Clearfield County: Land of Natural Resources

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

Clearfield County, believed named for the cleared fields found by early settlers in the area, belies its name; 83 percent of the county’s 1,143.5 square miles is still forested today. Its present timber, however, is second and third growth. Although its forest lands support some lumbering, the county’s economic life depends mostly upon coal and clay in­dustries and the manufacture of wear­ing apparel and electronics products.

The county’s topography ranges from fairly broad valleys to sweeping mountains that cut across its center, forming a natural barrier between Clearfield, the county seat, and Du­Bois, the largest community. The divide, which runs six miles east of Du­Bois, splits the county’s drainage sys­tem. Water from streams in the north­west corner drain via the Allegheny River into the Gulf or Mexico, while all other streams flow eastward into the West Branch of the Susquehanna and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.


The Great Shamokin Path and Early Settlement

Long before the first white man is known to have settled there, an im­portant section of the Indians’ Great Shamokin Path ran through the area from Sunbury to Kittanning. The trail, the first access to what was to become Clearfield County, entered the present­-day boundaries at Post Island on the Black Moshannon Creek from Centre County and reached the West Branch of the Susquehanna at the Indian vil­lage of Chinclacamoose (Chinclecla­mouche), where Clearfield now stands. Westward. the path wound up river to Curwensville, thence to Big Spring near Troutville where it split, with one trail leading south through Punxsu­tawney to Kittanning and the other north into Venango County. (The Boy Scouts of the Bucktail Council, head­quartered at DuBois, are currently en­gaged in marking the Great Shamokin Path through Clearfield County for use by hikers. A booklet describing the trail’s historical sites, its flora and fauna and its geography, geology and weather conditions will be published as part of the project.)

The Pennsylvania Archives contain references to British military expedi­tions over the Great Shamokin Path as early as 1756-57 to check on French and Indian activities. The first known white persons to visit the area, how­ever, were Marie LeRoy and Barbara Leininger. These two young girls were captured by a Delaware Indian war party on October 15, 1755 near present-day Selinsgrove during what is now referred to as the Penn’s Creek Massacre. Their narrative, dictated and published in Philadelphia after their escape in 1759, told of stopping at Jenkiklumuhs, another name for Chinclacamoose (Chincleclamouche), while being taken to Kittanning by their captors.

Many of the early permanent set­tlers were men who had served in the Revolutionary War and had received warrants of land for their services. Most of them made their way from the east over the mountains on foot or horseback. Such was the case with Capt. Edward Rickerts (Ricketts), who claimed land and built a cabin in what is now the Coalport-Glen Hope area in southern Clearfield County as early as 1784. James Woodside was another early pioneer, settling in the DuBois area in 1785. Others came to the re­gion via water. Daniel Ogden and three of his sons made the difficult trip by canoe up the West Branch in 1797. Another. who came by the same means in the same year as Ogden, was Arthur Bell, settling further upstream from Clearfield.


Development of Roads

The northwest wilderness which in­cluded Clearfield County was opened to more settlers with the construction, crude as it was, of the Erie Pike. Opened in 1804 from Milesburg, Centre County, to Le Boeuf (now Waterford) in Erie County, the Erie Pike served as more than simply an artery for settlers. In addition, the road carried war materials and ship­building items to Lake Erie, where Admiral Perry built the fleet which defeated British naval forces in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.

Clearfield County has been crossed by a series of important highways. The Erie Turnpike, a toll road, which ran from Northumberland to Waterford, was the successor to the Erie Pike. Opened in 1824, the 187-mile stretch of highway soon became an important means of migration and trade, with taverns and inns along the way for the accommodation of travelers. More than 100 years later in the 1920s, U.S. Route 322. better known as the “Lakes to Seas Highway,” was de­veloped between Erie and Philadel­phia. Much of its way through Clear­field County follows the routes of the old Erie Turnpike and the Indians’ Great Shamokin Path.

In this half of the twentieth cen­tury, the Keystone Shortway has pro­vided new access for the county to major eastern and western markets, as well as to tourism. The short way, a 313-mile stretch of Interstate 80 from Sharon to Stroudsburg, has been an economic boon to Clearfield County. It could, in fact, almost be called the keystone of I-80 through Pennsyl­vania, for Clearfield County has t11e most miles, 42, of the 15 counties the highway traverses and the most bridges, 72. Somewhat appropriately, the last thousand yards of the shortway’s pave­ment was poured near Elliott State Park just north of Clearfield Borough in June 1970.


