Washington County: From Ice Age to Space Age

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

Southwestern Pennsylvania was for centuries a happy hunt­ing ground for Indians who were living there as long as two thousand years ago. In fact, as the result of archaeological discoveries made at the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter near Avella between 1973 and 1975, University of Pittsburgh anthropologists have proven conclusively that Ice Age people roamed the forests of Washington County even earlier. The staggering amount of evidence, carefully sifted from more than 200 tons of earth re­moved from the dig, provided over­whelming proof that Paleo-Indians lived in Washington County as early as 14,225 B.C. By the eighteenth cen­tury, however, the remaining inhabi­tants included mostly the hapless Delawares, who had been pushed re­lentlessly westward across the Alle­ghenies by the advancing whites and subjugated by the Iroquois Confed­eration, and the Shawanese, who had migrated northward from their original home in southeastern North America. The tribes were constantly on the go; the only “permanent” Indian settle­ment in Washington County which has been verified was that at Catfish Camp, presided over by the Delaware Chief, Tingooqua. This settlement existed within the boundaries of the present city of Washington, the county seat, on one of the branches of Char­tiers Creek.


Early History

French, English and German traders, including Peter Chartiers, Hugh Craw­ford, John Findley and Conrad Weiser, began trading with the Indians during the 1740s. They found lush, rolling, hill country which was ideal for grazing animals; fertile soil which was well suited to almost any kind of fanning; rich deposits of coal and a fine water­way in the Monongahela River.

By 1750 the conflicting claims of France and England to the rich and strategic Ohio River Valley were fast approaching the explosive point. In 1749 the French had sent Pierre-Joseph Celoron de Blainville to post (or bury) metal plates proclaiming French owner­ship of the region. To reinforce their claims they soon began to build a string of small forts.

The feverish activities of the French alarmed the English, particularly the Virginians, who felt that they had title to vast lands between Cape Cod and the Gulf of Mexico. In 1753 Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia on behalf of the British dispatched young Lt. George Washington of the Virginia militia to warn the French to leave. The French of course refused and, within a year, the quarrel between the two countries had escalated into the French and Indian War. This conflict, as well as the Revolutionary War which soon fol­lowed, had little immediate effect on the future Washington County as no battles were fought within its borders.

Settlers began arriving in south­western Pennsylvania in the late 1760s. By the terms of the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, signed on November 5, 1768, the Indians sold to the Proprietary government of Pennsylvania all of the present counties of Westmoreland, Fayette, Greene, Washington and those parts of Allegheny and Beaver counties which lay south of the Ohio River. The Indians may have surren­dered title to the region, but the Vir­ginians did not. Virginia insisted that southwestern Pennsylvania was part of Augusta County, and even named it West Augusta and convened courts in the disputed territory. The quarrel dragged on for years and threatened more than once to blossom into a full­-scale war. A commission was appointed by both parties to study the boundary question and to try to resolve claims of settlers who had bought land in Pennsylvania under Virginia patents. The complicated and acrimonious dis­pute was finally settled in the fa!J of 1780 with an agreement to extend the Mason-Dixon Line to a point just 16 miles short of the Ohio River. Six months later, on March 18, 1781, Washington County was erected by act of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Its original boundaries included all of Greene and Beaver counties, as well as part of Allegheny County.

It seemed appropriate that the only county in Pennsylvania to be created during the Revolutionary War should be named in honor of the distinguished commander-in-chief of the Continental army, who at that moment was busily engaged in planning the final cam­paigns of the war from his headquarters at New Windsor, New York. Whether Gen. Washington was aware at the time that the first county in the United States to be named in his honor had just been erected is not clear, but his published diaries and letters make no mention of the event. The county seat, known for a brief period as Bassett Town, was also named Washington shortly after it was laid out by David Hoge some six months later, in October 1781.



From the beginning Washington County was a favorite spot for Scotch­Irish Presbyterians with the vanguard of settlers led by the Princeton-edu­cated trio of the Revs. Thaddeus Dod, Joseph Smith and John McMillan. They came to the region in the mid­I 770s with Smith establishing himself at Buffalo, Dod at Amity and McMillan at Canonsburg. All were Presbyterian clergy of missionary fervor, and all were vitally interested in establishing schools as well as churches. The Scotch-Irish settlers who poured into the region were eager to establish an educational system as soon as pos­sible. In frontier days the primary pur­pose of schools of higher education was to prepare students for the ministry; and since the clergy usually was better educated than. anyone else, it was natural that teaching and pastoral duties went hand in hand. Schools were frequently initiated in the manse itself, and students often boarded with the pastor and his family.

