The Call of the Clarion

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

To the eighteenth century French explorers, the river the Indians called Tobeco was Riviere au Fiel – the “River of Hate.” Pioneers know it as Toby or Stump Creek. In 1817 it was christened Clarion by road surveyors Daniel Stanard and David Lawson as they camped along its shores because the river’s clear, shrill sound reminded them of the medieval trumpet. The name of the river changed during the course of a century, but its role did not: it served as the principal artery for hundreds of industries exploiting the country’s rich, seemingly inexhaustible lode of natural resources.

During the centuries of exploration and expansion in the territory which eventually became known as Clarion County, the river – together with the Allegheny – played, perhaps, the most important factor in the settlement of the northwest. Proof does not exist today, but early sources cited the French explorer La Salle as one of the earliest travelers throughout the region. In 1729, Chaussegros de Lery, the Chief Engineer of Canada, descended the Allegheny River with a detachment of troops and rendered an exacting topographical survey of the river and its environs. Twenty years later Celeron de Blainville led a military expedition on the Allegheny River to bury lead plates, establishing France’s claim to the territory. Bonnecamp’s map of 1749 clearly shows the Clarion River identified as Riviere au Fiel.

But a river of hate it was not.

Both the Clarion and Allegheny rivers functioned as conduits to the rugged forest heartland where timber, easily the most significant of the county’s natural resources, could be cut and floated to market. The rivers, their tribu­taries and many small streams also supplied early industries which relied heavily on waterpower for milling and grinding. So great was the Clar­ion River’s importance to commerce and transportation that the first steamboat plied its waters in 1829.

Despite the immense wilder­ness boasting abundant and accessible natural resources – particularly timber, water, fire clay, coal and oil – settle­ment in Clarion County was slow. Not until the arrival of 150 pioneers in 1801 did permanent settlements exist. Early settlement was hamp­ered by hostile Indians, who were defeated by the Broad­head expedition of 1770 in which Capt Samuel Brady­ – for whom Brady’s Bend is named – became legendary. The territory was originally acquired from the Indians through the Treaty of Fort Stan­wix in 1768, but it was the defeat of the Indians during the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 which finally opened the territory to the pioneers.

Most of the land was owned by large land companies particularly the Holland, the Pickering and the Bingham land companies, all of Phila­delphia. Among the first land warrant holders in 1795 were Tench Coxe, Samuel Hogdon, Duncan Ingraham, Andrew Craiger, Morris Fisher, and George and Samuel Fox.

The first settlers, prin­cipally of Scotch-Irish descent, were soon followed by Ger­man and English pioneers, many of whom came from the older. established counties of Centre Westmoreland and Indiana Enterprising and industrious, the pioneers began utilizing the rich forests for timber and later as fuel for furnaces. By 1802, the first sawmill was put into operation and the first grist mill opened in 1803.

The sawmill of James Laugh­lin and Frederick Miles made the first run of lumber down the Clarion and Alle­gheny rivers to Pittsburgh in 1804. Little did the pioneers realize that this would be the first of countless runs on the rivers during the next hun­dred years, especially since the rivers offered, in most cases, the only alternative to rugged Indian paths and crude roads.

Several Indian paths criss­-crossed Clarion County, which had been inhabited since Pleistocene times to the open­ing of the nineteenth century. Indian trails included the Frankstown-Venango Path (from Altoona to Franklin), the Venango-Chinklacomoose Path (from Franklin to Clear­field) and the Goschgosch­chink Path (from West Hick­ory to a juncture with the Venango-Chinklacomoose Path at Helen Furnace). Although Indian villages had been aban­doned before the influx of white settlers, their paths of­fered the only means of land transportation until a military road, extending from Erie to Sunbury, was built in 1806. By 1818, a turnpike permitted the operation of a stage coach run between Meadville and Bellefonte.

Soon after the opening of the eighteenth century, Clarion County’s early indus­tries – particularly logging­ – boomed. Lumber was at first used primarily by the settlers to construct houses and buildings, but the transpor­tation easily afforded by the swiftly flowing Clarion River spawned the county’s first boom. The largest operation, the Marvin, Rulofson Com­pany, produced sixty thousand board feet per day. By 1887, more than one hundred and sixty million board feet of timber had been cleared from the company’s tract, leaving an additional ninety million feet still to be felled. By the same year, fifty million board feet of pine had been re­moved from the nearby Blake Tract. Not only was the quantity cut from these and similar tracts staggering, but so was the size of many of the trees. A recollection pub­lished in True Tales of the Clarion River recounts the titanic timber: “I remember of men hauling one piece of pine square timber that measured one foot square at the top, four feet square at the base and eighty-four feet in length, and which required four teams to haul it from the woods to the river.”

