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 and the Mon Valley.
It’s a curiosity for the motorist that just rolled down Route 51 through Perryopolis on the way to Uniontown.
And this is after you probably didn’t realize that the real Perryopolis business district and its legacy from George Washington a quarter of a millennium ago is off the highway to the left, nor that a house made famous in the movie “The Silence of the Lambs” can be found to the right.
As you’re driving south, between the 45 mph speed limit in Perryopolis and the 55 mph limit on the final approach to Uniontown, you roll through a traffic signal next to two convenience stores and a McDonalds restaurant in the Perry Township village of Star Junction.
“It’s a town that nobody knows exists,” said Jeff Ott of Perryopolis, a patron in that convenience store. “It’s two gas stations and a red light, with two streets on one side of Route 51 and one on the other.”
Jeff Ott was patronizing the convenience store and Gulf service station that is adjacent to that McDonalds.
Another convenience store, a Honey Bear outlet, is tied in to a Sunoco service station across what is called Tony Row Road — one of the vestiges of Star Junction’s company town past, a street where coal mine supervisors once had their homes — and behind that is a post office that doesn’t have home delivery.
“Everybody gets a box,” said Vicki Ruffing of McKeesport, who has been a clerk there for almost three years, and maintains nearly 300 boxes for customers.
“I like it here,” Ruffing said. “I chose to stay here. I started in Perryopolis nine years ago. I had to choose this or Smock.”
That decision was ratified when a retirement created an opening back in Perryopolis, and she chose to stay at Star Junction, ZIP code 15482.
999 coke ovens
One would call Star Junction a village. It’s unincorporated but census-designated by the federal government which reported it had a population of 616 in 2010.
But Star Junction started out as a company town 125 years ago, named for a railroad depot.
That railroad depot in Star Junction was busy with what Briggs and Flint Company and others brought out of 4,000 acres nearby, bituminous coal from Washington No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 portals that in turn fed another feature of Star Junction, beehive coke ovens.
“There were 999 coke ovens,” Star Junction native Connie Molchan recalled. “They couldn’t do 1,000, they would have been taxed.”
That tale of “999 coke ovens” was included in a “Historic American Engineering Record of the Town of Star Junction and Washington Coal and Coke Company” prepared in 1989 by historian Margaret M. Mulrooney for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service.
Coke was a family affair for the major oven operator in the Star Junction area, the Cochran family that bought those 4,000 acres near Perryopolis and ran Washington Coal and Coke.
“The Washington Coal and Coke Company, which operated the plant, was founded by James Cochran of nearby Dawson,” Mulrooney’s text continued. “Cochran, called ‘Little Jim,’ was known as one of the greatest pioneers of the coke industry. In 1843, Cochran, his brother Sample and his Uncle Mordecai became the first persons to sell Connellsville coke outside the region. As such, they are generally credited with starting the demand for Connellsville coke.”
The 1992 souvenir book recalled that Washington was second only to the Fay-West area’s H.C. Frick Coke Company for local production in the 1910s and 1920s.
Molchan was on the committee that celebrated Star Junction’s centennial in 1992.
“I was born and raised here,” Molchan said. “My husband and I built a home up on the hill. We raised three kids, and none of them live here.”
“Star Junction is now a quiet village and has seen many changes since the mines ceased operating in the 1950s,” Vivian Conn wrote in the 1992 souvenir book.
“The old folks have died off,” Molchan said. “The young people, enterprising people, have bought up all the houses, and now they’re renters.”
Some things haven’t changed, including many of the historic houses, and a ballfield that was restored in recent years with the help of Chevron.
“We still have our own ballfield, and we love to hear the kids having a good time,” Conn said. She was born in Gillespie in 1940, and first moved in 1949 to Victoria, another coal mining town between Perryopolis and Star Junction.
“That was just as they were putting Route 51 in,” Conn recalled recently. “That’s where the railroad tracks were for the coal mines.”
Another vestige of the company town past are churches that were built for the miners’ families by Washington Coal and Coke Company. Make a left off Tony Row after passing the convenience stores and one is on, appropriately, Church Street.
There, Star Junction Baptist Church and Star Junction United Methodist Church stood side-by-side for more than a century, both funded by the family that owned Washington Coal and Coke.
A Ten Commandments monument dedicated in 2013 stands next to Star Junction Baptist Church, today a congregation in the Monongahela Association of the American Baptist Churches of Pennsylvania and Delaware.
The Rev. Don Bowser has been pastor there for 30 years.
The edifice built as the Methodist Episcopal Church has pictures of its history inside, including one of Bishop John W. Hamilton, a historic figure in that denomination, preaching there at the age of 80 on May 31, 1925.
It was financed by James Cochran’s cousin Philip and opened one week after Star Junction Baptist Church.
“Philip G. and Sara M. Cochran were staunch supporters of the Methodist faith and contributed generously to local Methodist churches,” Mulrooney recounted. “The building in Star Junction was financed with their help and dedicated in January 1898. Various additions were made between 1898 and 1909 to house the Sunday school, an auditorium, classrooms and a parsonage.”
However, both the church and parsonage had been vacant in recent years, until two children of that church came back to find new purpose for those buildings.
“I was baptized there, me and my brothers,” said Greg Pike, who with his wife, childhood sweetheart and fellow Star Junction native Ellen Pike, bought the church and parsonage on April 1 and operate it as “Old Good Stuff Antiques & The Knife Guy Vintage.”
Greg Pike started out with a knife-and-used-gun section that still is part of his present business, which recently had a grand opening in that new location.
“All of our family came here,” Greg recalled. “Those (stained glass) windows are 120 years old, beautiful windows.”
“My kids came here and went to Bible school,” Ellen recalled. “We’re going to move into the parsonage and live there.”
“We weren’t looking for a church,” Greg said.
“It kind of found us,” Ellen said.