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 the Mon Valley.
Indian summer was drawing to a close and Thomas Taylor decided to take advantage of the balmy weather to rake up a few remaining leaves that were skittering across his Allenport front yard.
He bagged a small pile of orange, red and yellow leaves then crossed the street to toss the bag into a trash can next to his carport. Taylor — a trim, active man in his late 70s — paused to enjoy the majestic riverfront view in front of him.
A smattering of soft afternoon sunshine glinted off the Monongahela River; in the distance, a coal barge was chugging upstream in no particular hurry. Taylor’s old wooden dock bobbed as a few gentle waves lapped up to the shoreline.
“It’s so quiet and peaceful here,” said Taylor, nodding at the river. “This is what I like best about living in Allenport.”
Taylor then gestured to a tall measuring stick that he had erected on the shoreline when he was a young man. A few dates were scrawled on the stick with a black marker.
“Of course the Mon can get cranky at times,” he added. “The worst flood I experienced was in 1985. We got 42.7 inches that year and the water flooded the first floor of my house. The word had it that some logs had jammed up the Point Marion Lock and Dam, causing the water to spill over. We filed a class-action lawsuit against the Coast Guard but we ended up losing the case. Fortunately, I didn’t sustain too much damage.”
Taylor’s face tightened momentarily then he sighed and resignedly shrugged his shoulders.
“Such is the life in a small river town,” he said. “Somehow we always survive and keep going on.”
Like the river that flows alongside this once mighty industrial community, the fortunes of Allenport have waxed and waned over the years. Allenport is experiencing a downturn right now, but that doesn’t mean the town can’t rebound and prosper once again.
Allenport, which is nestled between the west bank of the Monongahela River and Route 88 in Washington County, has long been a center of commerce. In 1784, Henry Dixon obtained 146 acres of land then sold the property in 1816 to John Baldwin, who laid out a village in lots. Baldwin ran an advertisement for lots in The Washington Reporter. He called his new town West Freeport, promoting a wealthy settlement that offered an abundance of riches, including a grist and saw mill, as well as a place of worship.
When the town idea failed, Baldwin sold the property to Joseph Allen. In 1828, Francis McKee purchased this land from Allen’s estate, replotted the property and changed the town’s name to Independence. Farmers soon began growing rye and barley, which was used for the production of whiskey. The area also was abundant in timber and coal.
In 1865, the town was renamed as Allenport and more people began to move into this burgeoning community. During the ensuing years, workers found job opportunities at the No. 2 Vesta Mine and a tube mill. When Pittsburgh Steel built a mill at Allenport in the early 1920s, both the population and median household income soon flourished. At its peak in 1940, Allenport boasted a population of 1,078 and featured a thriving business district. The Pittsburgh Steel plant, which later became Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, employed nearly 3,500 workers from throughout the Mon Valley.
“We had a lot of activity, from the ’40s through the ’70s,” said Ron Celaschi Sr., 82, a lifelong resident of Allenport. “Allenport had stores that sold fresh meat, canned goods and candy. In the 1950s, a guy opened up a TV store where you could buy the latest Philco TV set. If we needed to see a doctor or catch the latest movie, we could take a ferry across the river to Fayette City. We had our own school and kids enjoyed playing in the hills and swimming in the river. Life was good back then.”
Bill Maxon, 91, a resident of Roscoe, retired in 1984, after working for 41 years at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel. He remembers the hustle and bustle in Allenport during its heyday in the 1960s.
“People would come from all over the Mon Valley to work at the mill,” said Maxon, who was enjoying a beer at the Rod ‘n Reel Club in Allenport. “Guys would take a street car to get to work. There was even a ferry that transported people to and from Fayette City.”
By the early 1970s, the Mon Valley began to experience an economic decline. Many of the area’s factories shut down and people started to move out of the area to find work. While the Allenport facility continued to produce cold rolled sheet steel for a few more decades, it was only a matter of time before Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel closed shop.
