Connellsville, PA (COV)
Once a major hub of the coke industry - vital to steel production - Connellsville today is a popular stop on the Great Allegheny Passage Rail Trail and is known for its various festivals.
North Water Street & West Peach Street
Connellsville, PA 15425
Annual Station Ridership (FY 2020): 2,656
- Facility Ownership: Amtrak
- Parking Lot Ownership: Amtrak
- Platform Ownership: Amtrak
- Track Ownership: CSX Transportation
The Capitol Limited glides along the east bank of the Youghiogheny River before reaching Connellsville where travelers wait at a shelter erected by Amtrak in the winter of 2011. In addition to the new building, a 550 foot concrete platform with tactile edging, accessible parking stalls, improved signage, and light standards were also installed at a total cost of $1.25 million. The project was funded through Amtrak’s Mobility First initiative under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Standing in the vicinity of the former Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) station, the new facility replaced a 1970s era shelter that had fallen into disrepair. Developed by d+A design+Architecture, LLC of Yardley, Pennsylvania, the station design draws inspiration from historic late 19th and early 20th century depots found in small towns across the nation.
Composed primarily of dark red brick, the structure has an enclosed, one-story waiting room with large windows that not only keep out the wind, but also allow ample sunlight to flood and brighten the space. On the principal facades facing the street and the tracks, the waiting room is marked by stylized projecting bays with deep eaves. Their surfaces are covered in a rock-faced, coursed ashlar in a light beige tone that adds texture to the elevation and provides a strong contrast against the darkness of the brick. Recessed canopies, supported by squared posts sporting curved brackets, flank the waiting room and visually expand the station’s presence along the tracks. Benches in the waiting room and beneath the canopies provide abundant seating throughout the year’s changing seasons.
Like many of the small towns that dot the hills of western Pennsylvania, Connellsville prospered through its connections to the steel industry based in Pittsburgh 60 miles to the northwest. Due to the luck of nature—through a process that took millions of years—Connellsville sits on top of a belt of coal that averages five feet thick. With river access to Pittsburgh’s steel mills, the city became a center for coke production, coke being coal that has been rid of impurities at high temperatures and in the absence of air. Coke burns at very high temperatures, making it ideal for iron and then steel manufacture.
Coal was discovered in Connellsville soon after it was permanently settled by European-American pioneers in the late 18th century. Much of the territory was then sparsely populated because the original American Indian peoples had suffered from European-introduced diseases and many had died. As the British colonies on the East Coast grew, American Indian peoples from that region—including the Delaware, Shawnee, and Susquehannock—moved into western Pennsylvania. The area around Connellsville was crisscrossed by major American Indian trails that traversed the Appalachian Mountains and followed them north and south.
French fur traders used the Ohio River and its tributaries as highways into the interior and began to view the Ohio River as a possible link between their lands in Canada and those in Louisiana. Claiming a vast territory drained by the Mississippi River, the French came into conflict with the British colonists who desired to push west across the Appalachian Mountains. By 1749 the French launched an expedition to the present site of Pittsburgh where they manned Fort Duquesne; young George Washington was sent by the governor of Virginia to warn the French to quit their provocations, but to little avail. The greater struggle over the borderlands would lead to the French and Indian War of 1754-1763.
On their way to confront the French at Fort Duquesne, British forces under General Braddock crossed the Youghiogheny River in 1755 at the present site of Connellsville, which at the time was known as “Stewart’s Crossing” after early pioneer William Stewart. During the war, Colonel William Crawford of Virginia saw the lands of southwestern Pennsylvania for the first time; after the conflict was resolved, Crawford returned with his brother to the shores of the Youghiogheny River, surveying a site on its west bank.
Crawford was an acquaintance of George Washington, who had taught him how to survey land when they were both starting their careers; Crawford would later survey a number of large tracts in western Pennsylvania for Washington and he also pursued the fur trade. The Colonel constructed a modest cabin on the river bank and soon moved his family there. Crawford served in the Revolutionary War until retiring in 1781. A year later he was enticed to undertake a campaign against American Indian groups in Ohio, where he was killed.
