The Portage Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
The Portage Historic District is located in the Borough of Portage, a former refueling station for Pennsylvania Railroad locomotives. This town of 3,300 residents lies in the Conemaugh Valley in southeastern Cambria County. The District comprises a large area in the center of the Borough and exhibits development patterns from two distinct influences encompassing the late nineteenth century railroad related settlement and the subsequent early twentieth century coal related boom. The Portage Historic District contains 637 buildings, of which 561 are contributing, and encompasses about 50% of the Borough's area. In addition, there are five contributing structures; one a concrete base remaining in place from a mine shaft air vent and four bridges. There are two noncontributing structures; both bridges. Construction dates for the buildings within the historic district span one hundred years from the 1870s to the 1970s with most having been built between 1900 and 1925. The historic district consists of a commercial area located principally along Main Street (PA Rte. 164); residential neighborhoods to the east and west of Main Street; nine church buildings distributed throughout the residential areas; former Pennsylvania Railroad resources; two industrial complexes; and three buildings which housed social and cultural organizations. The district's range of historic architectural styles is limited exclusively to regional and national vernacular expressions of residential and commercial buildings. The principal residential building type is a two to two and one-half story, single family, wood frame house designed with a front gable or front gable with ell and built before 1916. Aluminum siding is present on approximately fifty percent of these houses with brick, wood, vinyl, asphalt and asbestos exterior wall treatments being used in almost equal parts on the remaining fifty percent. Textured block is the most prevalent foundation material with limestone a close second. The principal commercial building type is a two to three story brick or brick faced, three to five bay, two-part commercial block with flat roof built between either 1911 and 1916 or 1920 and 1925. The district's architectural character is largely intact overall; its integrity is affected more by the common use of synthetic siding and inappropriate alterations than by noncontributing infill or demolition. The integrity of the streetscapes, of the scale of the buildings, and of the original town and lot layout more than compensate for changes brought by the addition of aluminum and vinyl siding or the remodeling of window treatments and addition of porches.
Although Cambria County is situated entirely in the Allegheny Plateau Region of Pennsylvania, an area of rolling uplands cut by deep, steep stream valleys, it is near the eastern edge of the region where the plateau ends in the Allegheny Front. The Borough of Portage is located at a point on the western side of the Allegheny Ridge key to traversing the Ridge and accessing territory to the west. Several layers of physical features, man-made structures and phases of development within the immediate area have merged to give the Borough of Portage its present look. On the extreme northern edge of town and outside of the historic district is PA Rte. 53, the route having been established during the 1830s as the path of the Allegheny Portage Railroad. To the south and paralleling Route 53 is the original Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Established during the 1850s, it remains active as a spur serving a local coal operation. Between these two transportation corridors on a northeast to southwest diagonal is the 15' high express viaduct of the Pennsylvania Railroad, currently operated by Conrail. This 1896 addition to the landscape effectively disrupted residential development patterns in this area isolating somewhat the northwest corner where some early development had occurred. The affected area is not included in the Portage Historic District because the viaduct forms an effective visual barrier disallowing the drawing of a contiguous boundary. Further, a separate district cannot be identified north of the viaduct. The southern slope of the viaduct forms a one block segment of the historic district's northern boundary. From its intersection with Rte. 53, PA Rte. 164 follows Main Street south through town ascending Spring Hill at the southern end of the historic district before encountering and eventually descending the Allegheny Front to intersect PA Rte. 220 to the southeast. This was an important early route connecting the western part of the state with the Ridge and Valley section of central Pennsylvania. Rte. 164 remains not only one of the few connectors between these geographic regions in this vicinity but an extremely active one as evidenced by the high volume of traffic which flows along Main Street. The right-of-way of the former Martin's Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad follows a line south through the center of Branch Street. The track was removed and the trace leveled between Caldwell and Mountain Avenues during the 1970s to provide parking. There are presently two rows of parking meters designed to allow for head-in parking down the center of the right-of-way. Access to the parking is along either side of Branch Street. The trace with track is intact south of Mountain Avenue.
A further defining physical feature within the historic district is a small stream called Trout Run which cuts a course diagonally across the southwestern corner of the Borough from the southern end of Main Street to the original Main Line at the western boundary. The stream is bridged with flat concrete spans. The four contributing bridges built during the late 1920s and early 1930s are at Main Street near Johnson Avenue, Sonman Avenue between Cambria and Main Streets, Jefferson Avenue between Blair and Cambria Streets and Gillespie Avenue between Bedford and Blair Streets. The two noncontributing bridges replaced during the 1990s are at Conemaugh Avenue between Blair and Cambria Streets and Caldwell Avenue near Bedford Street. There are concrete railings at street level on both sides at all of these junctures. The stream is not bridged where it flows under Blair and Cambria Streets which somewhat limits access between Gillespie and Jefferson Avenues on Blair Street and between Conemaugh and Sonman Avenues on Cambria Street. Lot sizes and shapes are affected as the grid overlay interacts with the stream. Within this framework residential neighborhoods, the commercial district and several industrial complexes have been inserted.
