1806 Old Log Church, Schellsburg, PA

Every year, we go back to my native Somerset, Pennsylvania for a family reunion and a road trip. This year, we finally got around to doing something we’d wanted to do for some time. We just drove around on the back roads. We had a few specific things picked out but mostly, we just free-lanced. The south central counties of Somerset, Bedford, Cambria, Blair, Huntingdon and Fulton are full of history – monuments, markers, forts, covered bridges, battlefields, railroads (ever heard of Horseshoe Curve?), old towns. It seems like there’s something around every corner.

The whole area is one big museum. Entire books have been written about it. I could spend the rest of my life just blogging about these six counties. We did, however, stumble across a few things that were so interesting and off the beaten path, they got their own blog entry. This is one of them.

Map location of Schellsburg, PA

The red marker is the location of Schellsburg. Pittsburgh is 100 road miles to the west. Gettysburg is 90 road miles to the east. Route 30 is Main Street.

In the eastern foothills of the Allegheny Mountains of Bedford County stands the village of Schellsburg. It sits astride Route 30, also known as the Lincoln Highway. This road follows the same track as the Forbes Road which is named for General John Forbes. His British Army built it in 1758 on the way to attack Fort Duquesne in Pittsburgh during the French and Indian War. That road, in turn, was built along the route of the Raystown Path, an old trading route used by Indians for centuries to cross the rugged mountains.

This fertile foothill valley was farmed and hunted by Indians and settlers for decades before Schellsburg became a town in 1808.  The most influential citizen was John Schell, a German immigrant who arrived with eight children in 1798. He had received some land as a grant for his service in the Revolutionary War and and added on to it with his own purchases.

Old Log Church

Schell was very generous with his wealth and influence, donating both to the community. He donated a six acre plot of land on a beautiful hilltop overlooking the town. On that land in 1806 was built the first church in Bedford County. Originally called the Union Church, it served the Lutheran and Reformed congregations. The locals know it as the 1806 Old Log Church. Note the Confederate flag by the front  headstone. There’s a very cool story that goes with it. You can read it down further.

In previous decades, the early settlers of this area lived with constant conflict and danger.  From 1750 to 1780, a period that spanned both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, settlers, farmers, Indians, Tories, patriots and British fought a brutal back country war for control of the frontier. This war culminated with the massacre of Phillips’ Rangers in 1780.

By 1806, the frontier was hundreds of miles west and the new town of Schellsburg was chartered in peace in 1808.  Sitting astride the main east-west route in the region, it prospered as center of farming, commerce and transportation.  Some of the structures built back then still line the main thoroughfare as homes and shops.

Inside the Old Log Church

The church is 25 x 30 feet; two stories high with galleries on three sides and a eight foot high “tea cup” pulpit on the fourth. For the first six years the congregation worshiped by sitting on logs. In 1809, a stove was installed. Previous to the stove purchase, members brought their dogs to church to keep their feet warm. In 1812, the pulpit, the stairs and the pews were built. Two years later the gallery/balcony was constructed. The cost of all this was $292. Several years later the church was plastered inside and weatherboarded outside. In 1935 the outside weatherboards were removed, exposing the original log walls for the first time in a 100 years. Ever since it has been known as the “Old Log Church.”

Services were held here until 1852 by a variety of ministers, both full time and traveling.  At that time, the Lutheran and Reformed congregations went their own way and broke ground for their own churches.  Those congregations are still active.

Also in 1806, the surrounding ground saw its first burial and the Chestnut Ridge and Schellsburg Union Cemetery was born.  The cemetery is still active, averaging 25 burials per year.  Needless to say, it is huge.  We found the same thing in this cemetery as we have in others we’ve explored – people died young.  Many graves are simply marked “infant”.

Generations of local families are buried here, including John Schell.   Information cards are placed graveside on many plots telling their story.  Sometimes it’s on the headstones themselves, which can get quite detailed.  Walking through this cemetery is like reading a history book carved in stone, granite and marble. Many of the deceased are veterans of every conflict this country has fought back to the French and Indian War. Veterans’ graves have medallions, flags or other markers  signifying their service.  There’s even a Confederate soldier buried here complete with the Stars and Bars flying at his grave. His story is told below.

Confederate soldier grave.

William Hinson was born in Mississippi in 1842. In 1861, he enlisted in the Confederate Army and was captured by Union forces at Vicksburg in 1863. He was sent to a POW camp at Alton, Illinois. In February, 1864, he was being transferred on a train to another POW camp in Delaware. He escaped in Cambria County, not far from Schellsburg, in the middle of the mountain winter.  A Quaker family gave him refuge from the weather and the authorities. He changed his name to Oliver Niley, after his maternal grandfather, and settled down to wait out the war.  As it turns out, he started a new life.  He settled near Schellsburg, where he became a pillar of the community.  He married a local girl, had many children and was a Justice of the Peace for years. When he died in 1925, his Confederate Army service became known and he was buried under both flags with his real name.

In 2002, the Old Log Church and Cemetery Preservation Society was formed to prepare the church and grounds for the 2006 bicentennial. In 2005, the church and cemetery were placed in the National Registry of Historic Places. Preservation grant money was obtained. Headstones have been repaired and waterproofed. The society remains active and continues its efforts.

We finally got around to trying the door of the church.  I saw the obligatory padlock as we approached and figured there’s no way it will be open – but is was, as it is every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day. In the spring and fall, it’s weekends only.   Visitors are welcome with no guides, guards, chaperones, etc. There’s been no vandalism, damage or graffiti which is amazing.  There’s none visible in the cemetery either.

