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

When Philadelphia land speculator William Smith laid out the town of Huntingdon in 1767, it is possible that even then he saw its potential as a county seat. On the one hand, the idea seems preposterous: the area surrounding his prospective town was a wilderness accessi­ble only by a scanty network of undeveloped Indian paths. This unsettled part of Pennsyl­vania had been included in a vast purchase negotiated with the Six Indian Nations at the Albany Congress of 1754 and then disputed and fought over almost immediately.

A prolonged period of fierce Indian raids on isolated frontier settlers ensued, fueled first by the boundary dispute, then by the French, later by Pontiac’s War and, finally, by the British during the Ameri­can Revolution. Fort Shirley, near the present town of Shir­leysburg, was designated in 1755-56 as one of a cordon of forts built to protect the fron­tier, and it was reinforced during the next two troubled decades by a score of stock­ades or fortified houses to which the scattered settlers could flee for protection.

Understandably, settlement was sparse; a dozen or so warrants for land in present Huntingdon and Blair counties were issued in 1755, then none until 1762. Yet there were a few hardy (or foolhardy) pioneers willing to face danger, as well as privation, in order to claim first choice of the best agricul­tural lands. Smith had met them – he had been to the frontier himself as early as 1756 – and he shared their desire to stake an early claim to the best-situated lands. He owned five thousand acres by 1766, when he paid nearly four times his usual price to the Indian trader and interpreter George Croghan for the Stand­ing Stone tract, on which, during the following year, he engaged in founding his only town.

The 1754 purchase, vast even after its boundaries were pared in a 1758 settlement, had been annexed to Cumberland County, with its county seat at Carlisle. Certainly Smith rec­ognized that once settlement of the land began in earnest, residents could not be ex­pected to conduct their legal business at Carlisle, which was more than a hundred difficult miles from the most distant parts of the purchase. When the town of Bedford, ninety miles west of Carlisle, was platted in 1766, the time had come for Smith to act. Bedford would surely become a county seat, but the Standing Stone tract was ideally located­ – seventy-five miles north west of Carlisle and fifty-five miles northeast of Bedford – to be­come another center of courts and commerce if Smith could get a town underway before a rival candidate appeared.

That William Smith envi­sioned importance for the site was not without precedent. Even in this region where history was just beginning, from the white man’s point of view, the Standing Stone tract already had widespread recog­nition in the meagre written record. Situated at the junction of Standing Stone Creek and the Juniata River, a mile above the point where its third prin­cipal branch joined to form the Juniata proper, the tract took its name from a monolith erected by an Indian people whom seventeenth century documents labeled the At­taock, the Iottecas or the Ono­jutta. Represented at different times and in several languages by a great number of variant spellings, their name and the name of the river along which they lived meant erect or up­right stone. The Juniata Valley in its entirety owes its name to the ancient stone, which is appropriately commemorated by a monument in the town which Smith christened Hun­tingdon.

The importance of the Ju­niata River to the region’s prospects for development did not lie in its potential as a means of transportation. Al­though the Juniata was offi­cially declared a public high­way in 1771, the largest vessels to ply its waters, even at flood­-tide, were canoes and flat­-bottomed arks which made annual runs to the Susque­hanna River or the Chesa­peake Bay with the area’s excess flour and whiskey. Official declarations notwith­standing, the Juniata was unnavigable more often than not – too shallow and rocky normally, too dangerously fast in flood.

What the Juniata did, in­stead, was naturally engineer a passage through Pennsylva­nia’s “endless mountains,” which modern-day engineers have in the most difficult loca­tions been unable to improve upon. The river’s significance lies in its cutting of a roughly east-west course through the north-south mountain ranges of central Pennsylvania’s dis­tinctive ridge and valley for­mation, providing access to the Juniata Valley from the centers of earlier settlement in southeastern Pennsylvania.

