a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, May 19, 2008

A history of Webster, Pa., from "ye olden tyme"

The following is a transcript of an article published in the Donora American Dec. 4, 1908, one day before the Donora-Webster Bridge opened to traffic in Southwestern Pennsylvania:


Traditions of Visits of Washington
and LaFayette


On July 6, 1796, just twenty years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted to Peter Rothwell a patent for 175 acres of ground. This was mostly woodland and abounded in the deciduous forest trees of the region, among which were hickory, sugar maple and black oak.

Four days after the grant, Peter Rothwell and wife deeded the same tract to James Collet. It was bounded by the lands of George Martin, Benjamin Fell, Matthew Beazell and James Bruce, and the Monongahela River.

The land grants of the Martins, George and Joshua, antedate this and a large part of it remains yet in the hands of direct heirs of George Martin. Through a deal later, the Castners owned the part adjoining this tract on the south. Here the men who built the (grist) mill lived, cooked and slept. They were John Montgomery and brother, and John Pollock, who later owned the mill. John Montgomery’s sons worked fifty years later when the mill was rebuilt, he dying on the same day that President Garfield died.

A man named Wallace built the stone work and the stack, which still stands. There is an interesting tradition regarding the scaffolding breaking down, leaving him on top of the stack, until a difficult rescue was effected.

In connection with the grist mill, run by the same power, was a saw mill, and later gun stocks were made here. The timber of the region was good and stout. When in 1881 this building was torn down, many of these hewn timbers were (not) decayed after fifty years’ service.

Benjamin Fell was a Revolutionary character, who befriended Washington by helping him to furnish shoes for his barefoot army during the dark days of Valley Forge. After the close of the war, he came to this region, receiving generous patents around about Fells M.E. church, one of the oldest churches west of the Alleghenies.

Land deals moved quickly in these early days, for in six days more, on July 15, 1796, James Collet sold eighty-one acres of this tract to David Ryall. The longest side of this tract faced the Monongahela River and on this the older part of the village of Webster stands.

Although thirteen years later, on April 4th, 1809, David Ryall and wife conveyed their holdings to Jesse Davis. Whether Ryall or Davis built the farmhouse, still standing, is uncertain. It, however, was the home of Jesse Davis, and the river bottom was his orchard. This house was two-story, built of logs, now weather-boarded, and later became the home of Rev. Irwin Sansom, the pioneer Methodist minister of this west-of-the-Alleghenies region, and whose work and tradition still live.

About 1830-1832 the farming population took in hand to have a grist and saw mill. Jesse Davis sold a small part of his 81 acres to Thomas Van Hook. Joseph Finley, Justice of the Peace, gave material aid in this both as to money loans and labor. His son, Thomas G. Finley, born about 1820, remembers a log house on his father’s place being torn down and the logs hauled down by him, then a boy about twelve years old. It was erected little above the north side of the run.

In the period of financial inflation, antedating the financial crisis of 1837, Webster had its rise. It was laid out by Mathew and Ephraim Beazell, who were brothers; named for the great statesman, Daniel Webster, then in the zenith of power; and put upon the market by a colored plot which still lives in tradition. It had steamboats on the river and sites indicated for a courthouse, schools and other public buildings.

At an early date, a sawmill was built lower down the run than the grist mill, a tree marking the spot until recently. Steamboat building was the industry carried on there.

Among the oldest houses is one just opposite the post office. This was built for a hotel. It was kept by a man named Lightburn, whose wife was a Fell. This was the first place in Webster where malt and spirituous liquors were dispersed to the thirsty public. The men who built the steamboats boarded here. William Robinson was one of the head men in the boat building. A large boat that was put out from these docks and sent to Pittsburgh to be finished and furnished was called the “Breakwater.” William Robinson went on as captain and Matthew Beazell clerk. It was navigated as far as Wheeling, where it sunk.

When the Pittsburg papers reached port, as the afternoon waned, by way of the leisurely steamboat, startling headlines, “Destruction Complete,” noted the disaster.

