Blair County: Center of Transportation

County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

Blair County was among the last counties created by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. One factor which delayed the establishment of an additional county in the southern portion of central Pennsylvania was geography. The rugged, eastern slopes of the Appalachian Mountains, in which Blair County was eventually located, diverted settlers to other areas. Only after the discovery of iron ore deposits in the Juniata Valley and the commence­ment of statewide internal improvements did Pennsyl­vanians view the central region with interest. Individuals moved into the area in order to take advantage of the new economic opportunities, and the increased population pro­vided the political base for a new county. In 1846 the General Assembly created Blair from portions of Hunting­don and Bedford counties, and the county seat was located at Hollidaysburg.

The area designated as Blair County was of little signifi­cance in Pennsylvania history before the early nineteenth century. No major Indian settlement existed in the region, but the small Delaware village of Assunnepachla was lo­cated near the present-day site of Frankstown. Not far from Assunnepachla, several Indian paths, including the Kittanning, Frankstown and Bald Eagle, converged along the Juniata River. Pennsylvania traders and squatters followed these paths into the Indians’ hunting grounds and, as early as 1733, Indians lodged complaints over en­croachments on their land. Nevertheless, by 1748 Frank Stevens had established a trading post at Assunnepachla and pioneers continued to settle on the land. In 1750, the year after Celoron de Blainville’s mission to reassert the French claim to western Pennsylvania, Secretary of the Land Office Richard Peters dispatched a contingent to expel the squatters from the Juniata Valley. Peters’ action, as well as the Assembly’s gifts to the Indians, was a desper­ate attempt to maintain Indian fidelity in the face of in­creased French activity.

Indians who travelled the paths of central Pennsylvania in 1754 carried disturbing news of developments to the west and north. The confrontation between the English and French in western Pennsylvania had escalated to a military conflict, and the English had met with the Iroquois at Albany to prepare their defense against the French. Penn­sylvania delegates at Albany seized the opportunity to purchase additional land from the Iroquois. Through the Albany Purchase of 1754, which included virtually all of Pennsylvania west of the Susquehanna River, the Iroquois sold the hunting grounds of the Delawares, Shawnees and Senecas. The deed included the present boundaries of Blair County and, in 1755, the first patents were filed for land now encompassed by the county.

Deprived of their lands, the Delawares and Shawnees joined the French against the British in the French and Indian War. Wa:r parties roamed the frontier and terrorized settlers who abandoned their rude cabins for the security of the East. Lt. Col. John Armstrong was authorized by Governor Robert Morris in 1756 to organize a retaliatory expedition against the Indians. Armstrong selected Kittan­ning as his target because this village along the Allegheny River was the base for many frontier raids. From the North Branch of the Juniata River near Frankstown, Armstrong’s men began the last leg of their march to Kittanning. The Indians suffered a severe defeat, 31ld within a year they were prepared to trade the tomahawk for the peace pipe.

Between the end of the French and Indian War and the beginning of the War for Independence, approximately one hundred families settled in the area. These pioneers of Scottish, Gem1an, English and Irish descent constituted the first major groups to erect permanent settlements in what is now Blair County. Their long-term efforts were disrupted, however, by the War for Independence.

The military conflict between England and her American colonies sparked renewed hostilities between Indians and Pennsylvania frontiersmen. While some settlers abandoned their homesteads, others resolved to defend their homes against Britain’s Indian allies. Several private fort or blockhouses, such a Fort Fetter, Fort Holliday, Fort Lowrey and Fort Roller, were built to protect local residents in times of attack. The most substantial of these forts was Fort Roberdeau which was erected in 1778 under the direction of General Daniel Roberdeau. Roberdeau, who served a a member of Congress, hoped to exploit the lead deposits in Sinking Valley for the Continental Army. In 1778 Roberdeau secured a leave of absence from Congress to work the lead mines and to construct a fort for the pro­tection of his workmen and the settlers. Although the amount of lead secured for public service was of little significance, the fort and garrison offered encouragement to the settlers. The Battle of Frankstown, which occurred in 1781 near the present site of Altoona, marked the last Indian attack within the current boundaries of Blair County.

After the War for Independence, new settlers moved into central Pennsylvania, and the population of farmer and traders in the western portion of Huntingdon County, created in 1787, slowly increased. The towns of Newry, Hollidayburg and Williamsburg were surveyed in the 1790s, but the predominantly agricultural economy limited their development. Attempts to develop educational facilities came early as Jacob Ake, founder of Williamsburg, used his personal resources to establish the first free school in the area.

Several building or historical interest were constructed during this period. The Burns House, a log home built in 1776, is perhaps the oldest remaining dwelling in the area. Although it was later covered with siding, another log structure, the Patrick Cassidy House in Newry, has been restored to its original appearance. Two stone buildings, the Lowry and the Blair homesteads, were built in 1785. The latter, a few miles east of Hollidaysburg, was built by Thomas Blair, the father of John Blair for whom Blair County was named.