Zachariah Connell, also from Virginia, arrived in the area in the early 1770s and soon married the daughter of Colonel Crawford. Like his father-in-law, he was a surveyor and had worked in that capacity and as a land agent for the colonial governors of Virginia and Maryland. Connell recognized that at high flow the Youghiogheny River was deep enough to accommodate flat-bottom boats or rafts which settlers heading west could build and float down the watercourse to the Monongahela and finally to the Ohio River. In 1793 he chartered a town and platted land on the east side of the river for a settlement named after himself—Connellsville. In the charter, he gave residents free access to a local quarry, coal mine, and springs, and donated land for public buildings. Connell would go on to build the first toll-bridge across the river.
As in many frontier towns, saw and grist mills were important early industries in Connellsville, and in the first few decades, brick factories, a wagon manufacturer, and other businesses opened. The town grew, but it was not until the successful production of coke in the 1830s that the true values of the town’s location and natural resources were made evident. Interestingly, the first coke oven—noted for its beehive-like form—was built close to the former home of Connell who had died in 1813. Its designer was a gentleman from Durham, England, one of the first regions distinguished for its coke production which subsequently fueled the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.
By the end of the century, the coke-region stretched for 20 miles in every direction with Connellsville as its hub. The industry peaked around 1910, when the region boasted of 40,000 coke ovens. The Connellsville coke industry produced 60 percent of the nation’s coke and the product was shipped around the world. Henry Clay Frick owned about half of the coke ovens; in partnership with Andrew Carnegie they dominated the steel industry from start to finish and became some of the most powerful businessmen in the United States. The importance of coke to the economy was apparent in 1906 when the town celebrated the centennial of its designation as a borough. To mark the occasion, the Frick Coke Company erected a giant $1,000 coal and coke arch that spanned a downtown street; photographs show streetcar tracks running beneath it.
The river acted as a natural highway to ship the coke to downriver ports and iron and steel centers such as Pittsburgh and even Cincinnati, but in time coke producers and others in the steel making industry saw the need for a faster method of transport that could carry larger loads, and many were willing to invest in the nascent railroads to fulfill this need.
Much of the railroad building effort in Pennsylvania was devoted to connecting the two major cities on opposite ends of the state—Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—which was accomplished in December 1852 by the Pennsylvania Railroad. As this road began to ship western goods to the cities of the east, new lines were planned and built, including the Pittsburgh and Connellsville Railroad (P&C). Incorporated in 1837, the rails connected Connellsville and West Newton by 1855, but the final link between Port Perry and Pittsburgh was not made until 1861. To facilitate construction and ensure its place on the line, Connellsville Borough voted $100,000 in aid to the railroad. Two decades later, the P&C came under the control of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, allowing that company access into Pittsburgh.
The last major line to enter the city—the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie (P&LE)—used the left bank of the river rather than the right, which was crowded with B&O facilities. The PRR line crossed the river and the town, but its station was on the right bank. The P&LE served the growing steel industry and was affectionately known as the “Little Giant”; although small, the line pulled enormous amounts of freight—coal, coke, iron ore, limestone, steel—and operated a passenger service. In 1884 it gained a lease on the Pittsburgh, McKeesport, and Youghiogheny Railroad between Pittsburgh and Connellsville; in 1912 it made a connection with the Western Maryland Railroad which allowed service to points east of the Appalachians. The two companies built a union depot in Connellsville which still stands. Early in its history, the P&LE would fall under the control of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central network.
With three major railroads lining the river, Connellsville was a busy hub that included rail yards, shops, a roundhouse, bridges across the Youghiogheny, and of course various passenger stations. Little is known about the old PRR station, and only a few images remain showing a bustling scene and a long canopy extending down the side of the tracks near the intersection of N. Pittsburgh Street and Grape Alley. By the mid-20th century, the station was torn down, the tracks removed, and the bridge across the Youghiogheny dismantled. During the 1906 Centennial celebrations, a small exhibition of early pioneer memorabilia was assembled in the PRR station, and “visited by thousands of people.”
