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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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