Saint Marys is a city in Elk County, Pennsylvania, part of the Pennsylvania Wilds.
Sitting near the center of the Pennsylvania Wilds region, Saint Marys provides a great jumping-off point for visits to the area's parks, forests, rivers, lakes, and mountains.
Before leaving the Philadelphia area, the Bavarian settlers who intended to settle in Saint Marys had a detailed city plan drawn up. The plan's main feature was a set of eight main avenues that formed an octagon, about 0.75 miles (1.2 km) on a side. Unfortunately, upon arrival at the planned location, they discovered Elk Creek meandering through the area, not to mention hills and valleys that prohibited construction of the octagon.
Today, a vestige of the original plan can still be found, in the form of Joseph Road, Michael Street, St. Marys Street, and Theresia Road, which together do form a rough approximation of half an octagon. It's the 135-degree intersection of Michael and St. Marys that forms the Diamond, the modern-day center of downtown.
Saint Marys was founded by Bavarian Catholic immigrants in 1842, and today it still retains the early settlers' work ethic, industrial nature, and religious devotion.
The original settlers intended to take up farming as their primary industry, but the terrain was found to be unsuitable to widespread agriculture. Fortunately, there were other resources to which they could turn. First among these was logging, facilitated by powerful new steam engines, and the corresponding lumbering industry.
Brickmaking was popular for a while, as well as brewing. Around the turn of the 20th century, carbon and powdered metal became an important part of the borough's economy. Saint Marys was also the site of an early light bulb manufacturing company, the Novelty Incandescent Lamp Company; through a series of mergers and name changes that company became Sylvania, which still maintains a major facility in Saint Marys over 100 years later.
In 1992, Saint Marys absorbed the surrounding township of Benzinger and incorporated as a city, leading to the slogan "Pennsylvania's Newest City". Most of the "city" limits remains wild, with business and residences found primarily within the former borough limits.
Today, powdered metal, carbon, beer, and light bulbs are still the cornerstones of the Saint Marys economy, but like many old industrial areas, the city is shifting toward more service-oriented businesses.
Saint Marys lies at the intersection of Pennsylvania Routes 255 and 120. U.S. Route 219, the Buffalo-Pittsburgh Highway, is the main route into and out of Elk County. To get from U.S. 219 to Saint Marys, there are three options. From the north, take Route 255 in Johnsonburg and travel nine miles southeast to Saint Marys. From the south, take Route 255 in Dubois and travel 30 miles northeast to Saint Marys. U.S. 219 also passes through Ridgway, ten miles west of Saint Marys; the two are connected by Route 120.
From the east or west, you will probably be coming in on I-80; take exit 101 (Route 255) in DuBois, or take exit 111 (Route 153) north where it connects with Route 255.
St. Marys Municipal Airport (IATA: STQ) is three miles southeast of the downtown area on South Michael Street. There are no scheduled commercial flights.
Getting around Saint Marys is both straightforward and confusing at the same time. As far as major routes go, it couldn't be simpler; Route 255 comes in from the northwest (Johnsonburg) and leaves to the south (DuBois); Route 120 comes in from the west (Ridgway) and leaves to the east (Emporium). Where it gets tricky, however, is at the intersection in the middle of downtown where those two routes meet. It's a triangular plot of land called the Diamond, and in addition to the two state routes, the railroad tracks, Elk Creek, and multiple local roads all pass through.
Staying on Route 255 southbound is the only straightforward path through the Diamond. For anything else, you'd be advised to take along a local for your first few attempts. If that's not practical, then watch the signs and surrounding vehicles carefully and be prepared to go around the block and try again if you miss.
The central business district is anchored by the Diamond, extending south on South Saint Marys Street (Route 255), southeast on South Michael Street, and east on Brusselles Street (Route 120). Businesses in the downtown area are primarily locally owned. The major commercial strip is farther south on Route 255, along a section known as Million Dollar Highway; this is where you'll find the chain restaurants, hotels, and shops. A relatively new Wal-Mart lies just south of the city limits on Million Dollar Highway, marking the southern end of the commercial strip.
Beyond the major streets, you'll want a map to get around; the terrain combined with the odd angles at intersections mean there are few right angles and a lot of dead-ends. Fortunately, most everything a traveler needs can be found on the major roadways (including North and South Michael Street).
