In 1851, long before railroads were known on the banks of the Allegheny River, when the canal boat and stage were the only means of conveyance, the local Methodists conducted an outdoor worship in an oak grove owned by Henry Mane Brackenridge in what is now Natrona Heights. Its history was a household word in the Methodist families of Pittsburgh and in the towns throughout the Allegheny Valley. Each year, hundreds made their pilgrimage to its hillside and worshipped in the woods. In late August, the attendees would erect up to 70 tents, using straw for bedding for the one week long service. By 1867, a number of small cottages had been built. In the spring of 1876, the cottages and that part of the grove included in the circle were totally destroyed by fire. Some members of the association decided to rebuild and continue to hold meetings at the Tarentum site. Many others, who had been aware of the inconvenience of its location, were determined to obtain grounds more accessible from the railroad along the tracks leading from the Union Depot at Pittsburgh. The establishment of the Allegheny Valley Camp Meeting Association resulted from this movement.
At a meeting of parties interested in a new location, including many of the lot holders at Tarentum, a committee was appointed to search for suitable grounds. A number of sites were visited, and after a thorough search, the committee unanimously recommended the Valley Camp property. The grounds, (Figure 1) located between Camp and Murray Avenues in what is now Arnold, comprised some thirty-six acres and was one of the largest sites in the Pittsburgh neighborhood. About thirty acres were wooded. The property was owned in fee simple by the association, there being no limitation to their title or occupancy. The hill on which the camp was located was primarily gravel, and combined with the shape of the land, kept it from being wet or damp, even after the heaviest showers. The camp was well supplied with the very best of cool soft water that flowed from a number of springs. Half of the amount of water from these springs was ample for the largest crowd that ever attended the meetings.
In some of the ravines that divided the grounds the vistas and views were beautiful. From the western side of the space that was reserved for the auditorium, the valley of the Allegheny River could be traced for miles. "With its broad meadow, its thread of silver, with a fringe of trees woven through it, and the long stretch of blue hills beyond, form a picture that one never fires. At sunset and the after twilight when the hush of evening is enfolding on the landscape, it is most charming. At this time, those who have learned the beauties of the scene will be found watching the changing and glowing valley."
The arrangements for services and for those attending the services were excellent. Those who had laid out the grounds set apart a broad strip of the most beautiful portion of the woodland that extended from one side of the grounds to the other with an unobstructed view to the west. On this site, a stand for the pulpit was erected, and in front of this a large frame was covered with canvas. Under the canvas frame, a platform was erected and comfortable settees with backs provided seats for the usual audience. There was seating capacity in the auditorium for 2,500 to 3,000 persons in a cool, airy, and comfortable environment that was unsurpassed by any other location in the United States.
Origin of Camp Meetings
Methodist camp meetings did not originate from any concerted design. Loosely speaking, they introduced themselves and suggested their own advantages. They were exclusively an American institution.
The first camp meeting held in this county was in 1799 near the Red River in Tennessee. The occasion was a simple, rustic, sacramental service in which the religious interest became so great that the meeting continued for several successive days. The remarkable effects on those present, like the wonders on the day of Pentecost, were "noised abroad" through all the country, and the people, attracted by the reports, came for many miles to witness or to enjoy the strange scenes. They brought their provisions and bedding, and built tents, booths, or huts for their temporary accommodations.
The fame of this meeting, from the testimony of those who had religiously benefited from it, spread throughout the state and into Kentucky. Similar meetings followed in both these states, and were characterized by even greater religious interest with a larger attendance and with more remarkable results. These assemblies were immense, at times numbering twenty thousand. They drew the people in such crowds that they seemed at times to depopulate many of the villages near them. At some of them, many hundreds professed to be convened. With them originated a great revival of religion--greater in proportion to the population than any that has since transpired throughout the eastern United States.
These mass gatherings were at first called "general camp meetings" because they were held for union services by Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, and were patronized and sustained by all three denominations. They continued for a year or two as union meetings but soon after, they came to be exclusively supported by Methodists, and with few exceptions, continued that way into the twentieth century.
Camp meetings were soon introduced into all parts of the country. In 1801, they were held in Ohio and by 1803, they were being organized in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland. Within a few years, they had become so general as to be recognized everywhere as a Methodist function. By 1875, they were so popular and in such esteem that more than one hundred fifty were being held annually throughout the United States and varying in the attendance from one to fifteen thousand people. Not less than a million persons heard the gospel preached every year at some camp meeting.
Services were first held at the Valley Camp site in 1878. By then, nearly fifty cottages, the hotel (Figure 2), and the auditorium had already been constructed. Additional lots were being sold and a number of cottages were under construction, including one by the board of the Butler Street M. E. Church for the use of their pastor. About 250 lots were eventually sold at $100 each. In addition to the hotel, the camp had a store, stables, an auditorium for seating approximately 3000 people, and ferry service across the Allegheny River. Trains stopped at nearby Camp Station bringing participants from as far as Pittsburgh and Kittanning. Visitors and those unable to build their own cottage could procure a room at the hotel for a single night, one week, or the entire season. Also, in 1878, the first issue of the campís newspaper, the Valley Camp Advocate was published The first issue provided descriptions and illustrations of some of the cottages that had been built, hoping to induce others to construct similar dwellings.
For over twenty years, thousands of Methodists arrived each year by train from as far as Pittsburgh and Kittanning to enjoy one or more days of relaxation and spiritual renewal at the Valley Camp meeting site.
Following the industrialization of Arnold in the early 1900ís, the membership agreed that the site was no longer private and the camp was closed. The site was later sold to the Valley View Development Company who re-divided the property and sold lots for private use.