Saltsburg Historic District
The Saltsburg Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.
Saltsburg is a small town situated at the confluence of the Kiskiminetas and Conemaugh Rivers. The proposed district, which represents the oldest part of the Borough and is significant for the period of 1820-1941, includes most of the properties fronting on or west of Salt Street. This crescent-shaped area of approximately 48 acres contains 118 contributing and 32 non-contributing buildings. The district may best be characterized as a nineteenth and early twentieth century residential community with a small commercial district and several church buildings, a community where vernacular architectural styles predominate. The 118 contributing buildings represent all twelve decades of the district's period of significance: 1820's (1), 1830's (16), 1840's (18), 1850's (12), 1860's (10), 1870's (8), 1880's (14), 1890's (4), 1900's (8), 1910's (8), 1920's (4), and 1930's (3); 12 of the 118, mostly garages, are of undetermined date, but pre-date 1941. Almost all of the 32 non-contributing buildings post-date 1941, and the majority of those do not significantly detract from the district's visual quality. The district also contains one contributing structure (retaining walls of the former Western Pennsylvania Railroad), one contributing site (the former canal/railroad bed and Lock #8), and fifteen contributing objects (canal marker stones). While the town's focus has changed over the years with respect to the major canal, rail, and road routes that pass through it, its fundamental fabric remains largely intact. Changes to individual buildings are, for the most part, reversible. If systematically and accurately restored, therefore, Saltsburg has the potential to represent the evolution of a western Pennsylvania canal town well into the twentieth century.
The district, itself rather flat, is clearly delineated topographically. In addition to the high river banks to the west and south, the district is somewhat confined by the stone retaining walls of the former Western Pennsylvania Railroad which ran along Plum and Walnut Alleys parallel to and between Salt Street and High Street and turned eastward just north of Pine Alley. The original stone retaining walls survive between Ash Alley and Basin Street.
Except where the canal/railroad right-of-way passes through the town, the streets and alleys maintain a fairly even grid pattern. Sidewalks are present on Salt, Washington, Point, and Market, and the buildings are generally sited directly on the sidewalks; only at the southern end of Salt are there any setbacks, and they are minimal, never exceeding about fifteen feet. Lots range in width from 18 feet to 100 feet and generally run the full depth of the blocks.
The district is both commercial and residential in nature, but with residential properties far outnumbering commercial. Commercial uses are concentrated along Salt and Point Streets. At the intersection of Salt and Point, traditionally the hub of the commercial activity and once lined with Victorian commercial buildings, fires and development pressures have resulted in modern commercial intrusions (i.e. a strip shopping center to the northeast and a drive-through bank to the northwest) which are omitted from the district.
The district contains 150 buildings, about half of which date to the nineteenth century, but which clearly set the tone for much of the later development to follow. A consistency of scale, density, rhythm, and materials is evident throughout. Most structures maintain a two story, three bay rhythm; exceptions, where heights rise to three stories or widths to six bays, nonetheless fit compatibly into the overall fabric. The majority of the buildings are of wood frame, with sidings varying from the original wood to asphalt shingle, aluminum siding, and insulbrick. In many cases, original wood trim survives despite subsequent alterations. Few have been altered beyond restoration. Twenty-two of the buildings are brick, generally set in common bond. Five of the buildings are stone, set in rough-cut ashlar blocks. Most of the buildings have stone foundations. The district contains 26 garages and carriage houses, as well as a number of small sheds, which have not been accounted for in the contributing and non-contributing building tally.
The former canal/railroad bed, which runs parallel to the river about 150 feet inland, has been maintained by the Borough as Canal Park, an open, grassy space. Focussing on the areas from the northern end of the district south to Point Street, interpretive materials and landscape amenities have been added to enhance its recreational value. Archaeological excavations completed in November 1990 for the National Park Service uncovered significant remnants of Lock #8, running approximately 100 feet north of Chestnut Alley along the right of way. The excavations located a long entryway at the northern end, approximately 30 feet long and 15 feet wide, as well as a wooden lock gate lying flat on the wooden floor of the lock. The majority of the cut stone had been removed, but the rubble backing was intact, as were the lowest two or three courses of cut stone and the partially dismantled wing walls. At the south end, the rubble backing and the lowest two or three courses of cut stone are also intact, as well as the stone sill for the lock gates and the horizontal arch stone which served as a buttress behind it. The area was backfilled following the testing. The archaeological team plans to return in Spring of 1992 for additional testing along the canal prism. In addition, the canal boat turning basin at the northern end of the lock, shown on both the Peelor map of 1856 and the Beers map of 1871 as the site of the current Exxon station, should be explored. Finally, of the approximately 32 marker stones placed by canal surveyors in 1828-1829 to delineate the canal's 62 foot wide swath through the town, 15 have been located within the district.
