Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Jefferson County.

Its hallmarks are as disparate as Thomas Jef­ferson and Punxsutawney Phil. Village names as dissimilar as Panic and Desire. Inhabitants as distinctive as Indian chief Cornplanter and Moravian missionary John Heckewelder. And a tranquil­ity which masks the turbu­lence of the nineteenth century’s lumber boom that spawned settlement and nu­merous ancillary industries.

Endowed with splendid scenery and picturesque land­scapes, Jefferson County was once home to hundreds of important industries, includ­ing sawmills, coal mining operations, navigation com­panies, railroading interests and a glass bottle manufac­turer. Its sweeping, serene wilderness camouflages not only this lost industrial activ­ity, but the countless wild animals that once stalked its great, green forests.

Named for the nation’s third president, Thomas Jeffer­son, whose two terms spanned from 1801 to 1809, the county was created on March 26, 1804, through an act signed by Thomas McKean, Pennsyl­vania governor from 1799 to 1808. The county, originally carved from Lycoming County, was reduced in 1843 when its northeastern section was ap­portioned for the creation of Elk County. Five years later the territory north of the Clarion River was taken for the estab­lishment of Forest County.

Jefferson County’s earliest inhabitants were the Native Americans; the Iroquois had a lodge near present-day Punx­sutawney, a name derived from an Indian word for “gnat town.” According to historical accounts, the Indians told John Heckewelder, the Mora­vian missionary, that an an­cient magician, a hermit no less, lived on a rock at the site of Punxsutawney. The Indians believed that he would appear in various forms and guises to frighten or kill travelers or trespassers. The old magician was finally slain by an Indian chief, who burned his bones to ashes and threw them into the wind. These scattered ashes turned into sand flies, or “punkies” which continue to annoy trout fishermen. In 1772, Moravian leader John Ettwein and a group of fol­lowers traveling an early trail from Shamokin to Kittanning through Punxsutawney, re­counted the nuisance of the insects. “In the swamp, through which we were now passing, their name is legion, and hence the Indians call it Ponksutenik, i.e., ‘the town of the Ponkis.'”

Cornplanter, the most fa­mous of the Indians, whose friendship with both settlers and government officials was nothing less than remarkable, was a principal in the treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784. Through this treaty, northwestern Pennsylvania – with the excep­tion of a small reservation for Cornplanter – was ceded to the Commonwealth of Pennsylva­nia.

Upon emerging from the Revolutionary War as a princi­pal war chief of the Senecas; he became a spokesman for his fellow Indians. After the treaty of peace between Great Britain and the United States, Corn­planter learned that the British – despite their promises – had neglected the interests of their Indian allies and, in effect, had abandoned them to the former colonists. Not much later, he allied his Indian nation with the fledg­ling new government.

Shortly before his death in 1836 at the Cornplanter Tract in Warren County, a writer visited the chieftain, recording his impression for posterity.

I once saw the aged and vener­able chief, and had an interesting interview with him about a year and half before his death. I thought of many things when seated near him, beneath the wide-spreading shade of an old sycamore on the banks of the Allegheny, many things to ask him, the scenes of the Revolution, the generals that fought its battles and conquered, the Indians, his tribe, the Six Nations, and him­self He was never observed to smile, much less to indulge in the luxury of a laugh. When I saw him he estimated his age to be over one hundred; l think one hundred and three was about his reckoning of it. This would make him near one hundred and five years old at the time of his de­cease. His person was stooped, and his stature was far short of what it had once been, not being over five feet, six inches at the time I speak of. Mr. John Struthers, of Ohio, told me, some years since, that he had seen him nearly fifty years ago, and at that period he was at his height, six feet, one inch. Time and hardship had made dreadful impressions upon that ancient form. The chest was sunken and his shoulders were drawn forward, making the upper part of his body resemble a trough. His limbs had lost size and become crooked. His feet (for he had taken off his moccasins) were deformed and haggard by injury. I would say that most of the fingers on one hand were useless; the sinews had been severed by the blow of a tomahawk or scalping knife. How I longed to ask him what scene of blood and strife had thus stamped the endur­ing evidence of its existence upon his person! But to have done so would, in all probability, have put an end to all further conversation on any subject. The information desired would not have been received, and I had to forego my curiosity. He had but one eye, and even the socket of the lost organ was hid by the overhanging brow resting upon the high cheekbone. His remaining eye was of the brightest and blackest hue. Never have I seen one, in young or old, that equalled it in brilliancy. Perhaps it had borrowed lustre from the eternal darkness that rested on its neighboring orbit. His ears had been dressed in the Indian mode, all but the outside ring had been cut away. On the one ear this ring had been tom asunder near the top, and hung dawn his neck like a useless rag. He had a full head of hair, white as the driven snow, which covered a head of ample dimensions and admirable shape. His face was not swarthy, but this may be ac­counted for from the fact, also, that he was but half Indian ….

