Picture the Monongahela River. Now picture the towns nestled alongside it. Now ask yourself – are you picturing the towns as they are today? Or as they once were?
Change is constant, especially in this part of the state. If you haven’t visited the towns sitting along the Mon in the last two or three years, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you see the next time you pass through one. Many changes have taken place in these towns, thanks in part to the work by the River Towns Program.
The Mon River Towns Program works with communities bordering the Monongahela River to highlight Pennsylvania’s growing outdoor recreational market, and to make it easy to help residents and visitors connect with the beautiful river. The Program is presently an initiative of the National Road Heritage Corridor and was launched by the statewide Pennsylvania Environmental Council in 2011.
“These are towns looking at new opportunities,” Cathy McCollom, director of the River Towns Program, says about this region and communities within it. “They were once industrial towns. The Mon was and remains an industrial highway but it is now also a recreational river. With the changing economy, we help communities look at the river in a different way.”
The River Towns Program is dedicated to improving the visitor infrastructure in these towns. The first step in doing so is for community leaders and River Town Program staff to consider how the towns appear to travelers. For example, is there public access to the Mon River for visitors? Are there community parks next to the river or view corridors open to the river? Are there signs to direct traffic, and restaurants for families to enjoy? Are there historic buildings and cultural spots of significance and are they highlighted and accessible to visitors?
Since 2011, questions like these have driven improvements on infrastructure such as launches and docks, public access, signage, and added amenities such as public restrooms, public art and riverfront parks. Most importantly, communities have worked with Program staff to raise over $3 million, not only for these projects but also to market the region.
According to Cathy, “The projects have included canoe and kayak launches, riverfront parks, directional and gateway signage, improved public launches, riverfront landscaping and clearings, and multiple events such as summer riverfront concerts, festivals, and paddling events. With community leadership and organizational partners, we have led riverfront master planning, public art projects, and business attraction workshops – and have offered entrepreneurial business grants to encourage new businesses.”
And these efforts are paying off. Nature lovers – taking advantage of new boat launches and trails – are helping to bring outdoor recreational traffic through these Mon River towns. New businesses have opened in several of the communities. Gateway and directional signage is now more prevalent. Over two dozen pieces of public art have added a layer of beauty to towns and riverfronts. And River Festivals have literally sprung up across the map. At River Town Program’s founding, there were three such festivals in operation – currently, there are twelve!
But while our team can talk about this work all day every day, we truly think it has to be experienced. A visit to a river town during an event or a peaceful weekend of local travel is the best way to highlight local changes, and to experience the history. From green spaces to new businesses to local history spots, there is so much to experience in the Mon River Towns.
Not all history lives in a museum. Case in point: Pennsylvania residents can step back in time during a day-long visit to the historic area of Brownsville. Whether you opt to plan your trip in the summer or bundle up in the winter is up to you – either way, you’ll enjoy your time in this beautiful river town!
What Can I Do In Brownsville?
There’s so much here that the town offers personalized guided tours – all you have to do to book is call 724-785-9331. If you’re the type to enjoy the flexibility of a self-guided visit, though, Brownsville organizers recommend the following itinerary:
- Visit Brownsville’s Flatiron Building Heritage Visitor Center and the Frank L. Melega Art Museum. This is a two part entry, and for good reason – both attractions are too good to pass up and can be accessed in the same place. Free to the public and complete with guided tours, the heritage center focuses on the National Road Era and The Industrial Coal & Coke Era. A visit here will help recreate the industrialized past and tell the tale of how Brownsville – and America – came to be. After visiting the heritage center, you can head to the Frank L. Melega Museum, and browse through artwork influenced by local historic and modern artists alike.
- Take in the architecture. A quick stroll downtown will let you take in a view of the First Cast Iron Bridge in America; the new Iron Bridge Amphitheater; the new Iron Bridge Crossing apartment buildings; unique historic architecture; and the local library that was established in 1927. All make for beautiful sights and even great photo opportunities. Architecture fans will also enjoy a walk down historic Front Street, the site of more architectural gems and residential homes.
- Explore the history of transportation. If museums are your jam, you’ll definitely want to visit the Monongahela River, Rail and Transportation Museum. Visitors will see various artifacts from the rail and river transit systems that shaped the area. Photographs, documents, small model trains and various items from the boating industry will also help to tell the tale.