The religious experiences of the residents were enhanced by circuit-riding ministers of the Presbyterian, Lutheran and Reformed denominations. Roman Catholics received the sacraments and guidance from Father Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin, the most celebrated or the early mis­sionaries. Prince Gallitzin emigrated from Russia to Baltimore where he prepared for the priesthood. Ordained in 1795, Father Gallitzin began his frontier mission to central Pennsylvania in 1799 and established a Catholic settlement at Loretto, Cambria County.

Beginning in the early nineteenth century, central Pennsylvania was linked to the general economic development of the state through the iron industry. Domestic manu­facture in the Commonwealth increased following the Embargo of 1807 and Pittsburgh emerged as a major manu­facturing center which required a steady supply of iron. The Juniata Valley held ample reserve of iron ore, limestone and timber, three essential ingredient for iron pro­duction. Numerous streams which wound through the mountain slopes provided adequate water power to work the bellows at the iron furnace and the trip-hammers in the forges.

Most of the twenty iron furnaces and twelve forges that were located within what is now Blair County were con­structed between 1807 and 1850. The firm of Canan, Stewart and Moore built the first iron furnace, the Etna, which went into operation in 1809 near Yellow Springs. Etna Furnace passed through numerous owners who de­veloped the facilities into an impressive iron plantation, including mansion house, forge, blacksmith shop, store and workers’ quarters. Iron production at Etna Furnace ceased in 1870, but several plantation buildings are still occupied.

In 1811, two Huntingdon entrepreneurs built the Allegheny Furnace, located within the present limit of Altoona. Roland Diller of Lancaster and ironmaster Elias Baker purchased the furnace in 1836, and eight years later Baker purchased Diller’s share in the venture. The prosperity of the ironmaster was revealed in Elias Baker’s home located on the hill above Allegheny Furnace. Ruben Carey Long, Jr., built Baker’s classic Greek Revival mansion of limestone in 1846 with porticoes on both the front and back. Today the Baker Mansion serves as headquarters for the Blair County Historical Society.

An important innovation in the iron industry was made by Martin Bell at his Elizabeth Furnace located at Pine­croft. In 1836 Bell developed a hot-blast process by channel­ing hot, escaping gases to the bottom of the furnace to provide the blast. Elizabeth Furnace remained operational until 1884, and the furnace stack still stands today.

Until the 1830s virtually all of the iron was carried to Pittsburgh. The importance of the iron from the Juniata Valley prompted Pittsburghers to support the construction of the Northern Turnpike from the Iron City to the Sus­quehanna River via Ebensburg, Hollidaysburg and Hunting­don after the War of 1812. With the later improvements in Pennsylvania’s transportation system, it became economically feasible to sell Juniata iron in eastern centers such us Harrisburg, Coatesville and Philadelphia. In 1850, when ironmasters were switching from charcoal to coke for fuel, the iron production in Blair County was valued at almost $1.5 million. Although new furnaces were erected as late as the 1870s, the discovery of new ore deposits in the West and the growth of the use of steel as an alternative building material had already begun to make an impact. By 1885 all of the iron furnaces in Blair County stood closed and cold.

Construction of the Northern Turnpike was one mani­festation of an internal-improvements craze which swept Pennsylvania in the decades following the War of 1812. In 1824 a group of Philadelphians championed construction of a Pennsylvania canal to compete with the Erie Canal and National Road for western trade. Commissioners who were appointed by the legislature to explore possible routes for a canal favored construction along the Susquehanna, Juniata, Conemaugh and Allegheny rivers. Following autho­rization by the legislature, Governor J. Andrew Shulze broke ground for the Pennsylvania Main Line of Public Works on July 4, 1826.

Huntingdon County and Blair County (after 1846) benefited from the Public Works. Through the efforts of John Blair, the western terminus or the Juniata Division was located at Hollidaysburg after Jacob Wertz refused to sell his farm near Frankstown for the project. By 1830 the Juniata Division was completed as for as Huntingdon and in June 1831 contracts were awarded for construction to Hollidaysburg. In November 1832 the packet John Blair made the first voyage over the Huntingdon-Hollidaysburg section, but regular commerce was delayed by the need to correct the shoddy construction. The Juniata Division ended with a canal basin at Hollidaysburg where the jour­ney over the mountains began.

The Allegheny Portage Railroad was constructed to conquer the mountain barrier in order to join the Juniata Division with the Western Division to Pittsburgh. The portage railroad consisted or ten inclined planes, five on each side of the mountain, which were connected by relatively level rail sections. Stationary steam engines raised cars and canal boats over the inclined planes and mules and locomotives pulled the cars along the level sections. Engi­neered by Moncure Robinson, the Allegheny Portage Rail­road was opened to regular traffic: in 1834 and was double­-tracked in 1835.

