Life In A Coal Patch

I was doing research for an unrelated post when I stumbled on this quote about a small patch town named Salemville in Westmoreland County:

Salemville was a company-owned village which was enclosed by a fence, one of a few in Westmoreland County.  The fence was a symbol of the company’s authority and hold on each man and his family.  Their freedoms were curtailed in many ways and yet it was a better life than many of them had left behind in the “Old Country”.  If a man went to Greensburg and happened to see something cheap and purchased it to save money, his parcels were searched when he got off the train; and he was told to report to the super at the office the next day instead of going straight to work as usual.  Then he was sent home and lost a days work as punishment for purchasing something the company store had on its shelves.  Even though he had saved some money, in the end he would lose.  The fence was torn down by the Company around 1927-1929.

Being a coal miner and living in Monongahela was no picnic but it must have been a hell of a lot better than living behind that fence in Salem.

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

~ Chorus to 16 Tons by Merle Travis


Catsburg Map
Catsburg Map

There is a very old section of Monongahela formerly known as Catsburg. Here is a map showing what this area looked like in 1902. (Though Catsburg was a part of Monongahela by that time.) Click on this thumbnail image to view a larger image.

I first became interested in Catsburg while reading the “Historical magazine of Monongahela’s old home coming week. Sept. 6-13, 1908” (see Resources tab above) This publication isn’t really a magazine like we think of today. It’s pages number 271 with about 20 more pages of advertisements. It was written to commemorate a city wide homecoming celebration and contains lots of history along with current events. It was written in a friendly conversational tone and is seldom dry and sometimes hilarious. Much of the historical content was written in the “first person” style. The only problem is that the writers will frequently refer to a building as “Mrs. Jenkins Home” assuming that every body knows where it is. Or, they’ll refer to areas such as Bellewood, West Monongahela (both known now as New Eagle PA) or Belvedere (somewhere out 4th street). These names were obsolete even back in 1908!.

Well one of the mysterious names that kept cropping up was Catsburg. It was always referred to as being an old part of town. My best guess is that it was the area right across Pigeon Creek along the Monongahela River.

How did Catsburg get it’s name? There are two stories of which I am aware, both from the homecoming historical magazine mentioned above. Dr. J.P. Norman, on page 159 says:

I have spoken of Pigeon Creek as the southern boundary of Monongahela in 1872, and but few dwellings could be found south of it in the place then named Catsburg. The origin of this title I was informed by whom I believe to be a citizen o the town, was due to the fact that cats, always numerous, resorted to the other side of the creek to fight their duels, settle their disputes, and eat their catnip which grew there abundantly. The tumult and noise of their battles disturbed and racked the quiet of the citizens and so they called it Cattsburg.

The second version can be found on page 229 of the magazine:

When Williamsport [a previous name of Monongahela] was laid out in 1811, the widow, Biddie Caldwell and her daughter were the only people residing on the plot now known as Catsburg. These two were always fighting, so the people called them cat and kittens, hence the name Catsburg originated.

Both explanations sound plausable to me but I lean toward the second version. What do you think? Anyways, it would be cool to find the location of Biddie’s house. (I wonder how I would go about that.)

In the magazine, Catsburg seems to be noted mainly for the Catsburg Schoolhouse and the Catsburg Mine. I’ll write about the mine now and save the subject of the schoolhouse for another day.

Here is a detail of the earliest map I can find showing the Catsburg area:

catsburg mine detail

It is easy to spot the mine and the tracks leading down to the tipple on the river. I believe the Catsburg Mine was founded by Lewis Staib.

Here is a close up of the 1902 map showing the area around the Catsburg tipple:

Company homes exist today in the same spot as those depicted in the drawing above. I am assuming these are the same buildings however note that there are differences. The drawing does not show porches, it also shows four buildings vs five buildings shown below:

Mine waste between company houses and the tipple:

This is what the Catsburg Coal Co. tipple looked like in 1907:

1907 catsburg tipple postcard

The photo above says Catsburg Coal Tipple No 1. Was there another one?

Here is another photo of the Catsburg tipple:

Catsburg tipple red

It looks like there was another structure of some sort further up the river. The following is an image showing the Catsburg tipple in the background. Pigeon creek is shown on the right:

catsburg tipple, barges and pigeon creek

Here is what remains of the Catsburg tipple today:

Click here to view a satellite image of this area. It is fun to note the changes that have occurred over the years. To read more about the history of the Catsburg mine and the family that owned it visit

And finally the official city of Monongahela website cites the following story:

Visitors were frequent to the city. One who made his mark in the literary world was Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who made a trip up the Monongahela in 1891. While on board the boat “The New Dominion”, Captain J.S. Moorhead told Twain that Monongahela proper held an area called Catsburg. Twain, a lover of cats, decided the town “wasn’t half bad”.


UPDATE! Read about the area known as “Rocky Beach” – a popular swimming hole near the slate dump in Catsburg.