John McMillan, acknowledged as “the father of Presbyterianism in west­ern Pennsylvania,” was a towering figure in theological, political and edu­cational affairs during the early days of Washington County. In 1780-81 he established what has been regarded as the first Latin school in the western part of the state. The little school was the ancestor of both Washington Academy, founded in 1787, and Canonsburg Academy. established in 1791. McMillan took an active interest in both institutions, which were soon chartered by the state legislature as Washington College (1806) and Jeffer­son College (1802) respectively.

Washington County was popular with French settlers as well. Among the thousands of pioneers who streamed westward during the 1790s were sever­al hundred French royalists who came to America to escape the French Revo­lution. Some found their way to west­ern Pennsylvania. One of their num­ber, a physician named John Julius LeMoyne. moved to the little frontier town of Washington in 1796 where he established a medical practice and apothecary shop. He and his de­scendants became very influential citi­zens of the community. and his son, Francis Julius LeMoyne, M.D., be­came a prominent abolitionist and leader in local and state affairs for more than fifty years.


The Whiskey Rebellion

While Washington County escaped direct involvement in earlier wars, it managed to achieve national notoriety by staging a violent little insurrection all by itself. During the 1790s it was the scene of lawlessness, civil disorder and terrorism for three terrible years between July 1791 and November 1794. Known as the Whiskey Rebellion, this protest was organized by western Pennsylvania farmers who op­posed the tax on whiskey which had been levied by the federal government in March 1791. The law was passed in spite of united and determined opposi­tion from the representatives of Alle­gheny. Westmoreland, Washington and Fayette counties. Farmers had. for more than a century, successfully re­sisted pesky taxes on spirits. As far back as 1684 the Pennsylvania Assem­bly attempted to tax whiskey; other laws had been passed in 1738, 1744, 1756 and 1772. All eventually had been repealed.

The rebellious farmers had several reasons to despise the tax. Liquor was a useful fringe benefit for hired hands; people in the western provinces couldn’t import it because of the distances and expense involved; roads were universally poor or non-existent; and grain could be transported much more easily in liquid form. They also preferred to make their own brew any­way, for in 1791 there were 272 li­censed stills in Washington County.

A four-county committee was set up to plan the resistance, but most of the action centered in Washington County, where David Bradford, a prominent lawyer. John Holcroft (Tom the Tinker) and others com­mitted numerous acts of vandalism and violence. Tax collectors were tarred and feathered, barns and houses were burned. the United States mail was raided, stills were “tinkered with” – that is, shot full of holes, and entire families were ab used and terrorized. Events reached such a fevered pitch that a virtual reign of terror existed in Washington County during the sum­mer of 1794. The fiery Brad ford even organized a muster of some 5,000 men at Braddock’s Field with the intention of marching on Pittsburgh. The mob reached the city, but they were wined and dined so hospitably by the citizen­ry that the “attack” never came off.

President Washington finally found it necessary to summon 15,000 militia to put down this first great challenge to federal authority and to restore law and order to the unhappy region. Troops actually appeared in Canons­burg, Washington and other places. A number of arrests were made. Brad­ford fled to permanent exile in Louisiana and the ill-advised rebellion collapsed. In addition to devastating personal and financial losses incurred by citizens, this three-year caper cost the United States government almost $700,000.


Economic Growth

During the first half-century of its existence, Washington County gave little hint of the great industrial and manufacturing center it was to be­come during the twentieth century. In 1831, fifty years after its establish­ment, the county was still primarily a rural. agricultural region. The lovely rolling hills beyond the Monongahela continued to attract thousands of people who crossed the Alleghenies to satisfy a wanderlust, seek a fortune or stake out a new homestead. The popu­lation of Washington County in 1790 was 23,866, a figure which included the population of present-day Greene County, part of Washington until 1796. Even after 578 square miles had been lopped off for Greene, Washing­ton’s population increased to 28,298 by 1800. Within thirty years that figure jumped to 42,784.

One of the earliest industries, the production of whiskey, was dealt a fatal blow by l11e events of the 1790s. Farmers in search of an alternative agricultural pursuit switched to sheep raising on such a grand scale that. fifty years after the creation of the county. wool growing had become a quarter­-of-a-million dollar business.

