History Of Nemacolin Castle
Historic Contexts Of Site
Nemacolin Castle exists in an important set of historic contexts. It is a landmark and focal point of Brownsville, one of the most historically important towns in Southwestern Pennsylvania. This section of the report outlines the historic themes that relate to the Castle, though the Castle does not reflect each of these themes equally or in the same way.
Native Americans In Southwestern Pennsylvania
Much of the history and pre-history of the Native American peoples who once dwelt in Southwestern Pennsylvania has faded into obscurity. Archeaologists have carefully reconstructed parts of the Native American story from the archeaological evidence that has been discovered, but many gaps remain in the popular understanding of these first inhabitants of our area, and very few comprehensive depictions of the local Native American cultures who lived in this region are accessible to the general public.
Some of the earliest Native American sites documented in North America are located within twenty to thirty miles of Nemacolin Castle, the most famous of which is the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Avella, in Northwestern Washington County, believed by many to be the oldest site in North America. The earliest Meadowcroft Rock Shelter inhabitants predated later cultures, such as the Mound Builders, the Hopewell and Adena Peoples, and the Monongahela Peoples.
Although the Monongahela Valley is part of the Upper Ohio Valley area where Indian Mounds are found, generally the mounds that were found here by early settlers were much smaller than those further down the Ohio, and they were often located in confined areas where towns developed. Some were destroyed as towns were built while others were dismantled in early efforts at archeaology, before the advent of modern archaological standards.
At Monongahela City, for instance, there were several mounds built by the Adena People 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, but late nineteenth century archeaological investigations and later construction projects destroyed them. Numerous other Native American sites have been identified up and down the valley, as illustrated in Edwin Mayer-Oakes's Prehistory of the Upper Ohio Valley. This seminal book on the subject contains maps of sites in the Ohio Valley and Monongahela Valley counties around Pittsburgh. Many Native American sites dating from the early eighteenth century have been identified in Southwestern Pennsylvania. But, mysteriously, a large number of Native Americans disappeared from the region before white settlements, and the earliest settlers encountered only a few small bands of individuals living in isolation. Some of the sites with earthen mounds were actually fortified Indian villages.
The early histories of Brownsville differ from source to source on whether the "Old Fort" at Redstone was an Indian Mound or a fortified village. The Nemacolin Castle property was one of the mounded sites within early Brownsville. It is also referred to as the residence occupied by Nemacolin shortly before Col. Burd arrived. Nemacolin was the Native American who helped white settlers set the course of what is now Route 40 past the Castle. Most likely, the site of the Castle was a fortified village, though there were at least two or three other mounded sites within view of it, some of which were probably much older and may have been included burials.
By 1809, all above-ground remains of any "Old Fort" at Brownsville had been destroyed, according to the journal of Joshua Gilpin. Gilpin's journal also mentions Native American burial remains unearthed in the construction of cellars in the vicinity of Nemacolin Castle, as does the 1811 book The Navigator. Texts from the 1840's and 1850's, such as James Bowman's articles in The American Pioneer, give further details on Native American sites encountered in Brownsville between 1758 and 1820.
The French And Indian War
The French and Indian War made its most enduring mark in Southwestern Pennsylvania in the construction of roads and forts. Fort Burd, which was built at or near the property now occupied by Nemacolin Castle, was one such site. The present course of Route 40 roughly follows Braddock's Road from Cumberland, Maryland to Uniontown. The main route of the Braddock Road veered northwest toward Pittsburgh in the eighteenth century, roughly following the present course of Route 119 to New Stanton, then turning toward McKeesport, as Route 40 currently does. It met the Monongahela River at Braddock and crossed to the present site of Kennywood. The westward extension of the road from Uniontown to Brownsville was a spur leading to Fort Burd.