The remotest sources of the Juniata’s headwaters spring from the eastern slopes of Pennsylvania’s “continental divide.” and almost immedi­ately are confronted by the parallel barriers of the north­-south ridges. The river follows an easy valley course between the ridges; then, gathering its strength, it lunges through another gap and rests again, one ridge and valley closer to its joining with the Susque­hanna. There is, in fact, no single Juniata Valley, but a series of valleys linked by the wandering river.

Pioneer explorers and set­tlers followed the Juniata’s hard-won path in reverse, grateful for passage through the mountains rather than over them, especially at the river’s most spectacular cuts: at the Long Narrows in Mifflin County, at Jack’s Narrows and at the Barree and Waterstreet gaps in Huntingdon County. The name “Waterstreet” is said to have arisen from the gap’s narrowness, which forced travelers into the river, hence becoming their water street.

Later, as succeeding at­tempts were made to link eastern and western Pennsyl­vania by improved transporta­tion, routes continued to shadow the Juniata: first, the Harrisburg to Pittsburgh turn­pike, completed in 1820 (which survives as U.S. Route 22); followed by the Pennsylvania Canal in 1832; and the main lines of the Pennsylvania Rail­road in 1850. Cramped to­gether in the narrow passages, defying the north-south mountains, the critical routes to eventually be located in the nation were these triple rib­bons of water, steel and mac­adam, all of which crossed the county’s narrow waist along the Juniata. Years after William Smith’s death, his choice of a site for his town was recon­firmed as all three major routes passed through Hun­tingdon and the county to which it gave its name.

The County of Huntingdon traces its beginnings to peti­tions signed in 1787 by twelve hundred residents of the northeast end of Bedford County, of which they had been a part since its formation in 1771. They bitterly complained of “having from fifty to eighty miles to travel to the Present seat of Justice the grateist party very bad road to a place whare they have no prospect of a trade or Market.” They asked the general assem­bly to support the division of Bedford County and the ap­pointment of a new seat of justice at Huntingdon “from its Convenient centril Situa­tion on the River Juniata and at the mouth of Several Large Valleys & Botable Waters.”

Objections were raised by a few Bedford County residents, who pointed out the unfin­ished public buildings at Bed­ford and the reluctance of the distant petitioners to discharge their tax obligations toward that purpose. They argued that the county was not yet sufficiently settled to support the expense of additional – and unnecessary – seats of govern­ment. But their argument was effectively countered by sixty­-one residents of the town of Huntingdon who personally pledged enough money to build a courthouse and jail in the proposed county seat.

The Huntingdon residents – who candidly ac­knowledged the benefit of living in the county seat – were joined by town proprietor William Smith, who guaran­teed to pay one year’s ground rent of one dollar for each of the two hundred and fourteen lots already parceled. He agreed, as well, to rearrange his town plan in order to ac­commodate the courthouse in the middle of Smith (renamed Third) Street, on the site now marked by the Standing Stone monument.

The assembly was con­vinced, and the new county was established on September 10, 1787, taking its name from the twenty-year-old town which boasted fifty-four houses, and described by its citizens as “one of the most flourishing places of Trade on the Western Waters.” That trade was based not so much on town residents serving each other, but on their serving as the only suppliers available to travelers and rapidly burgeon­ing permanent settlements throughout the immense wil­derness, in which Huntingdon was the only sizable settle­ment.

Many early settlers were drawn by the discovery of iron ore deposits near the present town of Orbisonia in south­eastern Huntingdon County. The establishment of Bedford Furnace at Orbisonia in 1785 (before the division of Bedford County) marked the beginning of an industry which became a vital force in the Juniata Valley. Subsequent development at several remote locations, served only by primitive transportation, encouraged the eager ironmasters and capital­ists of southeastern Pennsylva­nia to expand the frontier. They were busily investigating ore deposits where land was affordable, despite the formi­dable difficulty of transporting their product to market.

Three Huntingdon County iron sites were being devel­oped, in addition to Bedford Furnace, before 1800: Dorsey’s Forge on the Little Juniata at Barree was working iron from Centre Furnace in what would soon be Centre County; Knob­laugh’s Bloomery was in oper­ation in Todd Township, near where Trough Creek empties into the Raystown Branch; and in Franklin Township, the county’s second furnace had been erected and named Hun­tingdon to recognize the change which had occurred since Bedford Furnace’s found­ing.

