Editor’s note: The following story is part of a monthly series of articles that examine the people, culture and history of the small towns that dot the landscape of Fayette County.
John Matty III proudly points to historic photos that hang from the pine-paneled wa lls of the borough building in Newell. The black-and-white images show a vibrant town filled with life that a few hundred folks call home within a bend of the Monongahela River.
“My great grandparents — they were both from Newell,” he said. “They married. That’s just how it was. Somebody married someone from Newell, bought another house down the road, lived here — that’s just how it was. It’s not like that today, but it is still better than most communities as far as being close-knit.”
The borough was named after John Newell, former president of the P&LE Railroad, around the turn of the 20th century. Matty’s great-great grandfather (name) once owned the only automobile in town. A black-and-white photo shows his great-great-grandfather greeting Newell for a visit where there was a large crowd present.
“Do you see the baby that my great-great-grandfather (William Smith) is holding?” Matty said as he pointed to the photo. “That baby was my grandfather (G.Willis Murray). He was actually born in a hotel that his dad, my great-great-grandfather, owned. The whole town showed up when Newell came to visit.”
The town was an important railroad stop along lines that led from area steel mills to Pittsburgh.
“The area was booming back around the turn of the century and into the 1920s,” said Carl Lama, 67, a lifelong resident. “The railroad was very active, hauling a lot of coal, steel and a few passengers. The trip from Newell to Pittsburgh was less than two hours.”
Industry thrived in the area that provided jobs from railroads, coal mining, a chemical plant and steel mills nearby. There was a hotel, a YMCA building, a few grocery stores and more in the patch of land.
Like most of the region, that way of life is gone with the wind.
“Most of the employment was from the railroad, chemical plant and steel mills nearby in Allenport and Monessen. Some people were coal miners,” said Lama, who worked at the chemical plant for many years. “Everyone worked in industry then. There are not lot of the jobs like that around here anymore.”
Matty added, “It was like a food chain — the steel mills bought a lot of stuff. When they stopped buying, everything suffered. But that’s pretty much anywhere in southwestern Pennsylvania, it’s not just Newell.”
Speaking of the river, Newell once boasted a fine beach as shown in photos where people would go swimming then and now.
The beach, like the sands of time in the borough, would fade away when the water level increased about 8 feet after the lock was built nearby.
The borough once boasted a ferry that cars used to travel to the other side of the river. The ferry was discontinued because the water level increased with the advent of the river’s lock nearby. Lama said he’s not absolutely certain, but he thinks the ferry gained another life in Fredericktown crossing the Mon River between Fayette and Greene counties. But of course that ferry operation in Fredericktown ceased to exist early Fall of 2013.
That means there’s one road into the borough, and that’s how the residents like it.
“Nobody comes down here unless they come down for reason,” said Matty, 40, borough president. “One way in, one way out. When you see a strange car go by, everyone turns their head. Who’s that? What are they doing here? What do they need?”
Lama added, “The one thing about Newell is, we’re far away from everything. If you want to buy milk and groceries, you got to drive all the way to Gillespie — six miles away — or go into Brownsville maybe Belle Vernon.”
The town did not die, but it remains a place where neighbors are friends and perhaps family.
“Why stay? Because it’s our town,” Matty said. “The people make it special. It’s a very close community. At one time, just about everybody was related to everybody else.”
Lama added, “It’s a quiet community and there are good schools (Frazier School District). There’s more kids now than there were. You have a lot of new people moving into town. I probably don’t know as many people as I used to.”
The borough’s streets are laid out mostly along a grid pattern that is divided along railroad tracks that are still used by CSX. More than 500 people live in the borough that is nestled within a bend or loop of the Monongahela River. A commanding view of California can be seen from the bluffs on the outskirts of town.
Matty’s great-great grandfather William Smith owned a hotel within the borough and a couple of coal mines nearby. Matty lives in the large Victorian house that Smith bought around 1915.
Matty said every time he came to town, he passed his family’s old home place. Though the home had been in the family for generations, another family acquired the house several years ago.
And then opportunity presented itself. Matty said he could have lived anywhere, but when he and his wife, Lisa, saw that house was for sale, they were ready to come home.
“I came back to raise my kids here, and I would do it again. I wouldn’t do it anywhere else,” John Matty said.
Five generations of the Matty family have lived in Newell.
“As kids, we used to ride bikes around town,” Matty said. “We used to know who lived in every house, maybe still do. It’s one of those towns where you don’t do nothing wrong because when you got home, you got your butt beat because somebody always called.”
Except for the time that Lama was serving in the U.S. Army between 1969 to 1972, he has lived in Newell all of his life. He was employed for a long time at the chemical plant and now serves as the borough’s emergency management director as a member of the town’s water authority.
“I like living here because it is stress free. I have a garden, stuff like that. I can just do my thing,” he said.
Today, the borough’s office, built around 1980, a U.S. Post Office and the chemical plant are all that remain as to do a bunch of older homes. CSX still operates the railroad through this stretch of the woods.
Neither Matty nor Lama expects much change within the borough 50 years down the road. And that’s OK.
“I hope it doesn’t change,” Matty said. “The people keep this place alive. People are a big part of our community. Good people. Good families. It’s home.
Lama added, “I think everybody likes the fact that it is a nice peaceful community.”