Government and Growth

About the time the first roads were being built in the area, a Lancaster land operator, Abraham Witmer, was responsible for selecting the site of the Indian village of Chinclacamoose as the county seat to be known as Clear­field. Witmer, in 1804, donated one lot for a courthouse, one for a jail, one for a market place, three for an acad­emy and two “for the public.” He also agreed to give $3,000, half for use by an academy and half for erection of public buildings, to the new town. In­terestingly, there is no record that Witmer ever visited the town he cre­ated. Of the lots he gave, only four were used for their intended purposes – the courthouse site, the market place and two small pieces of ground along the river dedicated as parks.

Clearfield County was erected from parts of Lycoming and Huntingdon counties by an act of the Assembly in March 1804. From its initial organization as Chincleclamouche Township, there later emerged thirty townships, twenty boroughs and one third class city. Clearfield was the first borough incorporated (1840) with DuBois achieving the same status in 1881 and later becoming a third class city in 1914. The county reached its peak population of 103,236 in 1920 but had declined to 74,619 by 1970. Pre­liminary 1980 census figures, how­ever, show the county with 84,184 residents, the first increase since 1940.

The first courthouse was completed in 1815, although court sessions were not held in the county until 1822. and Clearfield County did not become a separate judicial district until 1883. By then, a new courthouse had been built, completed in 1860. Although plans have been underway for a decade to construct a new seat of justice on the same site as the 120-year-old structure, it continues to be used to this day. In fact, it is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As might be expected, the first record of religious life in the region was also found in what would become the county seat. Presbyterians were preaching there as early as 1803, and the Society of Friends held their first meeting some ten years later. Quickly thereafter, other denominations pene­trated the area and each eventually built churches. The tradition of the Catholic Church, for example, stretches back to J 815 when the first service was conducted. An important event in the history of that church occurred in 1830 when the Most Rev. Francis Patrick Kendrick, D.D., per­sonally established St. Francis Roman Catholic Church in Clearfield soon after his consecration as Bishop of Philadelphia. Today, all major reli­gious creeds are represented in the county.

Early settlers were as concerned about education as they were with their spiritual needs. One year after the first religious services were held, the same year in which Abraham Wit­mer donated land for public buildings, the first school was taught in a log cabin in Curwensville. By 1830, with the growth of Clearfield, the Clearfield Academy had opened its doors. Since that time, educational facilities have spread throughout the region. In 1935, higher education came to the county with the establishment of the DuBois campus of the Pennsylvania State University.

Newspapers too, followed the growth of the region. Established in 1827, The Pennsylvania Banner was the first released in Clearfield. The Banner underwent numerous name changes and owners over the years, finally emerging in 1851 as the Clear­field Republican, a name it retained until the late 1930s despite the fact that it always staunchly supported the Democratic party. Publication of the weekly, later named the Clearfield Times, was suspended in 1944. An­other paper influenced by politics was the Clearfield Progress, started in 1913 as a supporter of the Progressive or “Bull Moose” party of former Presi­dent Theodore Roosevelt.

DuBois provided the first daily newspaper, the Morning Courier, which initiated publication in 1888. Five years later the DuBois Evening Ex­press launched its efforts. By 1944, these two papers merged and together formed the Courier-Express. Of the many papers which originated in the county, only The Progress and the Courier-Express survive today.


The Lumbering Industry and the River

Faced with the necessity of clearing lands of timber to raise the necessities of life, early settlers soon found that lumbering itself offered financial re­turns as well. Not until the l830s, however, did the production of logs and cut lumber become an important business. Once it did, it remained a major industry for the next eighty years or more.

In addition to those already settled in the area, commercial lumbermen came up the West Branch from the Sinnemahoning Creek past Karthaus, Clearfield and Curwensville to the very upper reaches of the river at Cherry Tree. Early giants among the West Branch lumbermen were John Patchin, known as the “Spar King,” John and William Irvin, William Bigler, George and A. J. Powell, John M. Chase, Aaron Patchin and Vincent Tonkin. They found white pine and hemlock in abundance (many pure white pine stands contained volumes as high as 100 thousand board feet to the acre) along with valuable hardwoods. White pine spars from Clearfield County pro­vided the masts for sailing vessels as well as beams for barns and boards for houses and other uses along the eastern coast.