- See the state’s only castle. Nemacolin Castle is arguably the Mon Valley’s finest house museum. It’s primary name is Bowman’s Castle, although Nemacolin Castle is a common nickname for the structure. We’ve even written about this must-see spot in the past – so be sure to keep it in mind while in the area!
- Go to church. The Historic Church of Saint Peter is open to the public – you can call 724-785-7781 for a guided tour of the oldest local, continuously used Catholic church west of the Allegheny Mountains. Built in 1845 by Irish stonemasons, the building was constructed with locally quarried stone – and has a great story to tell to visitors.
- Grab a meal. You’ll have to keep up your strength during your visit! And we have recommendations for that, too. One of Brownsville’s oldest known eateries is Fiddles, famous for their hot dogs. Twelve Oaks Restaurant & Tavern is also a local favorite, so perhaps you’ll want to live it up at the historic mansion turned restaurant.
If that isn’t enough to fill out a day trip, we don’t know what is. Whether you’re the type to google for “old towns near me” or you’re just itching for a day away from the usual, Brownsville may be the perfect low key destination!Ready to plan a trip to Brownsville? In addition to browsing our website for additional information and even itineraries for this charming river town, you can visit our website calendar to see other local upcoming activities!
Who says day trips are a summer activity? With the perfect to do list, you can enjoy a day of traveling and an array of activities that are both fun and warm and cozy. And if that sounds good to you, we can’t think of a better place to travel than California, Pennsylvania.
Located along the Monongahela River in Washington County, the borough of California is best known for the California University of Pennsylvania. And sure, it’s worth walking through the school’s campus if you’re able to. However, this lovely town has more to offer to visitors than college-esque hotspots! Let us show you what else is worth visiting:
- One place worth visiting is the California Public Library. The best libraries are housed in beautiful old buildings, and this one is no exception. Set inside an old train station, the library even displays a caboose displayed on its lawn. With a historic location and daily activities, this library is a great spot for a traveling family.
- If you feel like bundling up and exploring more of the outdoors, the California Union Memorial Park isn’t far from its library. The memorial park houses the local cemetery, where one of the town’s founders lies. Soldiers from the War of 1812 and the Civil War also lie at rest here. Interestingly, there are two 60-foot retaining walls plastered with old grave markers, instead of the stones being buried in the ground. California Union Memorial Park is not an average cemetery, and is worth your time if weather permits a visit.
- But if you’d rather stay indoors, you may want to visit the California Area Historical Society. Housed in a building that’s over one hundred years old, the society houses records on the history of Washington, Greene, and Fayette Counties, the Civil War regimental history, and local history. They focus in genealogy and history alike – so you may be surprised by what you find here.
California is a surprising center of history in Pennsylvania, and well worth your time and attention. As with all small towns, confirming seasonal hours before your visit is highly recommended!
Ready to plan a trip to the historic area of California, PA? In addition to Googling other local activities or browsing our website bio on the town, you can visit our website calendar to see upcoming activities!
Have you ever heard of Nemacolin Castle? Don’t let the shared name of an infamous Pennsylvania resort fool you – Nemacolin Castle is arguably the Mon Valley’s finest house museum. It’s primary name is Bowman’s Castle, although Nemacolin Castle is a common nickname for the structure. Built in present-day Brownsville, it’s approximately one hour away from Pittsburgh. Best of all, this Pennsylvania historic landmark is open year round, with volunteers offering tours of the castle interior and its spacious grounds!
The History Of The Castle
According to the Nemacolin Castle website, the structure was built “at the western terminus of the Nemacolin’s Trail on the east bank of the Monongahela River.” Nemacolin Castle was built around the site of the area’s original local trading post. The trading post has roots in the 1780s – but construction on the castle began during the mid-to-late 1790s, at the hands of Jacob Bowman.
Jacob and his wife were the first of three generations to live in the structure. In the beginning, the building housed a new trading post on its ground floor, and a single room above that. It was as Bowman family grew – the couple had nine children total – that a broad hallway was added to the building.
Upon Jacob’s passing in 1847, the house passed on to Nelson Bowman, who added an east wing and a brick tower to the ever growing building. Nelson, and one of their sons, lived out their days in the home. It was after the son and his widow passed that The National Historical Society purchased the house and began to open it up to the public as a museum.