The high quality of Juniata charcoal iron created a ready market for the output of an increasing number of forges and furnaces erected near the resources required in iron manufacture – iron ore; timber to make the charcoal used to fire the furnaces and forges; and limestone, used as a flux in the smelting process. All were abundant in Huntingdon County, and new iron sites continued to be developed to the industry’s peak in the 1840s. Harris’s Pittsburgh Direc­tory for 1837 listed sixteen furnaces, twenty-four forges, and one rolling mill in the county (which included most of present Blair County until 1846), and reported several more under construction. The report was confirmed by the 1840 census, which counted twenty Huntingdon County furnaces and twenty-seven bloomeries, forges, and rolling mills. At this peak in the in­dustry’s prominence, Hun­tingdon County ranked first in Pennsylvania for the number of men employed in iron man­ufacture, first in the produc­tion of cast iron, and second in the processing of bar iron.

But iron-making was capi­tal, labor and resource inten­sive, and extremely vulnerable in the nineteenth century’s undulating waves of boom and bust. Newspapers reported frequently on which furnaces were in and out of blast and which were offered for sale, often at the sheriff’s behest.

By 1850, the high point was past, although the county’s largest and most efficient oper­ations, including Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, Greenwood and Rockhill furnaces, survived another half-century. The arrival of rail transportation in 1850, which would seem to have been a great boon to the iron industry, provided, instead, to be a factor in the demise of Juniata iron in favor of richer western ore deposits and the development of mam­moth processing centers such as Pittsburgh.

The iron industry indelibly hallmarked the county’s heri­tage through a fortunate coin­cidence. Because the huge iron furnace baronies were failing just as interest in state parks and forests was being born in the early twentieth century, thousands of acres of iron company land, much of it denuded of its forest cover, were acquired by the Com­monwealth for reforestation and recreation. More than seventy thousand acres of Rothrock State Forest, much of it in Huntingdon County, was purchased between 1902 and 1930, and additional land was acquired for the state parks system, including Greenwood Furnace, Trough Creek (Old Forge and Paradise Furnace), Coleraine Forge and Licking Creek (Edward Furnace). Iron­ically, these sites of such in­tense labor and industry are now the idyllic playgrounds of campers, swimmers and pic­nickers, enjoying their leisure while playing their part in what the twentieth century analysts term the tourist “in­dustry,” an industry in which Huntingdon County sees potential for stabilizing its economic future.

Paramount in promoting the county’s lucrative tourism is the huge recreation area created by a high-level U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam on the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River. Expectations are just as high that the long-term effect will be to attract more than just visitors and vacationers; that those who come briefly will return to stay, and that by adding a new dimen­sion to Huntingdon County’s traditional outdoor attractions, the dam will even make the area more inviting to potential industrial firms.

And Huntingdon County’s heritage runs deep.

Agriculture and iron fueled Huntingdon County’s econ­omy during its first century. Farming, like iron, experienced a golden age from about 1825 to 1850, which is recalled by the large farmhouses and related buildings that testify, through their period architec­tural styles, to the prosperity county farmers enjoyed during the first half of the nineteenth century. With the opening of the West and improvements in transportation systems, local grain farmers, much like their counterparts in the iron indus­try, faced new large-scale com­petition. The farmers who were able to adapt to the changing market, survived and often flourished. Today, milk is the typical Huntingdon County farmer’s cash crop, although a variety of other specialties are marketed as well.

Pride in their crops and livestock has brought the area’s farmers together for more than a century and a quarter to compete for prizes recognizing their excellence. The Huntingdon County Fair traces its origins to the mid-1850s, but newspaper accounts as early as the 1830s suggest the event may be even older than it claims.

A long list of mineral indus­tries in which Huntingdon countians have been employed begins, after iron, with coal, deposits of which were identi­fied early in the nineteenth century on Broad Top Moun­tain, which runs near the Huntingdon-Bedford county line. In 1836, the first Pennsyl­vania Geologic Survey greatly expanded knowledge of the Broad Top coal seams and generated interest in mining the abundant coal found in this unique deposit.

