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Column #137 - June 24, 2001

 

THE RISE AND FALL OF THE MONONGAHELA HOTEL
by Glenn Tunney

         A fading marquee hangs outside the four-story former hotel, identifying it as the Towne House.  The imposing yellow brick structure is on Market Street in Brownsville, opposite the Union Station building and to the left of the former First National Bank building.  One of Brownsville's largest buildings, it was once the bustling Monongahela Hotel.  The story of its rise and fall parallels the emergence, then eventual decline of a downtown Brownsville business district known as the "Neck."
         The Monongahela Hotel, an enterprise that originated as the Monongahela House, occupied three different buildings over its lifetime of a century and a half.   The building that last housed the hotel was eventually purchased at auction and converted into an apartment building.  Now it stands empty, sprawled between the lifeless First National Bank building on one side and the vacant Second National Bank building on the other.
         Today we begin a series of articles telling the story of the Monongahela Hotel.  Sources of information consulted for this series include J. Percy Hart's History And Directory of the Three Towns; Franklin Ellis's History of Fayette County, Pennsylvania; Thomas B.Searight's The Old Pike; McCready Huston's series of Brownsville Telegraph columns entitled And That Was Brownsville; historic photographs from the collections of Raymond Christner, David Gratz, Harold Richardson, and the late Grant Brown; and microfilmed articles from the archives of the Brownsville Telegraph.  Most importantly, this series will feature interviews and correspondence with former employees and patrons of the Monongahela Hotel, to whom I express my appreciation for so willingly sharing their recollections.

The Monongahela House Is Born
         John Krepps was proud of his two sons.  John was an enterprising fellow who in 1794 initiated Monongahela River ferry service to the infant village of Bridgeport.  His ferry landed on the west side of the river near Owens Tavern, a stone house that is still standing today.  It may be West Brownsville's oldest structure, sequestered amidst the tall buildings of the former Sam Thompson distillery.
         John Krepps always lived on the western side of the Monongahela, but his two boys, Solomon and Samuel, became prominent citizens of the towns on the eastern bank of the river.  Solomon became a Bridgeport merchant and politician, while Samuel settled in Bridgeport in 1823, ran a saw mill on Dunlap Creek and had a coal operation there.
        In 1829, Samuel purchased land in Brownsville's "Neck" from Neil Gillespie of West Brownsville.  Most Brownsville businesses were still located on the present-day North Side, and the Neck was not yet the commercial district that it became in the twentieth century.  In 1832, Samuel J. Krepps built a large brick residence on the main avenue in the Neck.  The house was on the eastern side of what is now Market Street, on a site presently occupied by the former First National Bank building.  The home was three stories high and seven bays wide, designed to reflect the rising affluence of its owner.
         In 1836 Samuel joined others in forming the Monongahela Navigation Company, which built the first locks and dams on the Monongahela.  He hardly suspected that taming the river for navigation to Brownsville would shorten his stay at his new home.
         By 1844, the system of locks and dams between Brownsville and Pittsburgh was completed.  This assured that the river would always be deep enough for boats to navigate safely, even during summer droughts.  They called it "slack water" navigation, and it gave Brownsville's already promising economy a tremendous lift.  The town's businesses boomed because the National Road went right through the Neck.  Historian Thomas Searight wrote that between 1844 and 1852, more than two hundred thousand passengers traveled the National Road to Brownsville, where they left their stage coaches and boarded Monongahela steamers.
         Crowds of travelers awaiting passage on steamboats need a place to spend the night, and demand for overnight accommodations in Brownsville ran high.  Samuel J. Krepps was approached by a gentleman named McCurdy about selling his massive home.  McCurdy planned to convert the house into a hotel.  The offer was too good to refuse, so Krepps sold the house and moved back across the river to his family's former home place.
         McCurdy named his newly opened hotel the "Monongahela House," and he enjoyed success for about eight years.  Then disaster struck the town's economy.  In 1852, the flood of stage coach traffic on the National Road slowed to a trickle almost overnight.  Where had all of the westward travelers gone?  They were comfortably sitting in passenger cars on trains.
          Within six weeks of each other in 1852, the B & O Railroad began service from Baltimore to Wheeling, and the Pennsylvania Railroad initiated service from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.  No railroad came to Brownsville for many more decades, so this one-time boom town was now out of the loop.  After all, why would any traveler spend days in a stage coach riding to Brownsville, then board a steamboat to Pittsburgh or to an Ohio River destination?  There was faster, more comfortable train service now available to Pittsburgh or Wheeling.
         The hotel business in Brownsville hit bottom, and Mr. McCurdy defaulted on the payments on his hotel, setting off a rapid series of ownership changes at the Monongahela House.  Through the 1870's it was owned by six different men, the last of whom was John B. Krepps, whose father Samuel had built the place.
         One day in 1878, a steamboat landed at the wharf in Brownsville.  At that time the public wharf was located directly over the hill from Bowman's (Nemacolin) Castle.  A street called Water Street (not the present-day Water Street) started behind the Flatiron Building, ran northward along the river to the public wharf, and then continued on to Redstone Creek at Albany.  Many businesses were located along Water Street, and disembarking steamboat passengers seeking a hotel often walked southward along Water Street to reach the Neck.
         Off the steamboat that day in 1878 stepped an Ohio dentist named Joseph A. Huston.  He had come to Brownsville to practice his profession with Dr. James Abrams, one of the town's leading dentists.  Many years later, Joseph Huston's son would tell the story of what happened to his father when he entered Brownsville for the first time.
         "When he came up from the wharf where his steamboat had landed, he started for the Monongahela House," his son wrote, "but a disheartening accident prevented his staying there.  In those days, a dirt road ran down to Krepps' Bottom alongside the original Monongahela House."
         Krepps Bottom was the name given to a large flat plain of bottomland bordering Dunlap's Creek and the Neck.  The roomy Bottom was a popular venue for circuses and athletic events.  In 1916 it was filled in, raised to the level of the Neck and became Snowdon Place (Snowdon Square).
         It was on the lane leading to the Bottom that Joseph got a rude greeting to his new town.  "The Monongahela House's kitchen opened above the road to Krepps Bottom," explained his son.  "Before my father registered, he had occasion to go down that road just as one of the kitchen help was throwing a pan of dishwater out.  This rather disconcerted my fiery father, and with his only suit soaked, he made for the Barr House in Bridgeport."
         Fortunately, the damp welcome to town did not deter Dr. Huston, who remained in Brownsville for his entire dental career.  He married in 1888, and in 1891 he became the father of the fellow who told that story about him, the renowned Brownsville Telegraph columnist McCready Huston.

