A Glimpse of Mercer County

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

Mercer County, situated on the western edge of the state about midway between Erie and Pittsburgh. takes its name from Hugh Mercer, who emi­grated to Pennsylvania from Scotland. Mercer settled in Franklin County where he established a medical prac­tice, but he achieved prominence as a military man fighting in the French and Indian War and serving with Gen­eral Washington in the early campaigns of the Revolution. Wounded at the Battle of Princeton, Hugh Mercer died in January 1777. For Mercer County, he has remained a symbol of that revolutionary era.

Early History

Following independence, the na­tional government moved to organize the area later to become Mercer Coun­ty through legislation passed in 1783. Provisions of the act set aside tracts of land in the region to redeem certifi­cates given as payment to Revolution­ary War veterans. The law established a line from Kittanning to the western border of the state, designating land north of the line as “donation” land and that to the south as “depreciation certificate” lots. The act divided the donation lands into ten east-west strips and allotted land to veterans ac­cording to their rank. In an attempt to avoid friction, government agents pur­chased these lands from the Indians through treaties in 1784 and 1785.

Surveys of the north-south lines began in 1785, but the concurrent sur­vey of the state’s western boundary delayed completion of the east-west lines. In addition, the heavily forested landscape provided surveyors with another obstacle. They noted thick bushes and “an amazing number of fallen trees, difficult from the size of some to go over … [or] around …. ” Some of the oak trees were fourteen feet in circumference, and the rolling terrain prevented accurate measure­ment, causing a number of the tracts to be off by as much as fifty acres.

Surveys did not induce immediate immigration to this isolated area and significant settlement did not occur until the later 1790s. Although a few settlers filtered in earlier, mostly via navigable rivers from the Pittsburgh area, Indian opposition and govern­ment land policies generally deterred early large-scale settlement. Indian resistance continued and many eligible veterans failed to apply for land even though the government held the dona­tion lands open to them until 1813. If soldiers did not take up the land, it became available to anyone else able to buy it and willing to “cultivate, improve and settle upon” it. Many settlers simply “squatted” on unsur­veyed land and attempted to legalize their claims, a practice which led to numerous conflicts.

Most of the warrants in the region were purchased by large land specula­tion companies such as the Pennsyl­vania Population Company which ac­quired a large tract. The Holland Land Company, composed of Dutch capital­ists who had invested in the Revolu­tion, was also active, reinvesting its money in American land. In all, these two companies acquired a total of approximately one million acres.

Originally, much of the western part of the state was designated as Allegheny County, which was even­tually subdivided as the population grew. Donation strips No. 2 through No. 5, for example, would become Mercer County. After it was created, the county seat was laid out by court­-appointed trustees on land situated be­tween Otter and Neshannock creeks which had been donated by John Hoge. Its location proved to be contro­versial, however, for some favored a spot on the big bend of the Shenango River. One disgruntled settler com­plained that the county seat, Mercer, was situated “on a wretched creek, up which an Indian could never pass with his canoe, and a place rejected on an excellent navigable stream.”

Being the county seat provided im­petus for Mercer’s growth, and con­struction of a courthouse began in October 1803. In addition to the courthouse, Mercer acquired the coun­ty’s first post office in 1805 which soon became a focal point of county activity. By 1814, the town had be­come the county’s first incorporated borough. Among its earliest settlers were James Braden, David and John Garvin, who came in 1797, and John Pew, who arrived in 1798. John Garvin’s “Blue Ball” tavern was well known to area travelers.

The county’s largest town, Sharon, got its start with the arrival of William Budd, who settled by the Shenango River in 1796. Other early arrivals to that settlement included Benjamin Bentley, who built a saw mill and a grist mill, and Henry Hoagland. By the early nineteenth century, Sharon took on the appearance of a community, growing slowly and achieving a popula­tion of 541 by 1850.