The rafting of square timber rafts began on the West Branch in 1837 and continued until 1917 when the last commercial rafts were floated to mar­ket. During the height of rafting, from 1850 to 1890, from 2,500 to 3,000 rafts containing an estimated 150 to 200 million board feet of white pine were floated downstream each year to markets at Williamsport and other points. At times, the river was literally jammed with traffic.

The West Branch was also the only Pennsylvania river upon which great log drives took place. Construction in the river of booms or collection areas for logs al Curwensville and downstream communities. especially Williamsport. created log drives as a rival to rafting. A smoldering war be­tween the raftsmen and loggers cul­minated in an armed attack on loggers by raftsmen on Clearfield Creek, March 30, 1857. Arrested on warrants charged by both sides, leaders of the rival factions were fined after a court trial – the raftsmen found guilty of riot, the loggers guilty of obstructing the stream. After this episode, the two groups then buried their differences, at least openly.

The story of rafting on the West Branch would not be complete with­out mention of one latter-day rafting venture, the “Last Raft,” organized by R. Dudley Tonkin, a longtime rafts­man and lumberman from Cherry Tree. Manned by experienced “old timers,” the Last Raft started down river March 14, 1938. Six days later, however, on March 20, the raft hit a railroad pier at Muncy. Forty-eight crewmen and passengers were swept into the river and seven persons perished. Despite the disaster, how­ever, the raft continued on its journey and eventually tied up at Fort Hunter, above Harrisburg.

The river has been important to Clearfield County, but floods on the West Branch have been frequent and sometimes disastrous. The river rose to extraordinary heights in November 1811, for example, washing out bridges on tributary streams as well as the pumpkin crop from fields along the river. Because of the extraordinary circumstances, the flood earned the name the “Pumpkin Flood.”

Other major floods occurred in 1847, 1851, 1861 and on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1865. In 1889, al the same time that Johnstown was devas­tated, another disastrous flood oc­curred, particularly for Clearfield and down river. But the flood that present-­day Clearfielders remember best was the St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936 which took one life and caused wide­spread damage all along the West Branch.

Following the devastation of that flood, public attention turned toward the development of a flood control system. Although it took thirty years for Clearfield countians and others downstream, particularly at Lock Haven. Renovo and Williamsport, to secure a series of dams to harness the river, their efforts finally met with success. One key dam in the system was dedicated at Curwensville in 1966. Although the finished product cost S2 I million. it is credited with having saved downstream communities when Hurricane Agnes hit in 1973. The Glendale Dam. built at Prince Gallitzin State Park in Cambria County, also provides flood protection at Irvona and Coalport. In addition, flood levees now protect the City of DuBois from the flooding of Sandy Lick Creek.


John DuBois and Others

In 1871 while lumber was king, John DuBois, Jr. crossed the moun­tains from Williamsport co start opera­tions in the northwest corner of the county. Prior to that time, DuBois had made a fortune in sawmill and logging boom operations at Williamsport and other points. It is reported that he first unobstrusively visited the area in 1842 and at that time began buying timber­land.

Taking over what had been a giant beaver dam, DuBois quickly con­structed two saw mills, a box factory, a hemlock mill and an immense lum­ber yard. The arrival of the Allegheny Valley Railroad from Pittsburgh gave him access to markets, and his empire spread. He added an iron works in 1875, and later, when a market for hemlock bark developed, built a tan­nery in partnership with the Van Tassel brothers. The village which had origi­nally been named Rumbarger. soon be­came known as DuBois in his honor.

When DuBois died in 1886, his nephew, John E. DuBois, became sole heir to his holdings. The John DuBois sawmills and other enterprises con­tinued to nourish under his nephew’s direction until 1900, by which time all timber had been felled from the DuBois lands. It is estimated that be­tween 1872 and 1900 more than one billion feet of lumber was cut at the DuBois mills.

Major I. McCreight, a banker-historian, wrote in 1938:

DuBois was conceived in a big idea, by a man able to carry out his idea. Already (around 1900) it was breeding big ideas in the minds of her youth, who went forth and demonstrated that teaching. While John DuBois put the town on the map, Johnny J. Jones. Tom Mix and John G. McCrory are names that helped to keep it there.