The second Monongahela House
         The decades from the 1850's until near the turn of the century were slow economic times for Brownsville.  Then a great burst of economic growth began in the 1890's and brought boom times back to town.  The opening of the coal fields in the region not only spurred employment and boosted the area's population, it brought something else just as important to Brownsville --- the railroad.  The P&LE and the Pennsylvania Railroad joined forces and created the Monongahela Railroad, and in 1903 passenger service into Brownsville began.  Also boosting  business in town was the  invention of the automobile, which put travelers back on the long- dormant National Road that led through the Neck.  The town's hotels were doing a landslide business, and the heavy patronage was wearing out the old Monongahela House.
         By 1911, the 79-year-old Monongahela House had become obsolete, and its owner ordered it razed.  A new three-story Monongahela House, also of red brick, was built on the same site.  Unlike its gable-roofed predecessor, its roof was flat with decorative stonework lining the top of the building.  At sidewalk level, each corner of the hotel's facade featured a large fluted column.  The main entrance was shielded from the elements by a large roof that was topped by a second floor balcony, and the roof extended outward from the hotel entrance to the edge of Market Street.  The new building became the second Monongahela House to serve Brownsville.
         The next decade, the 1920's, saw a building boom hit the north end of the Neck, and every building built in that era is still standing.  On the western side of Market Street, the Snowdon Building was erected in 1906, filling an open space left by the late nineteenth century burning of the Lyceum, a public auditorium.  To the right of the new Snowdon Building had been the old Union Station, but in 1929, to meet the demands of the railroading public, the six- story steel, brick and concrete Union Station opened.
        And what about the east side of the street, where the recently built Monongahela House stood?  To the hotel's left had been the Arcade Theater and several wooden buildings housing small businesses.  In 1919, Gottesman's Market vacated those premises, and in 1922, the Arcade Theater burned down.  That set the stage for an unexpected real estate maneuver that resulted in the building of another new Monongahela Hotel, the one that is still standing today as the Towne House.
        Next week, we will learn how two booming businesses -- the Monongahela House and the Monongahela National Bank -- executed a plan that brought each a new headquarters just yards from its previous location.

Readers may call me at 724-785-3201, e-mail me at glenatun@hhs.net or write me at 6068 National Pike East, Grindstone, PA   15442.  

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