The spiritual matters in these early years were cared for by Rehoboth Presbyterian Church and Fells M.E. church. Near Rehoboth Church stood a tree rendered memorable by George Washington sitting under it and writing a letter. Known historically, and by Fells Church, stands a tree under which LaFayette stood in 1820, the Nation’s Guest, and addressed the county folk, being brought so far by a calvacade from Elizabeth and met there by a like troop with whom was General Markle to escort him in the easterly direction.

Tradition also says that Washington on one of his retreats crossed the Monongahela River at a point called Turkey’s run; and not admitting that, tradition also says Washington, the surveyor between the French and Indian War, and the Revolutionary War, marked the present site of Donora and said, “It will be the site of a beautiful city.”

So much for ye olden tyme.

Carson’s cooper shop was an old landmark.

Webster was then confined to the South side of the run. Many other old houses still standing there are the Brown house and Dr. Birmingham house.

The Van Hook residence, now the M.E. parsonage, was built between 1832 and 1853. The house where A.A. Perkins lives was built by John Pollock in the 50’s.

The house across the street from the railroad station, owned by Wm. B. Butler, had a store room, carriage house, stables and in his early 60’s was the home of Wm. M.C. Dravo, the brother of the veteran river and harbor man, John F. Dravo.

Prior to the war, coal mines were opened and operated by James Blackmore, one time mayor of Pittsburg, and others.

The old brick house once used as a ticket office by the P. & L.E.R.R. was the place where school was first held. It was built by private subscriptions for school and church purposes. There was a pulpit as well as desks.

During the Civil War period North Webster had not more than ten houses, about this time Mayor John Power added to the town plot. His home was the brick farmhouse on the hill. Later in 1876 Captain John Gilmore plotted additional lots.

In 1876 Webster had no church buildings and six saloons. Later these were reduced to two and in the Eighties there was no saloon for about eight years. Now there are four licensed hotels.

A more modern planning mill and barge building plant belonged to this period.

There have been four public school buildings, two one-room houses, one on the present school site, where the rudiments were taught and one on the hill owned by the Pittsburg Coal Co. where higher education was added. On present site one four-room building was burned and was replaced by another, to which has since been added two rooms and a room used as a district voting place.

The M.E. Church of Webster was built in about 1866 and has had a long succession of ministers: Chapman, Stevenson, Moore, Freshnater, Miller, Hayes, Taylor, Weaver, MacCaslin, Hofelt, Humbert, Rodkey, Thompson, Joffreys and Morris.

The Presbyterian work begun with a Sunday school organized May 1st, 1873. The church membership was under Rehoboth Church until April 30, 1907. The church building was dedicated in February 1881.

Inside thirty years the Pennsylvania Railroad was built up as far as Webster on the west side of the river. The station being down by Gilmore’s Ferry for about ten years. The P. & L.E. railroad was completed to Webster about the summer of 1889.

The merchants of Webster, those who have traded during her seventy-five years’ history enjoy a peculiar rectory – there have been but few failures. Great things have not been exploited that is, not before the building of the bridge – and few have suffered at their hands.

Will the seventy-five-year-old township village, with its rich surrounding acreages, its abundant gas supply and coalfields, good yet for a century to come, grow seventy-five years young again with borough control, paved and lighted streets, streetcars; furnished with uplifting influences rid of those that debase and degrade? Who knows! The story of the 20th Century will be its story, and the curtain drops on this Nineteenth Century story.

Emma Perkins


Fort Hill which shields the home of Thomas G. Finley from the river view was fortified in the Indian times. The many arrow heads turned up by the plow show that Indian warfare was directed against it and whole Indian skeletons in good preservation brought to light the same way prove that braves met opposition from the fortified country folk. E.P.


Anonymous said...

It was actually not the P&LE Railroad that came to Webster in 1889. It was another venture called McKeesport and Belle Vernon Railroad. However, since investors in this project were in some cases the same as investors in the P&LE, the P&LE purchased it about 1891.

Scott Beveridge said...

Thank you for the clarification. I'm sure the woman who wrote this gave it her best shot.