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St Marys- An Overview

(From St Marys Chamber of Commerce Info)


The events that led to the founding of St. Marys and Benzinger Township are, to this day, somewhat shrouded in mystery. Tradition has it that the German Catholic Brotherhood, the group that founded St. Marys, was formed in response to religious persecution and meddling in eastern cities, such as Philadelphia and Baltimore. This after they had immigrated from Germany to escape the same.

While this was the case to a certain extent, a closer examination of history shows that the Brotherhood was formed more in response to feuding inside the members own parishes than any outside persecution.

Whatever the reasons, a group of German Catholics from Baltimore and Philadelphia dispatched a committee of three men, John Albert, Michael Derleth and Nicolaus Beimel to western Pennsylvania in the spring of 1842 to scout for land on which to form a completely isolated, German Catholic settlement.

The men met with an agent of the Fox Land Company of Boston in Centreville (now Kersey). After choosing some 30,000 acres of land around the Elk Creek on which to build their settlement, they returned to Philadelphia to have the contract ratified. The German Catholic Brotherhood was formed in early autumn, and the agreement between the Fox Land Company and the Brotherhood was signed by John Albert, Nicolaus Beimel, Peter Brechtenwald, Michael Derleth, John Schad, Adolph Stockman, and Mathias Schweitzer, the Brotherhood's executive committee.

Two groups, John Walker, Mathias Wellendor, Frank Keller, Herman Koch, Julias Vornbaum, Adolph Stockman, Anthony Evers, Nicolaus Hill and John Albert and his wife from Philadelphia; and Jacob Schaut, Bartol Geyer, his wife and four children, Benedict Heubek, John Adelberger, Benedict Zeibel and his wife and four children from Baltimore, soon left for the colony site. They traveled by rail to Columbia, PA then by canal to Freeport, then by overland route (the Milesburg Pike) to Centreville.

There the families lived in small shanties in and around the farm of John Green. During the week, the men hiked through the woods to the site of the new settlement and worked, and on weekends returned to their families in Centreville.

Finally, on December 8, 1842, when there were enough cabins built to make the settlement habitable, the men packed their belongings and families and brought them from Centreville to the new settlement. They named their new community Sanct Maria Stadt (St. Mary Town) after the feast of the Immaculate Conception (celebrated that day) and for the name of the first white woman to step foot in the colony.

In the Spring of 1843, Father Alexander Czistowitz, head of the Redemptorist Missions in America, decided that the settlers were in trouble. Not only was it going to be impossible for the settlers to pay for the land, they were having trouble constructing road and other necessary amenities to keep the communtiy alive.

Father Alexander immediately sent for Mathias Benzinger in Baltimore, a wealthy parishioner who was into real estate. Benzinger traveled to the colony, and after surveying it, bought outright the entire settlement, as well as adjoining lands, and began buliding roads and clearing large tracts of land. Benzinger also promised any settler who stayed in St. Marys a town lot and a farm of their selection.


A Redemptorist Father had visited the colony in the spring of 1843, saying Mass and baptizing, and later, Father Alexander traveled to Munich to recruit nuns from the Notre Dame Unit, as well as monks and skilled laborers, to come to St. Marys and provide leadership.

Father Alexander also erected a sawmill on Silver Creek to provide lumber for the first church, a convent and a school. The monks and nuns lived here until 1849, when competition came from the Benedictines, under Boniface Wimmer, who had built St. Vincent's Seminary at Latrobe.

The Bishop of Pittsburgh wanted the Benedictines, and since St. Marys was rather close to Pittsburgh, the Redemptorist Organization found them to be too much competition and vacated the settlement.

The Benedictines took over, taking possession of the 750 acres of land Benzinger had allotted to the use of churches and schools. Wimmer sent to Germany for nuns and several came from the home base of Eichstadt. They were the first contingent of Benedictine nuns in America, arriving in 1863.

The stone edifice of the St. Marys parish was one of the major undertakings in the new community. The original wood structure built by Father Alexander had burned in 1853 and the stone building was planned after an existing structure in Alsace-Lorraine, the birthplace of the George Garner family. The present church stands mainly as it was originally built.

When the first railroad came to St. Marys in 1862-1863, it brought with it many Irish immigrants who decided they wanted their own church, since German was the language spoken in the original parish.

In 1873 the Irish began erecting their own Sacred Heart Church, which was completed in 1876. When this church became too smalll, a new stone structure was built across the street in the Gothic style, and a new parochial school was built on the site of the old church.

The Queen of the World Parish began to be organized in 1950 when many families began moving into Benzinger Township, especially the southern part and it became evident the two existing Catholic churches were becoming too small. The church which was built under the direction first of Father David, then later, Father Thaddeus, was completed in 1953.

The first Protestant sermon was preached in St. Marys in 1866 by the Reverend W. Hall and since then several churches of different denominations have taken root in St. Marys.


For a long time there were no hospitals within 30 miles of St. Marys, the closest being Smethport. The first midwife entered the settlement in 1843 and doctors had to travel miles over rough roads sometimes in bad weather to reach the sick, an accident or childbirth.