Blair County, and Hollidaysburg in particular, prospered with the rush of activity generated by the Public Works. From approximately 70 residents in 1830, the population of Hollidaysburg grew to 1,896 in 1840 and to 2,430 by 1850. During the thirty-six weeks that the canal remained open each year, there were days when 100 passengers arrived at Hollidaysburg seeking rest and refreshment. Henry Clay, Louis Kossuth, Charles Dickens and Jenny Lind were among the nineteenth-century notables who crossed the county on the Public Works.

While passengers provided glamor and excitement, freight generated more revenue. Workmen strained to trans­fer from canal boat to rail car the 330,000 tons of mer­chandise and produce which arrived annually at Hollidays­burg. Privately owned wharves lined the basin where local iron products and agricultural produce were loaded and where goods, especially from the East, were unloaded for warehousing. Indeed, westbound freight exceeded east­bound shipments by 70.000 tons a year creating a serious bottleneck. Although never eliminated, the congestion and delay al the basin were reduced by the creation of the sectional canal boat patented to John Dougherty of Holli­daysburg in 1843. These boats consisted of as many as four coupled sections which were separated and placed on trucks for carriage over the portage railroad.

In terms of toll receipts, the peak year for the Public Works was 1852 with traffic decreasing rapidly in subse­quent years. In 1872, when locks and bridges were already being dismantled, the last boat, the Wm. A. Fluke, departed Hollidaysburg and left the canal era in its wake.

Two decades before a mule pulled the Wm. A. Fluke from Hollidaysburg, the iron horse was challenging the packet boats. In 1846 the legislature chartered the Pennsyl­vania Railroad which immediately began laying rails be­tween Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. By 1850 the line was completed from the state capital to Hollidaysburg, and two years later Pittsburgh and Johnstown were connected to the system. Some individuals hoped that the canals and railroads would function side-by-side in a complementary fashion, but the decline in canal traffic after 1852 belied their expectations. The railroad offered faster and more dependable transportation which proved more attractive than the plodding seasonal pace of the canals.

The Pennsylvania Railroad caused a shift in the center or the transportation industry in Blair County. Railroad officials recognized that the Allegheny Portage Railroad. even with its eleventh-hour improvements, was inadequate for railroad traffic. Furthermore, moving trains over the mountain grades would require a reserve of motive power and facilities for maintaining locomotives. In 1849 the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased a farm at the present site of Altoona for its shop facilities. Construction of a round­house, shops and offices began in the following year.

With the locomotive facilities underway, J. Edgar Thompson and his engineers began the search for a moun­tain route to replace the portage railroad. They encountered little difficulty until their surveys stopped five miles west of Altoona at a mountainside with two deep ravines on either side. In order to maintain an acceptable grade. Thompson laid tracks along the ridge of the first ravine, filled the ravine, and curved the right-of-way over the fill. Next, the edge of the mountain was chopped off to track level, and the second ravine was filled. The rail road was built over the second fill to a ridge along a second mountain to the west. This engineering marvel, the Horseshoe Curve, was completed in 1854 and permitted a continuous rail route to Pittsburgh.

Railroads played a crucial role in the Civil War and Altoona developed rapidly with the wartime demand to move men and supplies. Local businessmen secured a charter for a national bank which helped to finance the war and iron­masters increased production to supply Juniata iron for ordnance. An attempt to muster political support for the Union cause also occurred at Altoona with the War Gover­nors’ Conference. Before the 1862 congressional elections, when President Abraham Lincoln was under attack for his conduct of the war. Governor Andrew G. Curtin invited the Union governors to meet at Altoona. The details of the meeting remain obscure, but Curtin probably hoped to allay the more critical governors. The fortunes of war, however, reduced the importance of the conference. General George B. McClellan’s stand at Antietam and Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation during the week preceding the War Governors’ Conference helped to satisfy those who were disenchanted with the administration. When the governors met at Altoona on September 24, they endorsed Lincoln’s measures.

The meeting place for the War Governors’ Conference was the Logan House. Named for Chief Logan who be­friended settlers after the War for Independence, the hotel was constructed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1854 to provide accommodations for travelers. Described by one wag as “about the size of Rhode Island,” the Logan House contained over one hundred, gas-lit rooms, three parlors and a dining room which seated four hundred guests. Over the years, the Logan House served as the center for fashion­able social and civic activities. The Pennsylvania Railroad sold the hotel in 1930,and the building was razed in 1931 to make way for a new post office.

