There is not a more sad portrait of a rust belt community than Brownsville, Pennsylvania, nestled along the eastern banks of the Monongahela River in the southwestern part of the state. Founded in 1785, Brownsville grew into an important industrial and commercial center due to its location along a major waterway and the location of the National Road – later U.S. Route 40, through the heart of the town. The addition of the Monongahela Railway only brought more development to the valley.
Brownsville was initially known as a boat-building center for those heading westward along the Monongahela and Ohio rivers, and then as a hub of operations for the railroad. During the early- to mid-20th century, the area was surrounded by coal and coking operations. The Monongahela Railway was a major coal and coke shipping carrier to the steel mills in Pittsburgh, and combined, Brownsville surged over 10,000 in population, it’s downtown dominated by a dense streetscape and tall, rich buildings.
But there was a lack of a hospital. People who were injured were sent to McKeesport or Fairmont, but both were considerable distances away. It was not until 1908 that a group of local citizens and medical professionals came together to plan for a hospital for the growing city. In 1910, a charter was secured, and fund-raising was held. A location was chosen at Fifth and Church, the site of an old public school, and before enough money was raised, land was purchased and ground was broken for the new building. A contract was awarded with the provision that construction would continue as long as money remained in the bank account.
The new Brownsville General Hospital began admitting patients in 1914 despite the building still being under construction, and the physical structure was not completed until two years later after a fund-raising campaign netted additional monies. In 1920, a nurses home was added, although it soon became overcrowded. A fund-raiser was held in 1923, although it was not until a large donation – over $100,000 that was willed away did work commence on an enlarged nurses home across the street from the hospital. In 1929, the Horner Memorial Nurses Home opened, and was home to the Brownsville General Hospital’s School of Nursing. It lasted until its closure in 1952, and the hospital closed it because the preparation had become “academically oriented.”
After the Nurses Home closed, it became the Horner Memorial Nurses Home, a residence for some of the nurses who worked at Brownsville General. It then became a long-term care facility for the elderly.
The hospital throughout its tenure in the valley was constantly running low on patient beds. In 1942, the hospital added a third level to the hospital over the central section of the building, providing room for an additional 13 beds. But a lack of available expansion room and an aging building became apparent by the 1960s. The hospital had one of the highest occupancy rates of any hospital in the state, averaging 99.5% capacity in May 1960, an increase from last year’s overall occupancy rate of 99.3%. The state recommended that the hospital should only be 80% occupied, to leave any room for an emergency event. Brownsville General also had a waiting list of 20 to 25 patients daily for surgery or treatment.
In July 1965, a new hospital for Brownsville opened up at the top of the hill east of the city along the planned U.S. Route 40 freeway, and the hospital down the hill was closed and turned into the Golden Age Nursing Home. The new facility offered additional beds and more potential expansion room, although by the time it was completed, Brownsville was in economic decline. The population began decreasing due to the closure of nearly all industrial operations in Brownsville, and the general decline of the steel industry in the region on the whole. Reflecting the downward turn in population – which led to a decline in births, the hospital was plagued with low patient numbers as early as 1976, leading to rumors of closure. The obstetrical unit was closed as a result in the lack of births due to the economic and population slump, but the hospital lingered on, closing in 2006 due to labor disputes and financial difficulties before reopening in May 2008.
The relocated hospital closed shortly after in February 2009. There simply was not enough patients to go around in a community that barely inches over 2,000 today.
As for the Golden Age Nursing Home, it remained open for 20 years until serious allegations were brought to public light by two individuals who were seeking to put a relative into the nursing home. After mailing letters to the governor, state senator, Congress and media outlets, a state and federal inspection was undertaken at the facility that uncovered deficiencies that led to its Medicare and Medicaid supplements being revoked. After a confabulated court case, which involved years of litigation, the nursing home was forced to close in 1985 after being forced to stop admitting patients and losing state and federal funding.
For having been abandoned for over 20 years, the Brownsville General Hospital is more than a physical structure abandoned to the elements. It is a representation of the community, its rise and fall, and perhaps a stand-in for its progress. It was built during an era when Brownsville was surging ahead in economic importance, expanding throughout the years to accommodating growth. The boat industry, followed by the railroad shops and offices and then the coal and coking operations all brought money and people to the valley.
The hospital then followed the suburban expansion trend by relocating to the hilltop, but the population never came. Employment drained outward from the region as a result of mills closing, the mines shutting down and the shriveling of downtown businesses. That led to a declining in patient numbers when the birth rate fell along with the population that was tied to the negative economic growth. Finally, the hospital was aptly used as a nursing home, a reflection of the aging population of the same individuals who helped build Brownsville up, only to see it fall – and shamefully enough, in an institution that was ripe with disgust and filth. And now that too has been shuttered.
All within a time span of less than 100 years.
Lonaconing Silk Mill Trip Series
In this series, covering three states and three historic locations,