As a result, medicines were scarce and many settlers used their own cures. There were many deaths in the early years of the settlement, a result of lack of medicine, lack of doctors, lack of a hospital or nursing care and the large number of accidents and injuries that went unattended.

In 1918 a flu epidemic took 600 lives in a span of two weeks and coffins were piled high in front of the cemetery chapel until graves could be dug.

The Elks Lodge and other large enough buildings were taken over for care of the sick, many of whom died before anything could be done.

St. Mary's hospital was organized in 1922. A hospital became possible when the heir of Andrew Kaul donated surgical instruments and other accessories and helped pay for necessary alterations to the building to make it a hospital. The community itself raised $200,000 to help pay for construction of the hospital.

In 1934 a fire gutted the top story and roof of the hospital. Patients and equipment that were saved were taken to the St. Joseph's convent, where the old Academy building was turned over for hospital use. The hospital remained there for two years until renovations to the former site were completed in 1936.

In 1952, the largest addition to the hospital was completed, while 1972 saw the addition of an intensive care unit. The latest addition to the Andrew Kaul Memorial Hospital is the new emergency wing with a change in name to the St. Marys Regional Medical Center.


Jacob Schaut and John Walker and the families they brought with them from Baltimore and Philadelphia are chronicled as having been the first settlers to approach the settlement work. Andrew Kaul was one of the first to begin permanent lumbering operations. He, along with J.K.P. Hall sponsored many of the first industrial ventures in St. Marys. Ignatius Garner, land agent for the firm of Benzinger and Eschbach was also instrumental in the early growth of industry in St. Marys.

Before 1900, farming was the greatest industry in St. Marys, but after that, when industries built their factories and workshops in St. Marys, many farm hands opted for the better wages of the factory, and the farm slowly faded as a staple of St. Marys life.

When the railroad came to town, industry really began to pick up. One of the first industries, aside from the sawmill, was the St. Marys Tannery. Coal mining came next, including the St. Marys Coal Company that erected a trestle 50 feet high connecting the hills from the south, across Elk Creek, the Sunbury & Erie Railroad and Washington Street. Coryell and Russ, who owned the mine, also operated the first company store, where miners had to buy their groceries.

The Schaut Planing Mill, just beyond the borough line at the corner of Washington and Fourth Streets, sold lumber, paints, oils, varnishes, glass, moldings, and mill work, almost every common article the early settler needed. The early store or market was usually stocked from the district commercial store and sold everything from salt and sugar to cookies, fruits and vegetables to freshly ground coffee.

John Speer began to manufacture carbon brushes and other carbon specialities in 1889. From his incentive and the men trained in his factory, a number of carbon works came into being: Keystone, Stackpole, St. Marys Carbon, Pure and a number of smaller units. More recently, powdered metal has become the dominant industry in St. Marys.

At one time, there were no less than six breweries located in St. Marys. The first was the Windfelder on Center Street (where the American Legion now stands); the Walker Brewery was at the top of Michael Street hill; the Charles Volk Brewery stood where the Mosse buliding now stands; the Dorner Brewey was at Babylon; the Straub Brewery moved from Erie Avenue to where it now stands; and the Hans Brewery was between North Michael Street and North St. Marys Street near Oilwell Street.

Electric lights first appeared in St. Marys around 1900 when the Speer Carbon Company sent some of their power to nearby homes and to a section of Brussells Street. The St. Marys Electric Company took over in 1903, using power and generators from the Elk County Brewery engine room.

St. Marys' first hotel was the Franklin House, owned by Anton Hanhauser (known initially as the Philadelphia House). At almost the same time, the Alpine and Wachtel Houses existed on Erie Avenue. After the fire of 1880, it became the City Hotel.

The first town hall was erected about where the Gunner's Inn parking lot is today. It also housed a jail in the basement.

In 1858, the Council made the first move toward organizing a fire department when they decided to purchase a fire engine, which was finally purchased in 1871. Men were instructed on how to use the apparatus after it was purchased and housed in a storage shed. Ironically, St. Marys' only fire engine was not even brought out of the shed for the great fire in 1880, which destroyed almost all of Erie Avenue because the fire came too suddenly and with too much force.

In 1873, the first effort was made to start a fire department. In 1874, a fire tower was erected on Lafayette Street and in 1875 the first incorporated fire department was organized. In 1877 the Elk Fire Department was organized with George Weis as chief. In 1890 the Star Hose Company and the Citizens Hose Company were organized. In 1900, Mayor W.G. Bauer gave valuable assistance in starting the Crystal Hose Company which later became the Crystal Fire Department of today.

Beginning in 1886, the first racing event was held in the Trotting Park with the Agricultural Association. The early County Fairs are said to have drawn some 30,000 people to watch bicycle and horse racing, baseball, sport and agricultural events. Townshipwide Fourth of July celebrations with floats, marching units, circus tricks and various fireworks were the rule.

Amusements were in the old Luhr's Hall, next to the Brewery on Center Street, where social, political and business meetings took place.

From the very beginning, St. Marys and Benzinger Township were intertwined to the point of being the same community. In 1994 the two entities were consolidated to form the City of St. Marys.

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Copyright 2008 Bob Nay and contributors