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Centerville Borough

Centerville Borough Hall is located at 100 East End Road, Brownsville PA 15417; phone: 724-785-9206.

Beginnings [1]

The earliest permanent settlement in the vicinity of today's Centerville began in the late eighteenth century with the arrival of land speculators and Quaker families from Eastern Pennsylvania and Virginia. The first land patents in the area date from the 1780s, though some pioneers were already occupying the land in the 1760s. Small communities of farms, inns, and meeting houses carrying names such as Powelltown, Low Hill, and Maiden were established near present-day Centerville over the next several decades. Although many of these settlements thrived in the late eighteenth century, they survive today as only small collections of buildings. (Crumrine, p. 769-770)

The construction and opening of the National Road in 1818 changed the relative fortunes of communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Those located along its path flourished as a result of the new traffic and access to Eastern markets. Similarly, prime undeveloped locations on the road were surveyed into lots, then promoted and sold for development. The land that would become Centreville was subdivided by a Quaker farmer named John Cleaver, who sold six lots in April 1819. At least one of these lots was purchased by John Vale, who with Samuel Rogers, laid out a new town plan. A few months later, Cleaver and Lambert Boyer ran an advertisement in the Washington Examiner announcing the sale of "A number of lots handsomely and conveniently situated in the above newly laid off town" of Monroe. The exact reason for this temporary name change remains undetermined, but the location described in the promotion corresponds with that of Centreville. (Forrest, 1955, pp. 65-66)

Cleaver's and Boyer's advertisement suggested that "A more eligible situation for mechanics, innkeepers, and merchants, could scarcely be offered in the western country (Forrest, 1955, p.66)." By the time Cleaver and Rogers finally platted the entire town into fifty-three building lots and a brick yard (the brick yard was located behind the extant Rogers Tavern, where the Fulmer Garage now stands) in June 1821, the strategically located community already contained several taverns and wagon stands (Crumrine, pp.770). The prosperity fostered by the National Road led to the rapid construction of several more shops and residences in the new community serving both travelers and local fanners. Most of these early structures were built of brick from the nearby brickyard in vernacular adaptations of the Federal and Greek Revival styles. Several buildings from this period dominate the center of the district today including those at 905, 909, 911, 914, and 918 Old National Pike.

Taverns served as the primary commercial and social centers along the National Road, providing not only food, drink, and shelter for travelers, but a convenient gathering place for local residents to obtain news from the East and West. The earliest tavern in Centreville was kept by John Rogers. It is a brick building still standing on the north side of the road at the intersection of S. R. 481 in the center of the district. The ca. 1821 Rogers House, known as an orderly, well kept tavern, probably catered to wealthy stagecoach travelers. The inn was kept by at least three generations of the Rogers family throughout the heyday of the National Road (1818-1853). The other extant tavern in the Centerville Historic District is the ca. 1835 Zephania Riggle Tavern. The Riggle Tavern was the primary wagon stand in the community with a large wagon yard in the rear. Replacing an earlier tavern on the site which was destroyed by fire, the tavern remained open to travelers until the turn of the century, long after the National Road's decline at the hands of the railroad. This brick building still stands at 935 Old National Pike. A third tavern, no longer extant, was also owned by Zephania Riggle and later a Mrs. Dutton, who operated it from the 1820s through the 1840s. (Searight, pp. 263-264)

Several other businesses on the National Road in Centreville served both travelers and locals. Blacksmiths, groceries, hardware stores, wagon makers, and druggists were all found in Centerville until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The E. H. Griffith Store, located at 901 Old National Pike is an example of these businesses. One of the more noted businesses based in Centreville during the heyday of the National Road was operated by Battley White, who produced blacksnake whips. Made of pliable soft leather with a wood handle and a long cracker made of plaited silk, White's whips were popular among wagoners and coach drivers on the National Road. This type of commercial activity was typical of National Road communities.

The peak years of the National Road ended with the completion of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad between Baltimore and Wheeling in 1853 and the Pennsylvania Railroad between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in 1855. The majority of westbound traffic preferred the faster, more comfortable, and less expensive new mode of transport. The National Road fell into disrepair and, for the second half of the nineteenth century, became primarily a local access road for the farming communities in rural portions of Fayette and Washington Counties. Most taverns and many other businesses which had relied on National Road traffic had closed by the Civil War. Communities along the road either declined or discovered new identities. This was the case for Centreville, which became a small commercial and social center for its primarily agricultural surroundings and later mining communities.

