Collection offers a picture of Brownsville’s better days
Former Brownsville Mayor Norma Ryan hopes a collection of vintage photographs will give people a new perspective on the hard-pressed Fayette County community.
Rather than empty streets and vacant buildings, the photos, recently donated to the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp., show Brownsville during its vibrant best, she said.
Ryan and local historian Glenn Tunney are cataloging the photos — all 1,140 of them — that were donated by Bill Patterson of Erie. A Brownsville native, Patterson said the collection took decades to compile. He credited the late Harold Richardson of Brownsville with doing much of the legwork.
The oldest image in the collection dates to the 1850s and shows a portion of Brownsville’s historic cast-iron bridge, the first such bridge in the country, Patterson said.
The goal of the nonprofit group, known as BARC, is to make the photographs available to the public, including on the Internet, Ryan said. The group will display a select group of photographs in May when it opens the former Monongahela Bank Building on Market Street.
Other images will be published in a book Tunney is preparing.
Ryan said she was particularly struck by photographs of Brownsville’s centennial celebration in 1914.
“It was a huge event,” Ryan said. “The whole town was decorated with flags and bunting.” Downtown streets were crowded with celebrants, she said.
The images show how much Brownsville needs to do in 2014 for the community’s 200th anniversary to equal the fervor of the 1914 centennial, Ryan said.
Tunney, the author of what is shaping up to be a series of books about Brownsville called “Looking Back,” said a photograph can be interesting for what it doesn’t show. For example, he said, there are images in the collection that show the intersection of Market Street and Albany Road.
Tunney said he expected to see the former Brownsville municipal building in the photographs taken about 1900, but to his surprise, the building is not there.
“So we’re still trying to track that (construction date) down,” Tunney said.
The photographs are “the most extensive collection I have ever seen,” he said, adding that it is fascinating to see the town’s changing face reflected in the images.
“Some parts of town have changed completely” through the years, he said. Buildings disappeared and were replaced by new structures, which in time were themselves torn down and replaced.
One thing that intrigued Ryan was the rapid construction in 1929 of the Union Station railroad building in Brownsville. It appears from the photo collection that it took just seven months to complete.
“It takes us years to get things done,” Ryan said.
Tunney was instrumental in bringing the treasury of photos to Brownsville. He said he first started a relationship with Patterson by telephone and e-mail when he was writing a weekly historical column for a newspaper a few years ago.
Patterson said he brought up the collection late last year. He was concerned that the photos would eventually be lost, he said, because his children and grandchildren, all raised in the Erie area, have no particular interest in Brownsville.
“This kind of thing is easily lost,” Patterson said. “It can get to the point where nobody knows what this stuff is.”