Today, the small, rural community of Wells Tannery is only a shadow of its once thriving existence. A community park, several dozen residential homes, a church and a U.S. Post Office can still be found in the Wells Township, Fulton County hamlet, but not much more.
The appearance of the Wells Valley landscape looks much like the area would have appeared during the American Revolution nestled between Sideling Hill Mountain to the south and Broad Top Mountain (Wrays Hill) to the north.
Stretching east, peaceful Wells Valley reaches to New Grenada while looking to the west, the valley narrows into Sherman Valley in Broad Top Township, Bedford County.
A modern day Route 915 by-passes Wells Tannery on its journey south (completed in 1968-69), up Sideling Hill, crossing the realigned Pennsylvania Turnpike before connecting with the Lincoln Highway (U.S. Route 30). The village is located near the southwestern base of Broad Top Mountain and the historic semi-bituminous coal field that supported America’s industrial revolution for over a century.
Coal mining connection
Wells Tannery indirectly has a connection with King Coal. From about 1909 to 1929 the celebrated Reichley Brothers & Co. Railroad system existed in the Wells Tannery area connecting logging areas of nearby Sideling Hill and the valley with several sawmills, chief among them “Slabtown” located near Wells Tannery.
The narrow gauge railroad was used primarily to transport wooden props used in the deep mines on the western side of Broad Top Mountain in Broad Top Township, Bedford County.
The logging line mounted the eastern side of the mountain before connecting with the Garlick Mine area. Further west, the rails reached the small makeshift hamlet of Reichley around 1922. Here, the logging line sided with the standard gauge Huntingdon and Broad Top Mountain Railroad (H&BT) at the eastern terminus of the H&BT’s Sandy Run branch.
Numerous deep mines existed along the Sandy Run branch which connected on the western end of the line at Langdondale before expanding west to Hopewell and the H&BT’s north-south main line. A Langdondale, the Sandy Run branch also hooked up at a junction with the H&BT’s Long Runs branch which served coal mines and coke ovens between Langdondale and the Round Knob area.
Although the logging railroad ceased operations at the end of the third decade of the 20th century, the town of Reichley survived for a few more decades but eventually slipped into the history books with the closing of the local deep mines and the H&BT.
Logging history recalled
I have written about the Reichley Brothers Railroad on numerous occasions in the past, therefore, I’ll limit my writing in this column. Want to learn more about the logging railroads of Pennsylvania and the Reichley Brothers? I highly recommend turning to “Pitch Pine and Prop Timber” book number one, penned by the late Benjamin F.G. Kline Jr. in 1971.
I’m not sure if the series has been re-printed but many libraries and historical societies may have copies of the series in their collections. You can also stop by the Broad Top Area Coal Miners Museum in Robertsdale on weekends to examine at the paperback series.
The logging railroad also served lumbering operations east of Sideling Hill continuing into the Crystal Spring area of Fulton County. Numerous stands of timber were harvested in the area including large white pine, yellow pine, spruce, hemlock and oaks.
The “Oregon Camp” area located southwest of Wells Tannery was also situated near the logging line. The forested area, situated near the former Pennsylvania Turnpike right of way (between Sideling and Rays Hill), remains a popular stop for outdoor recreation patrons while plans are in the hopper for the development of a recreational trail in Fulton and Bedford counties, using the old turnpike right of way.
The area around “Oregon Camp” also served as a vital part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) system during the 1920s and 1930s and during World War II, the area was utilized as a prisoner-of-war camp where captured Germans were housed.
During the early 1950s the wooden barracks also served as a summer football camp for the Robertsdale High School “Tiger” football team, coached by the legendary O.W. “Gus” Troy.
The famed Pennsylvania “Superhighway” was built during the late 1930s (opened to traffic Oct. 1, 1940) using the right of way of the still-born South Penn Railroad. The original route included seven tunnels including Sideling Hill and Rays Hill, a few miles southwest of Wells Tannery.
Abandoned in 1968-69
The 13-mile stretch of the original turnpike and two tunnels were abandoned after a new bypass was opened in 1968-69. It should be noted that among the workers employed in the building of the two tunnels (South Penn Railroad and turnpike) were skilled Broad Top coal miners.
Another famous east-west transportation route constructed during the early part of the 20th century was the Lincoln Highway (Route 30) which followed parts of Forbes Road, a military route developed during the French and Indian War from Carlisle to present-day Pittsburgh (Fort Duquesne).
English General Joh Forbes’ original route reached Fort Loudon, Franklin County, and was shortly thereafter extended through parts of Path Valley, to Cowan’s Gap, Burnt Cabins and Fort Littleton.
Using a series of switchbacks, the road climbed Sideling Hill, close to Wells Valley, then west over Rays Hill Mountain before crossing the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River near Breezewood. From there, the road was built to (Fort) Bedford than up the Allegheny Mountain west to Ligonier and eventually the fort at Pittsburgh which had been abandoned by the French on Nov. 25, 1758.
The community of Wells Tannery also traces its roots back to a tannery located in the immediate area.
Crippen recalls tannery
In 1981, this writer penned a story about the town’s post office and Mrs. Marjorie Crippen who served as the town’s postmaster beginning in 1946 (she had been in charge of the post office since 1935). Crippen, who retired as postmaster on Dec. 31, 1980, reported, “There was a tannery here before I can remember … the tannery barn was located just below the post office.”
Crippen went on to write that the building in which the post office is located was built to serve as the residence for one of the “tannery bosses.”
Although several attempts to close the Wells Tannery Post Office have taken place over the past few decades, the post office remains open six days a week to noon time.
According to the 1884 “History of Bedford, Somerset and Fulton Counties Pennsylvania,” prepared by Waterman, Watkins & Co. of Chicago, Ill., “Wells Tannery” was erected in 1855 by Lyon and Patterson and was referred to as a “stream tannery” because of its closeness to Laural Fork Stream which borders present day Wells Tannery Community Park. Located in the same area was a tannery store which was destroyed by fire in 1869, followed by the destruction of the tannery (also by fire) in the spring of 1870.
Over the years that followed, the ownership of the tannery changed hands several times (it was rebuilt in 1870 by Lyon & McClure.) In the beginning, leather for the soles of shoes were produced at the tannery followed by the cutting of leather for belting. In 1884 the tannery was producing an average of 7,000 hides annually.
The tannery apparently survived through the end of the 19th century but its exact closing is not known.
Today, peaceful Wells Tannery, Wells Valley and the nearby mountains retain their natural beauty. The Buchanan State Forest is located close by bordering Route 915 and occupying timber land originally leased by the state from the Reichley Brothers, dating back to 1922.
“In 1930, the Reichleys sold to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania over 9,100 acres … other lands (of the logging railroad and timbering operations) had been disposed of previously,” concluded Jerry Wright, Wells Tannery historian and one of the “movers and shakers” of the Wells Tannery Community Park and Homecoming observance.