In a part of Pennsylvania where large tracts of land were once owned by George Washington, the Stone House Inn has a history almost as long as America’s. Originally built in 1822, the hotel survived the Civil War, watched its community transform with the Industrial Revolution, and, over the decades, played host to the likes of U.S. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon — and, most recently, Speaker of the House John Boehner.
It sits in the pastoral Laurel Highlands of Fayette County, in the heart of traditional coal country, where the community has seen the local economy rise and fall — and, more recently, rise again — with the tides of its natural resources. The county was a boomtown for much of the 20th century when coal, plentiful in the region’s surrounding mountains, was king. But by the turn of the millennium, the coal and closely related steel industries fell into decline.
In the past decade, however, the region has become a magnet for the natural gas industry, and locally owned businesses like the Stone House Inn have found new life. On top of a steady seasonal business hosting hunters, fishermen, hikers and climbers, all drawn to the hotel for its prime location in the Laurel Highlands, the hotel now regularly hosts waves of energy workers arriving to the region for months-long stays.
It’s characteristic of the inn’s evolution and resilience over the past two centuries.
“This is one of the birthplaces of American hospitality,” says Jeremy Critchfield, the hotel’s co-owner and executive chef. “A hundred and ninety-three years running, it’s been an inn, tavern, restaurant—and has seen a lot of what has made this country great."
Throughout all that time, the Stone House Inn and much of Appalachia have sat atop the Marcellus Shale, a natural formation thought to contain 84 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. But since 2004, the exploration of that energy reserve has brought countless new workers to the region and provided an enormous boost to the economies of the surrounding cities and townships, creating new companies, new jobs for Pennsylvanians and revitalized businesses.
"You see far more new cars on the road now. You definitely see more dining out in the area now. What the boom has brought — it's been just that," Critchfield said. "It's helped on just about every level."
Many of the natural gas workers are not currently looking to move to Western Pennsylvania permanently, so when it comes to room and board, they skip looking for an RV or apartment and instead check into hotels, motels and places like the Stone House Inn.
The influx of workers has fueled the Stone House Inn’s business and constantly kept other hotels in the area at capacity. According to a report by Pennsylvania State University this summer, drilling in the Marcellus region has led to 65 new hotels, 1,600 new jobs and $685 million in hotel revenue since 2006.
“For the Stone House, the people that work for these companies stay here. They eat here. They bring their business people here from out of town for meetings,” Critchfield said.
Business has been so good, actually, that Critchfield was also able to start catering the Stone House Inn’s food. Since Critchfield began running the historic hotel two and a half years ago, the Stone House Inn has added three smokers that are used to bring BBQ to energy workers. “We cater to their offices, we cater to their field sites, we cater to well sites, we cater to wherever they need food — we show up,” he said.
The boost in business has propelled the Stone House Inn to new heights and has allowed Critchfield to chase his ambitious vision for the hotel and restaurant. This summer, the inn employed almost 60 people — double the employees it had when he first took over. He’s also been able to improve the establishment by remodeling its rooms, making repairs and purchasing new equipment. But he isn’t done yet. Next, he’s hoping to start brewing the Stone House Inn’s own beer, open satellite restaurants and cater to more places in Pennsylvania.
Critchfield has high hopes for the Stone House Inn, and he believes natural gas workers and the energy industry will continue to help his business and the region grow over the next couple of years en route to the institution’s 200th anniversary.
He says the energy business’s effect on the Stone House Inn and its neighbors cannot be overstated: “The impact the natural gas industry has had on this particular area, this region, this business and my family has been profound.”