Mr. McCreight was referring to the man who created one of the great carni­vals of the early 1900s, the Johnny J. Jones Carnival Show, which travelled from coast to coast but always re­turned to show in his home town; to Tom Mix, whose father was a coachman for John E. DuBois and who became one of the great western cowboy stars of the silent screen days from 1914 until the talkies arrived; and to John G. McCrory, who started the first store of his great five and ten cent store chain at DuBois.

Clearfield County also points with pride to having produced two United States senators and one governor of Pennsylvania. William A. Wallace, an industrialist, sat in the U.S. Senate from 1875 to 1881. William Bigler served both as governor, 1852-55, and as senator from 1855 to 1861. In­terestingly, Bigler’s brother, John, served as governor of California at the same time William was the chief executive of Pennsylvania. This coincidence was not again repeated until this century when the Rockefeller brothers. Nelson of New York and Winthrop of Arkansas. served concurrent terms as governors of their respective states.

The county also claims two famous composers, born in or near Penfield, whose hymns and band music are still sung and played. Philip Paul Bliss, born in 1838 at Force, four miles from Penfield, wrote such gospel favorites as “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.” “What a Saviour,” and “Hold the Fort.” ‘George Rosenkrans, born in Penfield itself in 1881, had more than 150 marches for bands published, among them “Admiral Mayo’s March,” “Triumphant Battalion,” “Royal Wel­come Home,” and other marches dedi­cated to the U.S. Military and Naval Academies.


Coal and Railroads Take Over

Beginning in the early 1860s, river rafting and logging found a new rival in coal as a contributor to Clearfield County’s economic, ethnic and social life. Initially, in the early 1800s, coal was shipped down the West Branch in arks. By the 1860s, however, methods were modernized when eastern capital­ists and the railroads moved into the county to mine and transport coal from the region for use in steamships, locomotives, steel mills and other in­dustries.

The first mines opened in the Philipsburg (Centre County), Osceola Mills and Houtzdale areas, where coal averaging four and one-half feet in thickness and singularly free of sul­phur was found. By 1900 and later, coal mining had spread to virtually all parts of the county with whole new communities developing by the peak year of 1918. Some survive today­ – others died when the coal veins were exhausted.

Coal changed Clearfield County’s lifestyle; fortunes were made and lost in mining operations. One inevitable development stemming from these mining operations was the unioniza­tion of workers by the United Mine Workers of America. Due to the heavy strength of unionized mine workers in the county, the UMW District 2 headquarters was located in Clearfield for many years, until the 1950s.

The dominance of coal continues today, but in a different way. Shortly before World War II, the new method of surface or open pit mining was in­troduced and today has surpassed in importance the one-time dominant “deep mine” method. In 1979, Clear­field County ranked first in Pennsyl­vania in tonnage produced by the surface mining technique.

It was no coincidence that the development of coal mining was matched by the entrance of railroads into the county, further opening this north-central “wilderness” to the east and west. Coal was the goal of the rail roads as they came to Clearfield County, and come they did – from the south, the east, the north and the west – to gain the rich coal traffic, along with passenger and other freight business.

The Pennsylvania was the first rail­road to arrive, reaching Clearfield Borough in January 1869. The Allegheny Valley Railroad was next, con­necting DuBois with Pittsburgh in 1874. In 1883-84, it was the New York Central which breached the county from the east, followed by the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh. reach­ing DuBois from New York State. Ten years later a branch line was run into Clearfield and the company construc­ted big car repair shops in DuBois. Other railroads seeking the coal of Clearfield County included the Buffalo & Susquehanna and the Erie from the north, and the Pittsburgh, Shawmut and Northern from the west.

All told, some twenty-three rail­roads by different names operated in the county in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most eventually consolidated with the Baltimore & Ohio, New York Central and Pennsylvania, while others like the B.&S. disappeared completely. Today, lines have been further con­solidated into Conrail and the B.&0.-Chesapeake & Ohio.


The Fire Brick Industry and Diversification

The existence of fire clay in the county was discovered as early as 1833. Like coal, however, the manu­facture of fire brick (refractories used for lining steel furnaces and for other high heat purposes) did not nourish until railroad transportation was avail­able to eastern markets. In the same year that the first rail line reached Clearfield, 1869, fire clay mining and shipment began at Woodland four miles east of the town. One year later, the Woodland Fire Brick Company started the first of two plants, both eventually purchased by Harbison-Walker Refractories Co. of Pittsburgh. Harbison-Walker, which built its first factory in 1899, still operates three large plants at Clearfield. North American Refractories Co. also has a large production center at Curwensville, and regular building brick is manufactured by other firms at Clearfield and Bigler.