Perhaps equal in importance to the actual site of Fort Burd is that of the earlier fort known as Hangard, at the mouth of Redstone Creek, about a mile north of the Castle. No archeaological remains have been found to prove conclusively exactly where Fort Burd was located. Yet it remains an important part of the history of the Nemacolin Castle property. However, it is not clearly represented or interpretable in the present landscape. Fort Burd most likely had outbuildings, and these may have remained standing much longer than the Fort. It is quite possible that the earliest residents of Brownsville took ownership of existing structures surrounding the Fort, perhaps living in them until new buildings were built, or even re-using the logs, lumber, bricks, and stones in constructing the first houses in the town.
The sitting room fireplace, which in all likelihood is the oldest above-ground feature at Nemacolin Castle, at least as old as 1787, could be a remnant of Fort Burd. The well contained within the walls of the Castle is another feature that may date from the French and Indian period, though no conclusive documentation or archeaological evidence has been found to date. If the well predates the Castle, its location may explain part of the sequence of property acquisitions (Property History). However, a photograph of another well is shown in one of the Brownsville history books as the well from the fort (Hart's History and Directory of the Three Towns, page 19).
The Early Development Of Brownsville
Brownsville stands apart in regional history. Its importance, like that of eighteenth century Pittsburgh, lies in its strategic location along roads and waterways used by thousands of migrant settlers who opened up the Old Northwest, especially the Ohio Valley. The legend that Brownsville was once larger than Pittsburgh does not hold up to scrutiny on the mere basis of numbers, such as population statistics and documentation of early industrial sites within the borough limits.
However, the most important numbers relating to Brownsville were never decisively calculated: the early observers were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of immigrants who passed through Brownsville in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In one winter, when a heavy snow stopped the flow of traffic, the entire road from Uniontown to Brownsville was lined with wagons in which families were camping. Perhaps equally important was the development of a large number of manufacturing concerns scattered in a twenty mile radius around Brownsville, clearly focused on the town but not concentrated within the town limits.
An argument can be made that the westward-bound settlers passing through Brownsville were a major reason why so many iron furnaces were built in the Chestnut Ridge area surrounding Uniontown and Connellsville between 1789 and 1840. One of the main roles Brownsville played in the story of the moving frontier was that of mass outfitter of families going west by land or river. Settlers crossed the mountains with few personal effects, and then purchased many of the household items they anticipated needing on the frontier upon reaching Brownsville. This provided a boom market for glass and iron goods, flat boats, keel boats, and similar vessels, food supplies, and sundry smaller items.
The often repeated story about a wagon load of iron goods brought to Jacob Bowman from Maryland in 1789 does not refer to the first load of goods ever brought to the town, but to the very first large load carried by wagon, a clear mark of progress. It followed many smaller loads of goods carried by packhorses which had been arriving since the French and Indian War. The significance of a wagon coming west lay in the success of increasing the size of deliveries in response to an expanding market. The story that John Hayden, the wagoner, then chose to stay in the region and start the second iron furnace here is an indication of Brownsville's role (and that of the Bowman family) in spurring on industries, even though Hayden's furnace was located many miles east of Brownsville in the mountains.
The intensity of the growing market for goods in Brownsville produced an unusual town. It was small in size, but full of substantial merchants, including the Bowmans. It was not carefully constructed, following an idyllic plan that matched an ideal parcel of land, as was the case in many other towns of the period. Instead, it was a series of several small communities, patched together, connected by a steep hill, a narrow "neck" of land along the river, and several precarious bridges.
Nemacolin Castle's unique site is intrinsically linked to these circumstances. It was the first parcel of any importance in the entire town, yet the town's business centers developed a few blocks away from it in several different directions. As the linchpin in the layout of the town as a whole, the Castle relates very differently to the three different business districts that touch it: the early Front Street business district which is lined with eighteenth century commercial properties of which Nemacolin Castle is a tightly-woven component, the Upper Market Street District, a block away, dating largely from 1820-1850, a remnant of the heyday of the National Road, and the Neck with its several different generations of architecture over which the Castle ominously looms.
A Center Of Trade And Industrialization
The early industries within Brownsville include the various enterprises of Jacob Bowman which are presently mentioned on tours of the Castle, as well as many others, some linked to the Bowmans and some not. Bridgeport for instance, was a separate town in Jacob Bowman's era, dominated by Quaker families and lined with industrial sites. The more intense industries, like the foundries and nail factories, tended to be in Brownsville. Although the hull of the enterprise was built in Bridgeport in 1814, it was floated on completion to Brownsville proper where it was fitted out with its steam engine and other mechanical parts. Thus, Bridgeport and Brownsville had separate but inter-related roles.
