Lawrence County

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

Bart Richards, the unofficial historian of Lawrence County, indicates that little of historical significance has occurred in the county. He points out that it has had no wars, Indian uprisings, or great discoveries to its credit. Very few of its citizens have qualified for the pages of Who’s Who. Therefore, this history is the story of average, ordinary people striving to make a better tomorrow for themselves and their progeny.

Lawrence County’s destiny was determined eons ago through a series of climatic and geological influences. Its surface was shaped by glacial action and by waters of the inland sea which once covered it. As part of the Appalachian Plateau Physiographic Province it consists of elevated, nearly horizontal, or gently folded strata. The bedrock geology is marine and continental sedimentary deposits of limestone, coal, gypsum, sandstone, natural gas, shale, gravel, fire clay, oil, and iron ore. The county’s development has rested on these resources.

Lawrence County was the sixty-third of Pennsylvania’s sixty-seven counties to be formed. It was created out of sections of Beaver and Mercer counties as the rest of a law signed by Governor William F. Johnson in 1849. Its creation culminated about thirty years of struggle, agitation, and political maneuvering. The fact that the Beaver-Mercer County line cut through New Castle was one of the principal factors precipitating formation of the new county. It was named for Capt. James Lawrence who lost his life in a War of 1812 battle with H.M.S. Shannon off Boston Harbor in 1813. His battle cry, “Don’t give up the ship,” had also been the motto of those favoring formation of the new county.

Lawrence County currently consists of the third-class city of New Castle, sixteen townships, and nine boroughs. It has a land area of 367 square miles and a population of 107,374, making it a fifth-class county. Slightly over half the population (52.7 percent) are urban dwellers.



Long before whites moved into Lawrence County, the area had been a center of Indian activity. The principal Indian community, Kushkushkee, was described in the journal of Christian Frederic Post as being four villages, each containing about ninety dwellings and two hundred warriors.

Shawnees and tater the Wolf Clan of the Delawares inhabited the vicinity. Kushkushkee was the sometime home of King Beaver and Chiefs Nicolas, Glickhican, and Packanke. A burial mound near Edinburg was found, when excavated, to contain skeletons, earthenware, and implements.

The county was a crossroads for many Indian travelers. One of the main routes between the Ohio River and Lake Erie went through the area via the Beaver and Shenango rivers. Several of the noted overland trails converged at Kushkushkee, among them being Mahoning Path, the main east-west route from Kittanning to Ohio. Many fugitives from Iroquois conquests passed through the area.

Gottlob Senseman and David Zeisberger operated a Moravian mission among the Indians near what is now Moravia from 1770 to 1773. Kushkushkee was also the site of the infamous “Squaw Campaign” of 1778, which resulted in the senseless slaughter of Indian women and children.

Indian villages were still in existence in 1785. During the War of 1812 there was some concern that the British might encourage the Indians in Ohio to attack settlements in western Pennsylvania. The only fort constructed in the county was built in New Castle as a protection against the threat of such attacks. However, the threat never materialized. By 1814, only an occasional hunting party could be seen.


The First Whites

Whites were seldom seen in Lawrence County prior to the 1790’s. A few French traders and trappers were present as early as the 1730’s. Christopher Gist was the first Englishman to visit the area (1750). Post convinced the Delawares to remain neutral during the French and Indian Wars (1755-1758). The Moravian missionaries sojourned in the county in the 1770’s, but it wasn’t until “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s victory over the Indians in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Ohio ( 1794) that settlement began in earnest.

The territory, which had been purchased from the Six Nations of the Iroquois at the Treaty of Ft. Stanwix in October. 1784, became part of the depreciation lands. These were lands used to redeem depreciated certificates issued to Pennsylvania veterans in lieu of inflated Contin­ental currency.

Edward Wright and others from Allegheny City (Pittsburgh) came to Mahoning Township to claim land and plant fruit trees in 1793. They returned home for the winter, but came back in 1794 to establish the first permanent settlement. Other settlements followed in rapid succession. By 1800, settlers had occupied land in New Castle; the boroughs of Wampum and New Wilmington; and the townships of Slippery Rock, Little Beaver, North Beaver, Plaingrove, Taylor, Wayne, Wilmington, Washington, Neshannock, Pulaski. Hickory, Union, and Shenango. Many of these early settlers were of thrifty, hard-working Scotch-Irish stock.