First settlement of present Green­ville occurred in 1796 when Joseph Keck, Peter and Daniel Klingensmith, and Andrew Christy filed claims. Benjamin Lodge, a surveyor of the donation lands, organized the land company of Lodge, Probst & Walker which laid out what was initially called West Greenville in 1797 (later incorporated as Greenville in 1837). Jacob Loutzenheiser bought land that same year and built a dam and a grist mill, while Joseph Keck opened the area’s first distillery. The growth of early distilleries facilitated the trans­porting of corn crops and provided much needed cash for the settlers.

Grove City traces its origins to about the same period when Valentine Cunningham settled on Wolf Creek in 1798 and built both grist and saw mills. The town’s development, however, was slow. In the 1840s the town site of Pine Grove was laid out, but it remained small until the railroad reached the area in 1872 and provided an eco­nomic stimulus. In 1882, residents changed the name to Grove City.

These towns followed classic pat­terns of settlement. Settlers arrived, selected land, and began to hunt, trap and farm. Soon they erected saw mills, grist mills and distilleries. Although Mercer owed its beginnings to its des­ignation as the county seat, other settlements grew because of their locations along waterways which provided transportation and mill power. With the appearance of roads and the devel­opment of commerce, these settle­ments became towns.

Transportation

Historically, the establishment of transportation systems has been cru­cial to the county’s development. Prior to the Revolution, a road ran from Fort Pitt to Erie, but it missed Mercer County because of the utiliza­tion of the Allegheny River between Franklin and Fort Pitt. About 1800, however, a road was laid out through Mercer County linking Beaver, New Castle, and Meadville. In 1804, county officials recommended a road connect­ing Mercer and Greenville and, in 1806, another to Sharon. Agitation for still better roads led to the chartering of the Mercer and Meadville Turnpike Company. The result was the Mercer Pike which opened as a toll road in 1821 facilitating postal service and serving as an important link in the Pittsburgh-Erie route. Over a century later, county residents would hail the coming of the Perry Highway (U.S. Route 19) as an improved Erie-Pitts­burgh link. More recently the comple­tion of Interstates 79 and 80, which intersect in Mercer County, have afforded residents easier access to a much greater area.

The Erie Extension Canal pro­vided yet another important transpor­tation link. The success of New York’s Erie Canal, completed in 1825, in­spired Pennsylvania to plan its own canal systems. Western Pennsylvanians dreamed of linking the Ohio River with Lake Erie and the New York waterways. By 1826, Pennsylvania had a plan for such a canal, the main line of which would utilize the Beaver and Shenango rivers passing through the heart of Mercer County with a feeder linking it to the Allegheny. The feeder was completed by December 1834, but work on the main line languished.

In 1843, the state gave the project to the Erie Canal Company on the pro­vision that it finish and operate the canal. That company, headed by Rufus Reed, soon completed the work. In December 1844, the first boats from the south reached Erie – the Queen of the West, carrying passengers, and the Rufus S. Reed, loaded with Mercer County coal. This event marked the beginning of twenty years of activity. Since the boats were more comfortable than stage travel along the Mercer Pike, and since the trip from Erie to Beaver at a cost of four dollars, including meals, was a bargain, the canal was very popular for passenger service.

The canal’s economic impact was significant. It furnished cheap trans­portation for county products and stimulated enterprise, especially coal mining and the fledgling iron industry. Another consequence of the canal was its effect on settlements along its route. Towns like Sharon and Greenville re­ceived new life, while other newer communities also developed. Big Bend, for example, emerged as a commercial center since supplies brought there via canal were reloaded on wagons and transported to Mercer and other sites.

The canal’s heyday, however, was comparatively short, for railroads soon replaced it with a better transportation system. The Erie and Pittsburgh Rail­road, paralleling the canal route, was completed from Erie to New Castle in 1864 providing more efficient service. The canal tried to compete by expand­ing its service, but the railroad check­mated that effort by purchasing a majority of the canal stock. There­after, the railroad owners neglected the canal and closed it in 1871 when an aqueduct over Elk Creek collapsed.

During the second half of the nine­teenth century, Mercer County ac­quired an extensive railroad network which first began as a series of small lines with links to major rail systems. Through a complex series of consolida­tions, a few major railroads came to dominate local traffic.

