Monday, November 17, 2014

The Mystery of the Missing Marker

During my September, 2014, visit to Ambridge, I wanted to take a photo of "Ambridge's First Building," which the Beaver County Historical Research and Landmarks Foundation had recognized with a historical marker.

I wasn't sure where the building was, and a visit to the BCHRLF's Historical Marker Program page didn't help because, although "First Building in Ambridge" was listed, the marker's location wasn't given.

The Historical Marker Database wasn't helpful either, as it didn't list the marker.

Oh well, how hard could finding it be? I thought the building would probably be somewhere in or north of the historic district, perhaps between the Old Economy property and the French Point area. So I walked and drove around that neighborhood, looking for the marker, but didn't see it.

I knew the marker existed because I had once seen a photo of it taken by Edward King. I don't know when the photo below was taken, but no trees currently exist to the front or side of the building behind the marker, which turned out to be 1500 Church Street.

Historic marker
"Ambridge's First Building"
circa 1970s?
credit: Edward King, used with permission

Marker text:
Ambridge's First Building, 1824. This building was the first erected by the Harmony Society in their new town of Economy (now Ambridge) in May, 1824. It served as a church or meetinghouse until 1828. When the present Feast Hall was completed, this in turn was used as a church. The first building then became a granary and later a dwelling. The doors are the same on both sides, one probably being the women's door and the other, the men's. The emphasis placed by the Harmony Society on religion is illustrated by this building, which was erected before many of the society members had shelter.

Since my search had been fruitless, I asked some friends and acquaintances if they knew where the marker of the "first building" was located. I got a variety of answers, some of which I knew were wrong because the markers cited were not for the "first building." And I had driven through all the streets suggested as the marker location without seeing it. Why couldn't I find it?

I also got a variety of opinions on what building was "Ambridge's first."

The next day, I again walked and drove several times through all the streets in the northwest part of Ambridge: Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Sixteenth, Boyleston, Laughlin, Henning, Henrici, Church, and Merchant Streets, and again I couldn't find the marker.

While I did enjoy walking around Ambridge in beautiful fall weather, this was turning out to be a not very productive search historical-building-wise.

At that point, I decided I could keep wandering around northwest Ambridge looking for the marker, or I could ask the people who should know where it was. So I called BCHRLF and spoke with Brenda Applegate, the executive director. She told me that the marker once identified a building at the corner of Fifteenth and Church Streets, but was currently in storage by the BCHRLF after an Old Economy Village historian expressed concerns about the accuracy of the marker.

Later, Applegate sent me a copy of a February 21, 2002, letter from an Old Economy historian to the chairman of the Beaver County historical marker program about the possible "re-installation" of the marker at the "Blaine House." The letter states, in part,
[T]here  seems to be question [sic] as to the historical accuracy of the oral tradition associated with the house on the northeast corner of Church here in the Historic District of Ambridge as being the oldest house in Economy. 
The letter goes on to list some of the historical writings that would call into question the accuracy of the marker, including several passages from Christiana Knoedler's 1954 book, The Harmony Society in which she writes about the Blaine House, saying it was still at the corner of Fifteenth and Church Streets:
The house was located near old Beaver Road and First Street of present day Ambridge, about one mile from the village of Economy. The Blaines gave possession about two months after it was sold. It was occupied by Father Rapp until his new dwelling in Economy was completed.  
This house was about twelve years old in 1824, when it was taken down and re-erected. When rebuilt, all of the material was used again, even the plastering. For almost sixty years the building...was used as a school. It is now well over 135 years old and still stands at the northeast corner of Fifteenth and Church Streets. 
The other house of interest is the one at the southwest was a log house moved from the Heslet track (present day Hazel Hollow, near Nineteeth Street). This is considered to be the oldest house in Ambridge today.

The historian goes on to write about two photos showing the Blaine House:
As you can see, the building which is presently at the northeast corner of 15th and Church Streets bears no resemblance to the school house as rebuilt by the Harmony Society which reused all material again. The building there now may contain elements from the original House but is hardly a historic building of the Harmonist or pre-Harmonist period.

This is one of the photos, reproduced in The Harmony Society, showing the Blaine House and cited by the historian. The Blaine House is the building in the background. The copy of the photo below is from the State Library of Pennsylvania's Old Economy Village Archives with the descriptive note: "Typical dwelling and school (Old Blaine House)"

Economy house and schoolhouse
State Library of Pennsylvania
Old Economy Village Archives

Knoedler's caption in The Harmony Society says: A typical Economy dwelling at the corner of Fifteenth and Church Streets. At the right is Blaine House.

I think the second photo supplied as a reference by the historian is so interesting, it deserves its own post, which I hope to write soon. So I'll not show it here.

I did find another photo of The Blaine House in the State Library of Pennsylvania's Old Economy Village Archives which lists it as a "school." The descriptive note says: "The 'Blaine Mansion' moved (sometime in the 1820s) from what is now East of Merchant Street and Duss Ave Intersection"

Blaine House
State Library of Pennsylvania
Old Economy Village Archives

Here's the Google street view of 1500 Church Street for comparison:

1500 Church Street
Google street view

I don't have the answers yet to some of my new questions:
  • When was the building at 1500 Church Street, which Knoedler identifies as the Blaine House, so extensively remodeled it no longer qualified as a "historic building of the Harmonist or pre-Harmonist period"?
  • If 1500 Church Street is not Ambridge's first building, what is? Is it the former log house at 1427 Church Street which is believed to be the Heslet log house which Knoedler thought was "the oldest building in Ambridge" in 1954? And why didn't the BCHRLF mark that building as Ambridge's first? 
  • Were there other pre-1824 buildings on land that later became part of Ambridge that weren't moved by the Harmonites to Economy? And if so, what happened to them? 
  • What was the Blaine House used for besides a school? Was it ever used for a church/meetinghouse, granary, or house, as the marker said?

If you have the answers to these questions, please leave a comment.


  1. A good example of the process of investigating history. Some things are not clear and changes may not be documented leaving a researcher in confusion. Keep seeking and perhaps the results will benefit us all.

  2. Contact us at Old Economy Village. I'm sure someone here can help you. 724-266-4500

    1. Thank you so much! I really didn't want to bother you folks at Old Economy with my questions, but now I will call--after the holidays are over--to get help from the experts.