The P&C and subsequently the B&O retained numerous depots near the site of the current Amtrak station. From photographs, the earliest depot appears to have been a one-story structure constructed of board-and-batten; a twenty-four berth roundhouse also stood in the vicinity. The railroad erected the third building at the beginning of the 20th century, and a generation later it underwent a facelift.
B&O architects transformed it from a two-story Tudor Revival structure resembling a rambling country inn with cross gables, half-timbering, and deep second-story overhangs to a more modest, simplified Colonial Revival station. All the half timbering on the second floor was removed and replaced with clapboard, but the exterior of the stone faced ground floor remained little altered, retaining its large tripartite arched windows reminiscent of the work of Henry Hobson Richardson. The building was demolished in the late 20th century.
During two years of World War II—1944 to 1946—the B&O station hosted a canteen run by 800 women volunteers who provided drinks, small food items, and conversation to 600,000 members of the armed forces who were on troop trains crossing the country—a trip that could take five to seven days since the rails were congested due to wartime activity. Midway between B&O mainline division points at Pittsburgh and Cumberland, trains stopped at Connellsville to change crews or engines, and therefore paused in town for at least a few minutes. The volunteers kept the station staffed at all hours, ready to dispense snacks and comfort.
Connellsville functioned as the repair center for the Pittsburgh Division of the B&O. The P&C had constructed shops north of the first depot where cars were built and locomotives were repaired and rebuilt. The B&O yard also contained a facility where the railroad could produce the coke that it needed for its own purposes. Further south in an extension of town known as South Connellsville, the railroad maintained a stockyard which had one hundred pens for cattle and others for sheep and pigs. The animals were fed and watered here before being shipped further east. The facility closed in 1967 when refrigerated cars began to carry prepared meat products directly from the Midwest to eastern markets. Outside of railroad-sponsored and owned shops, other businesses making parts for cars and locomotives located in Connellsville where they could take advantage of the rail lines running through town. The old B&O rail yard is still used by CSX Transportation, a successor to the B&O through numerous acquisitions and reorganizations.
The one former passenger station that remains standing in town is that of the P&LE at W. Crawford and Seventh Streets. When the P&LE and the Western Maryland Railroads linked up in Connellsville, they decided to construct a new union station to serve passengers, many of whom commuted into Pittsburgh. The one-story station has a rock-faced coursed ashlar sandstone base upon which rise walls of red brick that complement the warm red tones of the sandstone that is also used in the window sills, lintels, and steps. The large hip-gambrel roof retains most of its original blue-green Spanish-style terra cotta tiles and is supported by large brackets that create deep eaves that would have protected passengers from inclement weather.
The west façade features a three-story square tower with a shallow pyramidal roof. The tower harkens to early rail depot designs and the picturesque qualities of the Italianate architecture common to those structures. The body of the tower is imprinted with long, recessed brick panels; as sunlight falls across their surface, the raised borders of the panels create shadows that highlight the verticality of the shaft. The use of the Spanish tile, the tower brackets, and the design of the tower’s brick panels—whose top edges seem to give reference to Santa Fe style capitals—have led commentators to refer to the structure as “Mission or Craftsman” style, although these references are light.
The baggage room and a smoking area on the north end of the structure were separated from the south-end waiting room by the ticket office and the base of the tower which contained a staircase. The passenger areas had floors of white marble mosaic with green tile accents and the decorative trim throughout the building was executed in warm oak. Light entered the space through large tripartite windows with similar transoms; the three part division was carried through in the entrance way where the door was framed by sidelights. The old ticket office has the original built-in shelving and drawers and the windows that allowed passengers to purchase tickets from either outside or inside the station still function.
The Union Passenger Depot was rather unique in that the passengers had to ascend through the tower to reach the elevated tracks. Travelers climbed to the third floor where they passed a teletype room and exited a door to cross a bridge to the platform. The station cost about $35,000, but the platforms and overhead work added another $20,000 to the bill. The tower, while picturesque and visible from afar—a beacon to passengers—also served a vital function. From its top storey, operators could look out the large windows in every direction and monitor traffic on the tracks; the teletype room also served as a control center for the interlocking switches of both railroads.