The first railroad of importance was the Erie and Pittsburgh, chartered in 1856. The line operated as a feeder to the Lake Shore Railroad system until the 1870s when it was leased to the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Another line, the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad of Pennsylvania, which connected with the Erie, was sold to the New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio in 1880 before becoming part of the Erie system. The expansive Erie Railroad, which ultimately ran from New York to Chicago, gave the county direct access to major market areas.

Although these rail lines serviced the northern and western parts of the county, Mercer and the eastern area remained isolated. The two areas were finally united in 1872 when the Bear Creek Railroad company completed feeder lines from Harrisville to Shen­ango Station. By the late 1880s, the Pittsburgh, Shenango and Lake Erie, as the railroad was by then called, reached from Pittsburgh to Lake Erie with its general offices and shops in Greenville. Andrew Carnegie, interested in carrying iron ore from the Great Lakes to his Pittsburgh steel mills, quickly realized the railroad’s value and bought a controlling interest in it. In 1901, the line became known by the name it holds today – the Besse­mer and Lake Erie Railroad.

These railroads continued the canals’ stimulus to the coal, the iron and later the steel industries which became the basis for the county’s economy to the present day.

Industrial Growth

With the railroads themselves as customers and the access to other markets which they offered, the area’s coal industry boomed. Joel Curtis found coal on his land near Sharon during the 1830s while others un­covered fields in different parts of the county. It was Curtis and George Boyce, however, who joined forces to start the famous Mercer County block coal ind us try. Found in deposits six feet thick, the coal was cut out in blocks, a shape which it retained until it burned to ashes. This characteristic made it particularly suitable for use in early blast furnaces in which coal and iron ore were stacked in layers.

Between 1837 and 1876, mining companies opened more than fifty coal mines. By 1906, the Westerman­-Filer Company had become the largest coal producer in Mercer County, which ranked twelfth among the counties in the state in coal produc­tion. The industry has remained im­portant to this day, primarily through contemporary strip mining operations.

The presence of coal paved the way for the development of the iron in­dustry. Early blast furnaces were fueled by charcoal, but the production of block coal permitted iron manufac­turing on a larger scale. One of the county’s first blast furnaces was “Harry of the West,” built on the Little Shenango River in 1838. Seven years later, the firm of Vincent, Him­rod and Co. constructed the Clay Furnace, named for Henry Clay, and later the Blanche Fu mace near Sharps­ville. The Clay Furnace was purchased by the Sharon Iron Company, organ­ized in 1850, under the leadership of president Joel Curtis of coal fame. Curtis added an iron foundry and a rolling mill. Production, once begun in 1851, established Sharon as an iron center.

Unfortunately, the other furnace constructed by Vincent, Himrod and Co., the Blanche Furnace, was un­profitable during its early years of production, due in part to the poorer grade iron ore found in Mercer Coun­ty. The fate of the furnace changed in 1859, however, when “General” James Pierce bought it and began to import iron ore from the Lake Superior re­gion. Although Pierce’s efforts marked the end for local iron mining, they in­sured the growth of Sharpsville.

The area’s iron industry also owed much to the railroads. They not only transported iron to markets but were themselves purchasers of large quanti­ties of iron for rails and rolling stock. The Civil War further stimulated the iron industry. By 1874, the Shenango Valley boasted nearly thirty blast furnaces with rolling mills which pro­duced as their main products bar iron, iron nails and “T” rails for the rail­roads.

The national financial Panic of 1873, however, closed practically all blast furnaces in the valley. When the area recovered, the blast furnaces resumed operation, but the iron in­dustry was changed. Iron nails were not used much after 1890 and iron companies shifted their emphases to the production of pig iron and steel.

The area’s first steel mm appeared in 1887 when F. H. Buhl, D. Eagan and Samuel McClure organized the Sharon Steel Castings Company with an open hearth furnace. Buhl, also president of Buhl Steel Company, erected the Sharon S tee) works and furnace in 1896 and a blooming mill, built on the edge of Sharon, which literally started the town of South Sharon, later Farrell. United States Steel took over the plant in 1902 and management again changed during the 1940s when the Farrell works were purchased by Sharon Steel Corpora­tion, formerly the Sharon Steel Hoop Company. With the purchase of the Farrell works, the Sharon Steel Cor­poration became one of the nation’s largest steel producers. Although Frank Buhl played a crucial role in the devel­opment of the industry in the region, his influence extended far beyond his steel mills making his name synony­mous with philanthropic activity.

