By George F. Kacenga
In a small borough, nestled among the foothills of the Laurel Mountains and alongside Chestnut Ridge, rests the community of Derry, Pennsylvania. Endowed with substantial deposits of natural resources native to Southwestern PA and a rich history that stretches into the corners of four centuries, this small town is looking towards the future for opportunities, growth and an enduring place in history.
John Pomeroy and James Wilson were the first settlers in the area in 1762, while the Greater Derry Area began to be settled in 1769, as the country embraced its manifest destiny and confronted the wild frontier. First came New Derry, laid out by the Guthries in 1815, then Derry Station in 1852, and then finally, Derry Borough.
As with much of the country at that time, agriculture was the primary industry in Derry until the advent of the burgeoning Railroad System in the early 1850’s. The railroad brought life to small towns across Pennsylvania and in 1881, Derry Borough incorporated and began serving as a popular hub in the transportation of goods, services, ideas and culture from New York, through Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, and eventually across the nation.
It is probable, but not certainly provable, that settlements were made in the Derry area shortly after the formation of the old military road, or Forbes Road (1758), that is to say, some of the settlements as early as 1762, or previous to Pontiac’s War.
Among the first settlers, if not the very first, was John Pomeroy, a man who was not only the first in respect to time, but who remained among the first men of the settlement in many respects until his death, nearly the space of a generation later. Pomeroy, a young farmer in Cumberland Valley, heard of the large quantity of good rich land in this vicinity, after the occupation of the region by the army of General Forbes. Being adventuresome and ambitious, he decided to see for himself. Crossing Chestnut Ridge by way of Fort Ligonier, he selected a prime piece of land, marked it off with boundaries, and claimed possession by building a cabin.
Roaming inquisitive Indians would stop by his curious cabin often. Then one day a man appeared, named James Wilson who afterwards became a fast friend and chose a plot for himself about a mile from Pomeroy. With the help of Pomeroy, he also built a log cabin, and the two men passed the night alternately together. These two homes for all needful purpose may be designated as being the original village of New Derry.
Having cleared some land by hewing trees to construct their cabins, the two men raised some corn and potatoes during their first summer, and they sowed winter wheat in the fall, having carried the seed in their backpacks from Fort Ligonier. Together, they returned to their homes in Cumberland Valley to spend a more comfortable winter with relatives and friends. The following spring, they met as agreed, and returned to their cabins in the wilderness, then known only as the Frontier of Cumberland County. Their property was in order. Although there was evidence of inquisitive prowling Indians examining their homes, there was no destruction. They spent the summer making their cabins more weatherproof and comfortable, and cleared more land for larger crops.
During the second winter, Pomeroy and Wilson returned to their old homes east of the mountains. The following spring they returned to Derry with new brides. John Pomeroy’s wife was Hannah Graham, the daughter of Francis Graham, a neighbor and friend of John’s father, George; and James Wilson’s bride was Isabel Barr. Contrary to some previous historical publication this information is based on factual evidence. The Pomeroys are buried in the Old Salem Churchyard in Derry Township; the Wilson’s are buried in the Old Fort Barr Cemetery in New Derry.
On December 10, 1852 the Pennsylvania Railroad had successfully reached its ultimate objective of connecting Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The first locomotive, the Henry Clay, made the initial run between the two cities before the end of the year. The Main Line was so called the railroad, which consisted of a single track.
Locally, two Irish work crews were employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad during the summer of 1852. One group of approximately 300 “Linstermen” were laying rails from Hillside to Greensburg; the other group of approximately 200 “Fardowners” were working in the Packsaddle and Bolivar area. Because of nationalistic jealousy, the two crews got into available kind of weapons from axe handles to shooting irons. Two men were killed and buried were they fell, twenty-three were injured. When additional tracks were laid during the 1860’s the graves of the two men were covered out of sight. The incentive for the battle was born in Ireland prior to or at the time of the Battle of Boyne. Bitter feelings existed between the Northern Irish and the Southern Irish similar to that of our country prior to and following the Civil War.
In 1852, a railroad station was built in Derry. Because of the nearness of the settlement of New Derry, then known as Derry Town, the name “Derry Station” was given to this new development. Ironically, this mere train stop gave birth to a community which later completely overshadowed the settlement from which it derived its name. When this new town was later incorporated into a borough, the word “Station” was dropped as part of the name.
