History of the County
Henry Clay Frick started a coke plant in 1870 at Broadford near Connellsville. His company evolved into the country's largest steel and coal producer, U. S Steel Corp.
The Klondike Coal Field that extended from Uniontown west to the Monongahela River and beyond into Greene and Washington Counties produced coal from the Pittsburgh Seam. Mining was labor intensive so companies recruited miners from Europe and former slaves from the south to work the mines. In 1800 Fayette had 20,159 residents. Seventy years later, the population was 43,284. Thirty years later in 1900 as a result of the coal and coke industry, the population as 110,000 and at the zenith of the industry, 1940 Fayette had a census population of 200,909.
Industrial giants and entrepreneurs in this era included H. C. Frick, James Cochran, Thomas and Richard Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, and local coal baron J. V Thompson. Many became wealthy as land speculators and mine owners and bankers. The coal companies, most notably, H. C. Frick built communities at the portals of their mines. Known as patches, these were nearly self contained featuring a company owned store that sold, food, dry goods, and miners' supplies. The miners were often paid in company script redeemable at the company store or were given an account at the store to which their purchases were charged. Most patches featured an elementary school and some had a high school. These were conclaves of mixed ethnic backgrounds and cultures; Irish, Italian, Slav, African-Americans, and mid Easterners who were frequently travelling merchants and competed with the company owned stores; often at their peril.
With so many laborers in an industry as inherently difficult, dangerous and prone to boom and bust cycles as mining, tension between labor and management was bound to develop. Demand for steel and patriotism during war time diminished labor unrest, strikes and protests for wages and safety were frequent. Most miners were members on the United Mine Workers and John L. Lewis was a hero to many.
By the mid 1950's the coal in Fayette County had been extracted and the mines were closing. The county experienced an outmigration as people moved to find employment. In 1970 the population had decreased to 154,667.
Not everyone was content to live the sometimes unpredictable life of a coal community. In 1937 50 families established the country's first self-help subsistence community modeled after the Quaker American Friends Service Committee Self Help Communities. This was in part in response to the unemployment brought by the 1930's Depression. The project known as Penn Craft and built in Luzerne Township was lauded by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who visited on November 29, 1937. Penn Craft is still a well maintained community that is proud of its heritage and message of tolerance, inclusion, hard work and self reliance.
Although "coal was king", Fayette County was home to other industries; glassmaking most prominent in Connellsville and Pt. Marion, barge construction in Brownsville, farming and timbering.
Since the 1970's Fayette County has been relatively stable in terms of population and economic profile. The discovery of the Marcellus Shale Natural Gas field is giving rise to a new industry, tourism and agriculture are the leading industries in the county. The Youghiogheny River and Ohiopyle State Park are leading attractions followed closely by Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob designed for the Hagan family. Nemacolin Woodlands, a 5 star resort showcases the beauty of the Chestnut Ridge and the many historic sites and venues add to vibrant tourist economy.
Information for this article has been gleaned from five main sources:
"Fayette at the Crossroads" by Walter J. Storey, Jr. PA Heritage Quarterly, Fall, 1983; the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
"The Old Pike A History of the National Road", T. B. Searight
"Annals of Southwestern Pennsylvania" Lewis Clark Walkinshaw
"Cloud By Day A History of Coal and Coke and People " Muriel Earley