The sheer number and varieties of industries started by Jacob Bowman and his associates is amazing. His will, his ledger listing his 1805-08 properties, and the few other documents of the period, such as James L. Bowman's writings (which are really transcriptions of memories relayed to him by his father), offer the skeletal outline of an unparelleled business life, inspired, operated, and started by one individual and his family.
Though the early industries of Brownsville are tremendously significant, Nemacolin Castle is generally not well suited to interpret them. There are very few indications of industrial activity in the architecture or furnishings of the site as it now stands. However, the fact that many industries of the early nineteenth century were still cottage-scale and integrated into the same neighborhoods with residences and stores should be mentioned as part of the tours. One of Jacob's two nail factories was located on Lot 18 adjoining the Castle on the river side. It would have been a very noisy establishment. James L. Bowman mentions his father having brought several workmen from Maryland to work in this factory. Swank's Progressive Pennsylvania says Jacob Bowman had two nail factories, one of which made wrought nails (the noisier hammering process), and the other of which made cut nails.
The Bowman Family
The Bowman family was particularly proud of their lineage and their collective accomplishments. In fact, the numerous writings by family members about the family accomplishments is one of the reasons that Nemacolin Castle eventually became a museum: they convinced themselves and subsequently others that their story was important, by handing down oral traditions and by publishing the outline of the family story in dozens of publications. The biographical information on the Bowmans was written up in several places and does not need to be repeated here. However, the standard version, as the Bowman family released it (it was even printed at length in almost every family member's obituary) needs to be rewritten to bring it into a better focus for interpretation at this site.
Only three generations of Bowman's lived at Nemacolin Castle (plus Charles and Lelia's two sons as children, and possibly Jacob's mother). The first generation revolved around Jacob Bowman, an incredibly important individual who was actively involved in almost every kind of development that touched western Pennsylvania in its proto-industrial and early industrial periods. But Jacob Bowman lived in a much smaller, cruder house which was located at the core of the present house, with his wife, nine children, probably his mother, and possibly others such as his brother John or the orphan Mary Ellen King of whom he was a guardian.
The second generation revolved around Nelson Bowman, the youngest of Jacob's nine children, who built most of the house as it now stands and set its distinctive style. Nelson Bowman was a forty-nine year old bachelor when he married in 1856. Though a very wealthy individual, his life seems to have been marked by less impressive activities than his three older brothers or even his sisters. This house appears to have been by far his most spectacular achievement. Of the six children that Nelson fathered, all born after he turned fifty, only two lived to adulthood. Charles, the male of the two survivors, inherited the house when his father died five years before his marriage to Lelia Jacobs.
Though Charles studied and practiced architecture, and also was an attorney, there is not a great deal of evidence that he made a major mark on society or the community through either of these professions. He may have designed a few elements and flourishes in the 1890's, but made much less of an imprint on the house than one might expect. He also operated a district justice office from the study of the house, a modest activity compared to establishing a large law firm or ruling over a larger court. But he did dress the house up with objects collected in his travels, and he and his wife entertained in the house in ostentatious, but also mysterious ways that gave writers material to write about forty years after his death. His wife, Lelia, also a member of an important family in the history of the area, continued the Bowman legacy here in her last years by keeping up the house's mystique, and by suggesting shortly before she died that the house should someday be a museum.
The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad is both an appropriate and inappropriate subject for interpretation at Nemacolin Castle, depending on how it is handled. Like many places with Underground Railroad association, Nemacolin Castle has "secret spaces" where a slave could have hidden. However, there is no written documentation by eyewitnesses recording that any slaves were ever hidden in these spaces, or that the Castle was ever a station on the "railroad". Rather than focusing on folklore about specific features like hidden rooms, which is likely to have been exaggerated, romanticized, or even fabricated over time, the Brownsville Historical Society should shift its focus to the hard, written facts.