During the canal era (1829-1864), Saltsburg's development was concentrated within the area proposed as the historic district, with additional development extended east along Point Street. If numbers of extant buildings can be taken as any indication, construction within the district occurred at a fairly steady pace, with 16 extant buildings dating to the 1830's, 18 to the 1840's, and 12 to the 1850's. Commercial uses were well integrated with residential along the canal and to the east of it, and numerous industrial concerns — including tanneries, foundries, grist and saw mills — developed between the canal and the river. No visible remnants of the industrial concerns survive. The commercial and residential buildings along the Canal were generally oriented toward it, creating a second "Main Street" to supplement Salt Street.
The earliest buildings of this period were Federal style dwellings of brick and stone. Most notable among them are William McIlwaine House and Store at 212 Washington Street, a five-bay stone dwelling of 1820-29; the Dr. James Crawford House at 105 Point Street, a five-bay stone dwelling of 1830-39; the William Stewart House at 215 Point Street, a five-bay brick dwelling with a central cross gable, dating to 1836; Dr. McFarland's Drug Store and Office at 216 Washington Street, a four-bay attached brick building of 1840; and the Andrew A. Taylor House at 413 Salt Street, a three-bay brick dwelling of 1830-39.
In addition to the early Federal dwellings, a "Canal Vernacular" developed which was somewhat derivative of the Greek Revival in form and which incorporated frame construction, a broad gable end facade of two stories and three bays, often with returns and an inset tympanum panel, squarely proportioned windows, and a one or two story porch. Examples include the Absolam Woodward House and Store at 506 Salt Street of 1841; 221-223 Point Street of 1840-49; and the William Stewart House at 230 Point Street of 1830-39.
Along the canal itself, the surviving houses illustrate the focal emphasis that the canal drew. Even where the houses have been re-oriented to face onto Water Street, remnants of their original facades survive, as seen in the five houses between 707 Water Street and 803-805 Water Street. Also notable on the canal is the former mule barn, now converted to accommodate apartments at 208 Point Street.
The two surviving canal-era churches within the district both stood out against the town's predominantly frame vernacular fabric by virtue of their brick Gothic Revival design: the Free Gospel Church at 806 Salt Street of 1843 and the Methodist Church at 809 Salt Street of 1850-59.
During the period of significance characterized as the early Railroad Era (1863-c.1900), tracks for the Western Pennsylvania Railroad were introduced through Saltsburg along Plum and Walnut Alleys parallel to and between Salt Street and High Street, and growth of the town slowed somewhat for two decades, with just ten extant buildings dating to the 1860's and eight to the 1870's. With the purchase of the Western Pennsylvania Railroad by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1882 came a relocation of the tracks to the old canal towpath and a subsequent building boom during the 1880's, from which 14 buildings survive. Map analysis would suggest that this boom did not significantly increase the density of the town's core, but rather replaced some of the canal-era construction with Victorian buildings which maintained the size, scale, and materials that had come to characterize Saltsburg. The extant buildings dating to this 1880's boom period are generally also vernacular in style; many differ from the canal vernacular only slightly in their proportions and in minimal wood detailing such as Eastlake bargeboards and Italianate window casings. Typical examples include the Samuel S. Moore House and Store at 222-220 Point Street; 218 Point Street; and 414-416 Salt Street at Chestnut Alley.
The higher styles of the early Railroad Era are represented by the William McIlwain House, later the Saltsburg Hotel, at 109 Point Street, a Second Empire frame building of the 1870's; the Dr. Benjamin F. Sterett House and Office at 801 Salt Street and Coal Alley (a canal-era frame house that was updated in a Second Empire mode c. 1869; and the P. D. Shupe Hardware Store at 210 Point Street at Marble Alley, a high Italianate frame commercial building of the 1860's. The former Western Pennsylvania Railroad Station on Point Street at Plum Alley, dating to 1864, was in the Italianate style as well; although subsequent alterations and fire damage have obliterated much of its original detailing, it is restorable. Two churches within the district date to this era: Saltsburg Presbyterian Church at 517 Salt Street and Washington (a brick Gothic Revival building of 1874, and the Sons of Zebedee Evangelical Lutheran Church at 422 Salt Street) also of brick Gothic Revival design and dating to 1878.
The most notable resource of the early Railroad Era, particularly in the context of America's Industrial Heritage Project, is the Altman Feed Mill at 111 Point Street, a four-story frame building featuring a substantial portion of its original 1893 equipment, including belt-driven wood machinery and chutes.
During the first half of the twentieth century, residential construction in Saltsburg continued to build upon the wood frame and brick vernacular of the town with more complex rooflines, larger plate glass windows, and detailing more typical of the period: examples appear at 817 Salt Street and Pine Alley and 710 Salt Street, both dating to the first two decades of the century. A bungalow of the same period survives at 224 Market Street. Commercial construction of this period is represented by the high-styled Classical limestone First National Bank Building at Salt and Point Streets of 1927 and the brick DeLisi Theater at 524 Salt Street and Ash Alley of 1923.