The railroad crossover west of Derry has become known as Burd’s Crossing, named for Simon K. Burd, a Civil War veteran, whose farm had this roadway at its west boundary. His farm extended from Burd’s Crossing (north) to what is now Ridge Avenue, and from the state road, now Hickory Avenue, to what used to be called Sutton’s Hill east.
Shortly after the station was built, the railroad erected a frame engine house big enough to accommodate six engines. As there was no working room, the servicing and repairs to the engines had to be done outside the building. A second engine house of brick construction was built later, and it housed thirty engines and sufficient work areas.
The first “Y” rails for turning engines were built on the present site of the Westinghouse property in 1869 or 1870. These “y” rails enabled engines to be headed east or west. The growing importance of the railroad in Derry required the building of a third engine house, colloquially known as “The Round House”, in 1916.
The Derry terminal became the main center of operations between Pittsburgh and Altoona. Because of its location, Derry became one of the most important stations on the railroad. Here, all freight cars were overhauled, inspected, weighed, separated and made into trains and routed on their journeys. The average daily checklist of railroad cars numbered eighteen hundred.
The one Main Line had by now grown into two Main Lines plus the five sidings on the north side, two sidings on the south side, and a third siding for delivering freight to Derry. The shifting of eastbound trains was done without a locomotive by taking advantage of the sloping contour of the land in that direction; however, a locomotive was required to shift westbound trains.
In 1893, a wooden L-Shaped overhead bridge was constructed to eliminate the danger of numerous grade crossings. The freakish bridge, connecting first and second wards to the south of the railroad, with third and fourth wards to the north, was the solution to the engineering dilemma. Its purpose was to provide necessary clearance over the tracks from First Avenue to Second Street. The Pennsylvania Railroad engineers solved the problem by erecting a steel span over the Main Line and placing a steep approach to the south and an L-shaped approach to the north.
The Original Railroad Bridge, 1893
The bridge had been in use for five years when its first fatal accident occurred, on August 13, 1898. Hamilton Smith and his daughter, Miss Georgia Smith of Ligonier Valley were driving over the bridge in a horse and buggy when a locomotive passing under the bridge frightened the horse and caused it to bolt. The horse dashed headlong, not making the 90 degree L-turn crashing through the railing and fell on the street below. All were killed.
The bridge figured in a near tragedy in 1941 when the Derry Volunteer Fire Company’s pumper skidded on ice at the turn in the bridge and crashed through the railing separating the pedestrian walk from the roadway. Considerable damage was done but no fatalities occurred.
During the height of activity at the Derry Yards, there were 42 east bound crews working on the runs between Derry and Altoona hauling coal and coke from the surrounding area. In addition, 25 crews worked on the local mine runs. The boom in railroad activity has declined steadily since the peak years of World War II. “The Round House,” yard office and numerous other buildings have been dismantled as the operation center has been relocated in Pittsburgh and Altoona. The Pennsylvania Railroad, now Penn Central, has two remaining tracks in use going through Derry.
On September 4, 1965, the new Derry Bridge was opened for vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The bridge was built to replace the old wooden structure which was deteriorating and was no longer adequate to handle the increased flow of motor vehicle traffic. A Grand Opening Program of events marked the day for Derry Residents. The program was sponsored b the Greater Derry Junior ceremonies. Derry’s old bridge had been in service since 1893, and it was a commonly shared belief that if a person learning to drive could negotiate the 90 degree angle turn on the bridge, while facing oncoming traffic, he or she would have little difficulty in passing the driver’s test.
Today, Derry continues to see trains on a daily basis, but as times have changed, so has this small town. The smoke filled skies of the bustling railroad days have cleared, and provided new horizons for expansion and development. Derry Area serves as a community based neighborhood with an eye on its most valuable resource, the young men and women, and children of Derry. With an outstanding educational system, community center and recently reconstructed community pool at a cost of one-half million dollars, the future of Derry rests with the great potential found in its youth.
As Derry Borough celebrates its 125th Anniversary, it becomes clear that the good nature and lasting commitment of the members of this community will serve to make Derry, PA not just a stop on an old railroad, but a destination where a pleasant blend of old customs and traditions in a contemporary modern setting can be found.
Derry Borough Municipal Building
114 East Second Avenue
Derry, PA 15627
FAX (724) 694-9252