The original settlement pattern, still visible, forms a "T" shape with the base stretching along North and South Railroad Avenues on either side of the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line to the west and the top pointing along Main Street north to the Old Portage Railroad and south to Trout Run. A commercial area developed along that north-south axis and residential neighborhoods developed east and west of Main Street south of the Main Line. It is these residential areas and the Main Street commercial district which separates them which comprise the majority of the historic district. The remainder of the historic district is a one block square north of the old Main Line centered around Main Street and bounded by the railroad viaduct at Washington Street. That portion of the historic district west of Main Street is on relatively flat ground at approximately 1700' above sea level. Avenues are oriented perpendicular to Main Street, intersecting at regular intervals. Most housing on the flats is set slightly back from the street near the front of deep, narrow (24' x 150') lots with few trees and with narrow alleys to the rear. East of Main Street the topography rises somewhat sharply to 1800' as the grid pattern encounters Spring Hill. Avenues parallel Main Street intersecting at only three places: Caldwell Avenue, near the north end; Mountain Avenue, near the center; and Johnson Avenue, near the south end. Housing stock on the east side of Main Street generally is sited close to the street on shorter, wider (50' x 100') lots than those on the west side. Trees line the streets from Mountain Avenue north to Caldwell Avenue.
The dominant residential streetscapes are of detached two to two and one-half story, balloon frame houses with stone or block foundations. The predominant roof type is a front gable and many structures have ell extensions, front porches and rear enclosures. A particularly trim example of this form is the house at 1011 Gillespie Avenue. This house beside Trout Run retains much original woodwork including its horizontal wood siding and collar beam which spans the gable opening as well as crown molding, roof returns and corner boards. The windows all retain decorative surrounds and the cottage window on the first floor right front has a decorative header with Queen Anne lights. In addition to this common form, there are also a number of classic box (Foursquare,) houses with hipped roofs in the historic district. Some good examples of this form are the three houses on the five hundred block of Caldwell Avenue; 510, 508 and 500 (a front gable at 504 separates 508 and 500). These three houses are of identical design with a small dormer centered on the front but utilize different construction materials. The house on the left, 510, is rendered in yellow brick while 508 and 500 retain original wood siding. Of these two, 508 retains more original material and character. The house on the corner, 500, has had its original porch replaced with concrete and wrought iron and new material introduced in the entryway. Also throughout the district are a number of I-houses — a vernacular house form having two identical rooms separated by a central hallway. A good example of this form is the house at 720 Vine Street. This house is a two-story, side-gable, frame dwelling using three bays with a central entrance and an enclosed side chimney. Original horizontal wood siding survives.
The oldest surviving houses in the historic district face north on South Railroad Avenue and are side gabled, I-houses with stone foundations built ca. 1870. Lot sizes vary but are generally the largest in the historic district. Buildings on the east end of the avenue were constructed first with subsequent blocks being added to the west by 1906 and, finally, 1916. In addition to the early I-houses there is the same variety of vernacular forms here as elsewhere in the district. An interesting example of the 1870 era is the house at 827 South Railroad which appears to be two, two story, side-gable, wood-frame buildings attached back to back. The entire form is presently stuccoed. The house at 809 South Railroad Avenue is unusual in the choice of original exterior materials. The house is a two story, front gable with ell constructed of river stone with board and batten on the second story. The veranda is stone as well.
Although there is no distinct hierarchy of style or architectural technique, there is a sense that business and professional people appear to have lived in as close proximity to the early layout of the town as possible, usually within one street or avenue of Main Street, with South Railroad Avenue, Caldwell Avenue, and Cambria Street west of Main Street and Caldwell Avenue and Farren Street east of Main Street being the most popular. Many of the houses in these named areas are slightly larger than those in other areas and contain modest architectural and stylistic features, although retaining a vernacular character overall. Dr. Logan's house at 614 Cambria Street, currently Jean Kinley Funeral Home, is a good example of this trend. This two and one-half story with Queen Anne features retains its original horizontal wood siding. The building incorporates a two and one-half story hexagonal tower with faceted cap at the southeast corner. There are fish scale shingles on the dormers and top portion of the tower. The veranda encompasses the south elevation, wraps around the southeast corner and continues along the east elevation with Tuscan columns supporting the roof. Margaret Pearce's residence at 532 Main, presently the Beck Funeral Home, is also a good example of the locating of the residences of the more well-to-do. This ca. 1906 two and one-half story, side gable, red brick house has Colonial Revival style elements in its dentil bands and roof returns. The building also incorporates a two-story rear extension.