A century ago, the county’s lumber production ranked third highest in the Common­wealth. In one year alone, the county’s fifteen mills and twenty-two saws cut twenty­-three million board feet of lumber, thirty thousand shingles and twenty-nine thousand pickets. Subsidiary industries manufactured a vari­ety of lumber-based prod­ucts, including hubs, matches and kindling wood. Through­ out the nineteenth century, lumbering was a significant economic factor in Clarion County, but by the turn of the century the industry foun­dered. Many of the deep. still forests had been stripped of their valuable timber to fuel charcoal-fired blast furnaces. The deforestation was swift and, in many areas, com­plete. By the first years of the twentieth century, the county’s lumber production plummeted to about seven and a half million board feet a year.

During lumber’s heyday, boat-building was a major industry linking both logging and transportation. Rafting on the Clarion River began in earnest during the 1820s and it was not long before river traffic on hectic days ex­ceeded four hundred boats. The rafts built by Marvin, Rulof­son and Company, typical of river craft of the era, meas­ured 170 feet by 26 feet and were constructed of about fifty thousand feet of lumber. To service the burgeoning indus­try, boat scaffolds operated along the river and one enter­prise alone built nineteen hundred boats. The boats were constructed on huge scaffolds, with bottoms up-turned, and rolled into the water upon completion. Smaller craft – often called “creek pieces” – were built on the Clar­ion’s tributaries, floated down streams to the river, and coupled with twenty other boats to form a behemoth meas­uring 80 feet by US feet! Rafting and boat-building also offered decent employment to countians, and at least six hundred men are known to have served as river pilots dur­ing the height of the nine­teenth century phenomenon.

Concurrent with the begin­nings of the lumbering and river transportation boom eras was the development of the iron industry, pioneered by two young Lancaster countians, Henry Bear and Christian Myers. Upon acquiring land near the mouth of the Little Toby Creek, the two entre­preneurs erected the Clarion Furnace, the county’s first iron furnace which went into blast in 1829. The readily available abundance of bog ore, timber, limestone and water­power fueled nearly three dozen furnaces during the nineteenth century. Between 1845 and 1854, half of the pig iron produced in northwest­ern Pennsylvania came from the furnaces of Clarion County, earning it the title of “Iron County.”

The county’s furnaces were tremendous consumers of the rich, natural resources: each required about two hundred and fifty acres of wood­land every year, as well as a good head of waterpower. To produce a single ton of pig iron required three and a half tons of ore, a quarter ton of limestone as flux and two hundred bushels of charcoal. Ore was mined from drifts or banks and, when the bed lay near the surface, open excavations or strip­pings were made. Practically every kind of lumber was used in blasting the furnaces, but chestnut was prized for being the most efficient. Pig iron was floated down the rivers to Pittsburgh in flat bot­tom boats and historians estimate that four thousand boats were needed to make the runs during iron’s peak years.

Each of the larger furnaces­ – Lucinda, Madison and Shippenville – employed be­tween seventy-five and one hundred men as miners, team­sters, woodchoppers, char­coal burners and furnace tend­ers. But by the mid-1840s, depletion of timber, spiraling costs of ore extraction and the development of the Besse­mer process fomented a great decline for the iron indus­try. The repeal of the pro­tective tariff by Congress dur­ing the same decade sounded the death knell for Clarion County’s furnaces. Prices fell below cost of production and the market was irrevocably lost.

As the iron industry floun­dered into oblivion, a new industry-again relying on Clar­ion’s rich storehouse of natural resources-was slowly emerging. Decades earlier, about 1810, Thomas Watson drilled a salt well near the mouth of Deer Creek but, in the process, struck oil. Early inhabitants found the flammable fluid could be used in lamps, but of no worth­while marketing value. Forty years elapsed until the north­west broke out with feverish excitement with the sputtering success of “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake’s well in 1859 in adjacent Venango County. In 1865, Clarion County’s first producing well was brought in not far from the site of Watson’s Deer Creek salt well. The well yielded a scant ten barrels per day and drill­ing proceeded at a rather slow pace until 1869 when spec­ulators and investors began sinking wells wherever land was available.