As he stood before me, the ancient chief in ruins, how forc­ibly was I struck with the truth of that beautiful figure of the old aboriginal chieftain, who, in de­scribing himself, said he was ‘like an aged hemlock, dead at the top, and whose branches along were green!’ After more than one hundred years of most-varied life, of strife, of danger, of peace, he at last slumbers in deep repose on the banks of his own beloved Allegheny.

Among the earliest settlers were veterans of the American Revolution who claimed lands in what was then a vast, al­most impenetrable frontier wilderness. Long lauded as “the patriarch of Jefferson County,” Joseph Barnett, a veteran, recognized immedi­ately the potential for a saw­mill in the region’s immense and densely wooded forests. In 1795, Barnett, along with his brother, Andrew, and brother­-in-law, Samuel Scott, chose several hundred acres on which to establish a logging operation. The three labored furiously until the mill was ready to raise, for which they enlisted the help of nine Sene­cas of the Cornplanter tribe in exchange for food and provisions. While Joseph Barnett returned to Lycoming County to arrange for the relocation of his family to the area which would, in less than a decade, formally become Jefferson County, Andrew died sud­denly. Discouraged and daunted, Barnett nearly aban­doned his fledgling enterprise, but eventually returned in 1797. His settlement exists today as Port Barnett.

Upon their move to the remote wilderness, the entire Barnett family worked ardu­ously to operate the mill. Dur­ing the first year, they shipped about four thousand boards to market at Pittsburgh, where they were exchanged for flour, clothing and dry goods. Their first years in the isolated woods were trying; the closest settlement was, at best, at least forty miles away. Wild animals roamed the hillsides. Even the nearest military installation, Fort Venango, was forty-five miles to the west. The promise of prosperity encouraged the Barnetts to stay and inevitably attracted more stalwart settlers to the region.

The seemingly endless hillsides of towering pine and hemlock – in addition to mag­nificent stands of chestnut, oak, birch, maple, ash and hickory – trees sated the great armies of loggers who felled, reported a nineteenth century observer, “the monarchs of the forest.” Barnett’s pioneering lumber operation was just the beginning of the boom that was to reverberate throughout Jefferson County. By 1830, twenty mills cut, planed and shipped two million board feet of lumber. Huge rafts were shipped to market at Pitts­burgh on the Clarion River and on the Red Bank, Sandy Lick, Big Mahoning and Toby creeks for the final leg of the journey on the Allegheny River. Much of the timber was also rafted to Cincinnati via the Ohio River, as well as to New Orleans on the Missis­sippi River. Each raft generally held about ten thousand board feet, and it was not unusual for thirty to forty million feet of lumber to be shipped on the Clarion River each year during the dizzying height of the mid­-nineteenth century boom.

Many of the county’s popu­lar and time-honored legends recount the reckless bravery of its early pilots, including Moses Knapp, celebrated pioneer of the Red Bank Creek. According to historical accounts, Samuel Knapp de­scended the perilous creek in full Indian regalia. Pilots were well known throughout the entire region by their distinc­tive “uniforms”: they wore red and blue flannel shirts fes­tooned with agate buttons decorated in fantastic shapes.

Prosperity generated by the lumber industry spawned the creation of navigation compan­ies, which cleared the water­ways of obstructions, constructed dams and levied and collected tolls on all water traffic for construction and maintenance of operations. The Mahoning Navigation Company was established by an act of the General Assem­bly of Pennsylvania in 1845, followed by the incorporation in 1854 of the Red Bank Navi­gation Company. Under the provisions of the act creating the Red Bank Navigation Company, the waterways in its control were greatly improved, offering the booming lumber­ing industry a less dangerous and more convenient route to market.