As coal, the railroads and to some extent even the brick-making industries began to decline, new manufac­turing industries moved into the county, largely through the efforts of chambers of commerce or industrial development organizations. Rockwell International, for example. opened a gas meter manufacturing plant at Du­Bois. Brockway Glass, just over the line in Jefferson County, also opened a plant which now employes more than 1,000 Du Bois area residents. Clearfield Cheese Co., started by the Tale brothers at Curwensville before World War II, is today one of the top­-ranking cheese processing companies in the nation. Clearfield, reflecting further diversification, has become a center for the apparel industry as well, with plants controlled by Target, Mc­Gregor-Doniger sportswear and J.&E. women’s wear providing hundreds of jobs. Components for electronics are also produced in the region. and Piper Aircraft has a substantial operation at Quehanna, on a site first developed by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.


The Ethnic Makeup

The logging, rafting, railroading, coal mining and the refractories in­dustry brought new ethnic groups into the county to take their place be­side the early Scottish, English, and Irish settlers. Many of these immi­grants-Germans. French, Swedes, Ital­ians, Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians and others just off ships which brought them through Ellis Island at New York City-found new homes and jobs in Clearfield County. Legend, backed by considerable fact, has it that Italian immigrants arrived at Clearfield bear­ing tags marked with their names and desired destinations, such as the Harbi­son-Walker plants, where they hoped to find work.

Probably because new arrivals sought homes and jobs where fellow countrymen were already established, today there appear specific “pockets” of ethnic groups in the county. Thus, Swedish descendants are found in Du­Bois and in the Winburne-Lanse area of southeastern Clearfield County. Descendants of Italian immigrants are found concentrated in Clearfield and Curwensville, the latter having drawn skilled stone cutters from their native Italy for the quarries that once existed there. German, Polish, Lithuanian and others of Eastern European ancestry are to be found predominantly at Du­Bois, as well as in the Houtzdale­-Osceola Mills region.

One of the most fascinating ethnic settlements occurred down river from Clearfield at Frenchville, settled largely by French immigrants in the early 1830s. History records that a Paris merchant induced families from French Normandy and Picardy to emigrate to land he owned in the new country. The early Frenchville settlers are said to have walked from Baltimore or Philadelphia to their new homes.

Loyal to their native France, the early settlers and some of their descen­dants, even as late as the present cen­tury, wore the picturesque costumes of their native land. For many years the French language was preserved and spoken in the majority of households. Even today, the descendants of those early French settlers – with names like Billotte, Roussey, Beauseigneur, Ren­aud, Schnell and Plubell, to mention only a few – are found at Frenchville, Covington Township.

Covington Township has another interesting French connection. Many years ago while clearing land, farmers discovered two sandstone slabs marked in French. Identified as grave markers, the headstones were inscribed with the words: “A la Memoir de Tohas Auxe 35 B.J.” On the reverse side was carved “September 1, 1771,” with a brief message which, translated liter­ally, meant “Farewell, friend, may we meet in life eternal.” Historians believe that Tohas Auxe may have been a Jesuit and a political refugee from France. He apparently died in the area while attempting to cross unfriendly British territory with companions on their way to New Orleans from Que­bec. The specific circumstances sur­rounding his death, however, are un­known.



Clearfield County, born amid pio­neer hardship, built upon natural re­sources of timber and coal, and now turning to diversified industry, still exhibits the pride and detem1ination that characterized its early settlers and later immigrants. With vast coal reserves remaining, the county sees further development of this resource as essential, particularly in light of the current energy shortage. Clearfield County, which turned to natural re­sources for development in the past, will again turn to them for growth in the future.


George A. Scott served twenty-eight years as editor of The Progress news­paper in Clearfield, where he won several state and national writing awards. His series on the county railroads, later published in book form, won a Certificate of Commen­dation from the AASLH in 1968. Today, he continues to write two columns weekly, one on Clearfield County history, as editor emeritus and is also the director of the Clear­field County Historical Society.