The Castle Today
Currently the structure is maintained and operated as a house museum by the local Brownsville Historical Society nonprofit group. Nemacolin Castle is one of a handful of 1850s buildings that stands and survives today, and the building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975. It’s fascinating history of trade and family love makes it a wonderful attraction for visitors of many ages.
Best of all, the historical society offers tours year-round of the gorgeous structure. They just ask that prospective visitors contact them at 724-785-6882 or at email@example.com!
Why Google “historic houses near me” when this one is so close? We cannot recommend a visit to Pennsylvania’s own castle enough. Guests may also be interested in the town of Brownsville, home of the beautiful building!
’Tis the season – for travel and holiday cheer! The winter season is an under-appreciated time for local travel and exploration. Many Pennsylvania and even West Virginia towns offer plenty to do during the chillier months of the year. Museums, for example, are a great go-to as you travel and unplug for your normal routine. This blog is for the museum lovers out there – and will help you find some off-the-beaten-path exhibits this season!
Donora, Pennsylvania – 27 Miles From Pittsburgh
The borough of Donora is located in Washington County, alongside the Monongahela River. The town has an industrious history, with stories of steel-making, coal-mining, agriculture, and more. In addition to a long history of creation and production, Donora houses the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum. A member of the Heinz History Center’s History Center Affiliate Program, the museum is dedicated to preserving and remembering 1948 Donora smog – an event that tragically killed 20 people and left 7,000 ill. This single event in Donora’s history helps to shine a spotlight on environmental dangers, residential welfare, and more – and is well worth a visit. Interested in visiting? Contact the museum to confirm their operating hours!
Brownsville, Pennsylvania – 40 Miles From Pittsburgh
Brownsville was once a frequent destination point for travelers who were heading west via the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers. Today the town is a lovely place to escape busy city life – it has two historic districts, and the area by design celebrates its rich history and local scenic beauty.
Museum-wise, Brownsville houses the Frank L. Melega Art Museum and Monongahela River, Rail, and Transportation Museum. The art museum collects, preserves, interprets, and exhibits the artworks of Frank Melega – an Indiana-born son of a coal miner with an artistic talent that earned him recognition from prestigious organizations across the country. And if art isn’t quite your thing, the transportation museum displays an impressive collection of artifacts and archival materials related to the history of river and rail transportation in this region. Between the two, you’ll be sure to get your fill of historic things this season. (Be sure to call before visiting this museum, as its hours are limited!) Interested in visiting? Be sure to contact both museums to confirm if they are operating on seasonal hours.
Fairmont, West Virginia – 90 Miles From Pittsburgh
While West Virginia is commonly recognized for its outdoor activity options, Fairmont has plenty to offer in the way of museums and history. The Marion County Historical Society & Museum combines both of these things, featuring a diverse collection of historic things from across the centuries. The museum’s focuses include the Revolutionary and Civil War, coal mining, the glass industry, railroad lines, and more. This charming museum will help you settle into the state, understanding a little more about the factors that shaped it. Interested? Here are their hours of operation!
As a bonus, if your schedule matches theirs – their hours are very limited – the Telephone Museum will be your next stop. With switchboards, pay phones, test boards, and more, this little museum is a fabulous tribute to the history of the telephone.
Morgantown, West Virginia – 75 Miles From Pittsburgh
Morgantown may house West Virginia University, but it’s not just a college town by any means. Morgantown has consistently been rated as one of the top small cities in America to live or start a small business. Historically, the area was highly contested due to its location and resources. Today visitors can get a glimpse of the area’s glass and coal heritage at the Morgantown Museum. This city-sponsored museum and nonprofit aims to promote local and regional history and to make it accessible to the citizens of Morgantown and visitors to the region.
These are just some of the delightful museums hidden throughout our river towns. If any of them grabbed your interest, we definitely recommend planning a little holiday trip – you won’t regret the chance to shop and learn as you head out of town for a seasonal trip!
Ready to plan a trip? In addition to Googling local activities, you can visit our website calendar to see upcoming activities in many local Mon River Towns.
*Always check the most recently posted museum hours before planning a visit, as some museums may adjust their hours for the holidays or for the winter after the publishing of this blog.