During Clarion County’s oil boom, as many as a thousand wells were sunk each year. Most of the early wells were light producers – some lasting only a few weeks. The Antwerp well near St. Peters­burg first spewed up nearly two thousand barrels a day, but soon tapered off to seventy-five. But for many, oil – much like timber and iron – was a “kingmaker.” Many investors amassed great wealth while populations burgeoned. Edinburg (Knox) and St. Peters­burg, two small villages, mush­roomed with the arrival of speculators and wildcatters; from settlements of several hundred residents they grew to crowded cities of thousands. Hotels, opera houses, race tracks, and private and public buildings seemed to arise overnight. Drilling continued through the 1870s, but activity diminished by the end of the decade; investors began moving operations to more fecund counties. And by the 1890s, the oil-boom – much like the lumber and iron trades – sank deep into the annals of county history.

With the decline of the oil industry went the size and stature of St. Petersburg. Knox and other once-thriving communities. Many settlements went bust upon the collapse of Clarion County’s indus­tries. Lumber and rafting towns of State Road, Ripple, Gravel Lick and Keystone were aban­doned; oil towns of Triangle, Pickwick, Forest Home and Antwerp stood empty and in great disrepair; and Gardenville and Upper Hill­ville, once prosperous mining towns, joined dozens as ghost towns.

But fortune smiled kindly on Clarion County. As each industry prospered wildly, only to fail within a decade or two, another new trade sur­faced to take its place. It was no different after the de­cline of the county’s petrol­eum industry. The new titan was bituminous coal.

The presence of vast coal deposits had been known for the better part of the cen­tury but, like oil, timing was the essential factor for their exploitation With the development of railroads in the county and the rampant industrialization of the United States, coal began emerging as the new, economic driving force in Clarion County. It has been estimated that Clarion County’s original coal de­posits exceeded two billion short tons! Coal was mined as early as 1877 by sinking deep shaft mines, but by 1920 the reclamation process shifted to strip mining. Today, about five million tons of coal are extracted each year, ninety-six percent by strip mining.

While lumber, iron oil and coal each enjoyed their reign as king and kingmaker, other industries – especially limestone, fire clay and gas played significant roles in the development of Clarion County. Many lesser enter­prises also flourished and numerous cottage industries and small factories, albeit known only locally, included the J. S. Selker Cigar Com­pany and Peter Pan Cigars, both of Clarion; the Ogden Woolen Mills and Greenville Mills, Greenville (now Lime­stone); and the Roscky Carriage Works in St. Petersburg. Jones and Brinker whiskey, distilled in Redbank Town­ship, was world famous.

Social and cultural institu­tions and movements mirrored the advances and declines of the area’s industries and com­merce In 1803, the era of booming water transportation and boat-building, the first school was erected in Clarion Township and, by 1820 at least a dozen schools had been established. By the next decade, spurred by pros­perity and the influx of set­tlers, each township claimed its own schoolhouse. The following boom years of lumbering and oil spawned “the era of the academy, so called because of the pro­liferation of numerous institu­tions, including the Clarion Academy and Literary Institute (1840), the Clarion Female Seminary (1843), the Callens­burg Academy (1848), the Clarion Collegiate Institute (1858), the Reid Institute (1860), the Carrier Seminary (1867), the Oakland Classical and Normal Institute (1877) and West Millville College (1880). The Carrier Seminary even­tually evolved into what is to­day Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

Actual establishment of county government, too, was prompted by the growth of the region’s influential in­dustries. Although the earliest settlements were the town­ships of Toby in 1797 and Piney in 1798, the first incorpor­ated political subdivision was Licking Township in 1804. Early settlers found it difficult to journey to the seats of adjacent Venango and Arm­strong counties and early in the 1830s efforts began to erect a new county. In 1836, the state legislature de­feated a measure which would have created the new county of Stark. But finally, three years later, on March 11, 1839, Gov. David R Porter signed the legislation creating Clarion County. The county, whose population numbered between twelve and fifteen thousand inhabitants, was caned out of sections of Venango and Armstrong coun­ties. Leading candidates for the placement of a county seat were Callensburg, Shippenville and Strattenville but, to avoid controversy, a new settlement, Clarion. “as hacked out of the wilder­ness. The site of the county seat was selected because of its central location and accessi­bility but, perhaps most of all, because the land was donated by ironmaker Christian Myers. The county seat was laid out by John Sloan in 1839.