The historic district contains 93 commercial buildings; 84 contributing, 9 noncontributing. Historically, the central business district developed from north to south along Main Street. The historic district contains the visible reminder of the ca. 1870 commercial district consisting of three hotels and four stores north of the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line as well as the commercial district south of the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line which developed in tandem with the 1900-1925 period of growth. The nineteenth century buildings are wood frame with wood siding and stone foundations. Pringle's store, now Bob's TV, on the northeast corner of Main Street and North Railroad Avenue is representative of these buildings. It is a two and one-half story, front-gable with ell, wood-frame building with a storefront entrance in its southwest corner. Directly across the tracks from these nineteenth century buildings is the ca. 1906 Pennsylvania Railroad freight station and the 60' by 20' Palmer Feed Mill with a one-story timber-frame building that served as an office attached to its south facade. Constructed ca. 1916 this two and one-half story, timber-frame building contains a one-story cupola and rests on a stone foundation. The building was served by a spur of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The aesthetics of the highly supportive relationship between railroad and commerce are still extremely evident upon entering the viewshed of this particular at-grade crossing.
The twentieth century Main Street commercial area has something of a utilitarian look to many of its buildings. Architecturally they are largely two-part commercial blocks characterized by a horizontal division into two distinct zones. They generally contained stores on the ground floor and offices or residences on the upper floors. Many of the commercial buildings from the 1900-1925 period bear signs of nineteenth century lineage in their segmental arch windows, while a few foreshadow the more functional and stripped-down lines of the twentieth century. There are also several vernacular residential types from the late nineteenth century among the commercial buildings lining Main Street. They are reflective of other residential buildings in the historic district in design and material. Some of these remain strictly residential while others have been altered with store front additions. These conversions appear to have been accomplished during the period of significance and contribute to the historic commercial character of Main Street. Of the 67 contributing commercial buildings that line Main Street, 34 are brick or brick veneered, 29 are wood-frame, and four are constructed of other materials including stone or block. Among the brick veneered buildings, several are veneered on the face only. Architecturally, the integrity of the commercial block buildings within the district is largely intact in upper floors. Many of the first floor store fronts have been modernized in material and design. Common to wood-frame buildings in this region, many have been covered with modern siding, generally vinyl or aluminum. The majority of the buildings tend, however, to retain other distinguishing original features such as windows, doors, chimneys and rooflines. The storefronts, many with parapeted or stepped gable roof lines, are set against the sidewalk and unified in function. The 'better' commercial addresses seem to have been those close to the intersection of Main Street and Caldwell Avenue as indicated by the more authoritative facades and their somewhat consistent texture, color, and design. The long association of Goldstein's Department Store, presently the U.S. Post Office (leased), with the southwest corner of this main intersection began ca. 1906 with the construction of a two-story, wood-frame building which was subsequently brick veneered. With the exception of a soldier course of bricks which encircles the building above the second story windows forming a continuous lintel flush with the wall and sills formed with a slightly extended rowlock course of bricks this building is singularly unadorned below its stepped gable. Its nineteenth century lineage is clear. Directly across Main Street on the southeast corner of this intersection is the more ornamental Pearce Building. Built in 1914, at a time when departure from standard patterns of composition was common, the Pearce Building combines elements and characteristics from earlier commercial styles to present a more streamlined and polished appearance. The building incorporates patterned corbeling in the brick, concrete lintels and a classical arched entryway with pilasters and name plate on the west facade. An entrance on the northwest corner has been closed off.
In addition to shops and professional services, Portage's commercial community once contained numerous hotels that served a varied clientele associated with its three primary industries at the turn of the century. The older hotels, largely the Yeckley House (Anderson House) , the Exchange Hotel (Kiels) , and Union House (Starlite Hotel) along North Railroad Avenue, are wood-frame, front and side gable types with very limited Carpenter Gothic detailing and were initially built as hotels located to take advantage of the railroad depot. The younger hotels are located south of the Main Line and include examples ranging from adapted house types to those newly built hotels billed in 1913 as having all modern conveniences. An example of the former is the ca. 1916 Central Hotel, a large, two and one-half story, wood-frame building with a hip roof and dormers, on the south side of Caldwell Avenue's 900 block. The Central Hotel still operates as a local bar and rooming house. The former Waldorf Hotel, a three story, brick-faced, flat roofed building constructed ca. 1906 as a hotel, is wedge-shaped to conform to its prime location on a similar shaped lot at the corner of Caldwell Avenue between the Martin's Branch Line and Main Street. This building is presently standing vacant.
