Could you tell me more about the history of windy Noblestown Road and the tiny village that also bears the name? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Could you tell me more about the history of windy Noblestown Road and the tiny village that also bears the name?

Question submitted by: Morgan Hawkins, Detroit

Information on Noblestown is a bit scant. But this community, an unincorporated village inside North Fayette Township, has long been associated with the idea of getting someplace else. In that respect, it's much like New Jersey.

Any time you find a winding road in Western Pennsylvania, it's a good bet that it was built along the meandering path of a nearby stream. (Early road-builders, like City Paper editors, followed the path of least resistance whenever they could.) Noblestown Road follows Robinson Run, more or less, from Carnegie to points west, with Noblestown itself lying just between Oakdale and McDonald. And that route, it seems, retraces the steps of an even older path: an Indian thoroughfare known as the Mingo Trail.

The best information I could find on Noblestown came from the 1889 History of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, published by A. Warner and Co. In its section on the history of North Fayette, the book notes that the Mingo Trail was "frequently traveled by scalping parties" — which one suspects were less fun than they might sound. Nevertheless, as the native inhabitants were pushed back, road-builders expanded the trail from Noblestown westward to Beaver Falls.

As for Noblestown itself, History of Allegheny County asserts that, while the date of the town's founding "cannot be definitely ascertained," it "was the oldest town in this part of the county."

The place was founded by — wait for it — Col. Henry Noble, whose family bought the land in the 1770s. Noble operated a sawmill and a flourmill located on — wait for it — Mill Street. A few other references I found suggest that, in the early days, the place was also called "Noble's-burgh" and "Noblesburg." And perhaps the Nobles had reason to hope the place would be larger than a mere "town."

As early as 1800, Henry Noble was shipping flour by river, all the way to New Orleans. The first such shipment, apparently, was transported by legendary boatman Mike Fink … a mythic figure who is to keelboat men what Paul Bunyan is to lumberjacks. Fink had a reputation for hell-raising; the Warner history tersely notes that while he "enjoyed an enviable reputation in his profession … his companionship was not sought by the better element of the community." Still, he clearly inspired the name of nearby Fink's Run, a feeder creek that flows in to Robinson Run.

By the time of Henry Noble's first flour shipment, early records suggest, some 50 to 60 people were living in Noblestown. "From its position [Noblestown] became the radial point of a number of important roads," the Warner history maintains, "and public houses became correspondingly numerous." The place had its own post office by 1823, and later a set of railroad tracks, which also meandered along the length of Robinson Run, passed through town as well.

So by the time the Warner history appeared, there was reason to believe the place might someday be substantial: "The local business is considerable," the book asserts, "and the development of the coal in the surrounding territory can not fail to result in a more rapid growth than the town has yet experienced."

Today, according to the 2000 Census, some 1,764 people live in Noblestown and nearby Sturgeon. (Neither town has its own government, so their populations are combined for counting purposes.) Sturgeon, incidentally, apparently takes its name from another prominent family — prominent for Sturgeon, Pa., at least. At least two branches of the Sturgeon family were living in the area prior to 1820, although it's a mystery how Sturgeons got so far from the Great Lakes. (Yeah, that's right: a fish pun. Are you telling me you weren't trying to think of one?)

If you're in the area you can still detect some elements of the local history, like the unassuming Noblestown United Presbyterian Church, on Mill Street. Historian George Swetnam identifies the building as an "Old Seceder" church — part of a dissenting movement within Presbyterianism. Dating back to the early 1850s, the church is likely one of the oldest still-functioning churches in the county.

But few people, sadly, take the time to look. After all, McDonald, Pa., is just down the road … and as New Jersey can tell you, it's not easy being in the shadow of the big city.

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