Pennsylvania’s Atlantis: Underwater Town Reveals Depths of History
Once upon a time, the town of Somerfield, Pennsylvania was your typical community -rural, normal, content. Then, 1946 happened. This was the year the entire community was demolished and purposely flooded as part of the construction of the Young Dam. What remains is very ghost-town-like in its appearance. That is when it actually appears.
On rare occasions, the water levels dip low enough to reveal parts of the past: namely, the 1818 US 40 Bridge. This doesn’t happen very often and only a few people have seen it. Old foundations, roads, and other objects of its former life are also sometimes visible.
Though it’s been gone for seventy years, the area has achieved cult status, with people traveling from all around to catch a glimpse. The visitors are particularly interested in Somerfield’s history. And, it turns out, it doesn’t disappoint.
The town was all but forgotten about until a severe drought in the early nineties led to its reappearance. The drought was so bad that workers drained the Youghiogheny Lake and used its water to feed the rivers nearby. Once it came back into view, everyone’s curiosity primed.
The history of Somerfield is well documented by the Old Petersburg-Addison Historical Society. According to their records, George Washington (yes, that George Washington) was one of the first white men to cross the area. He made the journey sometime between 1753 and 1755 during expeditions with General Edward Braddock.
By 1816, the land fell under the ownership of a Dutchman named Philip Smyth. Very little is known about him, other than he was overweight and not a person of impressive intelligence (a traveler’s journal described him as “a fat, ignorant Dutchman.”). Smyth wanted to call the town Smythfield (naturally), but the name was changed to Somerfield because of a similarly-named Smithfield in Fayette County.
The town grew bigger, but was never big – it only had two streets: Bridge Street (which was Route 40) and River Road. Still, it became a destination for many people passing by. Hotels, taverns, and stage coaches lined the streets. It even had a post office and a physician.
The following years were met with ups and downs. At one time, the town took on a shambled look and many of the businesses closed their doors. People left, but when the tracks to a nearby railroad were laid, the population bounced back.
Just before 1900, the town was formerly incorporated. Department stores, Victorian-style homes, a bank, an elementary school, and a flour mill followed. Many of the residents found work in the coal and lumber industries.
While the railroad helped put Somerfield on the map, it was truly the invention of the car that helped it prosper. People drove from all over to seek out the town’s camping and recreation amenities. It was even well known as a gambling mecca – high-stake card games were often played, sometimes with as much as 10,000 dollars laid out on the table (by today’s standards, that’s around 125,000 dollars).
Somerfield proved attractive to all members of society, from church groups and Boy and Girl Scouts to US Presidents. Taylor, Hoover, and McKinley are each rumored to have visited.
Ultimately, the car that gave Somerfield so much also took it away. As roads were paved and highways built, tourists bypassed the tiny town for other destinations, mainly the ocean. The town was eventually slotted for destruction, something that left the folks who still lived there understandably upset. J. Buell Snyder, the Fayette County Congressman who pushed for the creation of the Young Dam, became public enemy number one.
Despite the flooding, a single home still remains intact: a two-story frame structure situated on a hill. It belonged to a wealthy woman from Pittsburgh. Now, it’s the only reminder of what once was, until the water levels drop again. Then, there’s so much more to see.