During the decades following the Civil War, the division headquarters of the Pennsylvania Railroad at Altoona de­veloped into a major railroad center. The construction of locomotives on a regular basis started in 1868 and car shops were built in 1869. From the beginning, under Alexander J. Cassatt as Master of Machinery, the Pennsylvania Railroad stressed economy and efficiency through standardization and the use of interchangeable parts whenever possible. Before the close of the century the additional burden of locomotive repairs had so taxed the Altoona facilities that a new construction plant was located in Juniata (now part of Altoona) in 1889. In addition to the expansion of the shops, yard construction and rail traffic increased.

The town of Altoona, which was chartered in 1868, grew with the railroad. From 2,500 residents in 1854, the population increased to 10,610 in 1870 and to 30,260 in 1890. New businesses, houses and churches were crowded onto the land adjacent to the railroad and by the early 1880s a sewer system, municipal gas works, volunteer fire company and street railway provided some of the necessary services. Taverns, opera houses, athletic fields and the Logan House provided entertainment opportunities. Inter-urban trolley lines were completed to Hollidaysburg and Tyrone in the 1890s and offered local transportation to the railroad shops, businesses and an amusement park.

Other communities in Blair County also benefited from the railroad industry. Bellwood and Tyrone became connection points with the Bells Gap Railroad and Bald Eagle Valley Railroad, respectively. Small towns, such as Williamsburg, Ore Hill and Martinsburg, gained access to distant commercial centers through branch lines of the Pennsyl­vania Railroad. From spur tracks in Blair County, locomo­tives pulled carloads of iron products, lumber. woolens, paper, coal and agricultural products for delivery through­out Pennsylvania and beyond.

In the twentieth century, the sprawling railroad com­plex at Altoona continued to expand. As the demand for new equipment and repairs increased, additional facilities, including the South Altoona Foundries (1900), a full­-circle roundhouse at East Altoona (1904) and the Erecting and Machine Shop at Juniata (1924) were constructed. Periods of peak performance occurred from 1925 to 1928 and again from 1943 to 1946. Engineers and skilled work­ers developed new types of passenger and freight locomo­tives designed for use on different parts of the extensive railroad network. Virtually all locomotives displayed the square-topped Belpaire fireboxes and clean, neat lines which were characteristic of motive power on the Penn­sylvania Railroad. Workmen at the car shops built and repaired rolling stock for both passenger and freight ser­vice. Increased traffic, including fifty-two daily passenger trains between 1925 and 1935, led to the expansion of the yards and locomotive facilities. During World War II over 13,000 persons were employed at the Altoona Works which covered almost 225 acres with 125 buildings con­nected by 48 miles of track. At the same time, the yards included almost 210 miles of track, and the East Altoona engine terminal serviced 260 locomotives ead1 day.

From the turn of the century until the Great Depression, Altoona experienced its golden age. Civic, social and religious organizations multiplied and new schools were constructed in various parts of the city. Leading road shows and entertainers that travelled through Altoona by rail played the Mishler Theater which opened in 1906. A free library, the Art Institute, Altoona Symphony Orchestra and Little Theatre were founded during the 1920s. In the same decade, the Pennsylvania Railroad System Championships in various sports were held at Altoona. In the good years, the Pennsylvania Railroad adopted a paternalistic policy. It built Cricket Field for sporting events, provided portable buildings when the schools were overflowing and donated over 65,000 volumes from its Mechanics Reading Room to the free library. But in developing a single-industry town and discouraging the establishment of other industries, it made adjustments difficult for the residents when economic and technological changes rendered the Altoona Works obsolescent.

The introduction of diesel motive power and the con­struction of highways after World War II were the bane of Altoona as a railroad center. The last steam locomotive was built in 1946. and during the 1950s workmen were kept busy cutting steam locomotives into scrap. The Juniata Shops were converted to diesel repair facilities while the car shops and other buildings were abandoned. New industries moved into a few buildings, but most structures were razed. The passenger station was leveled in 1972 to make way for urban redevelopment and was replaced by a modified mobile home for use by Amtrak passengers.

The future of Blair County remains tied to transporta­tion. Freight cars are repaired and constructed at the modern Samuel Rea Shops in Hollidaysburg, and a major classification yard was recently completed at the county seat. Conrail maintains repair shops and plans to develop a training center for its employees al Altoona. Although the golden age or Blair County as a transportation center of national or statewide importance may be in the past, the Conrail shops at Hollidaysburg and Altoona continue to be the major source or industrial employment.

No longer, however, can the county rely solely on the railroad to provide the cornerstone of its economy and to guarantee its success as it had done in the past. As a result, attempts are being made to diversify the county’s economic base by attracting new business to the area. Although trans­portation will continue to play an important role, Blair County must travel a new road toward the future.


Dr. Robert M. Blackson is an Assistant Professor of History at the Altoona Campus of the Pennsylvania State University.