- Decker's Chapel, S. St. Marys St. (Turn right on Earth Road, then an immediate left into the driveway). Open 24 hours. Decker's Chapel is one of the smallest churches in the United States. Built in 1856 by Michael Decker in gratitude for his recovery from an injury. The chapel is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Free.
- St. Joseph's Convent, Maurus St.. The convent was founded in 1852 and is the oldest Benedictine women's community in the United States.
- Apollo Theatre, 19 N Michael St, ☎ . Once run-down and nearly falling apart, the last of the old Saint Marys movie houses has been revitalized. You won't mistake it for a modern multiplex, but it's now a perfectly serviceable theater and a popular place to watch the latest films. $6; $3 children/seniors/matinees.
- Bavarian Hills ( Golf course), 251 Mulligan Rd (off Benzinger Rd.), ☎ . about $40.
- Leaning Pines Public Golf Course, 531 S Michael Rd, ☎ . The former St. Mary's Golf Club is now open to the public. $12-22, $15-30 with cart.
- Straub Brewery, 303 Sorg St, ☎ . M-F 9AM-noon. Brewery tours by request. Drink from the "Eternal Tap" after the tour, or M-F 9AM-4:30PM, Sa 9AM-1PM. Free.
There are a couple of shopping plazas around Saint Marys; one is anchored by Dollar General and (the now-vacant) Giant Eagle on Million Dollar Highway; the other is a couple of miles east of the Diamond on Route 120, anchored by a Sears Hometown Store and a Peebles department store.
There are some local businesses of note, of course.
- Village Peddler, 14 Erie Ave., ☎ . An old-fashioned general store and a homestyle restaurant all in one. The homemade fudge and the quiche are especially good.
If none of these options work, you can always head off to the Wal-Mart on Million Dollar Highway, just south of the city limits.
The restaurant options in Saint Marys are a mix of casual chain restaurants, local taverns, and pizza joints.
- Gunners, 33 S. St. Marys St. (just south of the Diamond), ☎ . This tavern offers an extensive menu with a number of creative steak, seafood, and pasta options. We're not talking fine dining, here, but good basic meat-and-potatoes food with the occasional interesting twist. The bar area is a popular hangout for locals, but the dining room offers seclusion from the noise. Casual atmosphere. Banquet hall downstairs; lodging upstairs. $6-$24.
- Hoss's Steak and Sea House, 118 Haller Rd (just east of Route 255), ☎ . Su-Th 11AM-9PM, F Sa 11AM-10PM. Chain steakhouse known for their Soup, Salad, and Dessert Bar. Lots of historic images of St. Marys in the decor.
- McDonald's, 825 S. St. Marys St., ☎ .
- Merlin's, 626 S. Michael Rd., ☎ .
- Monica's, 804 S. Michael Rd., ☎ .
- Pizza Hut/Wing Street, 205 Comfort Ln (Route 255 to Comfort Ln., switchback up the hill), ☎ . Right next to the Comfort Inn.
- Ricks Doughboys, 228 Brusselles St (right across from Dostal's Curiosity Shoppe), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. M-Th 10:30AM-11PM, F Sa 10:30AM-midnight, Su 11:30AM-10PM. An excellent locally-owned pizza place, with hot and cold subs, wings, strombolis, and several pasta options as well. Good quality, prices quite reasonable. Housed in an expansive former apparel store, redecorated to showcase the owner's classic automobiles, which flank the entrance. A fair amount of seating is available, though most of their business is takeout. $4-10.
- St. Marys Corner Restaurant, 202 Chestnut St., ☎ .
- Tailgater's Bar and Grill, 727 S. St. Marys St., ☎ .
- The West Wind ( formerly Silver Wing), 119 Airport Rd (off S Michael St), ☎ . Tu-F 11AM-9PM, Sa Su 8AM-9PM. A nice little restaurant at the airfield; very popular among residents for special occasions. Pasta, seafood, and chicken wings are their specialties, but there are also some good steaks. You might also want to try the famous mile-high pork chops, a favorite from the restaurant's previous incarnation, the Silver Wing. $10-$30.