The historic district contains two former Pennsylvania Railroad buildings. North of the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line is the former Pennsylvania Railroad passenger station at the corner of Washington and Lee Streets ca. 1916. This structure is currently owned by the Stager Wrecking Company but houses the Portage Historical Society's museum. The station, sited next to the elevated Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line (Conrail), is intact and retains integrity despite a large block structure attached to the south end. This two and one-half story brick, side gable building has a symmetrical front facade with three bays of paired windows on the second story while the first story has doorways flanked by single windows below the outside pairs and a large bay window with a triple window centered below the middle pair. Also within the historic district at the intersection of the Pennsylvania's Railroad original Main Line (south side) and Main Street (east side) is the former railroad freight depot. This wood-frame building was constructed ca. 1906 and is now covered with aluminum and asphalt siding.
The historic district contains two industrial and manufacturing complexes. Silk manufacturing and mining supply developed as secondary industries in Portage during the early twentieth century. Both industries remain active in their original buildings. The sewing factory was established in Portage by garment manufacturers seeking locations which offered convenient transportation facilities and an eager labor pool. The Century Ribbon Mill was constructed in two stages with the north section, including a two-story 120' x 30' mill, a coal shed, and a steam generating room, erected between 1906 and 1911. Another mill of similar dimensions was erected to the south between 1911 and 1916. The two mills were originally separated by a small courtyard but were joined together by a two-story brick addition possibly as early as the 1930s. The mill contains a coal fired steam-generating station to power weaving and sewing machines. Antmart, Inc., a manufacturer of ladies apparel currently operates this mill. In 1928 the Leman Machine Company, Inc. moved to Portage from New Kensington in Westmoreland County. Samuel Leman acquired property at the western end of South Railroad Street which included a ca. 1916 brick building from the Portage Bronze Electric Co., a mining supply operation. That building has pilastered brick walls and timber trusses with iron rods. A wooden frame addition covered with clapboard siding is attached to the west side. The complex also includes a concrete-block building, erected about 1956, attached to the wood frame building via a series of frame additions. The Leman Machine Company is currently involved in machining, welding, fabricating, and assembling equipment for the mining, railroad, and steel industries.
Religious affiliation has always been an important aspect of life in Portage and church buildings of various denominations and ethnic backgrounds are highly visible within the historic district. There are nine church buildings in the district. Of the eight contributing buildings, seven are currently active and one is vacant. The noncontributing building has been converted to apartments. First Lutheran Church was the earliest church established in Portage with the construction of a wood frame building in 1872. In 1916 the original building was moved one block to its present site at 906 Caldwell Avenue and incorporated into the design and construction of a new nave addition. Presently, the entire building is faced with buff colored brick. St. Michael's Orthodox Church was built on Blair Street in 1915 and maintains the Carpathian tradition of Orthodoxy in its worship. This one and one-half story, yellow brick, front gable building has a central square tower with a single large dome. Due to weathering, two small domes were removed from the building in 1985. Other active churches in the district include Trinity Methodist on Caldwell Avenue; Bethany United Methodist on Farren Street; The Spanish Mission style Sacred Heart Catholic on Orchard Street; St. John the Baptist Catholic and the Christian and Missionary Alliance, both on Johnson Street. The vacant SS. Peter and Paul Byzantine Catholic Church stands on Prospect Street having been abandoned for a new facility in 1971. This contributing buff colored brick building is deteriorating, its foundation is cracked and many of its stained glass windows have been broken. The Slovak congregation of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church recently moved into a new facility outside of the historic district. Their former church building remains at 1000 Main Street but is noncontributing due to its conversion to low income housing. Original pointed-arch front entrance and windows on Main Street have been covered over as have the side windows to allow for the opening of an entrance on the north side of the building at Sonman Avenue. This large two and one-half story, front gable, wood-frame building constructed ca. 1911 which was always painted white has had its original wood siding covered with asbestos shingles. The tower which graced the Main Street end has been removed. The rectory, adjacent to the former church building, is a two and one-half story yellow brick with hip roof and a tower on one side of the front facade and remains in residential use.
Fraternal halls and clubs were formed by ethnic groups to provide social activities and to offer insurance to its members. The historic district contains three contributing former club buildings; two are vacant and the third has been converted to residential use. The Koscruszki Club, a mutual aid society for Polish immigrants used the one and one-half story, wood frame building at 603 Bedford Street until the organization was dissolved in 1986. The building was most recently known as the Sundance Ballroom but now stands empty. The former Hungarian Hall at 926 Conemaugh Avenue is a one story, brick, front gable, built ca. 1920. The building faces Conemaugh Avenue and stretches the length of its corner lot to the alley at the rear.
