The river Youghiogheny or Yough for short is a 134-mile-long stretch of water, a tributary of the Monongahela river in Virginia. However, the river has a dangerous tendency towards flooding and the towns and villages on its banks have been severely compromised as a result. The town of Somerfield was destroyed in the 1940s to make way for a dam built on the Yough Lake. When there are times of drought, remains of the town can still be seen, including the stone bridge. The bridge formed the original Route 40, a replica of which runs over the town now. The Youghiogheny dam now sits directly above the ghost town, which was submerged in 1946.
Somerfield was a thriving stage coach stop during the nineteenth century, and despite having ups and downs in terms of prosperity, managed to survive economic disaster, financial catastrophes and floods. The town was originally called Smythfield, but had to change its name in 1827 because of another town in the area with the same name. It seems to have been victim to those who would map out its history, first in terms of its name, eventually in terms of its existence. When the conditions are such that the old town is revealed, thousands of people flock to the area to see the remains of the abandoned place and to relive the days when the town played host to gamblers, holiday makers and travelers, and saw many presidents visit.
10. It Played Host to Many Presidents
This first happened in 1818 and was a huge event. Apart from local residents who flocked to see the dedication, President Monroe and his cabinet members attended the event. The bridge, albeit under water, must be a historic site for being one of the only bridges dedicated by President Monroe that is still in existence. The triple arched bridge, which can be seen during dry spells to this day, was at the end of the original route 40, which was then called Bridge Street. The bridge’s original name was the Great Crossings Bridge. There is a record of President Taylor visiting Somerfield, and after his presidential term had ended, Herbert Hoover visited Somerfield, and dined at Hook’s Department Store and Restaurant.
During a 1753-55 visit, George Washington visited the area with one of his Generals, George Braddock. They were the first to ford the river in that area. The grist mill that Washington founded, was based in Perryopolis in Northern Fayette County. President William McKinley was a staunch fan of Somerfield and stayed at the Youghiogheny Hotel for six weeks each summer. He came to the area to visit his nearby relatives in Somerset.
9. The Motor Car Launched Somerfield
The arrival of the motor car made Somerfield a favorite tourist destination, as holiday makers sought out the idyllic location for camping and outdoor pursuits. There was plenty of entertainment on hand for visitors, including high-stake gaming tables and plentiful alcohol, particularly from the nearby gin mill. As the roads increased from the original two, the composition of the roads changed from the original gravel to five paved roads. However, as the number of paved roads increased, this worked against Somerfield as tourists travelled past it for more adventurous destinations.
It was a popular destination for sportsmen as well and was a haunt for those who wished to take advantage of the outdoor pursuits available from the river and surrounding countryside. The Yough river remains a popular kayaking spot today. The site of the original Somerfield is now a marina and boat launch site. Those who traveled to Somerfield by car also took advantage of the games rooms and taverns that punctuated the town. Many high stakes were placed at the tables by those who took advantage of the boom era after the industrial revival in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
8. The Town Can Be Seen During Drought
When the water levels of the lake fall sufficiently, the original Great Crossings Bridge can be seen emerging from the water. Visitors are enthralled by this phenomenon and flock to the town, along the old National Road to see the remnants of Somerfield, the abandoned town by walking along the lake bed. The most prominent feature of the town that remains is the bridge, a three arched stone structure, which has survived for two hundred years, eighty of those underwater. The derelict sidewalks and buildings can also be seen and remnants of the roads that passed through Somerfield when it was a thriving town. The bridge crossed the river then, but now it doesn’t even stretch for half of the width of the dam, when it is revealed during droughts. During its heyday it was the longest stone bridge crossing on Route 40, it seems dwarfed now by its successor.
Spooky scenes of forgotten sidewalks can be seen when the weather conditions are right. The blocks of stone still stand rigidly in place, when uncovered, and look particularly poignant during times of snowfall. During 1991 and 1998/99 the bridge and ghost town have been visible beneath the waters of the dam. This century the original town remains have been seen in 2011 and 2015 and 2016.
7. There are Two Great Crossings Bridges
The original Great Crossings Bridge, which is still in one piece to this day, was replaced when the dam was constructed by the second Great Crossings Bridge. Built when the dam was constructed, it did not have such a long shelf life. Construction began in 1936, but was halted for the Second World War, and resumed again afterwards, to be completed in 1946. However, it was not found to be sturdy and was rendered obsolete and torn down. It was abandoned just as the first bridge was, and remnants can be seen during periods of low water just like its predecessor.
The original bridge was completed on 4th July 1818 and was then put in the hands of the government. It was built by Kincaid, Beck and Evans, who also built the tavern in Somerfield town. The bridge opening was a huge gala event, drawing crowds and prestigious visitors, including the President Monroe to the town. The new bridge opened in 2006 and rises high above the remains of the old town. It is a modern two-lane bridge that has little resemblance to its stone arched ancestor.
6. It Was the Scene of a Terrible Flood
In 1936 there was a huge flood in the Somerset area and the Army Corps of Engineers was sent to deal with the crisis. They bought the town and began construction of the dam, which led to the demise of Somerfield and the forced relocation of its residents. There had been concerns through the 1930s about the levels of water that flowed from the River Yough onto its banks and the surrounding land.