Other companies also participated in the local steel scene. One of the most outstanding was the National Malleable and Steel Castings Company which came to Sharon in 1900. A combination of several former steel castings manufacturers, the company was responsible for the first electric furnace in the United States.

The Twentieth Century

By 1900, the county’s industrial base had assumed its general character. Railroads, coal and steel would remain basic to its twentieth-century develop­ment, even as the economy expanded in other directions. As might be ex­pected, however, the county’s econ­omy, and life in general, responded to major national occurrences such as the Great Depression and two world wars. The establishment of Camp Rey­nolds, near Greenville, was one of World War II’s biggest impacts on the region. The camp, the site of which was chosen for its proximity to exten­sive railroad connections, served as a last assembly point for troops being sent to the European Theater, and was intended as only a temporary facility. Originally designated the Shenango Personnel Replacement Depot, its name was changed to honor John P. Reynolds, a Union general killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. The camp was built to accommodate ninety thousand troops and although it did not achieve that figure, it was for a brief time the largest military installa­tion in Pennsylvania. Some German prisoners of war arrived during 1944, but by the year’s end, most personnel had been transferred elsewhere, and Camp Reynolds became a ghost town:

Earlier, however, while the camp was being constructed, the arrival of thousands of G.I.’s and other support personnel had a major effect on the area. Greenville’s population increased by 60 percent with the influx of con­struction workers and others, causing an acute housing shortage. In an effort to alleviate the situation, the govern­ment permitted Thiel College to build its Livingston Dormitory, possibly the only college dormitory built in the country during the war due to the war­time priority system.

After the war, the site of Camp Reynolds was put to good use. In 1946, the General Services Administra­tion auctioned off or dismantled most of the buildings, leaving the water and sewage systems intact. Taking advan­tage of what remained, local leaders formed the Reynolds Development Authority. Within a few years, an in­dustrial park was established there and a housing development known as Rey­nolds grew up adjacent to the area.

The promise of improved business and recreational opportunities and a desire (or flood control combined to produce two major recent develop­ments in Mercer County and its sur­rounding area – Pymatuning Dam and the Shenango Reservoir. The Shenango River, although crucial to county de­velopment, had on a regular basis in­flicted costly floods since the days of earliest settlement. A particularly devastating flood in 1913 wreaked havoc in Sharon and other river com­munities, collapsing bridges and build­ings, leaving hundreds homeless and causing over two million dollars in damage. Fortunately, only one death resulted.

The disaster prompted serious consideration of flood control measures. Local leaders, especially from the steel industry, mounted an effort to buy land necessary for a reservoir in the Pymatuning Swamp area from neigh­boring Crawford County and Ohio. Businesses wanted to regulate the water flow for industrial purposes as well as for flood control. The state of Pennsylvania reacted slowly, but in May 193 I, Gov. Gifford Pinchot signed legislation authorizing construc­tion of Pymatuning Dam. Work began that October and continued during the depression, providing welcome jobs. The dam and park area opened in 1934 and in succeeding years the facility took on major significance as a recreational area. Pymatuning was less successful, however, in regulating water flow for industrial use. Though it afforded some flood control, it did not provide the overall protection needed by the Shenango Valley.

Interest turned to construction of another dam on the river. Surveys began in 1938 but were interrupted by World War II. As a result, the project languished. Efforts resumed in the 1950s, however, and by 1960 the Shenango Reservoir project began. The reservoir, with its dam near Sharps­ville, required population removal affecting several communities plus the relocation of railroads, powerlines and pipelines. To complete the project, the federal government, which assumed the project, purchased fourteen thou­sand acres, including some of the county’s richest farmland. By 1965, the Army Corps of Engineers finished the dam and the reservoir went into full operation in 1967. Since that time, it has effectively reduced flood­ing in the Shenango, Beaver and upper Ohio valleys.