New Castle, the County Seat

New Castle, which was named for New Castle, Delaware, was to become the most populous community and the county seat. The town was laid out under the supervision of John Carlysle Stewart in 1798. As in Indian times, the rivers were important for transportation. With­in a decade the town had John Elliott’s gristmill and saw­mill; a hat-making shop; Joseph Townsend’s mercantile establishment; a tavern-hotel named the Pokeberry Ex­change; and radiating roads to Pittsburgh, Mercer, Youngs­town, and to Venango County.

By the time New Castle was incorporated in 1825 it had expanded to the point that parts of it were found in both Beaver and Mercer counties. In the next fifteen years the population doubled. By 1840 many of the indus­tries and services necessary for the needs of a growing community had been inaugurated. They included the organization of a stage line; the opening of wagon, black­smith, cabinet, saddlery, and apothecary shops; the formation of a fire company; the establishment of a tannery and the Aetna Iron Works; several attempts to publish a news­paper; and what is probably the most important occurrence of the period – opening of canal routes to Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Erie.
Industrial and population growth continued throughout the century. In 1869 New Castle became a city; and when the State got a new constitution in 1874, New Castle was classified as a third-class city.

In 1890 a new surge of growth began. This was the decade of the founding of the tin-plate industry. the establishment of electric railways, and the flow of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. In this ten-year span the city’s population literally exploded, increasing from 11,600 to 28,339. In one year, 1899, some seven hundred new dwellings were erected.

Following the disastrous flood of 1913, New Castle saw its industrial base begin a metamorphosis. The econ­omy, formerly based on iron and steel, gradually shifted to a diversified base.


Agriculture and Industry

In its early days Lawrence County was a typical pre­industrial community. Subsistence agriculture was the basis of the economy. As improved agricultural methods were developed, production expanded to the point that surpluses were available for shipment outside the county. The once widely known Neshannock potato was developed during this period on a Washington Township farm oc­cupied by John Gilkey.

While agriculture is still important to the economy, the value of production being about $14 million a year, it did not keep pace with industrial growth. Once the discovery that iron ore, limestone, wood for charcoal, and later coal were readily available, industry expanded by virtually geometric progression. Current industrial production now totals about $450 million a year.

Grains and vegetables have long been the important agricultural commodities of the county, with grains being the backbone. In the year 1874, for instance, about 1.2 million bushels of grain were harvested. Principal agricultural products of the 1970’s are hay, grains, vegetables, fruits, milk and dairy products, poultry and eggs, sheep, and beef cattle.

Compared with the other sixty-six counties in Pennsyl­vania, Lawrence ranks twenty-second in the proportion of cropland, sixth in the value of vegetable production per acre, and near the middle in milk and fruit production. The Farmer’s Cheese Cooperative on Route 18 west of New Wilmington is the largest Swiss cheese producer in the world.

The beginning of industrialization can be traced back to the early gristmills and sawmills. Annanias Allen’s gristmill in Wurtemburg was probably the first of these in the county (1796-97). The county’s iron and steel industry was born in New Castle at the Stewart and Wilkins iron forge (1810-11). It was the first establishment to manufacture hammered iron in western Pennsylvania.

Over the next twenty-five years, most of the industry that developed was designed to meet local needs. Follow­ing the opening of the canals, stone blast furnaces began appearing. Aetna Furnace (1838) was the first of at least ten such furnaces. Fremont Furnace in New Wilmington became known as McKinley Furnace because President McKinley worked there as a youth. These furnaces were important cogs in the economy for about forty years. In this same era, other industries to develop included a lin­seed oil mill, a carding works, a bolt and nut factory, a paper and sack company, a glassworks, a carriage works, a furniture factory, a steel wire and nail works, a pottery, several limestone quarries. and a number of oil wells. The Wampum Cement and Limestone Company (1874) is one of the oldest in the country.