The Portage Historic District contains comparatively few noncontributing resources for a district of this size. The settlement patterns and streetscapes remain largely intact with relatively little new construction occurring within the historic district. Although alterations, especially to historic building materials, and demolition, most notably in the commercial district have taken their toll; a strong sense of the historic feeling, spatial relationships and associations is still evident. Overall, approximately twelve percent of the Portage Historic District is rated noncontributing. The majority of these are residential. Seventy-four percent of this figure consists of buildings constructed after the period of significance; the remainder are buildings from the period of significance that have lost their architectural integrity through substantial alterations. Cosmetic alterations such as replacement of siding, windows, doors or signs with modern equivalents is not sufficient to classify a building as noncontributing. Substantial alterations generally consist of major character-altering changes in fenestration, roof line, or facade. Residential examples of these are randomly located and vary according to the remodeling schemes of individual property owners. An illustration of this is the house at 614 Farren Street which was originally built as a two story, brick, front gable ca. 1911. Presently a brick, two story, square extends the front of the house toward the sidewalk nearly obscuring the original lines of the house and giving the present version the appearance of a slight Tudor influence.
Although the architectural integrity of the commercial district along Main Street has been weakened by the reworking and updating of building facades, by the demolition of properties and the construction of new buildings, it still retains the feeling and association of a historic commercial area. The east side of the 700 block of Main Street has suffered the greatest loss of integrity within the commercial district due to demolition and new construction. There are four modern buildings, a vacant lot, and a parking lot covering the southern one-half of the block including a one story, concrete, modern store front at 709; the two story, concrete, Portage Municipal Building ca. 1972 at 719; the one story, concrete, Portage Volunteer Fire Company firehouse at 721; and finally, at the corner of Main Street and Mountain Avenue, the ultra-modern dark brown brick and solar bronze glass Portage National Bank designed by architects Murray and Horley of Pittsburgh. Changes in the remainder of town have not been as dramatic. Noncontributing resources are more scattered throughout the district and there is a buffer zone between the district and post World War II residential areas where, although many buildings are contemporary to those within the historic district, the lack of consistent integrity of scale, massing, materials, and streetscapes does not warrant inclusion in the district and, therefore, cannot be considered as an extension of the district.
Overall, the Portage Historic District as presented, retains its feeling and association with the transportation systems that placed it on the "industrial 'Main Street' of Pennsylvania" and the commercial enterprises and labor community that cooperated to keep it there. Significance
The Portage Historic District is locally significant between ca. 1870 and 1945 under National Register Criteria A and C in the areas of commerce, transportation, and architecture. As a transfer point for coal shipments and a market town and operations base for area mining concerns, Portage played a significant role in the local transportation and commercial history of southwestern Pennsylvania. The resultant built environment is significant in the area of architecture due to its expression of railroad disseminated vernacular housing, nineteenth century trends toward shop-house urban commercial forms, and early twentieth century transitional commercial compositions. Overall, the significance of the Portage Historic District lies in its ability to accurately convey a physical sense of the role of transportation in the town's commercial and architectural development.
The first phase in the permanent settlement of the Portage area features the increasingly ambitious technologies employed to develop and advance overland transportation across the Allegheny Ridge. Until the Allegheny Portage Railroad was opened in 1834, the highlands of the Allegheny Plateau were relatively inaccessible and the Allegheny Ridge presented a major obstacle to east-west traffic. To overcome the Allegheny Mountains and complete the Main Line Canal system across Pennsylvania, engineers devised an innovative system of ten inclined planes to carry passengers and goods across the barrier. The Pennsylvania Board of Canal Commissioners was given approval by the General Assembly to begin building the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal in 1826. Inclined Plane #2 was opened in 1834 in an area which is approximately one mile northeast of the Portage Historic District. The inclined-plane railroad carried trains loaded with canal boats up the slopes and locomotives pulled the trains across relatively level areas. At the foot of Plane #2, as at each stop, inns opened to serve hungry, thirsty, and tired travelers, establishing the first village known as Portage and foreshadowing the larger town of Portage that would develop and incorporate in later years to the southeast.