The written documents by Underground Railroad perticipants in the greater Brownsville area provide enough information to piece together the geography of Underground Railroad routes through greater Brownsville. This geography should be interpreted and taught first, with clear references to the documented Underground Railroad operators in the Brownsville area. Folklore, legends, possible hiding places, and similar flourishes can be mentioned as long as the hard, written facts are given their proper precedence.
The Underground Railroad passed through southwestern Pennsylvania, as it was a logical route out of the south. West Virginia at the time was part of Virginia, and the Mason-Dixon line provided a sharper line between North and South in our area before West Virginia seceded from the larger state. In fact, before the creation of West Virginia, Virginia bordered western Pennsylvania on both the south and the west, and Underground Railroad routes appear to have led into Pennsylvania from both borders. Furthermore, the Underground Railroad was operated by both African Americans and whites, especially Quakers. The Brownsville area had significant early pools of both groups. Pennsylvania abolished slavery gradually, with the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, which kept all slaves in slavery until their 28th birthday.
The Brownsville area had many slaves before this act was passed. Fallowfield Township, for instance, had the largest number of slaves of all the townships in Washington County in 1782. At the time, Fallowfield included all of the riverfront from Brownsville to Monongahela City. The earliest Quaker community in Washington County centered on Westland Meeting, just south of the original Fallowfield Township boundary. There were so many slaveholders in the area, that there was a mass migration to Kentucky from Fayette County as a result of the Act (mentioned in Veech's The Monongahela Of Old).
The freed slaves were later active in bringing other slaves through, with the assistance of their white friends. There were about eight printed accounts of the Underground Railroad in Fayette and Washinton Counties written by participants after they felt it was safe to admit their roles in this activity, which at the time had been illegal. Of these, the only major account by an African American was written in 1903 by Howard Wallace of the Centerville area. It mentions a number of stations along the route from Uniontown through Centerville to Belle Vernon and Monongahela City.
Jacob Bowman owned several slaves in his time. The family also had African American servants at least as late as about 1900, as shown in the family photo album. Although there is not documentation of Underground Railroad activities at this site, Nelson Bowman's brother-in-law, T.M.McKennan was a well known Abolitionist who lived in Washington, Pennsylvania. Though the Bowman family was wealthy and progressive in its thinking, as demonstrated in the construction of most of the Castle in the 1850's, a peak decade of Underground Railroad activity, the area was surrounded by Quaker families who were more likely than the Bowmans to have been participants, some even mentioned by name in Wallace's account.
Brownsville was linked by family ties to places further west, such as Salem, Ohio, a famous center of Underground Railroad and Abolitionist activity, founded by Elisha Hunt, a Quaker who moved there from Brownsville. Salem's first newspaper was founded by Robert Fee, another Quaker and publisher of a Brownsville paper around 1820. So many Brownsville Quakers relocated to Salem that the Annual Meeting for the Brownsville area was moved to Salem in 1813. Salem was an important Underground Railroad stop. Undoubtably, many Brownsville area operators directed escaped slaves in that direction, as it was due northwest, in a slave-free state, in a city with which local residents were familiar, and where former Brownsville residents were participating in the movement. Incidentally, the route to Salem from Brownsville would have passed the site of the paper mill that Jacob Bowman had built in the East Liverpool area in 1805. Bowman may have copied the idea for this paper mill from his Quaker neighbors and friends, Samuel Jackson and Jonathon Sharpless, who founded the Redstone Paper Mill in 1796. The Redstone Paper Mill, located about a mile north of Nemacolin Castle, was the first paper mill west of the Allegheny Mountains; one item made at the Redstone Mill was the paper used in printing the Pittsburgh Gazette, the first newspaper west of the Alleghenies.
Architecture Of The 1850's
Although the preceding historical contexts related to Nemacolin Castle and the Bowman family are of great interest to the Brownsville area, none is as well represented at Nemacolin Castle as the architectural fashions of the middle nineteenth century. Built in a decade where there was a brief building boom, Nemacolin Castle is one of a couple dozen large buildings of the 1850's still standing in western Pennsylvania.
