BEANERY ONLINE LITERARY MAGAZINE
DESTINATION: LIGONIER (PA)
It is difficult to trace the growth of the hospitality industry in the Ligonier Valley without noting the attendant development of transportation across the region as well.
The Ligonier Valley was the first stopping place west of the Allegheny Mountains for settlers seeking new lives after the defeat of the French in 1758. Those earliest pioneers followed the primitive Forbes Road, rough and barely wide enough for their wagons. Settlements and towns first developed near fortified locations such as Fort Ligonier. You can find more information about the Forbes Road at www.explorepahistory.com or www.frenchandindianwar250.org.
Recreation and hospitality were not a high priority for the early pioneers in the Valley. Rather, the settlers were initially concerned with basic necessities of food, shelter and protection – building cabins, clearing fields for planting and grazing, and guarding against the dangers lurking in the forests.
Once the early settlements had become established, however, there was a demand for taverns to serve the local population. In addition, as trade between the east and west grew, the need for rest stops along the prime travel routes grew as well. Taverns were established in the Valley as early as the 1770s. Early tavern owners included Andrew Bonjour, Thomas Galbraith and John Bridges.
Later innkeepers included Philip Freeman and James Ramsey. John Watson, Jr. recounts his journey across western Pennsylvania, including a stopover in the Valley. Following a day of hazardous travel over the “worst road I ever saw” he “came into Ligonier Valley and put up for the night, ourselves and horses tired. Sign of Green Tree – this Inn kept by James Ramsey.” (John Watson, Jr., 1811 Journal, 8 May 1811.)
The first dependable, hard-surfaced road in the area, the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Turnpike, brought a sense of permanency when it was completed in 1817. As travel along the turnpike increased, the need for taverns and inn keeping increased as well. The Ligonier House, which was located on the northwest corner of the Diamond, was built in 1824 by Thomas Seaton as a stage stop along this pike.
Two existing local landmarks also date from this era. In 1799 Philip Freeman bought land from Robert Laughlin to build a tavern. This early tavern served mostly men taking products and livestock to market. Robert and Rachel Armor purchased the tavern in 1814, naming it Compass Inn after their establishment in Chester County. Compass Inn closed in 1862 and became a private residence. In 1966 the Ligonier Valley Historical Society purchased Compass Inn for use as their headquarters and as a museum.
Just east of Compass Inn, the Yellow House Tavern was built in 1827. Joseph Naugle purchased the inn in 1833. Locally known as Naugle’s Inn, it was recognized as “one of the best wagon- stands and taverns.” Today the inn is a private residence.
Early taverns thrived until the western line of the Pennsylvania Railroad was established in the mid-1850s. The railroad (which traveled north from Latrobe and then east to Johnstown) was a more cost-effective and less time-consuming way to transport goods and people and travel on the turnpike decreased.
What the Pennsylvania Railroad took away was soon restored. When Judge Thomas Mellon brought the Ligonier Valley Rail Road to town in the 1870s, Ligonier became known as a vacation destination. Even before then many Pittsburghers spent their summers at Ligonier leaving behind the smoky city. Many guests seeking clean air, pure water and spectacular scenery stayed several weeks or even months.
Each summer, the residents of the Valley offered their cottages, farms and rooms to these visitors. A 1902 listing of “Summer Resorts, Ligonier Valley Country Places to Spend a Pleasant Outing” included Ridge View Farm, owned by Mr. J. O. Lowry, as well as a cottage run by Mrs. P. F. Snyder, on Church Street in town.
Several of Ligonier’s most famous resort hotels date from the period of the LVRR. In the 1870s Daniel Kissell moved his family from Bedford to a farmstead near Waterford. After offering food and drink to hunters and fishermen who stopped at the spring on the property, the Kissells soon found themselves running a boarding house. Kissell Springs Hotel quickly prospered. At its height, the dining room could seat 100 for dinner. Resort amenities included tennis, croquet and horseshoes as well as hunting and fishing. The Hotel served as a popular social center hosting winter dances, quilting bees and local talent shows. Kissell Springs Hotel was a popular destination for sledding parties headed out to enjoy Mrs. Kissell’s popular chicken and waffle dinners. The Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1915 and was never rebuilt.
John Hargnett Frank completed his hotel above Ligonier Springs in 1890. There has been a hotel on this site ever since. First known as Frank’s Hotel, then Ligonier Springs Hotel, Ligonier Springs Hotel-Sanitarium, the Hoffman Hotel and finally the Fort Ligonier Hotel, the structure was razed following fire in 1965. Later that year a new Holiday Inn was opened on the site. When the Holiday Inn closed, the facility became the Lord Ligonier Inn. Today a Ramada Inn continues to serve travelers to the Valley.
By the late 1890s the Ligonier House had grown. Set among the shade trees circling the Diamond, it was billed as “one of the best shaded hotels in Western Pennsylvania. Wide shaded porches and a beautiful lawn make this Hotel a pleasant home for city people. Under its present management no better accommodations can be found.”
Across the Diamond from the Ligonier House, the Breniser Hotel became a symbol of Ligonier’s early tourist era. Built in 1900, it was touted as “a most desirable stopping place for those who seek to spend the summer months here in this mountain town.”
In 1906, George W. Deeds began development of the Ligonier Park plan, just outside the Ligonier Borough limits. The centerpiece of his design featured a three-story hotel – The Ligonier Park Cottage Hotel. An early story in the Ligonier Echo noted that the Hotel was located “on an elevation overlooking the town and commanding a fine view of both mountains and valley with the silvery thread of the historic Loyalhanna flowing down. Here the summer boarders can find room, comfort, pleasure and delight without the restrictions of town or city life…having all the conveniences that the heart of the summer boarder could desire.”
Despite the fine view and excellent accommodations, the resort never caught on with travelers. During the flu pandemic of 1918, the hotel served as a hospital. In 1921, the Hungarian Reformed Federation of America purchased the building, transforming it into a charitable home for orphans, dependents and the elderly named for Hungarian Prince Gabriel Bethlen.
In 1913 the Lincoln Highway became the nation’s first transcontinental road. The era of the automobile had arrived. The Lincoln Highway passed through Ligonier on what is now Main Street. During World War I army convoys often stopped overnight in Ligonier. Local hotels, with their large ballrooms and spacious public areas provided fine sites for the townspeople to entertain the troops.
Local writer John Clifford noted that following the War “money seemed plentiful and there was a great lot of travel on this the leading east-west Lincoln Highway.” Springing up to meet the needs of the travelers along the new highway were collections of single room cottages called “Tourist Courts” – early predecessors of today’s motel.
One such tourist court was Shirey’s Lake View Motor Court. In 1932, the Shirey family began offering “rooms for rent” to travelers along the Lincoln Highway. By 1939 the family had built 20 cabins, later adding a small motel. The cabins closed in 1988 and were sold. The motel was closed in 1994 and has been demolished.
The Great Depression hurt traffic along the Lincoln Highway, but the opening of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1940 proved a greater blow to local hotels, motels and restaurants. Crossing the southern tier of western Pennsylvania, the modern, high-speed, limited-access highway drew traffic away from local roads across the state.
The large local resorts are gone. Beside fire some succumbed to the ravages of time. Both the Ligonier House and the Breniser Hotel were demolished in the late 1960s making possible the renovation of the Diamond.
Today the Ligonier Valley remains a prime recreation destination. The combination of history and natural beauty continues to draw visitors, and local residents continue to offer hospitality to weary travelers, with hotels, inns, and Bed-and-Breakfasts.