West Overton, Livermore listed among Pennsylvania’s ‘ghost towns’ to explore
Once dotted with coal mines, canal towns and long-shuttered factories, Westmoreland County has a long list of “ghost towns,” though Penn State’s Pennsylvania Data Center highlighted just two in its annual Halloween graphic.
The center, which normally tracks economic and census data trends, mapped some of the state’s “ghost towns,” or places “that have little to no population due to abandonment.” One source for the graphic was a Wikipedia list of abandoned places in Pennsylvania, which included almost 30 locations in Westmoreland County . Most are former coal towns.
In Southwestern Pennsylvania, they listed Livermore, Derry Township , which was abandoned and flooded during the construction of the Conemaugh Dam in 1952; and West Overton Village, the 19th-century center in East Huntingdon for distilling whiskey.
But while the population and industry of West Overton has moved on, what remains of the town is far from spooky, said Logan Holmes, museum coordinator for the nonprofit that now runs the village as a historical site .
“That we were considered a ghost town wasn’t surprising to me, though it’s something that we’re actively challenging,” he said.
Map of Pennsylvania “ghost towns,” as reported by the PA State Data Center .
Photo by Penn State
Founded in 1810 by the Philadelphia-based Overton family, the village grew as its whiskey distillery morphed from being a way to use the farm’s surplus grain into the family’s main business.
It also was the birthplace and starting point for industrialist Henry Clay Frick, who was an accountant at the distillery when he secured the loans to start his first coke ovens and move into the industry where he’d earn his infamy. His daughter, who also gifted Pittsburgh a park that bears their family name, inherited and preserved parts of the village in 1928.
At its peak, there were about 50 or 60 buildings in the farm, housing and distillery complex, including warehouses and a coal mine to feed the distillery’s boilers. Most were gradually abandoned, demolished or turned over to private ownership, and production stopped there in 1919. Some private homes that once housed distillery workers were gradually bought back by the nonprofit, which has been renovating them and putting them back into use, Holmes said.
The “ghost town” label might better fit an offshoot of the Overholts’ operations between Scottdale and Connellsville, called Broad Ford, which at one point eclipsed West Overton in the size of its whiskey production, Holmes said. Its ability to produce “medicinal” whiskey through Prohibition until it shut down in the 1950s was the reason Old Overholt whiskey survived. That complex was finally abandoned in the 1980s and has fallen victim to fires and decay.
Although its listing took place on Halloween, Holmes demurred when asked about any hauntings or paranormal activities resulting from the village’s two centuries of history.
“There are quite a few stories in the area about hauntings at the village, but we like to downplay those,” he said. “We choose to focus on the historical interpretation.”
The book ” Ghosts of Southwest Pennsylvania ” by Thomas White, documents many ghost sightings in and around the village, including apparitions of Clyde Overholt, who committed suicide in one of the houses, sounds of disembodied voices and ghostly lights around the remains of some of Frick’s earliest coke ovens.
Livermore, once located along the Conemaugh River between Blairsville and Saltsburg, was developed in 1827 as a stop along the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal and was founded by John Livermore, according to the Old Industry of Southwestern Pennsylvania website. Another Livermore, Alonzo, was an assistant engineer involved in the canal construction.
Famed British author Charles Dickens passed through the town in 1842 via the canal.
Livermore continued to thrive when the Pennsylvania Railroad took over the canal route and laid tracks into town in 1855.
“It was a booming town in the late 1800s,” says John Matviya, a researcher with the Derry Area Historical Society. “It was a very busy place. There were lots of small businesses.”
At one point, it included 43 homes, 18 barns, a drug store, barber shop, bakery, dance hall and hotel with up to 18 rooms for rent, according to information in the historical society’s archives. The population peaked at 211, recorded in the censuses of 1870 and 1890.
Livermore was among river communities that were inundated by the St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936.
“It did survive the flood, even though it was damaged considerably by it,” Matviya said.
But, less than two decades later, the town was razed because it was in the area placed underwater by construction of the Conemaugh Dam, completed in 1952 to control flooding further downstream, Matviya said. The project caused 57 residents to be relocated.
Livermore Cemetery is among the town’s few surviving remnants.
“There are many rumors about moving of the cemetery, but it never did move,” Matviya said. “It was in the area above the railroad track realignment in 1908.”
The modern West Penn Trail hiking and biking route follows part of that rail alignment, including some stone arch bridges across the Conemaugh, and offers a view of the area once occupied by Livermore.
Jeff Himler contributed to this report.
Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, [email protected] or on Twitter @msantoni.