Mercersburg - 150 Years Ago

by Dan Guzy

            The Civil War was five years past in the year 1870, but far from forgotten in Mercersburg and the rest of the nation. The last three former Confederate states rejoined the Union that year. And General Grant was then President Grant.

            Historians often mark 1870 as the beginning of our country's second industrial revolution, which would eventually bring electric power, internal combution engines, and related inventions. However, Mercersburg was then still seeking to fully reap the benefits from innovations of the first industrial revolution. That is, the town was missing two things that other towns and cities had that would better connect it to other parts of Pennsylvania and the country: a railroad station and a telegraph connection.

            With no railroad and no water navigation, Mercersburg relied on horse-drawn wagons, carriages, and stagecoaches to bring goods and people to and from the town. Main Street (aka Franklin Street) was part of the Waynesboro, Greencastle, and Mercersburg Turnpike, which had a toll house just north of town (still standing across from the BB&T bank) and another about a mile southeast of town.

            In addtion to its horse-dependent commerce, Mercersburg's largest employers were horse-related businesses. As the 1870 census recorded, the manufactures with the most employees were the C. Louderbaugh carriage company (across Park Avenue from the Presbyterian church) with ten workers and the Eckert & Banter coach shop with seven. The census recorded other similar businesses in town: another coach shop, a falloe bender (who made circular wooden wheel rims), and two saddlers. There was also at least one livery stable in town, which rented out horses and buggies.

            Other leading Mercersburg employers that year were Hough McConnell's pottery company and O. L Murray's merchant and tailor business with six workers each, and Waidlich's carpenter business and North & Myers's tannery with five workers each. That old tannery was on Main Street on the north side of Johnston's Run. About four hundred feet north of the tannery along Main Street, and just outside of what was then the borough's northern boundary, was the site of Jacob Hollinger's grist and saw mills. Those mills had burned down in August 1869. Hollinger would rebuild them and they would burn down again in 1885. Another grist mill was built there later, however a creamery replaced the former sawmills.

            Other trades in Mercersburg in 1870 included two tinsmith shops, two boot and shoe manufactures, a tailor, two butchers, a cabinet maker, a chair maker, a millwright, a blacksmith, and a plasterer. The town had a hardware store, a drug store, and four stores that sold groceries and dry goods.

            There were two hotels in town. Charles Lowe ran the still-standing Mansion House on the diamond (the town square). The three-story McAfee Hotel was at the soutwest corner of Main Street and Park Avenue. After the latter hotel burned to the ground in 1883, the McAffee brothers re-established their hotel further south on Main Street. That was later the Mercer Hotel and now the the James Buchanan Pub and Restaurant.

            The theological seminary at the end of Seminary Street was still an ongoing institution in 1870. The eastern boundary of the Mercersburg was then Consitution Avenue, so the seminary and the German Reformed Church (now the UCC church) were outside the borough's limits.

            The borough's southern boundary was then along the turnpike (now PA Rte 16) where it went southeasterly from Main Street towards Greencastle. So institutions and houses along Linden Street, including the Lutheran Church, Mercersburg College (formerly the Marshall Collegiate Institute), and a public school, were all then outside the borough's limits. After the theological seminary moved to Lancaster in 1871, Mercersburg College took over its grounds and later evolved into the Mercersburg Academy.

            As today, the Mercersburg Journal newspaper was published on a weekly basis in 1870. Without a railroad and telegraph, "breaking news" came slowly by horse.

            To avoid the dirt streets full of dust, mud, horses and their manure, pedestrians walked across them on brick crosswalks and next to them on brick sidewalks in front of stores and houses. These brick pavements were often neglected despite town ordinances for property owners to keep them repaired. The Mercersburg Journal ran frequent articles in the 1860s and '70s complaining of the dangers of chuckholes in the town's sidewalks.

            Electric power and fresh water supplied by a dammed lake near Cove Gap did not reach Mercersburg until the first decade of the twentieth century. Homes and businesses in 1870 lacked not only electric lights, telephones, central heating, and gas, but also running water and flush toilets. Property owners had their own private privies, wells and pumps. The town had a number of public wells and pumps, which were particularly needed to fight fires.

            For recreation, there was baseball. In 1870, Mercersburg College beat the Chambersburg Academy by a score of 46 to 41. And Grady's Old Fashion American Circus performed in Mercersburg that year.       

            Mercersburg citizens were fortunate that outside investors formed the Southern Pennsylania Iron and Railroad Company in 1870. The company's main goal was to connect the iron orebanks and furnaces in Path Valley via a railroad reaching the Cumberland Valley Railroad (CVRR) at Marion, south of Chambersburg. Local residents subscribed enough funds to build a two-mile spur line to Mercersburg from Mercersburg Junction, where new railroad tracks crossed the West Branch of Conococheague Creek near the mouth of Dickey's (or Buck's) Run.

            In 1870 and early 1871, Mercersburg residents waited with great anticipation as railroad tracks were laid and wooden trestles built. But all was not smooth. In the town's streets during the night of Saturday, August 27, 1870, a dozen railroad laborers and neighborhood blacks engaged in a "serious distrubance" involving fists and knives. The fight resulted in cracked heads and bloody noses, but fortunately no serious injuries were reported.

            In July 1871, the first locomotive and railcars finally reached Mercersburg. The initial rail shipment out was "a lot of swine." Western Union strung its telegraph line along the new railroad tracks and reached Mercersburg in 1872.

            Passenger service from Mercersburg started with two passenger trains a day and expanded to three and four later. The book Old Mercersburg noted that when the theogical seminary relocated to Lancaster in 1871, "the last class to leave the seminary went out of town on the first passenger train to Chambersburg."

            In 1909, the Fulton County News complained that while Mercersburg train passengers spent only sixty cents to travel the twenty-one miles to Chambersburg, it cost McConnellsburg stagecoach passengers seventy-five cents to ride the ten miles to Mercersburg.

            In addition to the passenger trains, a "mixed train" hauled both freight and passengers from the town at least once a day. Railroad freight transport stimulated an industrialization of the Oregon Street area, which an old postcard labeled as "the busness end of Mercersburg" while showing the railyard south of that street. Along the railyard there was a freight and passenger depot, two grain elevators, a planing mill, and several storage facilties. In the 1890s, with the North & Myer's tannery closed and converted into the town hall, W. D. Byron & Sons built their own huge tannery between Oregon Street and Johnston's Run. The tannery would have its own railroad track siding, employ about eighty people, and deliver a pungent smell to the town.

            Rail service diminished in the twentieth century. The last passenger train left Mercersburg in 1931. Freight train service continued in an ever-decreasing way, with the freight deport closing in the 1960s and tracks being taken up and sold for scrap in in the early 1980s. Today about all that remains of former railyard and related structures along Oregon Street is the depot, now the home of Romeo's Pizza.

            The population of Mercersburg in 1870 was 971. While the railroad stimulated the economy and growth of the greater area, the borough's population remained slightly under a thousand for the rest of the nineteenth century because its boundaries stayed the same. In 1901, the town annexed areas of Peters and Montgomery townships that included seventy-two dwelling houses, the grist mill and creamery, the Byron tannery, the railroad depot, Mercerburg Academy buildings, and the German Reformed and Lutheran churches. With an expanded boundary in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the borough's population hovered between 1,500 and 2,000.

            1870 was the end of the pre-railroad era in Mercersburg. Within a few decades, the town would also have electric power, telephones, and running water. The invention of the combustion engine would lead to automobiles, trucks, and paved roads, which greatly lessened the need for a railroad in Mercersburg.

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