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A bridge to the 19th century

Falling water-level of Youghiogheny unearths ghost town, historical crossing

Thursday, January 07, 1999

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The first thing you notice is how very small the ghost bridge is. To say it is dwarfed by the new bridge, which dates only to 1943, is like saying an ant is dwarfed by the Empire State Building.

The Great Crossings Bridge, built in 1818 to carry traffic along the National Road, has emerged from the drought-stricken Youghiogheny River Lake along with the ruins of Somerfield. In the background, the replacement bridge carries Route 40 traffic. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette) 

Only when you park and walk down to the old stone bridge - past the parched, cracked earth, the broken sidewalks, the remnants of building foundations - do you notice how finely crafted it is, how strong and proud it still stands, even though it's been under water for most of the past 55 years.

The Great Crossings Bridge has resurfaced again, like a friendly phantom who makes periodic house calls.

Built in 1818 as part of the National Road, the bridge was sacrificed to flood control in 1943 when the Army Corps of Engineers built a dam just south of Confluence, Somerset County, and created the Youghiogheny River Lake. The lake also took the little town of Somerfield, east of the bridge, where 142 people lived in the early 1940s.

With the current drought, the Youghiogheny has been restored to its pre-dam ways, to a meandering stream whose American Indian name is thought to mean river that flows in a roundabout way. Partially frozen at the edges into tiny whitecaps defined by drifted snow, the river flows under the bridge the way it did in the old days, before progress inundated the valley and scattered Somerfield's residents to the winds.

"It's amazing how low the water is," said Ronald Burkett of Somerset, one of thousands of people who have visited the bridge in the past few weeks. "We always heard there was a bridge and a town," so on a recent Sunday he brought his wife, son, daughter and grandchildren to see what might remain.

In fact, the water is at its third lowest level ever, bottoming out at 1,361.99 feet above sea level on Dec. 21. It's been lower twice before, in 1954 and 1957. (The lake's normal level in early summer is about 1,440 feet, about 50 feet above the top of the bridge.)

"The last time the pool level was approximately what it is now was eight years ago in 1991, but it is 6 feet lower now than it was then," said Allen Schultz, park ranger with the corps at Youghiogheny River Lake. "It has started to go up a little bit now," with the level hovering around 1,364 feet for the past week.

The bridge, or at least the top of it, has surfaced in other years when the water has dropped. And this time, the Old Petersburg/Addison Historical Society was prepared, staking out the road to the bridge - a boat ramp when the lake is full - with volunteers selling the story of the old river towns in a ring-bound book for $20.

"We try to give people more of the history of what they're seeing," said Frances Swearman, who runs the Addison Gift and Craft Shop a few miles up the road. "It's hard to imagine the churches, the schools, the houses, when you come to a bare piece of land. The book gives you a map to show where they were."

Actually, the book gives you a whole lot more, including photographs of Somerfield and other river towns lost to the lake, reminiscences of former residents, and the early history of the region dating to prehistoric times. For a broader view, there's Tim Palmer's book, "Youghiogheny: Appalachian River," published in 1984, plus assorted other histories - enough to piece together the story of the ghost bridge and the vanished town.

On Nov. 18, 1753, about a half mile upriver from where the old stone bridge would be built, George Washington and his guide, Christopher Gist, crossed the Youghiogheny on their way to Fort LeBoeuf. Washington's charge was to deliver a warning to the French to leave the area - orders from his boss, Virginia Gov. Dinwiddie.


The following spring, Washington encamped there as he sought (in vain, as it turned out) a water route to the Ohio. In June 1755, Gen. Edward Braddock also forded the Youghiogheny there on his ill-fated march against Fort Duquesne.

From those legendary crossings by great white men, the Great Crossings Bridge took its name.

The area was inhabited long before, of course, by the early Monongahela people, and later by the Shawnee, Seneca, Delaware and Erie tribes, who camped and hunted there.

White settlers, for their part, had been streaming into the area after the Fort Stanwix Indian Treaty of 1768 opened much of the Upper Ohio Valley to pioneers. One of them was Jacob Spears, who in 1789 bought a sloping, riverfront piece of land on the east side of the Youghiogheny at the Great Crossings, which he called Nobbley Nowl (knoll).

Still, settlement of the frontier was impeded by bad roads and no roads. By 1800, most states had not even begun to build stone-paved roads, the leading highway technology of the day. President Thomas Jefferson and his treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, pressed for a national road. Built by local civilian contractors to uniform specifications, it would link the country's eastern rivers with the Ohio.

The first portion of the National Road - Cumberland, Md., to Wheeling, W.Va., - was built between 1811 and 1818 by mostly Irish and English immigrants, who cleared the land, broke rocks into stones and used them to construct roads and bridges.