“You could see it coming,” said Taylor, who retired in 2003 after working for 46 years as a machinist at the Allenport plant. “There weren’t that many orders coming in and work was tapering off. Our workforce had dropped to only a few hundred people.”
When Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel closed its Allenport plant in 2008, the era of steelmaking in the Mon Valley had finally come to an end.
“It was a sad to see the factory close,” said Celaschi, a former supervisor at the steel mill. “Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel was our lifeblood for many years.”
Today, only a few businesses remain in Allenport. The old steel mill is a largely deserted building with boarded-up windows and scraps of junk piled up in the parking lot. The only sign of life at the once mighty industrial park is a puff of smoke spouting from a rusted pipe chimney at American Iron Oxide Company (AMROX), a small plant that produces iron oxide used as a pigment to color paint. In addition, Allenport is home to Custom Craft Construction — a small general contractor.
Allenport no longer has any stores or gas stations but it still maintains a post office and borough building. The town also features a few popular hangouts, including the Rod ‘n’ Reel Club, Jay’s Tavern and the Allenport Marina.
Most people have adjusted to the realities of living in a tiny community without a real business district. “It’s a little bit of an inconvenience, but we don’t mind driving to Charleroi, Rostraver or Roscoe to do our shopping or to see the doctor,” said Celaschi.
One of the busiest spots in town is the Mon Valley Community Federal Credit Union. Formed in 1937 to serve employees of the steel mill, the credit union began serving the entire community when Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel shut down. According to CEO Jim Pallini, the credit union has more than 10,000 members, with assets totaling $152 million.
“When Allenport began to decline in the 1990s, we considered moving to another town,” said Pallini. “But we felt we had an obligation to continue serving our customers, who were so loyal to us for many years. We moved into our new office in 1996 and plan to continue serving the community for many more years.”
Pallini acknowledges that there is no easy solution for revitalizing Allenport. But he is still hopeful the town can rebuild in the future. “We have a lot of great assets here, from easy access to major highways to the railroad to a sprawling industrial park on the river. I think there is a lot of potential for Allenport.”
At last count, the census for Allenport has dropped to approximately 525 residents. Few people have moved into town these days but for those looking for a quiet and inexpensive place to live, Allenport is one of the best kept secrets in the Mon Valley.
Valerie Lahti, 51, relocated to Allenport 10 years ago after living in Monongahela. She needed to find a new place to live and quickly fell in love with the small town charm of Allenport.
“I’m a country girl and like the privacy in my neighborhood. Plus the view of the river from my front porch is beautiful and my neighbors are wonderful,” said Lahti, who was enjoying a relaxing afternoon at Thomas Reid III Memorial Park, which was named after the borough’s first serviceman to sacrifice his life in World War II. The park is well kept and features a pavilion, baseball field, swings and a basketball court.
Lahti noted that the park is the setting for a popular car show each September. “A lot of people come into town for that show,” she said. “Vendors set up food tables and there are some activities for the kids. It’s a lot of fun and it gives us something to look forward to.”
People in Allenport don’t have much to complain about, but they sometimes get annoyed with the soot that is expelled from the AMROX smoke stack. Occasionally, their car windows and yards are covered with a fine layer of red dust. Taylor and several of his neighbors filed a class-action lawsuit against AMROX and settled out of court.
“Every now and then, someone from AMROX will come by and clean the dust off our cars, so I can’t complain too much,” said Taylor.
Lahti thinks the dust from AMROX is a small price to pay for some economic stability. “As long as it doesn’t get too dirty, the smoke doesn’t bother me,” she said. “The factory offers more work for people who need employment.”
While Allenport faces an uncertain future, most of its residents are content with life with in their small town. Taylor feels that Allenport is a resilient community that is well prepared to meet whatever challenges may come its way.
“I haven’t added any notches to my measuring stick in a while, so that’s a good sign,” said Taylor, as he put away his lawn equipment for the winter. “We have a lot to be thankful for. We are a close-knit community, and we will persevere, just as we always have.”