To supply keelboats and tipples for the waterways, a number of boat-builders sprang up, supporting – and supported by – the logging industry. For about twenty years, until the mid-1850s, boat building thrived along the river and creeks of Jefferson County. Upon reaching their destination in Pittsburgh, it was not uncommon for many boats to be re-sold to carry coal.

As in most of Pennsylvania’s counties, the water routes inevitably gave way to rail­roading. In 1853, the Jefferson County Commissioners in­vested ninety thousand dollars in the Allegheny Railroad Company. The enterprise lay dormant until the mid-1860s, when J. Edgar Thomson, pres­ident of the influential Penn­sylvania Railroad, pushed for the road’s construction. The first railroad actually con­structed was the Allegheny Valley Railroad Low Grade Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, completed in the early 1870s. By June 1873, both freight and passenger service was offered in the county, and by spring of the following year the entire Low Grade Division – spanning from Drift­wood in Elk County to Red­bank in Armstrong County – was operational. In 1900, the Pennsylvania Rail­road leased the entire road.

Sensing the need for ade­quate transport of the county’s abundant natural resources, developers and investors were quick to compete for commer­cial freight hauling. The Buf­falo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railroad was laid in 1883 by the firm of Bell, Lewis and Yates; its stations were located at Brockaway, Falls Creek, Beachtree and Punxsutawney, but its primary role was to carry coal mined by its own­ers. Paralleling this road was the Ridgway and Clearfield system, a branch of the Penn­sylvania Railroad. Other rail­roads active in Jefferson County during the closing years of the nineteenth cen­tury included the New York, Lake Erie and Western; the Reynoldsville and Falls Creek; the Pennsylvania and North­western; and the Summerville and Pittsburgh Railroad com­panies. Nearly every company founded or active in the county went through several reorganizations during the course of business, often evolving as branches of other, larger corporations.

The railroads primarily hauled coal mined by numer­ous operations throughout Jefferson County. Early ac­counts claim that John Fuller was the first individual to mine coal about 1825 near Reynoldsville. The first coun­tian to mine coal for general use was a Black entrepreneur, Charles Anderson, who opened his mine about 1832. Early pioneers established small mining companies, often consisting of a half-dozen workers, usually family mem­bers or hired farm hands, but by the mid-nineteenth century the bituminous outcroppings began attracting the attention of investors and engineers.

The 1864 geological surveys conducted by the Common­wealth were followed by the visit of English capitalists who attracted great attention, but mining coal for the foreign market did not begin until spring 1874. John Keys, a chainmaker by trade, recog­nized the significance of the country’s rich coal deposits. Keys – who also owned great tracts of land in and near Brockway – used the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Phila­delphia to showcase a huge chunk of coal, later added to the collections of the Smithso­nian Institution. Because of the lack of railroads, Keys dragged the mammoth cube for twenty miles by sled to the nearest railroad in Elk County, where it was sent by rail to Philadelphia.

John Keys’ idea worked. Not much later, mines and mining offices were opened throughout the county by ambitious speculators. The Northwest Mining and Ex­change Company initiated a complex system of tunnels to transport the coal from the deep underground mines to preparation plants. The Erie Railroad purchased much of the coal excavated by the com­pany’s Brock Mines. Eventu­ally, the Northwest Mining and Exchange Company either owned or controlled many of the operations in the county, including those at Granville. The great era of prosperity continued for two decades, until the Panic of 1893 brought the collapse of speculative ventures in Jefferson County and throughout the nation.

Jefferson County relied not only on the bituminous trade for its economic livelihood. Other principal employers included the Shawmut Clay Manufacturing Company at Shawmut, now present-day Drummond; the Beechwoods Telephone Company, founded by Dr. James Sterrett; the Washington Mutual Fire and Storm Insurance Company; the Crystal Water Company; and the Brockway Glass Com­pany.