Richards calls the 1890’s the “golden decade of industry” in Lawrence County. The quarrying and mining industries continued to expand, iron and steel output mushroomed, and New Castle’s world-famous tin-plate industry commenced operation. George Greer, a sometime farmer and merchant, was the progenitor of the tin-plate industry. His mill began operation October 12, 1893. By 1917 New Castle had sixty tin-plate mills and was referred to as the tin-plate capital of the world.

In 1900 the output of Lawrence County blast furnaces totaled 1,500,000 tons; quarries extracting stone from the Vanport limestone vein produced 935,000 tons; coal out­put amounted to 400,000 tons; and other industrial output accounted for an additional 3,908,000 tons. Since 1900, names like Universal-Rundle, American Can, Mesta Machine, American Cyanamid, National Steel, Shenango China, National Tube, Carnegie Steel, Republic Steel, Rockwell International, and Zambelli Fireworks have been associated with New Castle and Lawrence County.

By the late 1970’s many of these large concerns were gone. Iron and steel no longer dominated the economy. Principal industrial products of the decade are stone, clay, glass, concrete products, primary metal products, non­electrical machinery, transportation equipment, fabricated metal products, bituminous coal, and natural gas. In spite of the loss of many of its industries the county, when compared with the remainder of the State, ranks fifth in the proportion of manufactural employment and sixth in primary metal products.


Transportation and Communication

The Indians and the early settlers traveled by foot or horseback over the many trails that crisscrossed the county or canoed in its waterways. The Pittsburgh-to-Erie road passing through Harlansburg (Route 19) was one of the first roads to cut through the county. In 1805, a State road from Scrub Grass, Venango County, to Youngstown via New Castle was completed. In 1836, stage coach service began. In subsequent years, numerous other roads were constructed, providing a reliable means of transpor­tation. Included was the usual share of pikes and plank roads operated by State-chartered private corporations.

In 1834, the Beaver Extension of the Pennsylvania Canal was opened to Western Reserve Harbor, five miles north of New Castle on the Shenango River. Canals were a boon to local industry but a financial failure, with con­struction and maintenance cost far exceeding revenue. In 1838, the Ohio Division “cross-cut” canal opened, connecting New Castle with a railhead at Youngstown. The Erie Extension of the canal was opened in 1844.

The canals were plied by steamboats and packet boats, some with staterooms similar to the first Pullman cars. Principal commodities shipped by canal were pig iron and farm products.

Highlights of the canal era were the construction of the only steamboat built in the county. the Osaphena, built by David Frisbee for Dr. Joseph Pollock in 1840; a presidential visit; and the near drowning of a man who would be elected President. On August 22, 1849, President Zachary Taylor stopped in New Castle on his way north. He arrived on the Erie Packet Express, spending the night in the city and touring the environs, including Sophia Furnace, before continuing his journey. Taylor, Lawrence County’s response to “George Washington slept here,” is the only President who spent more than a few minutes in the county while in office. During his youth, James Garfield worked on the boats plying the Pittsburgh-Erie Canal. Richards reports that as one of the boats on which Garfield worked passed Rock Point on the Beaver River, he fell overboard. He was found exhausted on the shore by some citizens, who took him to Moses Metheny’s Tavern, where Mrs. Metheny nursed him back to health. In the 1870’s the canals were phased out.

Rail service began with the completion of the Ohio Pennsylvania Railroad across the southwestern corner of the county at Enon Valley in 1850. The railroads came to New Castle in the 1860’s during the county’s railroad building boom. At least ten different lines were constructed through Lawrence County, most of them relatively short lines like the New Castle Sharpsville Railroad. The county also had its Calico Railroad, a road for which stock was sold but no tracks laid.

Street or electric railroads became operational in the 1890’s, eventually providing interurban service to Youngstown and to Pittsburgh via Butler. In their prime, these lines provided a vital service to the area. For example, in 1915 the New Castle-Butler-Pittsburgh line hauled 2,838,495 passengers and 33,552 tons of freight. By the mid-1930’s, the street railway had gone the way of the canals.

The county’s transportation needs are currently served by its vast network of highways. Lawrence County is sixteenth in the State in highway density. Its main arteries are Routes 18, 60, and 422, but it is also in close proximity to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate Routes 79 and 80.