Despite the prosperity wrought by the river and the subsequent development of major industries, life in Clar­ion County was rigorous and hard for the early settlers. Very little time was allotted for recreation and social­izing; in fact, work and recreation were combined through barn raisings, log rollings, fulling frolics, flax­-scrutchings, shooting matches, and quilting and grubbing bees. During the second half of the nineteenth century, various lodges and organiza­tions were created, including the famous Leatherwood Anti-Horsethief Association in 1868. Thirty-two newspap­ers – including the Iron County Democrat, The Crude Local and the Gatling Gun – served residents during the nine­teenth century and the county kept in touch with the rest of the world upon installation of a telegraph in the 1860s.

Clarion County’s romance with the river last for more than a rich, exciting century. River traffic declined with the exhaustion of easily acces­sible natural resources and with the advent of the railroad. Rail service was instituted during the 1870s upon comple­tion of the Low Grade Branch of the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad which even­tually doomed river transpor­tation. Rafting on the Clarion ceased forever with the completion of the Piney Dam in 1924. Today, transportation in Clarion County, paralleling other rural counties, depends on a system of highways.

Much has changed during the evolution of Clarion County. Its rich heritage is rooted in its natural resources and a hardy, industrious people. Its beauty – which led Pres. James Buchanan to build a summer home and filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille to shoot Un­conquered in the county­ – embraces the largest stand of virgin white pine east of the Mississippi River. Despite its great boom years, half of the county’s land is officially classified as agricultural or open land, while forty percent is listed as forested. The leading industries exploiting natural resources are the natural gas, fire clay, coal and oil businesses. In fact, Clar­ion County ranks in the upper ten in mining, oil production and number of producing wells. The population, for the first time in a century, climbed above forty thou­sand, according to the 1980 cen­sus, while nearby counties recorded population losses.

The evolution of Clarion County – and its industry, edu­cation, culture and heri­tage – spans nearly two cen­turies. Its settlers and later inhabitants underwent great upheavals, many of them fomented by great successes and great failures. But one vital component witnessed the tremendous changes and always remained constant: the ignominiously named “River of Hate.” The Clarion River still flows steadily and swiftly, its richly trilling waters serv­ing as a trumpet to forever remind today’s citizens of the legacies forged by genera­tions of ancestors.


For Further Reading

Beck, Paul E. “Christian Myers, Migrant Iron Master and a Founder of Clarion County.” Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society. Vol. 3O (April 1927), 143-152.

Brady, William Y. “Broadhead’s Trail in 1779.” The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. Vol. 37 (March 1945), 19-32.

Caldwell, J.A. Caldwell’s Illus­trated Historical Combina­tion Atlas of Clarion County, Pennsylvania. Condit, Ohio: The Author, 1877.

Clarion County Centennial History: 1840-1940. Clarion: Clarion County Commissioners, 1940.

Davis, Aaron J. History of Clar­ion County, Pennsylvania. Syracuse: D. Mason and Co., 1887.

Konistzky, Gustav A. Ar­cheological and Historical Site Surveys: St. Petersburg Res­ervoir, Clarion River, Pennsylvania. Clarion: Ar­cheological Laboratory, Clarion State Col­lege, 1968

McKnight, William F. A Pioneer History of Northwestern Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1905.

Reid, George J. “Some Old Trails and Roads of Western Pennsylvania with Special Reference to Clarion County.” The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. Vol. 11
(April 1928), 112-121.

Sharp, Myron B. and William H. Thomas. Old Stone Blast Furnaces in Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1966.

Sheffer, George P., ed. True Tales of the Clarion River. Clarion: Northwestern Pennsylvania Raft­mens Association, 1933.

Urban, Helen W. Clarion County and Its Beginnings. Clarion: The Clarion County Historical Society. 1975.

Wilson, Theophilus L. “The Iron Industry in Clarion County.” The Western Pennsylvania His­torical Magazine. Vol. 20 (March 1937). 15-30.


Samuel A. Farmerie, a historian by avocation, is director of the graduate program of Westminster College, New Wilmington, Penn­sylvania. Dr. Farmerie, whose interest is primarily in local his­tory, has published extensively in historical and educational journals and magazines, including Pennsylvania Heritage. His most recent work is Clarion State College: A Centennial His­tory.