Construction of the Hun­tingdon and Broad Top Moun­tain Railroad, which passed through Woodcock Valley to join the coal fields with the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad at Huntingdon, was completed and the first coal hauled out in 1856. Separate efforts were made to link mines on the eastern side of the mountain with the Pennsylvania Railroad at Mount Union, but the proposition languished, despite charters issued in 1848 and 1856. Con­struction finally began in 1872, and the narrow gauge East Broad Top Railroad dramati­cally affected the towns it served between Mount Union and the southern terminus at Robertsdale.

The twin boroughs of Orbi­sonia and Rockhill, in which the East Broad Top Railroad located its engine houses and maintenance operations, sus­tained a particularly long per­iod of growth associated with the railroad and the Rockhill Coal and Iron Company. The home of the county’s first industrial enterprise enjoyed a second taste of the Industrial Revolution. Now, much like the iron furnace sites con­verted to state parks, the East Broad Top Railroad has be­come a destination for visitors.

At the East Broad Top Rail­road’s junction with the Penn­sylvania Railroad, Huntingdon County’s second largest center, Mount Union, is a town liter­ally built by bricks. During its early years, Mount Union experienced modest growth with gristmills, canal ware­houses and other small indus­tries prospering from their position on the canal and the railroad. The boom began when three large-scale refractory brick plants were con­structed in less than two decades following 1898. In short order, Mount Union claimed to be the world’s larg­est manufacturer of silica brick, made from the ganister rock mined on nearby Jack’s Mountain. The brickyards attracted hundreds of workers to Mount Union, some through recruitment programs in the South, so that the town’s population more than quadrupled between 1900 and 1920.

A huge Etna Explosive Company plant, built just across the river from Mount Union in Mifflin County in 1915, drew many Mount Union residents to its work force, but the company’s life span was short, ending with the close of World War I. Brick plant opera­tions were much longer lived, but demand began declining in the 1950s, bringing about the closing of General Refrac­tories in 1956. Harbison­-Walker ceased operation in 1986, and North American’s production continues on a small scale, leaving Mount Union’s economy severely tested. At Mapleton and Mill Creek, quarries in Jack’s Mountain are being mined for high-grade glass sand, another of the county’s mineral indus­tries which can be traced to nineteenth century origins The quarrying of limestone, which supplied flux for local iron furnaces and burned lime for agricultural use, helped develop large operations at Pemberton, McConnellstown and Shade Gap, producing crushed aggregate for con­struction and road-building.

Various types of clay de­posits have been exploited over the years. Unusually pure fire clay on Warrior Ridge near Alexandria and Petersburg was mined for a century and proc­essed for refractory mortar. Building bricks, using availa­ble local clays, were fired on­site for most of the area’s brick buildings constructed before 1850. In the late nineteenth century, commercial brick factories at Petersburg and Huntingdon supplied builders and industries. Other local clays, suitable for the manu­facture of earthenware and stoneware, were utilized by potteries at Cassville, Shirleys­burg, Petersburg and Hun­tingdon. Surviving examples of their work, particularly decorated stoneware, are highly prized by antiques collectors today.

As generous as nature has been in providing Huntingdon countians with various gifts of the land, the constantly shift­ing demands and rewards of the marketplace have forced the area to greatly reduce its reliance on mining and mineral-based industries to support the local economy. Sand and limestone are being actively quarried today, and coal mining companies are attempting a renaissance with modern cranes performing the work that formerly engaged hundreds of miners. Unem­ployment is a haunting spectre throughout central Pennsylva­nia and industrial develop­ment organizations in Hun­tingdon County have recently consolidated in hopes of deal­ing more effectively with the creation of jobs county-wide.