The county’s communications industry consists of two daily papers, one weekly paper, three commercial radio stations, and the Westminster College radio station. The first attempt to publish a paper was the short-lived New Castle Register (1826). The New Castle News, published since 1879, is the county’s oldest paper. During the interim, the county was a graveyard for papers. At least two dozen others were published, some with unusual titles like Dew Drop, Thorn, Promulgator, or Coal City Item. The New Wilmington Globe, a weekly, began publication in 1880. The Globe‘s masthead proclaims it to be the “Oldest Known Continuous Weekly in USA.”


Religion and Education

As was the case in Africa, where the missionaries preceded the white settlers, so it was in Lawrence County, where the Moravian missionaries preceded the settlers. The route of the Moravians from Wyalusing in northeastern Pennsylvania to the county is well outlined by historical markers along the highways of the State’s northern tier of counties. These missionaries arrived in the Beaver Valley in 1770. After some shifting about they began building a church in North Beaver Township, which was dedicated June 20, 1771. There is uncertainty about the number of converts among the Indians, but it is known that missionaries David Zeisberger and Gottlieb Senseman were successful among the Indian leaders. The wife of Chief Solomon was probably the first person baptized in the Beaver Valley. Later the Chief was baptized, as were King Beaver and Chiefs Glickhican and Packanke. Apparently the mission fell on hard times, for on April 12, 1773, the church was razed and the Moravians departed. There is much speculation but little evidence to indicate reasons for their departure. About two decades were to pass before any further concerted religious activity would take place.

Considering the religious climate of the period, it is safe to assume that the early Scotch-Irish Presbyterian settlers not only brought their tools and rifles but also their Bibles when the first permanent settlement was established in Mahoning Township (1794). In the early years, tent churches were used in fair weather and barns or homes in foul. The first church building was erected prior to 1810. Elisha McCurdy and Thomas Marquis were two of the early itinerant preachers.

Documentation is lacking as to where the first congregation was organized. Services were held in Mahoning Township, New Bedford, Plaingrove, Wilmington Township, and Enon Valley before 1800. The suspicion is that the first congregation was in the Mahoning-North Beaver area (circa 1796). the site of the first permanent settlement.

On the heels of the Presbyterians came the Methodists, who established the Kings Chapel congregation in Neshannock Township (1802). Following them came the Lutherans, Baptists, and Roman Catholics.

There were actually two phases of congregational development in the county. In the early decades of the nineteenth century the “WASP” settlers moved to the area. This group established the main-line Protestant de­nominations. The second phase was during the last quarter of the same century and the early decades of this century. During this era the flow of immigration was from southern and eastern Europe. As a result, a large number of Catholic congregations developed. These included the ethnic churches – Polish, Greek, Ukrainian, Lebanese, and so forth. Congregations to meet the needs of at least fifteen ethnic groups were organized, some accompanied by parochial, foreign-language schools.

Richards in his The Churches of Lawrence County, lists 198 churches. Added to these should be the Amish, who are of the group who have no church buildings. They meet on a regular basis in homes within the various districts, hence the name “House Amish.” There are thirteen Amish districts (congregations) in the county.

Among the few people of national prominence from Lawrence County was Ira D. Sankey. Born in Edinburg, August 28, 1840, he became a world-renowned singing evangelist and composer. Sankey was a colleague of Dwight Moody.

Education for religious literacy “to drive out the old deluder Satan” was a basic concern of the early Scotch-Irish settlers. Since school buildings were not yet available, education took place in homes, an approach similar to the dame schools of colonial New England. The first school houses were in Little Beaver Township and Harlansburg ( 1800-1801). New Castle had an elementary school by 1804. By 1810, at least a dozen schools were operating in the county. John Boyles and Robert Dickey were among the early schoolmasters.

In 1829 a Lancasterian school began operating in New Castle. Though short-lived, it prepared the way for the establishment of public education, as it had in other cities. Public education made its debut in New Castle in 1834 pursuant to the Public School Act of that year. When the General Assembly created the County Superintendency (1854). Thomas Berry was appointed to the post.

