Mary Beth Graf, president of the California Area Historical Society, recalled her 1980 move to the Mon Valley town after her late husband, Dr. William Graf, accepted a faculty position at California University of Pennsylvania.
“I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and have lived in quite a few states, and when we came here, I thought, ‘Oh, my, golly, what has my husband done?’ she says, laughing. “But it didn’t take me long to find out that the people here are very nice, and it was a safe community for me to bring up my children. Before we moved here, we asked around the campus where we should buy a house, and everybody said, ‘California.’ I can say I will always stay here.”
California was founded in 1849, about the same time the California Gold Rush led thousands of prospective gold miners to San Francisco and surrounding areas, prompting officials of the small town located on the banks of the Monongahela River to name the borough after the state as a symbol of future growth and prosperity.
Officials mulled other names for California – two other options were Columbia and Sagamore – says Edgar Harris, charter president of the historical society, whose family settled in the California area in the late 1700s.
The historical society is housed in the Gallagher House on Wood Street, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and houses an extensive collection of local archives and artifacts carefully catalogued and displayed.
Members of the historical society – knowledgeable and well-versed about the town’s history – help visitors from the community, California Area School District and California University of Pennsylvania track down requests for information on topics ranging from local Civil War participants to photos from local coal mines.
The town’s first business, a sawmill, was established in 1849, and in 1851, it was purchased by McFall and Co. The first boatyard was opened soon after, and the borough’s shipbuilding industry flourished for three decades.
During that span, more than 130 ship hulls were built, Graf says.
“The hulls of riverboats were built not far from the site of the California Public Library, and then they were sent to Brownsville and Pittsburgh to have boilers and other boat parts put in,” Graf says, noting some of the boats built in California saw action in the Civil War.
By 1879, the boat yard had stopped operating, and coal mining became the principal industry in California and surrounding areas after the Pittsburgh, Virginia & Charleston Railroad was built.
When Vesta No. 4 Mine opened in 1893, California became home to the largest bituminous coal mine in the world.
The former Vigilant Mine in California once produced the largest single lump of coal in the world.
Today, California is home to California University of Pennsylvania, which was founded in 1852 and offers more than 130 programs of study.
The borough also includes California Technology Park, a 138-acre business park with close proximity to Interstate 70 and the Mon/Fayette Expressway. The technology park held a groundbreaking ceremony on Aug. 30 for the Washington Health System Outpatient Center, which is expected to open in the spring.
The single-story, 9,000-square-foot building will house a lab draw site, space for specialty physicians and additional space to add diagnostic and other services.
“California is very diverse. It has the university as its anchor, and the borough is a quaint town. When you add the industrial park, which provides several hundred jobs, everything makes for a very attractive community,” says Debra Keefer, executive director of the Mon Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce. “The development in the park has been impressive, and it’s providing jobs.”
At the entrance of town is Old California Cemetery, where 26 Civil War soldiers and three War of 1812 soldiers are buried.
The California Area Public Library, which serves California and surrounding areas, is located in the former Pennsylvania Railroad station; beside the library is a caboose from a retired Norfolk and Western train.
Pharmacist Ronald Messick moved to California in 1983 and bought Redstone Pharmacy on Third Street in 1988. He has grown fond of the community. “It’s been a blessing to be here since the beginning. We were so well-received, and we were welcomed with open arms,” Messick says. “We love our customers. I enjoy coming to work every day because I get to work with phenomenal employees and the customers are just the greatest. I wouldn’t want to work in any other town.”