If you'd like to buy groceries, you have limited options. The main grocery store in the city, Giant Eagle, closed in August 2014, leaving few alternatives. (Sure, there's a Wal-Mart just south of the city limits on Million Dollar Highway, but a lot of people avoid the retail behemoth whenever possible.) You can always drop by a gas station for convenience items; Sheetz in particular has a wide range of offerings. If you want fresh produce or meats, though, your best bet is probably Pfaff's, while the Save-A-Lot offers discounted dry goods. Dollar General (on Million Dollar Highway, near the former Giant Eagle) also has a selection of dry goods, as well as dairy and freezer cases.
- Pfaff's Market, 137 Atlantic St, ☎ . M-Sa 7AM-8PM. The only full-service grocery remaining in the city limits, Pfaff's has been around a long time. It's a bit off the main drag, but it's a great alternative to Wal-Mart.
- Save-A-Lot, 391 Brusselles St, ☎ . M-Sa 9AM-5PM, Su 8AM-8PM. The discount grocery chain offers super-low prices by cutting back on service and selection. They do have meat and produce, but no deli department.
The distinction between "restaurant" and "bar" in Saint Marys is heavily blurred; most of the local non-chain restaurants have bars, and most of the bars have sit-down and/or takeout menus.
- East End Tavern, 609 Brusselles St., ☎ .
The Best Western and the Holiday Inn Express, both on Million Dollar Highway, are fairly new chain hotels, catering to the business traveler; they are comparable in most respects. Gunners offers more local flavor near the Diamond.
- Best Western Executive Inn, 1002 Earth Rd. (Route 255 to Earth Rd., then immediate right into lot), ☎ , fax: +1 814 834-1804. Check-in: 2PM, check-out: 11AM. Right across Earth Rd. from Decker's Chapel. Better maintained than the Comfort Inn (especially since the renovations in early 2011), but there's no traffic light to get out onto Rt. 255. The free continental breakfast bar, incl. waffles, is good but slightly surpassed by the Comfort Inn's. Heated outdoor pool; exercise machines; whirlpool rooms avail. All rooms non-smoking. $90.
- Holiday Inn Express and Suites ( formerly Comfort Inn), 195 Comfort Ln (Route 255 to Comfort Ln, switchback up the hill), ☎ , fax: +1 814 834-2040. Check-in: 2PM, check-out: 11AM. Positioned halfway up a hill, with a great view on the east side and nothing but trees and dirt on the west. The facilities got a much-needed update in 2014 as part of the change in brand names, though the rooms still seem a bit small (especially with the new, larger beds). The staff is occasionally inattentive, but breakfast is slightly better than at the Best Western. Free breakfast bar, incl. pancakes, cinnamon buns; heated indoor pool; exercise machines. $100.
- Gunners, 33 S. St. Marys St. (just south of the Diamond), ☎ . Upstairs from the restaurant and bar; long-term rates avail. $80.
Saint Marys is in the 814 area code. Most phone numbers are in the 834 exchange, with some in 781. The ZIP code is 15857.
Saint Marys sits within easy driving distance of countless state parks, woodlands, waterways, and mountains.
Nearby boroughs, all about 10-15 minutes away:
- Ridgway to the west; a small riverside community, Elk County seat, and, in many ways, Saint Marys' smaller sibling.
- Johnsonburg to the northwest; known simply as "Burg" to other Elk County residents, this is an industrial community dominated by the Domtar paper processing plant.
- Emporium to the east.
Heading south, you'll pass through numerous small villages and hamlets before reaching the city of Dubois, about 40 minutes south of Saint Marys. Dubois is somewhat larger and more urbanized than Saint Marys, with a decent-sized mall anchoring a sizable commercial strip. This is where Saint Marys residents head when they want to shop someplace other than Wal-Mart.
The Clarion River, of which Saint Marys' Elk Creek is a tributary, flows through Johnsonburg and Ridgway and provides fishing and boating opportunities. It also runs through the Allegheny National Forest, which extends from west of Ridgway all the way north to the New York border and is a large expanse of wilderness dotted with small communities. Canoeing, hiking, skiing (water and cross-country), boating, swimming, and, of course, hunting are all available within its borders.
North of Saint Marys, the East Branch of the Clarion River flows from within Elk State Forest, where the East Branch Dam forms a 1,370-acre lake with camping, picnicking, and boat launch facilities. Downstream of the dam, closer to Johnsonburg, is Bendigo State Park with similar outdoors activities.
There is a herd of elk in the area, sometimes visible from Saint Marys but more often farther south near Benezette. It's one of the few herds found east of the Mississippi River.
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