To meet the needs of the new immigrants, parochial elementary schools were established as early as 1871. These were not only religious schools, they were schools using a different language of instruction, such as German, Italian, or Polish. Secondary education took several forms, with the early attempts not surviving long. Examples include New Castle Female Seminary (1838); New Castle Classical and Mathematical Institute (1841); Trinity College, also known as New Castle Academy (1849); New Castle College (1871); and Volant College, originally Volant Normal School (1889). Although each served its function and produced a luminary or two, fame was fleeting. Of those listed, Volant College survived the longest, from 1889 until 1911, when fire destroyed the college building. Among its products were two county judges, two county school superintendents, and the zany baseball pitcher “Rube” Waddell.

Among the higher institutions which survived are New Castle Business College (1894> and Westminster College. The latter, established by what is now the United Presbyterian Church, opened its doors as a co-educational institu­tion in 1852. In its first catalog (1853) is the statement, “no person will be refused admission on account of color, caste, or sex,” making the college a pioneer in opposing discrimination. It was among the early colleges to admit females on the same basis as men. It was one of the first two colleges in Pennsylvania to grant degrees to women and the first to grant them the A.B. degree (1857). Westminster, a liberal arts college, has distinguished itself both academically and athletically. Unlike its sister institutions facing financial problems, it has operated its budget in the black for more than twenty consecutive years.

In the 1970’s the children of Lawrence County are served by eight public school systems, a vocational-technical school, three Catholic schools, two Christian day schools, and seven Amish schools. The median level of educational attainment for adults under age forty-nine is 12.0 years, placing it in the upper half of the state’s counties.


Ethnic Groups and Women

The first white immigrant ethnic group in the county was made up of the original Scotch-Irish settlers of the 1790’s. In the succeeding years they were followed by other Anglo-Saxon groups. Among them were the Amish, who arrived in 1846. Abraham Zook was the first of this group to come to the county. Today there are Amish communities across the northern and western section of Lawrence County, totaling approximately three hundred households.

The date for the arrival of the first blacks is uncertain, . but by the time the county was formed in 1849 their numbers totaled 132. The non-white segment of the county’s population today is less than three percent.

As was true in other industrial areas, the last portion of the nineteenth century was characterized by a great influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. The folk hero, Joe Magarac, typifies the steelmill workers of New Castle. Italian limestone quarry workers arrived prior to 1880. Welsh were employed in the tin-plate mills in the 1890’s.

The list of ethnic groups had significantly expanded before World War I. The depression era WPA project, Ethnic Studies in Lawrence County, identified twenty­-one ethnic or national groups.

Before “melting” into the population, these groups established their own churches, schools, and fraternal societies. Churches were established to minister to Polish, Greek, Carpatho-Russian, Syrian, Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, African, Italian, Slovak, Lebanese, German, and Finnish congregations. A number of fraternal societies still exist, and foreign language programs are broadcast by a New Castle radio station. According to the 1970 census, twenty-three thousand persons (21.39 percent of the population) are of foreign stock. The county ranks tenth in the State in this respect.

Considering that the old adage, “woman’s place is in the home,” was largely unchallenged until recent times, it is not surprising that little was recorded about women’s role in the evolution of Lawrence County. It may be surmised that they fulfilled the usual female roles: prayer groups and church meetings; temperance; relief and prison reform; nursing; and so forth. Exceptions to the rule were a number of women who invaded the medical field. Marmara Devoe and Eugenia Sheets both practiced medicine in New Castle during the 1870’s. Lenora Gageby, Anna Jack, and Elizabeth McLaughrey also practiced medicine around the turn of the century. Annie McCaslin became a practicing osteopath around 1906.

At present, teaching is the profession most open to women. There is a small number of females in the medical profession, and one who holds membership in the county bar association. Two women are listed in the telephone directory as ministers.

Lawrence County lacks the historical significance of counties like Allegheny, Lancaster, or Philadelphia. Its newsworthy events and persons were few and far between. The county’s only fort never shielded those inside from bullets or arrows; its once proud industrial status has eroded; it has had Lt. Gov. William M. Brown (1902). Ira Sankey, and some athletes, but few other important persons; even its historical society has had an extremely difficult time surviving. It is an average county with the average people whose chronicles constitute the backbone of the history of the nation.


Dr. Samuel A. Farmerie is Associate Professor of Education at Westminster College, New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.