Two decades after the Allegheny Portage Railroad began operations, the privately owned Pennsylvania Railroad added another phase to travel over the Allegheny Ridge. In this case engineers devised an innovative system of culverts and a large embankment to lay track on a grade that would ensure reliable and easy travel. This system took the route along Burgoon Run, across Kittanning Run, Kittanning Point, and Glen White Run, around Allegheny Mountain to Sugar Run, and ultimately to a tunnel under the summit, which would eliminate the last 150 feet of grade, near Sugar Run Gap. The resulting Horseshoe Curve and 3612 foot long Gallitzin Tunnel were officially opened for traffic in 1854. On the eastern side of the Allegheny Ridge, at the foot of the Allegheny Front, the Pennsylvania Railroad created its largest complex of railroad engine building and maintenance shops as well as the focal point for its engineering leadership at Altoona. On the western side of the Allegheny Ridge, at Johnstown, the Cambria Works and other companies constructed one of the greatest steel-making centers in the nation. In between these two industrial cities numerous companies, large and small, labored in an underground maze of coal mines feeding the excavated fuel for both steam railroads and steel furnaces to transport vehicles on the surface. When the Pennsylvania Railroad began operation of its Main Line it followed roughly the same corridor as the Allegheny Portage Railroad, but diverged enough to effectively displace the canal and its portage rail system as well as doom the first village of Portage which had been growing at the foot of plane #2. The Borough of Portage discussed here in terms of its historic district developed around the Pennsylvania Railroad's Portage Station. With the opening of area coal mines and an expansion in lumbering operations during the 1870s, activity around Portage Station increased but growth was slow over the next three decades. Portage Borough was finally cut from Portage Township and incorporated in 1890. Both the Borough and the township take their name from the well-known natural portage between the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River to the east and the Little Conemaugh River to the west. The Borough's period of greatest growth began after the turn of the century continuing into the mid-1920s until area coal mines began to close due to strikes and downturns in the coal industry nationally.
Market demand and advancing technology in the lumber industry coalesced during the mid-nineteenth century to give that industry its production moment. During the 1850s and 1860s Pennsylvania came to lead the nation in the production of sawed and planed lumber and by 1860 the lumber industry had more establishments (primarily sawmills) than any other type of business in Pennsylvania. Given the mid-century development of the Pennsylvania Railroad, a number of sawmills were built in the Portage area along Trout Run including several within the current confines of the historic district. With the added growth of coal mining in the region, the Portage lumber industry shifted emphasis to satisfy a steady demand for both railroad ties and mine props. Logs were hauled along Main Street to a railroad tower on South Railroad Avenue preparatory to transportation out of the region. No buildings or structures associated with these mills or the shipping of lumber survive within the district. However, a tram road which was later converted to the Martin Run Railroad Branch and finally became the Pennsylvania Railroad's Martin's Branch connected a mill which was located at what is now the intersection of Branch Street and Caldwell Avenue with the Puritan mine just south of Portage. Pennsylvania's national rank in lumber production had already slipped to second by 1870 and continued to drop dramatically through the remainder of the century. Although a few sawmills continued in operation in the Portage area after the turn of the century, coal mining had replaced lumbering as the major segment of the economy of Portage, and as the town's leading occupation beginning in the 1880s. The sawmills and lumber yards which remained shifted their emphasis again as the demand for housing for the new immigrant miners provided a ready-made market for their goods and services.
Mines in the immediate vicinity of Portage were contained within the valleys of Spring Run and Trout Run which form a "V" shape with an intersect at Portage on the western end. A number of satellite mining communities were also established in association with these mines including Sonman, Shoemaker, and Benscreek to the northeast and Blue Bird, Miller Shaft, Red Bird, Fiddler's Green, Puritan, and Martindale to the southeast. Portage's Main Line location at the base of the "V" and the center of operations made it a natural residential and commercial hub. Although there were no mines listed as Portage mines, Portage miners worked in all mines up and down the line.
The Manuscript Census for 1900 gives a clear snapshot of Portage in that year listing existing streets as New Portage Road, Lee, Washington, North and South Railroad, Caldwell, Hamers, Main, Farren and Mountain. The population of Portage, which was at that time of western European origin, had grown by 66% from 274 in 1880 to 816 in 1900. At that time a majority of the oldest generation were from Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, Germany and France. Occupationally, one-third of the heads of household were coal miners while the other two-thirds provided the services rewired by a growing town as teamsters, landlords, hotel keepers, carriage builders, butchers, blacksmiths, store keepers, undertakers, grocers, jewelers, railroad day laborers, farmers, and carpenters. Rapid growth to the south, especially from the turn of the century to the end of the First World War, produced the present Main Street with its current mix of commercial and residential properties as well as large residential developments to its east and west. The late nineteenth century community, which had been largely German and English speaking, took on a multi-ethnic character early in this current century as many eastern Europeans found work in the coal mines with the population nearly quadrupling to 2,954 during the decade leading up to the next census. Out of this dynamic interaction came a complex residential, commercial, and social architecture.
