George Hetzel, who visited the hamlet of Scalp Level in 1866 during a fishing vacation, was so taken with the area's splendid scenery that he encouraged fellow Pittsburgh artists to join him there in subsequent summers, sketching and painting landscape scenes. What would these painters—who collectively became known as the Scalp Level School—have seen as they travelled on foot in the vicinity of Scalp Level, around the lower (northern) section of the Stonycreek watershed?*
(*Note: In the discussion that follows, the terms "Stonycreek watershed" and "the Stonycreek" are used broadly, to refer collectively to all of the watersheds illustrated in Figure 1, except when explicit reference is made to the watershed of the Stonycreek River.)
Edwin Walker's 1860 Map of Somerset County and other period documents provide some clues about what the painters might have seen. Beyond Johnstown, town-oriented activities were limited: a couple of blacksmiths, a hotel, store and wagon shop in "Jenner X Road" (today's Jenners Crossroads), and a shoe shop in Jennerville (now Jennerstown).
Subsistence-oriented farms dominated the local economy, surrounded by virgin forests and abundant, clear streams. Benscreek Furnace, five miles from Scalp Level, had produced pig iron, using local iron ore, limestone, and charcoal cooked in the forest, but the operation was almost certainly closed by 1860. In nearby Ashtola, two sawmills supported a modest logging industry based on the watershed's hemlock, white pine and mixed hardwood forests; these mills are mentioned in subsequent county reports during the 1880s. Around Scalp Level, as was true elsewhere in the Stonycreek watershed, most people earned a living by farming.
Elsewhere in the watershed, but probably beyond the wanderings of the Scalp Level artists, the 1860 map lists some rural industries, including six water powered saw mills, four tanneries, a grist mill, a woolen manufacturer, a potter, and two iron furnaces (both had closed during the 1850s), along with more limestone and iron deposits. The map notes more than a dozen tiny coal mines or coal banks; at that time these likely produced house coal, most likely during the winter—the farmer's slack season. The Second Geological Survey of Pennsylvania of 1875 (published 1877) surveyed, mapped and extensively described the watershed's rich bituminous coal deposits, which within four decades would become the focal point of the area's economic base. At the time of the Survey, however, there was hardly more than a handful of active coal mines in the watershed. Agriculture was the dominant economic activity.
In short, what we see in the Scalp Level paintings is confirmed by other sources: a thinly settled, overwhelming forested, rural landscape with many picturesque streams, where the human influence was evident mostly in the form of modest, isolated farms.
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