Another important factor in the growth of Washington County was the construction of the National Road. Until the completion of the road from Cumberland, Maryland to Wheeling (then Virginia) in 1818, this rural region was served by the most primi­tive methods of transportation. The first settlers to cross the Alleghenies pushed their way through on old In­dian trails and military “roads” dating from French and Indian War days. These routes were so rudimentary that even wagons could not be accommo­dated. This was the period of the pack­horse, a poor, lowly animal, the role of which has been frequently underrated in the settlement of the frontier. These sturdy animals carried on their backs family furniture, lumber, merchandise, stoves and even babies, for the infants rode while their elders traveled on foot alongside. In time, as wider roads were cut through the wilderness from Brad­dock’s Road into Washington County, the packhorse gradually gave way to the Conestoga wagon. Wider roads did not always help, however, for wagons were still likely to be axle deep in mud for months. As a result, many mer­chants continued to use the more reli­able packhorse until the National Road was in operation. The road so revolu­tionized transportation and travel that ii brought an economic boom to the area which lasted until the mid-1850s.

The National Road was the first highway authorized and paid for by the federal government. On March 29, 1806, President Jefferson signed into law the National Road Act which had been approved by the Ninth Congress in late 1805. In 1811 funds were appropriated. and work was finally be­gun at Cumberland with the road entering Washington County over the Monongahela River at West Browns­ville. To Washington County it spelled prosperity with several communities owing their origins to its construction, including Centerville. Beallsville and Claysville (named for Henry Clay, a great champion of the road and a fre­quent traveler on it). Carriage and wagon-making became big businesses. The long lines of Conestogas and Con­cord coaches carried passengers. wagoners and drivers who needed the services of inns and taverns. This was the heyday of Malden Tavern, the Cen­tury Inn, the Charley Hill Tavern, Cross Keys, the Mt. Vernon House, the Lafayette Inn and many others. Wash­ington was transformed from a little frontier village to a bustling center.

In fact, the road created such a brisk business for the county that the proposed construction of a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line through it dur­ing the 1830s encountered bitter op­position from stage drivers, wagoners, blacksmiths, wagon makers and tavern keepers. They were convinced that their jobs would vanish if the railroad were completed. It turned out, how­ever, that the most prosperous period for the county was between 1844, when the B&O reached Cumberland, and 1852. Travelers to the west dis­embarked from trains at Cumberland and continued by stagecoach over the National Road. Al though the discov­ery of gold in California increased this traffic tremendously, eventually, the earlier predictions of disaster finally came true. The bustling businesses came to a sudden haH almost over­night when in May 1852, the first Pennsylvania Railroad train chuffed into Pittsburgh. Thousands of people were thrown out of work, taverns closed and weeds took over the road­way. After the Civil War the historic road was used mostly for local travel. It was rescued from oblivion after the turn of the century by the automobile. Today, as U.S. Route 40, it carries traffic from coast to coast. In Wash­ington County a few historic bridges, tollhouses and inns still exist to re­mind motorists of the glorious old days when picturesque and interest­ing characters traveled this first national highway.

The railroad, which so effectively spelled doom for the National Road, signaled Washington County’s entrance into the machine age. In 1828 the Pennsylvania General Assembly author­ized the B&O to begin construction of a railroad in the Commonwealth, and the company proposed to build its line through Washington County from West Brownsville on the Monongahela to Wheeling on the Ohio. Construction moved so slowly, however, that in 1847 when the company applied for a second extension to its original charter, opposition to its construction was so fierce that the legislature refused the application. In the 1850s, after the Pennsylvania Railroad virtually put an end to business on the National Road, several other smaller railroads began operations within the county. These lines, however, were not usually in business very long. One, the Hemp­field Railroad. went bankrupt in 1861 and was purchased in 1871 by the B&O, which finally acquired a line in the county. The Pennsylvania Railroad also began service to various communi­ties in 1871 and both companies con­tinued passenger service until the 1950s.


The Civil War

For thirty years before the Civil War, Washington County had been a center of abolitionist activity, and an effective Underground Railroad net­work had been set up by Dr. Francis J. LeMoyne in Washington and the Mc­Keever brothers, Matthew and Thomas, in West Middletown. Escaping slaves came into southwestern Pennsylvania by crossing the Mason-Dixon Line from Virginia into Greene County and then making their way to friendly farms at West Alexander and West Middletown. Many were sheltered at the LeMoyne House in Washington where, according to legend, there was also a secret room which provided refuge for days at a time.

