loyahanna and Conemaugh Dam’s master planning process. The Army Corps of Engineers, Pittsburgh District has been hard at work this summer updating their planning documents, and, as the Western Region Section 106 review team, Barbara and I have been doing our part to provide our support to their process. We also used the opportunity to get a first-hand look at the Dams, Saltsburg, and some really great historic resources!
Authorized by the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938, and completed in 1951, Loyalhanna Dam was one of 16 flood control projects constructed in the Pittsburgh District. Today, the dam provides flood protection for the lower Loyalhanna Creek and Kiskiminetas River valleys and recreation opportunities. The lake is a popular boating and fishing spot and includes picnic areas and campsites.
The nearby Conemaugh Dam was completed in 1952 to provide flood protection on the Conemaugh, Kiskiminetas and Allegheny Rivers. Like Loyalhanna, Conemaugh Lake is a popular recreational resource. A visitor’s information center adjacent to the dam provides information on the construction of the dam and the history of industry, transportation, and flood control in the Conemaugh
Adjacent to Conemaugh Dam, the Tunnelview Historic Site includes this stone arch bridge across the Conemaugh River, which was constructed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1907. The bridge withstood the 1936 Johnstown Flood and a sign on the stone arch shows the high water mark. After a realignment of track, the Pennsylvania Railroad constructed the 1952 high level iron bridge which continues to serve Norfolk Southern rail traffic today. We took the time to read the information available on interpretive panels at the site – and there is even more information available on the Indiana Parks & Trails website for those of you who can’t make it out to see these impressive structures in person.
Once the planning meeting and our field views at the Dams were through, Barbara and I took some time to get a closer look at Saltsburg itself.
The Conemaugh-Kiskiminetas Valley was one of the leading salt producers in the nation from 1798 until the late 1890s. In 1816, Andrew and Jane Boggs made a purchase of land at the confluence at the confluence of the Loyalhanna Creek and the Conemaugh and Kiskiminetas Rivers and laid out the settlement that would grow into Saltsburg and become incorporated as a Borough in 1838. The abundance of salt in the low lands along the Conemaugh River encouraged settlers and entrepreneurs to bore wells in the surrounding region. According to the National Register nomination for Saltsburg, by 1830, at least 21 salt manufacturing establishments were in operation in an area that came to be known as the Great Conemaugh Salt Works.
The coming of the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Canal trough Saltsburg in 1829 and the construction of Lock No. 8 where the canal met the Conemaugh River sparked the first major building boom in the town. Saltsburg quickly became a commercial hub located along the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal which would later become the Pennsylvania Railroad. The canal extended from Johnstown to Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny Portage Railroad began. The canal followed along the bank of the Conemaugh River and was the lifeblood of Saltsburg for more than 30 years.
The Saltsburg Canal Park traces the path of the canal and was constructed in the mid-1990s as part of the National Park Services’ America’s Industrial Heritage Project. The park includes several interpretive panels on the canal and railroad that once passed through the community. This includes information on the site of Lock # 8 which was filled in after the former canal path was converted to a railroad bed. The West Penn Trail also passes through the park. This 17-mile trail between Saltsburg and Blairsvillle, operated by the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy, is part of the Pittsburgh-to-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway. The 320-mile greenway follows the course of the route of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal and includes canal remnants and several towns and historic sites that interpret canal history and area heritage. The Westmoreland Heritage Trail connects to the West Penn Trail in Saltsburg in the heart of town, running along a section of the former Penn Central Railroad.
In 1857, the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the Saltsburg section of the canal system. Railroad tracks were eventually laid in the local of the canal and the 1880s saw renewed growth of the town as the industrial base shifted from salt to coal. Saltsburg reached its peak in population and new construction in the early twentieth century but remained a commercial center of Indiana County with steady growth into the 1940s. The National Register listed Saltsburg Historic District (Key No. 083650) includes a collection of historic buildings characterized as a nineteenth and early twentieth century residential community with a small commercial district. Today, small shops and restaurants line the streets. Commercial buildings are concentrated along Salt and Point Streets.
Notable contributing buildings in the town have been the focus of continued local preservation efforts. Altman’s Mill, located at 360 Point Street, was built in 1912, replacing an earlier water-powered mill that had been located along the riverfront. The mill retains a notably intact collection of grain milling machinery. Vacated in the mid-1990s, efforts to restore the mill have been underway for nearly 15 years. Most recently, Preservation Pennsylvania has partnered with Townspeople, Inc., an area non-profit group whose mission is to revitalize the downtown area, to take over ownership of the property and restore the mill building. Upon completion of the restoration, there is a plan to lease the building back to businesses that strengthen the local economy.
The Rebecca B. Hadden Stone House Museum, located at 105 Point Street, was constructed in 1830 and is owned, maintained, and operated by the Saltsburg Area Historical Society. The museum houses an extensive collection that tells the stories of generations of Saltsburg residents.
The W.R. McIlwain Building, built in the 1870’s of post-and-beam construction, has been home to numerous businesses including a hotel, furniture store, and funeral home. In 2010, the Saltsburg Area Historical Society was awarded a Keystone Grant for the preparation of a Master Plan and Historic Plan Update for the adaptive reuse of the McIlwaine Building. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission awarded a second grant for the rehabilitation of the W.R. McIlwaine Building in 2013. The historical society continues to market this building for reuse as a key component of the borough’s future plans.
This post only hints at the many fun and amazing historical sites in Saltsburg. This community is a great place to spend the day, have lunch, and learn more about Indiana Counties’ history in one small spot. For those of you interested in a day trip, Saltsburg holds an annual Canal Days Festival in Canal Park in early June with crafts, food, live music, and a fireworks display. A fall celebration called Community Days takes place in September and includes a poker run bicycle ride along the West Penn Trail. Don’t miss the chance to combine food, fun, and history!