The roadbed they built was primitive, a layer of 3-inch stones atop a layer of 7-inch stones, and quickly deteriorated. But the bridges were built to last, usually supported by the kind of rounded buttresses seen in the Great Crossings Bridge. With triple arches of varying lengths, the bridge is made of locally quarried sandstone, each piece precisely chiseled to fit its mates. Forty feet high and 30 feet wide, it was built between 1815 and 1818 by James Kinkead, James Beck and Evan Evans, architects and contractors for all of the bridges on the National Road, according to architect Charles M. Stotz. Stotz measured and drew the bridge for his 1936 book, "Early Architecture of Western Pennsylvania."

The builders had their names inscribed on a dedication stone along the bridge parapet, visible to travelers. Sometime around 1940, the stone was pirated away by a local man who kept it for several decades. About 10 years ago, Swearman said, his property was auctioned and the stone sold to a man in neighboring Salisbury, who sold it a few years ago to the Old Petersburg/Addison Historical Society. Now installed on Addison's main street (old Route 40), "It's almost but not quite home again."

July 4, 1818 - the date inscribed on the stone - was a gala day at the Great Crossings. President James Monroe and several cabinet officers came, and all the mountain people turned out to celebrate the bridge, the road and the prosperity they would bring with new jobs and businesses.

Among them was Philip Smyth, who had bought Jacob Spears' land in 1817 and laid out the town of Smythfield. (The name was changed to Somerfield, honoring a local preacher, in 1827 to avoid confusion with another Pennsylvania town.)

Smyth's plan was typical of the National Road towns, with lots laid out along a main street - in this case, Bridge Street - that would be developed with houses, inns, shops and businesses built right to the street. The classic Pennsylvania "stringtown" pushed west with the National Road, a model for all America, even Walt Disney.

It was a plan designed more for passing through than settling down. Like Somerfield, many National Road towns developed as stagecoach stops. Bridge builder Kinkead, who owned the line from Somerfield to Brownsville, put on the first line of stages in 1818 west of Cumberland. He built a coach stop - a stone tavern and inn with stables - at the Somerfield end of the bridge, where passengers rested and drivers picked up fresh horses, necessary every 10 or 12 miles through the mountains.

Virginia tavern keeper Thomas Endsley bought Kinkead's tavern in 1823, probably running it with the help of the eight slaves he brought with him. His children, who kept the business for the next 80 years, would grow up abolitionists.

But with the coming of the railroad in the 1850s and the subsequent decline of the National Road, Somerfield's great era was over. By 1883, there were "only a few dilapidated houses," a county history reports. The industry that killed the town's original economy, however, later caused its rebirth: When the Confluence and Oakland Railroad came to town in 1889, it brought a new era of prosperity, new housing and more residents. Somerfield became a resort town; President William McKinley, whose brother married into the Endsley family, vacationed at the Endsley House at the turn of the century. A few years later it was enlarged to the Youghiogheny House, a homey hotel that catered to sportsmen.

"It was a great little town," Elsie Spurgeon told Tim Palmer, who included her memories in his book on the Youghiogheny. Spurgeon grew up in Jockey Hollow, an even smaller town west of the bridge, but taught school for many years in Somerfield.

"There was the McCullough store and Jim Hook's store, and a Methodist church, drugstore, and garage." She remembers the rope swing below the bridge, picnic shelters on the island in the middle of the river and church camps farther upriver. "Then farms like the Colyer's and Glover's and others that went clear up to Friendsville, and we figured it would be that way forever."

When rumors of a dam began to spread in the 1930s, few believed it would happen, Palmer reports. But the flood of 1936 changed everything, making flood control a priority for the Army Corps.

"Nobody wanted to move," said Spurgeon, who died a few years ago. "Not one person."

But Somerfield's residents resigned themselves to the loss. The town's first building - James Kinkead's 1818 tavern, which was then called The Cornish Arms - hosted the ceremony announcing the survey for the $9 million flood control project. The Army Corps bought that building and 114 others in Somerfield, but offered no relocation assistance. In the middle of the Depression, Spurgeon and about 10 other families moved to Confluence; others found new homes in Addison, Uniontown and Connellsville.

Mary Sellers Whetsell was 19 when her family moved to Addison, where she still lives today, one of a handful of Somerfield survivors.

It was "like every small town, I guess. The church was the center of the social life. There were big, three-act plays at Christmas time that we spent months preparing for. There were ice cream socials and teas. Anything that went on in the town, practically, had to with the church."

She remembers buying Christmas presents at Hook's department store, and how the men used to loaf at McCullough's grocery store, and the row of maple trees that shaded Bridge Street.

Whetsell went back in 1991, the last time Somerfield's remains reappeared.

"I saw the sidewalk and remembered skipping down to the store as a little girl," she said. "I had a nostalgia fit and had to leave."

She's been reluctant to go back but expects to visit before the water comes up, and kayakers and pleasure boaters again paddle and power their way around the lake, mostly oblivious to the ruins of a quieter time that lie buried beneath the water.

"I'm 74," she said. "I need to take one more look."

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