Once the station closed to passenger traffic in 1939, it was used almost continuously as offices or retail and in the late 1990s it was restored when the Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass Company took over the space. Railroad fans can visit the main gallery in the old waiting room and see many of the original features of the station in place. The door at the top of the tower now leads nowhere, as the elevated tracks were removed in 1994. Recognized for its integrity of design and materials, the depot was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996 as a potent symbol of the history of railroading in Connellsville.
Walking two blocks west, one encounters the old P&LE station that predates Union Passenger Depot by a decade or more; it served both passengers and freight. A small one-story wood structure, it also has a hip-gambrel roof with deep eaves held up by large brackets. The wide door at the north end indicates the placement of the freight room. When the Union Depot opened in 1912, this smaller building was devoted exclusively to freight business. The structure has recently undergone renovations and serves as law offices. In the general vicinity there are old storage buildings associated with the P&LE.
As the coke industry declined after 1910, so too did the fortunes of Connellsville, but recently the city has begun to reposition itself to take advantage of its prime location on the Great Allegheny Passage, a hiker-biker trail that connects Pittsburgh with Washington, D.C., via the C&O Canal National Historic Park at Cumberland, Md. The trail follows the path of the old P&LE and Western Maryland Railroad tracks that were removed in the early 1980s. Connellsville is unique in that the trail actually runs right through town on Third Street.
City leaders hope to undertake an economic development and urban design initiative that would encourage trail users to stay in town or browse its collection of stores. Plans include a river overlook on the west bank next to the W. Crawford Street Bridge, and a new plaza that will better connect the new Amtrak shelter building with downtown Connellsville. Infill development to include shops and residential units would help grow the waterfront on the east side of the river. Town leaders believe that cyclists could take Amtrak to and from Connellsville and then ride the trail towards Pittsburgh or Cumberland. The plans also call for restrooms and other amenities for bikers near the Amtrak station that will encourage visitors to linger in town.
Biking and hiking are not the only physical activities for which Connellsville is known. The city boasts a gold medal winning Olympic athlete and a Heisman Trophy winner. John Woodruff, whose father worked for the Frick Coke Company, won the 800 meter event at the 1936 games in Berlin. The triumphs of Woodruff and teammate Jesse Owens—both African American—were an actual and symbolic rebuke of the racial beliefs and policies of Nazi Germany. Woodruff was not groomed as a runner, but rather took it up when his mother made him quit high school football because it took up too much of his time and kept him from his household chores.
Boxed in during the race, Woodruff purposefully stopped so that he would fall behind and then be able to take the outside lane. His risky move allowed him to break free and pull ahead to triumph. In addition to his gold medal, the runner received an oak tree from the famous Black Forest—today it still stands tall by the Connellsville football stadium. Johnny Lujack was a quarterback at the University of Notre Dame and won college football’s prize trophy in 1947. The local high school has material donated by both athletes, and the city still hosts an annual 5K race in honor of Woodruff.
Athletes of another sort look forward to the annual Timber Days held in late summer. The event features logging competitions for amateurs and professionals that are timed; others take into account precision and skill level. Those who prefer less strenuous events look forward to the Geranium Festival in May sponsored by the Connellsville Area Garden Club. The colorful flowers are of course for sale, but there are also crafts booths, children’s activities, and a popular assortment of ethnic foods that reflect the diverse backgrounds of area residents.
Platform with Shelter
- Quik-Trak kiosks not available
- No ticket sales office
- Amtrak Express shipping not available
- No checked baggage service
- No checked baggage storage
- Bike boxes not available
- No baggage carts
- Ski bags not available
- Bag storage not available
- Shipping boxes not available
- No baggage assistance
- Same-day parking is available; fees may apply
- Overnight parking is available; fees may apply
- Accessible platform
- No restrooms
- No accessible ticket office
- Accessible waiting room
- No accessible water fountain
- Accessible same-day parking is available; fees may apply
- Accessible overnight parking is available; fees may apply
- No high platform
- No wheelchair
- Wheelchair lift available
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