Like many pioneer towns in Western Pennsylvania, West Newton earned its early historical relevance by playing a key role in the westward expansion of the United States. The Simerals, the first family to settle in the area, operated a small ferry on the banks of the Youghiogheny River halfway between Connellsville and McKeesport. In 1788, a group of Revolutionary War veterans from Ipswich, Massachusetts spent the winter at Simeral’s Ferry, making boats in order to travel west. Those veterans went on to settle the first town in the Ohio Territory: Marietta.
A few years after the Pioneers made their trek, New Jersey native and whiskey rebel Isaac Rob officially laid out the town of West Newton. Originally, “Robbstown” grew slowly as the community served as a trading outpost where the Old Glades Indian Trail met the Youghiogheny River. There are two theories as to why Robb changed the town’s name to West Newton: Robb may have been paying homage to his hometown of Newton, New Jersey, or the name may have been given to differentiate it from nearby Greensburg, then known as Newtown.
West Newton’s fortunes changed during the mid 19th century. River commerce increased with the construction of slack water dams in the 1830s. Improvements continued with the erection of a covered toll bridge in 1834. The introduction of the Pittsburgh & Connellsville Railroad (which would later merge with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad), and the Markle Paper Mill provided early economic development. By 1860, the town blossomed with the establishment of numerous churches, a cemetery, and a large school building. By the late 1800s the town’s economy shifted as the U.S. Radiator Corporation of Detroit, Michigan took over the old paper mill site, expanding it to employ over 500 workers. The town served as an important commercial corridor for the surrounding farming communities and coal patches. The addition of the P&LE Railroad on the west side of town and the ever-increasing amount of coal mining activity in the Yough Valley further spurred commerce in West Newton.
Despite facing devastating fires, numerous floods, and tragic train wrecks in the 20th century, the people of West Newton persevered, continuing to develop both the infrastructure and economy of their community. 1908 saw the addition of the steel bridge that still stands today. Though the U.S. Radiator Corporation ceased production by the 1950s, West Newton still housed several manufacturing enterprises, most notably for prefab homes and railroad flares. The “West Side” of town was annexed from Rostraver Township in 1947. In the 1960s a new elementary school was built along with a community swimming pool. Although coalmining activity during much of the century polluted and damaged the Youghiogheny River, by the 1970s it was reclaimed, and it is still frequented by anglers today.
As time progressed West Newton eventually transitioned into a bedroom community with the vast majority of residents working outside of the borough limits. Once again its location played a key role: West Newton’s proximity to both Interstate 70 and Route 51 allowed the population count to remain stable, unlike many other older towns in the region. Another asset that helped turn the tide for West Newton stemmed from its past—the old P&LE Railroad was being transformed into the Great Allegheny Passage, a world-class rail trail. Once again, the community saw new economic lifeblood, serving as a trail town for visitors from around the world who have caught the pioneer spirit.