Although the village's population declined throughout the period from 263 in 1870 to 218 in 1900 to 180 in 1910 (McFarland, p. 414), it continued to provide a variety of services for the area. In 1870 the village included fifty homes (including some recently constructed in the popular Italianate style), four stores, a school, and a church. In 1872 the present Methodist-Episcopal Church was constructed, replacing a simpler 1834 structure. Two Odd Fellows lodges, the 1868 Cedar Lodge No. 633 and the 1881 Centreville Encampment, as well as several other fraternal and social organizations were established in Centreville (no structures survive from these societies). By 1882, the village included five grocers and dry goods stores, a wagon shop, a boot and shoe maker, a cabinet maker, a blacksmith, a drug store, and a hardware store. In 1894 the community had two practicing physicians and, by the 1900s, a telegraph office was established. (McFarland, p. 414, Crumrine, p. 770)

Although the National Road is best known for being the nation's first major trade and transportation artery to the West, it had a second, quieter life as a major conduit of the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves escaping from the South. Southwestern Pennsylvania was particularly active in the anti-slavery campaign; the Jan. 13, 1827 Washington Examiner announced the founding of the Centreville Abolition Society. Various homes and businesses in the area became safe stops for escaped slaves traveling from Uniontown to Pittsburgh via Washington. The Riggle Tavern, the E. H. Griffith Store, and the residences of several local Quakers are reputed to have been stops on the Underground Railroad in the Centerville Historic District.

The development of coal mining and the coke industry revitalized commerce in Centerville (the spelling had been changed from Centre to Center in the late nineteenth century) in the 1880s and 1890s. Although the company mining towns of Knob Hill, Waterbox, Vesta Six and Seven, Posey Town, Denbo, Driftwood, New Hill, Binnstown, and Richeyville provided housing and most supplies for the miners, Centerville prospered as a commercial district for mine managers who preferred to shop outside the company stores. The growth of the area's population as a result of the mines led to the incorporation of the Centerville Borough on February 16, 1895 and the building of larger schools in the village in 1906 and 1937 (the last of these buildings was demolished in 1985).

The coal and coke industries began a steady decline in the early twentieth century, but the growing popularity of automobile touring beginning in the 1910s brought a resurgence of travel to the National Road. An expanding middle class with more leisure time combined with the affordability of mass-produced assembly-line automobiles in the 1910s and 1920s to create a boom in tourism along historic roads and trails. By 1910, portions of the National Road had already been improved for rubber-tired vehicles and in 1926 the National Road was designated a part of U. S. Route 40, a primary transcontinental highway. The Centerville area's surviving restaurants and lodging facilities experienced a rebirth during this era. New businesses also developed to serve a new generation of travelers, these included John Williams Service Station (located at 968 Old National Pike).

Unfortunately, the depression of the 1930s and World War II gas rationing precipitated a decline in automobile touring. Following the war, the newly-constructed Pennsylvania Turnpike drew most of the east-west traffic from the U. S. 40 in Pennsylvania. The improvements to the road which accompanied the development of automotive travel also included the rerouting of U. S. Route 40, bypassing Centerville entirely in the 1960s. By the late 1960s Centerville had evolved from a commercial center into a quiet residential community.

Sources:

Crumrine, Boyd. History of Washington County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts Company Press of J.B. Lippencott and Company. 1882.

Forrest, Earle R. History of the National Pike in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Washington, PA: Washing ton County Historical Society, n.d .; originally printed in the Washington Observer and Washington Reporter serially 1955.

McFarland, Joseph F. Twentieth Century History of the City of Washington and Washington County, Pennsylvania. Chicago: Richmond-Arnold Publ. Co. 1910.

Searight, Thomas. The Old Pike: A History of the National Road, with Incidents, Accidents, and Anecdotes Thereon. Berryville, VA: The Prince Maccus Publishers. reprinted 1983.

  1. [adapted from:] Baacke, Adam, Centerville Historic District, nomination document, 1996, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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