Minimal new construction totalling 29 buildings has occurred since the early 1950's, the seven most prominent buildings being the Post Office on Point Street at Marble Alley, the Senior Center at 212 Point Street, the Fire Hall at Salt and Market Streets, the Exxon Station on Salt Street at the extreme northern edge of the district, the two McGregor Manor developments on Salt and 117 Washington Street, and the Sewage Treatment Plant by the river at the southern end of the district. All of these must be considered to be non-contributing resources, not only because they postdate the district's period of significance, but also due to their incompatible massing and fenestration.
In addition, the late twentieth century has seen numerous incompatible alterations to older buildings within the district, ranging from new siding and porch removals to complete new facades. Where these changes destroy the original integrity of the building — such as complete changes in the fenestration pattern of the main facade or the removal of an entire story — the buildings are classified as non-contributing. If the basic design of the building is evident and the alterations are reversible, however, the building is classified as contributing. Of the district's 32 non-contributing buildings, only 3 of those classifications are attributable to severe, irreversible alterations to buildings which pre-date 1941: 510 Salt Street, 502 Salt Street and 715 Salt Street. Most of the non-contributing buildings are newer garages, and a few are newer houses or small commercial buildings. Saltsburg nonetheless retains sufficient integrity of density, scale, rhythm, materials, and detailing to make gradual restoration of the town both feasible and advisable.
The Saltsburg Historic District is significant in the areas of transportation, architecture, commerce, and archaeology. The district offers an important example of small town development stimulated by the Pennsylvania Canal and Railroad. It was also important as a commercial center for the local area. In addition, it is significant as the embodiment of a sequence of vernacular building types that characterized a western Pennsylvania canal/railroad town which has survived as a commercial center into the twentieth century. Finally, it has been shown to hold important archaeological remains which can be instructive in the area of canal history. The district's period of significance, 1829-1941, may be divided into three eras. During each of the first two successive eras — the Canal and Salt era (c. 1829-1864) and the early Railroad and Coal era (c. 1863-1900) — the town responded to concurrent advancements in transportation and industry and developed physical characteristics which clearly associate it with each era. The late Railroad and Commercial era (c. 1900-1941) brought its own development, but has nonetheless left Saltsburg as a remarkable intact document of a nineteenth century town.
It is against it's historical backdrop [See: Saltsburg Boro — Beginnings] that each area of Saltsburg's significance can be evaluated. Most important is its documentation of small town development attendant upon the development of transportation systems. The town figures prominently as the only remaining canal and railroad town in Indiana and Westmoreland Counties through which the canal actually passed, which retains the physical environment of its mid-nineteenth century canal heritage as well as its subsequent development. Not only do the canal right of way and related canal remnants survive, but the architecture that accompanied its development remains in form and orientation as a document of that era. The subsequent railroad era left its mark on the town as well, while not obliterating the canal-era townscape. The canal and railroad did not actually pass through most communities, whereas in Saltsburg it not only passed through, but also served as an alternative "Main Street," with commercial concerns clustered around it and dwellings spatially oriented around it. Saltsburg stands in marked contrast to the only other major town on the Western Division, Blairsville, where the canal did not actually pass through and the town's Federal building stock has been largely destroyed by redevelopment activities.
Architecturally, Saltsburg stands out among surrounding Indiana County communities as one of the most intact displays of nineteenth century vernacular architecture, highlighted by the higher styles which began to appear in the 1870's. Other comparable collections, such as Cookport or Pine Flats, both logging communities, have lost sufficient integrity over the past 15-20 years to destroy their instructive or documentary value. Saltsburg, on the other hand, retains several examples from each of the twelve decades represented in the period of significance. And, while most have suffered alterations over the years, very few could be described as irreversible. More specifically, Saltsburg features a "Canal Vernacular," derivative of the Greek Revival, which continued to influence the architecture of the town into the twentieth century.
Gloria Berringer & George Johnson, Saltsburg Borough Historic District, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Inventory of Historic Places form, April 1981.
Indiana County Historic Sites Survey, Gloria Berringer, Director, 1980. On file at Indiana County Historical and Genealogical Society.
George Johnson, Western Division of the Pennsylvania Canal: Indiana & Westmoreland Counties, National Register Inventory-Nomination form, Undated.
George B. Johnson & Ann Palmer, Saltsburg The Way It Was (Indiana: A. G. Halldin Publishing Co., Inc., 1986).
Management Summary, Archaeological Investigation of Lock 8, Western Division of Pennsylvania Canal, Saltsburg Canal Park, Borough of Saltsburg, Indiana County, PA. Prepared for the National Park Service by the Cultural Resource Group of Louis Berger & Assoc., Inc., January 1991.
C. D. Stephenson, The Pennsylvania Canal in Indiana and Westmoreland Counties (Indiana: A. G. Halldin Publishing Co., Inc., 1979).
Two Pennsylvania Canal Towns: Alexandria and Saltsburg. HABS, HAER, 1989.
David Peelor et al, Saltsburg (North Hector, NY: Wm. J. Barker, 1856).
Atlas of Indiana County, Pennsylvania (New York: F. W. Beers & Co., 1871).
Sanborn Insurance Maps (New York: Sanbom Map Co., 1886, 1891).