Stepping Back in Time with a Visit to the Saltsburg Historical Society
I’ve traveled all over Pennsylvania, but I’m not sure that I’ve come across a place quite like Saltsburg.
Located in Indiana County, just across the Conemaugh River from Westmoreland County, this small borough seems locked in a time warp. The third of a mile that comprises the heart of Saltsburg features dozens of historic buildings dating back as far as 1827 and is incredibly well preserved. Set in a forested valley, Saltsburg is the type of place that seems more alive in history than in the present.
In the 1830s, the Main Line Canal stretching from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh opened and passed right through Saltsburg. This engineering miracle was the main transportation route between eastern and western Pennsylvania and brought both goods and people through the town. On their way west towards Pittsburgh, notable figures, such as writers Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stow, passed through Saltsburg.
The path of the canal has been preserved through the town as part of the West Penn Trail. Walking along the trail really lets you understand the important role that the canal must have played on daily life in mid-19th century Saltsburg. Don’t leave town without checking this out.
The town’s unique feel and history made me excited to find out more at the Saltsburg Historical Society. Established in the 1970s, the historical society has been instrumental in preserving the heritage of Saltsburg. The historical society is located in one of the oldest standing buildings in town.
Just a few doors down from where the canal used to run, the old stone house was once the residence of several notable town residents. Today, however, it’s named the Rebecca Hadden Stone House in recognition of the founder of the Saltsburg Historical Society.
Like all historical societies in Pennsylvania, much of the museum’s collection isn’t significantly different from any other local society museum. However, the Rebecca Hadden Stone House Museum has several very interesting pieces that make the museum worth visiting.
I especially enjoyed learning about the history of salt production in the area. Saltsburg used to be one of the largest producers of salt in the US, and the historical society has a significant amount of information on the industry, as well as many glass bottles that were made in the town.
The town also has a connection to the oil industry. Despite not having an oil boom itself, Indiana County is located relatively close to the northern Pennsylvania counties where an oil boom occurred in the 1850s. Because of this, the museum has an interesting collection of local made oil products.
There is also information on Samuel Kier. Kier was born near Saltsburg and is often considered the “Grandfather of the American Oil Industry,” and was the first to make kerosene, a product that still bears his name.
Outside of industrial displays, the museum also has a nice collection of local war memorabilia, including a beautifully decorated World War 2 shell that was done by a soldier on the front lines.
The most impressive item in their collection is quite easy to overlook: an original painting of the actor Jimmy Stewart. Stewart was born in raised in nearby Indiana, and his sister painted the then-unknown Stewart while he was in college. The piece hangs in the museum’s stairwell near the front door and is worth the price of admission for any fan of Stewart.
Back outside the historical society, it’s hard not to notice the dilapidated metal building across the street. The former home of the Altman Mill, the building is now the home of Saltsburg River and Trail.
While in Saltsburg, I had the opportunity to talk to the building’s owner and check out what remains of the old mill. Built in 1912, and expanded in 1940 and 1960, the mill features some incredibly intricate wooden equipment. Truthfully, the complexity of the equipment is hard to believe in this age of metal machinery and is quite amazing to witness.
Unfortunately, there is a modern day feud between the owner of the building and the historical society, which is jeopardizing the future of this beautiful and unique mill. Hopefully, less stubborn heads will ultimately prevail, so that this mill can be enjoyed by every visitor to Saltsburg.
However, even without the mill, Saltsburg is a very cool little town that’s worth spending a few hours checking out. I’m looking forward to going back someday during warm weather to spend a bit more time checking out the area around the town.
Note: My visit to Saltsburg was hosted by the Indiana County Visitor Bureau. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
Saltsburg Historical Society
Hours: Wednesdays: 10a-2p
Address: 105 Point Street