However, in the context of western Pennsylvania, it is a very unusual, eclectric building reflecting eccentric taste and ostentatious spending at a scale almost unseen in residential buildings built in this region at that time. When viewed in a national context, on the other hand, the building typifies a transition in architectural trends occurring across the nation, and even resembles the work of nationally-well-known architects, such as Andrew Jackson Downing.
Because of the significance of the Bowmans in Brownsville and the significance of Brownsville in early regional history, and because of the overwhelming significance of industry in the history of the Pittsburgh region, the Brownsville Historical Society has consistently attempted to interpret family, town, and industry themes at this site since its genesis as an organization. However, this house is uniquely endowed with qualities and stories reflecting national architectural history.
As architectural history is a distinct profession with its own literature, its own academic professionals, and its own audiences, the society would benefit from marketing Nemacolin Castle as an architectural learning experience and from setting the property up as a place to interpret, teach, and promote architectural history. This may not have been attempted in the past because few Brownsville Historical Society leaders had any contact with architectural historians. Likewise, the Castle's eclectric blend of architectural styles and its association with the so-called "Victorian Era", have made this site less interesting to previous generations of architectural historians who were biased against such buildings.
Mature Wealth: Charles And Lelia Bowman
Nemacolin Castle is clearly Brownsville's best setting to tell the story of the "Great Gatsby" era. Charles and Lelia Bowman inherited not only this house, but enough wealth to live out their lives comfortably and with ostentation. Not only did they spend freely, like the famous characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, but they also cultivated a two-sided relationship with the surrounding community: they let a few people in to see what they were doing, entertaining a few friends frequently, throwing many card parties, serving alcohol at the brink of Prohibition, and keeping a photographic record of their parties and friends, while at the same time keeping up a high, fence-like wall around the property clearly symbolic of their desire to keep many of their neighbors out.
The stories of this era are still remembered by some eyewitnesses, especially residents who were invited to visit here when they were young children, as well as a variety of Bowman relatives who always lived near the house. The ostentatious spending of mature wealth by old families in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century is a common theme that is interpreted by many house museums where such entertaining occured. The literature about such activities in the Gay Nineties and the Roaring Twenties provides a gold mine of sources to be researched for comparisons to the Bowmans.
At the Nemacolin Castle, however, several key features lend themselves uniquely to a captivating presentation of this part of the Bowman story. The wall is as clear a symbol as one might find of the boundaries of a wealthy family situated at the center of an industrial community. Just a short distance outside the wall lived burgeoning masses of recent immigrants, coal and coke workers, factory workers, struggling Applachians, and some of the poorest of the poor. The anecdote that the Bowmans instructed their grounds keepers to cement sharp glass shards into the top of the wall and to replace them every so many years to guarantee their effectiveness tells much of the story in itself.
One wonders if the effect of the glass, and the periodic ritual of replacing it, was mostly symbolic, since the wall was never uniformly secure. Meanwhile, the statuary in the Drawing Room, the dressing areas, the maid's bells, the room set aside just for the Bishop, the multi-roomed kitchen suite, and the servants' quarters are all interpretable features reflecting two sides of the Bowman personality in this era. This rich theme should be thoroughly researched, using oral history, incorporating Mary Ellen Stelling's writings, tapping the Castle's photography archives, and recreating the era through parties with costumed participants, authenic foods, formal dinnerware, and a general expose' of the two-sidedness of wealth in the period.
There is a great possibility of interpreting (to borrow the title of a British television series) the "Upstairs-Downstairs" dimensions of the house. The docents can explore what it was like to be a domestic in this era (perhaps even what it was like to the African American domestics). The feeling of entering the house for an uncomfortable visit with Charles Bowman, the local magistrate can be explored. The excesses of the Bowmans can be studied as well as their beneficence. Several cautions should be kept in mind, however. Charles and Lelia Bowman's era of showing off the Bowman wealth is mainly an overlay on the significant architectural artifact created by Nelson Bowman when he built most of the house in the 1850's.