Pews at the Old Log Church

We visited on a hot, humid day. It was really stuffy inside. I climbed up to the “tea cup” pulpit and it was downright tropical. Preaching from there or craning your necks to look up from the pews would have made worship a challenge. Mountain winters are bitter, providing even more challenges. Despite that, the church thrived for almost half a century until it outgrew itself. Now it is open to the public for viewing. Services are still held here on special occasions.  The church has no amenities whatsoever, including no electricity or running water. The Preservation Society has a table inside with some history and literature along with a donation box.

We didn’t stumble upon the Old Log Church. I’ve been driving by it for decades on Route 30. I just never stopped or paid any attention to it. This trip, we made sure to visit. The original target was a geocache on the grounds, but we like old cemeteries and historic old buildings so it had the potential to be quite a visit. We were not disappointed.

This old place is one of a kind. It is worth seeing and supporting, if you get the chance.  BTW, we found the geocache.  It’s called “1806 Was a Good Year“.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

15 thoughts on “1806 Old Log Church, Schellsburg, PA

  1. 4 of us stopped and visited the Log Church and cemetery recently, on a motorcycle trip east… I just wanted to say that inside the church is a small church on the table with a slot in it,, so we put in a few dollars.. So that can help in some way,,

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  2. I remember going there with my mother, who grew up in that area and her cousin Emily Baker who lived in Berlin. Every year when we visited we would stp by here and visit the graves of relatives. Back then the logs were whitewashed or painted white. This was in the 1950.

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  3. What a wonderful blog post! This makes me think that we should set up a geocache at the “granddaughter” church of the Old Log Church, the United Church of Schellsburg United Church of Christ.

    Just to clarify and expand some of the history: the Lutheran congregation built a brick building in Schellsburg in 1843, which is still in existence but is now a private home. The Reformed congregation built its building in 1851 and that building, now with an education addition built in 1970, is the home of the United Church of Schellsburg. In 1964, these two original congregations, along with the Schellsburg Presbyterian Church (ca. 1836) and the Hull Memorial Methodist Society/Schellsburg Methodist Church (ca, 1845), merged to form one church to better serve the community. So while the two original congregations no longer exist by name, their spirit is very much alive and well in town. The United Church of Schellsburg is a strong supporter of the preservation efforts of the Schellsburg and Old Log Church Historical Society (SOLCHS).

    I’m privileged to serve as the Pastor and Teacher at the United Church of Schellsburg and as a member of the SOLCHS. My favorite overlap of those roles is on Christmas Eve, when we hold an 11:30 pm service of lessons and carols and poetry. I get to sing “O Holy Night” from that wineglass pulpit, which is a worship experience I treasure. It is amazing how warm the unheated and not-exactly-wind-resistant building can get with 130 people inside, at least compared to 20º outside!

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    1. Thank you for those kind words and taking the time to comment. That Christmas Eve service sounds really neat. Writing about out of the way places like this is what our blog is all about. Feel free to pass it on to anyone who might be interested. Thanks again … Dan

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  4. Good morning. I just came across your post and I’d like to share something. I am from Schellsburg and the Confederate Soldier you wrote about is my gr-gr-gr-grandfather. He was originally from Yazoo City, Mississippi and he did in fact jump.from.the POW train. However, his birth name was Oliver Perry Niley and when he escaped he changed his name to William Hinson…. his paternal uncle’s name. He lived his life here, married and raised his family but never told anyone who he really was until right before he passed. Even his children didn’t know until this time. He was also a JOP (we have his stamp).

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  5. Hey Boris and Natasha: I just stopped by here Saturday, to locate my Great-grandfather’s (Samuel C. Mowry) grave. My GGG Jacob, GGGG Henry, and GGGGG Johannes Andrew Maurer (changed to Mowry later) are also buried here. Am trying to contact the Cemetery to locate their plots. I also learned that a John Mowry donated the logs for one side of the structure. Best Wishes, John A. Mowry

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  6. Nice post, but I would like to note one statement that is not entirely accurate. Your statement of: “He had received some land as a grant for his service in the Revolutionary War and and added on to it with his own purchases.” is not accurate. No lands whatsoever within the present-day bounds of Bedford County, Pennsylvania were granted to soldiers who had served in the American Revolutionary War. The only lands so granted by the state of Pennsylvania were located in the northwest corner of the state – out of lands acquired in 1784 from the Amerindians. John Schell is indeed known to have made two purchases of lands on which he laid out the town, but no portion of those tracts were granted to him for his War service.

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  7. Hi. I’m attempting to trace family genealogy and an ancestor, William H. Bailey, is buried in this cemetery but I cannot find his parents. Does anyone have a good family tree of the citizens of Bedford County that might help? I’ve done the basics on ancestry.com but I’ve hit a wall.

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  8. As far as the confederate flag at Mr. Hinson’s grave, I say let’s not forget our history in order to learn for our future. As a once enlisted serviceman that has been in combat, I believe it to be a great respect, no matter the side. For those that understand, Semper Fi. For those that disagree, try thanking those that have fought for more than themselves and remember that not always one side is right or wrong on all things. As far as the church, unbelievable the history and the preserve of the church and the respect for all military, religion, and all persons over the generations has endured and is preserved. Hats off to those that ensure its continuance. Thank you! There is much older history that has escaped us but not all is lost, beautiful. I loved the pic of Civil War Vets during Memorial Day. Hope many support when/how they can.

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  9. I enjoyed your information on the cemetery. I have multiple ancestors buried there. One is lost in an unmarked grave. Loanie King that died from scalet fever or complications of it. She was buried in 1889. Does anyone know of a burial plot map of the cemetery?

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