The success of a similar organization – the Huntingdon Board of Trade – a century ago might inspire them, for al­though the group focused its efforts on the borough, the long-term effect of its activities has benefited the whole area. The group was organized in a prosperous period of sustained expansion following the Civil War. More than fifty new com­mercial buildings transformed Huntingdon’s downtown streets, while hundreds of residences sprang up in the west end. A new kind of man­ufacturing boom had ex­ploded, not dependent on local materials or customers, but on rail transport to and from distant markets.

In 1877, in the midst of this whirl, the trustees of the Brethren Normal School, founded the previous year, asked the town to provide them with a site for expansion in west Huntingdon. When inaction threatened to cause the school to leave town, a meeting was called which saw the Board of Trade organized and the desired site granted for the new college building. Five years later, the board scored a triumph in securing the state’s proposed Middle Penitentiary for Huntingdon­ – actually for a site in Smith­field, outside the borough limits. These successes of the Board of Trade continue more than a century later to expand the area’s economy beyond the dreams of its early promoters. Recent efforts by the modern counterpart of the board have supported a project attempting to double the size of the prison and its work force, which is drawn from a wide area.

Juniata College, as the normal school has been called since 1894, has contributed significantly to town and county life through the years by offering residents educa­tional opportunities they would not otherwise have and by sharing its campus and cultural events with the public. The nineteenth century acade­mies, scattered throughout the county at Huntingdon, Shir­leysburg, Alexandria, Shade Gap, Cassville, McAlevy’s Fort and Birmingham, raised the level of education available in public schools of the day and expanded the abilities and expectations of local citizens.

Contributing to community welfare in enduring fashion, too, was an industrial giant of the same period which brought the college and the prison to Huntingdon. J.C. Blair, hailed by the manufac­turing stationers’ trade associa­tion as the inventor of the tablet, was a phenomenally successful businessman who freely shared the profits of his company with employees and fellow town residents. He built a complex of distinguished buildings, paved streets, and with his wife gave a play­ground and park. After his death, Kate Blair gave their finest legacy by building and endowing a hospital in his memory. Blair’s company, now a division of the Mead Corpo­ration, broadened the county’s economic base in 1965 by building a modernized plant in Alexandria, which has un­dergone several recent expan­sions. Similarly, Owens Corn­ing Fiberglas, Huntingdon County’s largest employer, attracted to Huntingdon in 1943 by the availability of a defunct silk mill building, has recently acquired a vacant building near Mount Union for its tank fabrication depart­ment, bolstering the economy of a wider area.

No brief account of how Huntingdon countians have earned their living through the years, the uses they have made of the land and the ad­vances they have seen in trans­portation can give more than a glimpse of the people and the place. The character of the county’s people, insofar as it can be read from the evidence of their history, has always included a large helping of self-sufficiency and conserva­tism. The houses they have built through the years, for example, reveal their over­whelmingly conservative taste, whether rich or poor, in every period and locale. Allied to that conservative streak, one finds the quintessential countian a bit resistant to change, reserved with strangers, care­ful with his money, protective of what is his, and convinced that where Huntingdon County is the best place to be.

Looked at critically, it is provincialism. More sympa­thetically viewed, it is loyalty to one’s place, one’s past and one’s immediate family and neighbors. Huntingdon coun­tians cherish that quality. Their pioneer forebears would un­derstand. Such traits are un­consciously formed, in part by the land itself which throws up barriers everywhere and isolates one valley from an­other. The difficult geography of the place selects and holds certain kinds of people and subtly molds their resilient character to reflect its own.


Further Reading

Africa, J. Simpson. History of Huntingdon and Blair Coun­ties. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippin­cott Co, 1883.

Jones, U. J. History of the Early Settlement of the Juniata Val­ley. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1940.

Rung, Albert M. Rung’s Chroni­cles of Pennsylvania History. Huntingdon: Huntingdon County Historical Society, 1984.


Nancy S. Shedd is president of the Huntingdon County Historical Society, and directed its county­wide survey of historic sites in 1979-80. She has written An Architectural Study of the Ancient Borough of Hun­tingdon and edited a number of publications on county history. Presently, she is at work on a bicentennial history of the coun­ty’s second century, to be released in 1987.