Ten other villages had to be demolished to make way for the dam. J. Buell Snyder was behind the idea to build the dam in the area and his name caused derision and disdain among Somerfield residents who did not want to lose their homes or their town. A stilted bridge had to be built above the Yough dam to allow access for traffic, and this is what now covers Somerfield. However, the plans for the dam went ahead. The government bought the land and all 176 residents were forced to evacuate and relocate. They dispersed around the local area, such as Addison or Confluence, never to be reunited as a community again. Some moved as far as Uniontown or Connellsville.
5. The Railroad Revived the Town
Somerfield went through a decline in the 1880s. The town was reported to have only eighty residents who lived in slightly dilapidated houses. The town comprised two stores, one physician and a tavern, as well as several other stores that serviced the town such as a blacksmith and spoke maker. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Somerfield had a resurgence, as the Confluence and Oakland railroad travelled through the town. The population and prosperity of Somerfield increased and there were five stores in the town by 1906.
It was incorporated as a borough in 1896, with the first burgess being James Endsley. This son of William Gilbert and Julianne Endsley raised the profile of Somerfield by being promoted from burgess to the States General Assembly in the years 1904 and 1906. The Endsley name is synonymous with Somerfield. William Endsley owned the spoke maker and the Endsley Stone House was built by the team that built the Great Crossing Bridge. The house served as a tavern, and one of the landlords was Captain Thomas Endsley, who took over the tavern in 1847, the tavern then remained in the family until its closure.
4. It had Thriving Businesses
When Somerfield was inhabited, and was a destination for tourists and gamers, it held several thriving businesses. Jack Cornish’s family owned the Cornish Hotel, a refuge for those who had exhausted themselves with the delights of the bustling town. The town was a staging post for coaches and several hotels and taverns were built to accommodate the traffic. The Good Intent Staging Company and Stockton Lines converged in Somerfield and it was home to many stagecoach drivers.
Hook’s Department store and Restaurant was a hub of activity in the heyday of Somerfield, boasting a president among its clientele. As the town grew in prosperity, a number of new houses were built to support the burgeoning population. The town was also home to the First National Bank of Somerfield, and businesses ranged from a mill to a tannery. Children were accommodated at Boy and Girl Scouts groups and there was a local church group in the town as well. There was a school, a post office and industry thrived near the town, including lumber and coal mining. Coal mining was a major industry along the Yough River during the nineteenth century, particularly in the lower Yough River.
3. Endsley’s lived in Endsley House
Endsley House was a beautiful dwelling, white walled and with numerous sash windows looking out over Somerfield. It was a substantial home, surrounded on the ground floor by a veranda, which was perfect for keeping an eye on what was going on in the town. The house on Main Street was torn down before the dam was constructed and the town was demolished. However, the fine foundations can still be seen when the water level falls and the old ghost town emerges from the waters to remind the world it was once a thriving hub. During the heyday of stagecoach travel, Endsley House was the headquarters of the Stockton’s Line, being in a perfect location, near the river on the western side of town.
The original owner of the tavern at Endsley House was James Kincaid, one of the builders of the house who was also responsible for the famous bridge in Somerfield. He lived there until 1822 when it was taken over by John Campbell.
It was 1847 before another Endsley was in situ, this time it was Captain Endsley III who held onto the house until 1852. He then passed it on to his son, William, who was the last resident of the house. The fact that the house can still be seen during the dry periods is a testament to the fine builders who constructed the house. That and the bridge, built by the same team, were constructed to last, and last they did, despite the dam.
2. The Dam was a Success
The dam was constructed over the town after the Flood Control Act of 1938. The resulting River Lake was one of many measures taken to protect land from flood waters in the Pittsburgh area. It protects the surrounding lands from flood waters that had become a perennial problem in the Yough River, Monongahela River and also for the nearby Ohio River. Historically, the dam has been a success. It is estimated that it has saved over $500 million of damage. The dam over the Yough River was constructed around 6 miles from the Pennsylvania border and is a massive construction of manmade bulk. It covers a drainage area of over 430 square miles and can cope with excess precipitation of over 11 inches.
It has also been a success for pollution control. It allows excess water to flow downstream during periods of low water coverage, which dilutes the river’s water that can be polluted by local industries on the banks.
There is also a hydroelectric plant that operates below the Youghiogheny Dam. It can generate up to 12 megawatts of energy per hour and serves much of Pennsylvania. The power generated by the hydroelectric plant can fuel 8,000 homes for a whole year.
1. The River Lake is Now a Popular Destination for Tourists
On top of what was once Somerfield, the Yough River Lake is now a popular haunt for those seeking water-based thrills. It’s sixteen miles long and provides ample opportunity for fishing and boating and for those who prefer a land-based trip, there are perfect camping facilities on its bank. The fishing is served by the Jockey Hollow Launching Site and many anglers take their boats down to the tail rivers where trout are prolific. The Fish and Boat Commission stocks the lake regularly and it is possible to fish for trout almost all year round.
There are gorgeous picnic areas by the side of the lake, where drivers can stop and enjoy the scenery that the manmade lake provides. It is particularly stunning in the fall, when the foliage provides a paint palette of colors that contrast with the rest of the landscape. Camp sites are varied and range from the basics to top notch sites. Many campers base themselves by the side of the lake to take advantage of beautiful cycling routes in the region. Those in search of a faster pace of exercise can take advantage of the outflow from the dam where canoeing and white-water rafting are popular. These waters are so well suited to the sport that many national competitions are held here.