This part of western Pennsylvania has often been referred to as “border country” because of the presence of many southern sympathizers. It must be remembered that Washington Coun­ty had once been claimed by Virginia, and the people in the western part of the county were particularly affected by the events during the two-year period from 1861 to 1863 when the western counties of Virginia declared their independence and formed the new state of West Virginia. Thus, while no actual Civil War battles were fought within its borders, Washington County was the center of agitation, turmoil and intrigue unequaled since the days of the Whiskey Rebellion.

The Civil War conveniently divides Washington County’s history into two periods. Before the war the county was a predominantly agricultural re­gion; after the war, the industrial revolution took hold as businesses re­lated to coal, gas and petroleum began to boom.


Industrial Development

George Washington himself was aware of the existence of coal in west­ern Pennsylvania as early as 1771; his friend, Col. William Crawford, whom he was visiting at the time, pointed it out to him. By 1786, Col. John Canon allowed purchasers of his lots in Can­onsburg to get coal free forever from a small mine located near his settlement. Within twenty years, one or two small mines were being worked which pro­vided coal for domestic users and blacksmiths at the rate of twenty-five cents per bushel. Coal mining on a small scale began near Coal Center about 1820.

By 1837 there were 35 to 40 small mines in the eastern section of the county with an annual production of 12 million bushels of coal, most of which was shipped by riverboat on the Monongahela. Additional mines opened after the Civil War near Washington, Monongahela, Prosperity, Canonsburg, McDonald, Finleyville and Gastonville. In 1881 these mines produced more than 800 thousand tons of coal. By 1919 coal mining was the largest in­dustry in Washington County and dur­ing that year production reached 18,676,452 tons. Actually this was down slightly from the banner year of 1918 when, in a “win the war” effort, Washington County produced 22 million tons. Between 1925 and 1957, coal production fluctuated from 10 to 20 million tons annually. Currently, production is about 13 million tons per year.

Washington County’s rich resources in gas and oil were also developed during the latter part of the nineteenth century. While the presence of natural gas was detected as early as 1821, it was not until the 1880s that gas was made commercially available. In the spring of 1884 the Peoples Light and Heat Company began supplying gas to customers in Washington. It is interest­ing to note that the first drilling proj­ects in the county were greeted with considerable jesting by some observers who couldn’t understand what moti­vated those fools who were “sinking their money in a hole.” Some spec­tacular gas wells were struck. and dur­ing the mid-eighties gas companies sprang up all over the county in Cross Creek, Cecil, Claysville and Burgetts­town as well as in Washington. One strike, the McGugin well, caught fire and burned for years lighting up the night sky and becoming quite a tourist attraction. One enterprising business­man even opened a refreshment stand to supply picnickers who came from miles around to witness the phenom­enon. No one ever did establish just how much gas was wasted before the well was brought under control.

“Oil fever” broke out in Washing­ton County about the time of the Civil War. After Drake discovered oil near Titusville in 1859. there was consider­able interest in Washington County drilling and operations began near Canonsburg and Bentleyville during the 1860s. No significant amounts of oil were discovered, however, and the boom died down. It was not until the 1880s that the excitement began all over again. Oil was struck in Washing­ton late in 1884 and the first carload shipped out of the county left in March 1885. Wells were also drilled at various other sites including Taylors­town, Canonsburg, McDonald and Cross Creek. During the heyday of oil production, from 1859 to 1897, 96,085 wells were drilled in Washing­ton County – of these, 67,040 were productive. During the early twenties oil production averaged about 1,100 barrels per day.

The successful strikes in the ex ten­sive gas and oil fields of the county during the 1880s attracted other industries and established the area as a desirable location for a wide variety of enterprises. The glass business was one of the first to develop with the construction of plants for the Hazel and Atlas companies. The two eventually merged to become the Hazel-­Atlas Glass Company which continued operations until 1956 when it became a part of the Continental Can Corpor­ation.

Washington County was also for many years the home of one of the country’s oldest manufacturers of fine table and stemware. The Duncan and Miller Glass Company, which began operations in Pittsburgh in 1865. was destroyed by fire a quarter of a cen­tury later and its plant rebuilt in Wash­ington. The new facility was opened in 1893 and the company continued to produce fine glassware until going out of business in 1955.

The steel industry began in Wash­ington County during the mid-1890s with the construction of a tin plate mill, the forerunner of the Washington Steel Corporation. A sheet mill opera­tion which was begun in 1901 by William Jessop and Sons of Sheffield, England, is now known as the Jessop Steel Corporation. Both companies re­main in operation today.