Like Pymatuning Dam, Shenango Reservoir added significantly to the county’s recreational facilities for en­joyment by area and regional residents. The completion of Interstates 79 and 80 has made the area more accessible to summer visitors from Pittsburgh, Cleveland and other places. Their in­flux also boosts the area’s economy.

Conclusion

In most respects, Mercer County’s history is typical of that of many others. As it passed from frontier stage, to settled state, to industrialized era, its development reflected national trends. Veterans of the Revolution set­tled here and its residents responded to national events. They marched off to fight in the country’s wars, suf­fered through its depressions, enjoyed its prosperity and contributed to its diversity. They were a product of political, social and economic forces of a larger national scale.

The county population is extreme­ly heterogeneous with virtually every ethnic and racial group found in the United States represented. Early immigrants reflected the basic Anglo-Saxon stock of colonial times. Later, the steel mills attracted large immigration from southern and eastern Europe. It was a common sight in Sharon to see fami­lies loaded down with baggage headed for the mill area. Nearly every home was a boarding house filled with cots. Thus, Farrell acquired a particularly cosmopolitan character reflecting many old world customs.

While much of the county’s devel­opment is attributable to industrial growth, agriculture has also been im­portant. In early days, it was the basic endeavor. The county did not escape the customary farm-to-city exodus, but even the subsequent industrialization did not eradicate the basically rural character of much of the region. The Grange has remained a prominent county fixture and sheep and cattle, especially for dairy farming, are com­mon sights in the area. One particular group of agriculturalists stands out­ – the Amish. Their well-kept farms and horse-drawn carriages are also a famil­iar local sight.

A mixture of population and liveli­hoods has contributed to the develop­ment of a diverse culture. County residents represent a multitude of re­ligious backgrounds, reflect a variety of interests and enjoy numerous tradi­tions and pastimes. Sports and athletic events have always been popular. Base­ball, in particular, has a strong tradi­tion, but boxing has a hero. In 1941, Farrell’s Billy Soose won the world middle weight boxing title.

Theater has been prominent as well. Sharon featured the Morgan Grand Opera House, which exhibited local talent and attracted the best road shows. Greenville, conveniently situ­ated on the Erie Railroad’s main line half-way between New York and Chicago, made it a scheduled stop-over for traveling shows and performers. The town’s Laird Opera House hosted Sarah Bernhardt, the “Great Caruso” and Victor Herbert during its heyday in the 1880s and 90s.

Educational developments have also been impressive. The earliest settlers established schools as a first order of business. At one time, the county boasted more than two hundred, one­-room schools with Mercer featuring a renowned academy and the Fredonia Institute which flourished there for many years. Presently, two private institutions of higher learning, Thiel College (established 1866) in Green­ville and Grove City College (estab­lished 1884) in Grove City, and the Shenango Valley Campus of The Penn­sylvania State University in Sharon continue the county’s excellent educa­tional traditions.

A county history is more than an accounting of first settlements, econ­omic growth and local culture. It is a panorama of people, places and cir­cumstances. Mercer County cannot claim to be the scene of spectacular historical events, but countians have been prominent in many ways. James Bowman was the first American artist to have his work displayed at the Louvre in Paris. John Bingham was the judge advocate at the trial of conspira­tors in the assassination of President Lincoln. Two Bigler brothers were simultaneously governors of Pennsyl­vania and California. John Goodsell accompanied the Peary expedition to the North Pole. Alfred Landon began his 1936 campaign for the presidency in his native West Middlesex – unfor­tunately for bis hopes, his opponent, Franklin Roosevelt, was then at the zenith of his political career.

Mercer County has a rich history. Typical in most respects, it is certainly unique in its own way. County resi­dents and fellow Pennsylvanians can cherish it.

 

Margaret Olson holds an M.A. in his­tory and has taught part time at the Shenango Valley Campus of The Penn­sylvania State University.

 

Dr. Robert Olson is a professor of history at Thiel College in Greenville. Both are active as members of the board of directors of the Mercer County Historical Society.