Because Portage was a town that moved coal, rather than a coal mining town, there were various developmental entities at work and, therefore, choices. Home ownership was an early option for anyone in Portage who could find the means to take that step. W. H. Moudy of Portage would "sell lots and build homes on them at very reasonable monthly payments to good straight-for-powered men" who wanted to own a home of their own. In 1913, efforts were also underway to motivate residents to a "greater degree of enthusiasm for home development" evidenced by the announcement of a lecture by Stanley L. Krebs on city growth and expansion. The Keystone Lumber Company, ca. 1905, which still operates from the east end of North Railroad Avenue wanted people to own a home and they wanted to build it. The Derrick Brothers were contractors who built the houses at 510, 504, and 500 Caldwell Avenue for themselves as their own families and business expanded. The Martin Realty Company operating at the north end of Main Street recommended the purchase of a lot "to get started thriftily" preparing for the building of a home.
In addition to the private development of housing in Portage, several coal companies did build some company housing in the area. In Portage this practice was extremely limited to the Beachley Coal Company houses, all contributing: at 901 and 919 Sonman Avenue; for the bosses on Johnson Avenue at 912, 926, and a double at 916-918; and at 911 Jefferson Avenue, also a double. The housing boom in Portage came when construction materials could be moved rapidly and cheaply over long distances by rail thus changing traditional building materials and construction techniques. The houses in the Portage Historic District exhibit a lack, with the possible exception of a few I-houses, of pre-railroad regional building traditions. There are only railroad inspired national house forms usually constructed with light balloon or braced framing and originally clad with wood, reflecting period architecture and design.
The commercial district also developed independently from the coal companies. Prevalent from the 1850s to the 1950s, the two-part commercial block building which is such a large part of Portage's commercial architecture emerged as a distinct type. The hostelry tradition in America has generally reflected historic commercial trends in theory and in form. The evolution has been from the simple overnight accommodation during the early push west which faded as the railroad established itself as the leader in transportation until it was supplanted by the car culture. The hotel tradition in Portage has largely responded to these trends in kind and reflects the post Civil War era in which the hotel developed generally as a specialized building form. In Portage, the hotels had clearly developed beyond mere overnight accommodations; playing, as they did, a significant role in the life of the community. For example, The Mountain House Hotel, an early twentieth century landmark which once included thirty rooms with a restaurant and bar on the ground floor, was advertised as a commercial men's home costing $.50 a day more than several other hotels in town. Built ca. 1910, the Mountain House is a large, three and one-half story brick building with a Mansard roof. It is four-bays wide across its front elevation on Farren Street and eight-bays wide on its south elevation along Mountain Avenue. The main entrance was through the double doors on Farren Street and past the barber shop in the little corner room on the left. All the way to the back was the big barroom, with a painting by Laurence Whitaker hanging above the bar. Chandeliers provided the lighting. The kitchen was in the back, and there was a big room for the Friday night dances. This once handsome building is currently vacant and has lost its wraparound porch roof and supporting columns. Even in its deteriorated condition, however, it is easily recognizable as a local landmark reflecting the commercial and architectural significance of the district. During the 1918 influenza epidemic the Mountain House was used as a hospital.
While most commercial activities, including many of the hotels, were confined to Main Street, the historic district does contain several neighborhood enterprises including grocery stores and barber shops. A good example of this activity is Porinchak's Market, a three and one-half story, stepped gable, commercial building constructed ca. 1916. Aluminum siding has been applied to the building but the original first floor storefront has been retained. This market has been assigned the distinction of being the oldest known family owned business in Portage having been started in an earlier building on this site ca. 1900. Deliveries were made from this market first by horse and wagon and then by truck and the store is much the same — selling groceries and specializing in meat — "maintaining the neighborhood grocery store courtesy and service."
It is not possible to discuss the cultural and architectural landmarks of Portage without mentioning the churches. Portage has a rich and varied heritage in these buildings. The people of Portage built churches in which their native tongues were spoken and where familiar traditions from the 'Old Country' were followed. Throughout the years, the community has been enriched by the language, the colorful customs, and the beauty and variety of its churches. From their location at 1017 Main Street, Portage Construction Company, ca. 1915, specialized in church construction. Initially, several churches were constructed along Main Street but the decision seems to have been made that the business of Main Street was business and there are now no active churches there. A number of Portage's congregations replaced their earliest facilities with new buildings after the turn of the century. Congregations from many of the churches regardless of denomination held services and Sunday School in the hall that was on the second story of the Goldstein building at the corner of Main Street and Caldwell Avenue when they were without facilities of their own. Abraham Goldstein, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who settled in Portage in 1889, operated his store from the commercial space on the first story.