The Twentieth Century

The twentieth century brought a number of new businesses and indus­tries to Washington County, compan­ies which even today produce an aston­ishing variety of products, from clay and bricks to exotic colors for the cer­amic and glass industries; from ordin­ary paper and rubber to mysterious tungsten, molybdenum and rare earth products; and from industrial and oil field machinery to sophisticated elec­trical equipment. Early manufacturing plants which still produce the old standbys such as glass. roofing, siding and machine tools have been joined by those which manufacture twentieth century necessities made of plastic and stainless steel.

Even though WashingLon County exploded into a great industrial region in the twentieth century, agriculture still remains a significant part of the economy. The mid-twentieth century found the county with more than 3,000 farms covering 362,000 acres; operations, valued at more than $17 million annually, include dairying as well as the production of livestock, poultry and field crops. Thirty-eight million tons of produce and other goods are carried on the Monongahela River each year helping to supply the county’s population of 225,000 and making the river one of the nation’s busiest inland waterways.

Washington County has two institu­tions of higher learning – California State College, founded in California in 1874 as Southwestern State Normal School, and Washington and Jefferson College. located in Washington shortly after the merger of Washington and Jefferson Colleges in 1865. It has been a coeducational institution since 1970.

A number of Washington County natives have achieved prominence in various fields. William H. McGuffey was a schoolmaster and a college pro­fessor and president. He graduated from Washington College in 1826 and, among his other accomplishments, wrote the famous readers which today bear his name. James G. Blaine gradu­ated from Washington College in 1847, moved to Maine and was elected Con­gressman and Senator from that state. An unsuccessful candidate for the presidency in 1884, he was appointed Secretary of State by Presidents Gar­field and Harrison. Born in the already famous Brad ford House in 1831, Rebecca Harding Davis became one of America’s first and most popular writers of realistic fiction. Her son, the flamboyant Richard Harding Davis, eventually surpassed her in fame and fortune. Jonathan Letterman, a sur­geon from Canonsburg and an 1845 graduate of Jefferson College, served during the Civil War as Medical Direc­tor of the Army of the Potomac and developed procedures for the care and treatment of battlefield casualties which were quite advanced for his day. The United States Army honored his achievements by naming its medical facility al the Presidio in San Fran­cisco the Letterman General Hospital. David Thompson Watson, an 1864 graduate of Washington College, prac­ticed law in Pittsburgh and achieved international fame as one of the nineteenth century’s most able and distinguished attorneys. He was re­tained by the United States govern­ment in 1903 to handle both the Northern Securities Case and the Alaskan boundary controversy with Great Britain. Space age achievements are represented by Joseph A. Walker, a 1942 graduate of W&J who became Chief Research Pilot for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and was later killed while flying an F-104 chase plane which collided with an XB-70A research bomber over the Mojave Desert in June 1966.

Three governors of Pennsylvania called Washington County their home before moving to Harrisburg: Joseph Ritner, John Tener and Edward Martin. Governor Martin, who also attained the rank of lieutenant general in the Pennsylvania National Guard and served with distinction in the Spanish­-American War and World War I, was also elected to two terms as United States Senator from Pennsylvania.

Tourists who come to Washington County today may visit a number of places related to the development of this historic region. In 1788 David Bradford, the successful young lawyer who became the most outspoken leader of the Whiskey Rebellion, built a fine stone house which has been re­stored and is open to the public. The LeMoyne House, built in 1812 by John J. LeMoyne, M.D., was an im­portant station on the Underground Railroad and now houses the Washing­ton County Historical Society. The first crematory in the United States was built near Washington in 1876 by Francis J. LeMoyne, the physician son of John J. LeMoyne. and stands today for the inspection of visitors. Other attractions include the Arden Trolley Museum near Washington; Meadow­croft Village, a charming nineteenth century village restoration project near Avella; McMillan’s log school (the first Latin school in the region) in Canons­burg; the West Alexander Village Shops; and numerous inns, bridges, homes and churches whose existence spans the history of Washington Coun­ty.

Washington County is making prep­arations to celebrate its two hundredth birthday in 1981. Surely the progress which has been made during its first two centuries might be regarded as the fulfillment of Lafayette’s toast when he dined at the Globe Inn in Washing­ton on May 25, 1825: ‘The County and Town of Washington. May their prosperity forever go hand in hand with the glory of the name.”


Harriet Branton is a historical writer for the Washington Observer-Reporter for which she has written a weekly column about Washington County his­tory since 1978. She is on the Board of Directors of the Washington Coun­ty Historical Society and a member of both the Jefferson College Historical Society and the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society. Other articles which she has authored have appeared in the Western Pennsylvania Historical Maga­zine.