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!