Sitting high atop a hill on the banks of the Monongahela River is one of the most curious buildings in the Laurel Highlands: Nemacolin Castle.
Nemacolin Castle was built in the 1780s by Jacob Bowman. Bowman, a native of Hagerstown, Maryland, traveled Nemacolin’s Road, an old Native American path that was a popular route west at the time (and later would be closely followed by the National Road), to the banks of the Monongahela River.
(Don’t confuse the castle with the nearby Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, a popular place to stay in the area.)
Bowman set up a trading post in a two-room log cabin that also served as his family home. The trading posts location along the edge of the frontier made this a popular stop for supplies and the trading of goods.
With Brownsville becoming a booming frontier outpost, business was good for the Bowman family. Over the years, Brownsville grew around them, and it outpaced Pittsburgh in both population and importance until the 1850s. In fact, it was once said, “Pittsburgh might amount to something if it wasn’t so close to Brownsville.”
Thanks both to his success and growing family, Bowman expanded his home 1815. The business continued the grow and the Bowman family’s wealth increased. After Jacob Bowman died in 1847, his son, Nelson, continued to expand the house; adding an addition in 1850 and building the stone tower in the 1870s.
The tower and the exterior of the home were designed with inspiration from Germanic castles. While the tower does give the home a castle-like appearance, it served no architectural purpose other than to showcase the wealth of the Bowman family.
Charles Bowman inherited the home in 1892 when his father, Nelson, died. Charles would expand the home a final time in 1915. This series of expansions created a house that showcases the changing architectural and design styles of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. In addition to the original log cabin, which is still the center point of the home, and the Germanic castle influences, Nemacolin Castle also showcases Edwardian, Colonial, and Victorian design.
When Charles Bowman’s wife, Leila, died in 1959, the home was turned over to the public, ending three generations and 170 years of Bowman family ownership of the home.
Today, visitors are invited to tour this fantastic castle and learn about its history, the Bowman family’s influence on the region, and the story of Brownsville.
Guided tours start in the original log cabin, which is now located in the center of the home, completely obscured by later additions to the home. The home’s original fireplace is still located in the heart of the structure.
Throughout the home, nearly all of the furniture on display belonged to the Bowman family. However, the entire home isn’t set up for the same time period. Instead, different portions of the home are displayed from the time period that the section of the home was built. This offers a fantastic opportunity to better understand how life on the Pennsylvania frontier was different from life in a bustling, industrial community in western Pennsylvania.
For me, the most interesting portions of the home were the upstairs bedrooms. In addition to showcases the differences in style over the years, these rooms were quite beautiful and showcased life in the house very well.
Not surprisingly, my favorite bedroom was the one inside the castle’s turret, which was where one of Nelson’s bachelor sons slept. Above the bedroom, at the top of the turret, was his architecture studio. Sadly, this room is one of the few in the home that is currently closed to the public.
Walking through the house, guides showcase the history of the Bowman family through pieces like the 18th century bed or the Bishop’s bedroom, which only ever slept in once. While the story of Nemacolin Castle might only center around one family, the story of the family mimics the rise of Brownsville from a small, frontier town to an important hub on the shores of the Monongahela River.
If you want to learn more about the history of southwestern Pennsylvania, and how it grew into an important industrial hub, or if you just like visiting unusual homes, you won’t want to miss Nemacolin Castle in Fayette County.
Note: My visit to Nemacolin Castle was hosted by the site. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
Hours: Check the site for hours as they change seasonally
Cost: Adults: $15
Address: 136 Front Street