Founded in 1897 as the Brockway Bottle Company to supply containers for gas dis­covered seven years earlier, the glass company described its operations shortly after the turn of the century as a com­pany of “all practical glass workers” whose product, “each bottle, that goes forth, is an advertisement in itself.” Through a series of successful business maneuvers, the com­pany, now Brockway, Inc., owns nearly twenty-five man­ufacturing plants throughout the country.

In addition to the county’s well-known industries, per­haps the most famous of its features was its Wild Cat Regi­ment organized by Col. A.A. McKnight to participate in the Gvil War. McKnight, a resi­dent of Brookville and captain of a militia company called the Brookville Rifles, recruited fellow countians in April 1860. His call alarm resulted in a great response so that two companies were formed. They reported to Camp Curtin, Harrisburg, where they were assigned to the Eight Regi­ment, Pennsylvania Volun­teers. The company saw no active service, but its succes­sor, the Wild Cat Regiment, did.

The Wild Cat Regiment, organized in Pittsburgh on September 9, 1861, was com­prised primarily of Jefferson Countians. Through its ma­neuvers, McKnight was named colonel and under his stead the regiment saw much service throughout the Civil War. The regiment participated in major campaigns and bat­tles.

With its hey-dey of the lumbering and coal booms – as well as the valor of the Civil War veterans – far behind it, Jefferson County is, today, a bucolic landscape on which the history of the Common­wealth and nation has been played out. Its hectic boom days echoed the Industrial Revolution which throttled throughout the energetic young nation, and its citizen­-soldiers rallied about the Un­ion’s cause. Today, the county’s settlements­ – Brookville and Brockway, Reynoldsville, Coolspring, Punxsutawney, Port Barnett, and Stanton, just to name a few – hold a key to unlocking the country’s rich industrial and military heritage. Long gone are the grinding saw­mills, the steaming locomo­tives and the belching coal mines, but there remains a commitment – a dedication not unlike those Wild Cat Regi­ment volunteers – to preserv­ing the great past of Jefferson County so that following gen­erations may truly enjoy a heritage so rich and distinc­tive. The riches of Jefferson County go far beyond its eco­nomic stature.

Jefferson County. It is as distinctive as it is distinguished.


For Further Reading

Archambault, A. Margaretta. A Guide Book of Art, Architec­ture, and Historic Interests in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: John C. Winston Company, 1924.

Day, Sherman. Historical Col­lections of the State of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: G. W. Gorton, 1843.

Egle, William H. History of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: E.M. Gardner, 1883.

Ferguson, Russell J. Early West­ern Pennsylvania Politics. Pittsburgh: University of Pitts­burgh Press, 1938.

Frankhouse, Isabel B. History of Port Royal and Vicinity. Port Royal, Pa.: Tuscarora Valley High School, 1950.

Hamilton, Kenneth Gardiner. John Ettwein and the Mora­vian Church During the Revo­lutionary Period. Bethlehem, Pa.: Times Publishing Company, 1940.

Jefferson County Historical and Genealogical Society. Jefferson County, Pennsylvania History. Marceline, Mo.: Walsworth Pub­lishing Company, 1982.

McKnight, William James. A Pioneer History of Jefferson County, Pennsylvania. Phila­delphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1898.

Jefferson County, Pennsylva­nia: Her Pioneers and People, 1800-1915. Chicago: J.H. Beers and Company, 1917.

Newton, J.H. Illustrated His­torical Combination Atlas of Jefferson County. Condit, Ohio: J.A. Caldwell, 1878.

Reddinger, Lewis D. The Brock­way Story, 1822-1986. Brock­way, Pa.: Brockway Historical Society, 1986.

Scott, Kate M. History of Jeffer­son County, Pennsylvania. Syracuse, N. Y.: D. Mason and Company, 1888.

History of the One Hundred and Fifth Regiment. Philadel­phia: New-World Publishing Company, 1877.


Michael J. O’Malley III is editor of this magazine. A staff member of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission since 1978, he served as editor of Pennsylva­nia Preservation and special features coordinator for the agency. In 1981, he was named coordinator of “Pennsylvania’s 300th Birthday: A Celebration of Friends,” an eighteenth month observance commemorating the founding of Pennsylvania. He is a native Pennsylvanian.