Mining and Portage cannot be considered separately and have even been compared to a marriage. This marriage has produced statistics; some sorrowful, others satisfying. This marriage often required 'skimping and scraping' but just as often meant new cars, new shoes and a night on the town. The building at 926 Main Street currently owned and occupied by Amvets is remembered by long-time Portage residents as THE community building. Miner's Hall was in use every day for everything from dancing classes to union meetings. It was the official home of Local Union 498 which met on the second floor allowing commercial space for several businesses on the first floor. The building was brick-faced during renovations which were accomplished during the Depression and financed by various fund raising activities. Prior to renovation, when this building was in disrepair and soon to be condemned by a fire marshal, 600 striking miners met at Hungarian Hall at 926 Conemaugh Avenue to "protest the unlawful attitude" of the State Police who, miners said were riding them down and throwing tear bombs without just cause. The State Police were accused of clubbing and arresting nine men and two women who were "innocent by the standards of our town."
The post World War II period brought a slump in the steel industry which resulted in a depressed coal market and the loss of thousands of mining jobs. The 1950s were exceptionally hard on blue collar workers in the Portage area where there was much un- and underemployment. By the mid-1960s, rebuilding of the nation's infrastructure had begun, the market for steel exports had improved, and coal was in demand again. Local mines and steel mills did well during the 1970s and the economy moved ahead. A nationwide recession in 1982, however, hit the local industry and especially the larger union mines hard so that by the end of the decade the trend was toward small nonunion operations. Today there are only two operating coal mines in the Portage area.
The architectural and commercial significance of Portage is best understood in its context with other towns in the area which owe their existence to the advancing technology of transportation. Most notably, Portage compares favorably with Altoona where the railroad was the company but the town was not strictly a company town. The development of their architecture and commerce followed similar patterns. In 1916, the Altoona Tribune, reported that "no one who lives in Altoona needs to be told that it is the railroad city. Altoona did not just happen ...The railroad did not come to it; the railroad built it." Altoona has been historically described as a place "where there is neither the very rich nor the very poor," as "a city of homes" or as "a one-class city." While that may not be an entirely complete view of the city's composition, it is the case for large cross-sections of it. It is also true that although there was an absence of a strong union movement in the city, Altoona's workers were not universally content. Altoona was founded in 1849 and immediately bisected by the main line tracks that stretch along the center of the valley. Neighborhoods were made to conform to the line of the tracks and there was no public space apparent in the original town plan. The ca. 1852 Logan House initially answered the need for railroad passenger accommodations as did the Yeckley Hotel in Portage. In terms of worker housing the Pennsylvania Railroad owned, at most, eleven double houses which it divested itself of by 1859, having sold them to their employee-occupants. Architecturally the residential streets in the original city display a stylistic variety of single-family houses, constructed on a one-by-one basis and suited to individual tastes. They are replete with ornamented porches and cornices, differing roof shapes, and a variety of materials. Only in slight contrast to these upper-middle-class houses were those owned by the larger skilled working class and described in 1911 as "mostly frame structures, built singly and in pairs, arranged so that light and air are abundant, and small garden plots are not infrequent." The early commercial center was no more than a cluster of frame shops along Main Street which followed the Main Line. The development of the commercial district can be divided into four major phases of building activity. Early development (1850-80) was characterized by the predominance of frame shops and low, brick buildings; the 1890s witnessed the first building boom, with a reorientation of the commercial district toward 11th Street. Two later cycles of rebuilding, in 1900-10, and 1920-30, clearly transformed the scale of the commercial district, introducing new building types and a variety of architectural styles. Residential and commercial cycles in Portage clearly coincide, with slight adjustment for the slower early growth and later date for the coal related boom.
As seen in many southwestern Pennsylvania towns associated with commerce and transportation, many of the buildings within the Portage Historic District have experienced alterations over the years. However, this does not interfere with the ability of the District to accurately convey a sense of the town's transportation related commercial and architectural development. Coal was the company around which commerce revolved and the Portage Historic District retains the look and feel of what it historically was, a home for thousands of miners and a commercial hub strongly influenced by the transportation system which allowed fluidity within the region in addition to plugging it into the larger world beyond the region.
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Blair Street • Caldwell Avenue • Cambria Street • Conemaugh Avenue • Factory Alley • Farren Street • Jefferson Avenue • Johnson Avenue • Main Street • Mountain Avenue • Orchard Street • Park Avenue • Prospect Street • Railroad Avenue North • Railroad Avenue South • Sonman Avenue • Vine Street