Historical Sketch of Elk County

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

Elk County is named for that noble animal that once abounded in the region in great numbers. The last native elk, however, was shot in 1867 in Elk County by an Indian, Jim Jacobs. Today, Pennsylvania’s only Elk herd roams freely over the area bounded by Elk and Cam­eron Counties. It is descended from the Elk herd imported into Pennsylvania in 1913 from Montana and Wyoming.

The history of Elk County dates back many years before its formal erection as a separate entity. Indians inhabited the county centuries before the white men came. Near Russell City in Highland Township evidence is visible of Indian fort ruins, which date to the 1300’s. The old Kittanning Indian Trail, the most direct route from Olean in southern New York to Kittanning, passes through western Elk County. This trail was used by early Iroquois Indian hunting and raiding parties. The old Kittanning Indian Trait was reportedly used as a military road.

Elk County’s early history was distinctive and ever changing. The menace of Indian attacks was a deterrent to civilization in northwestern Pennsylvania. The Big Level, extending from Tylersburg in Clarion to Howard Hill in McKean County, crosses the northern part of Highland. In Revolutionary days, and indeed up to 1880, the Big Level was the only sure guide for travelers in this region. Evidences of the old military road are said to exist on the Big Level both in Highland Township and McKean County.

Traders, trappers and hunters opened the area for settlement. The result was that Elk County was a part of the region claimed by the French, the English (in this case the colony of Virginia), and the Indians. The question was bitterly disputed, and soon led to the French and Indian War. On August 6, 1763, Col. Henry Bouquet of England and his forces met the Indians at Bushy Run (near what is now Export in Westmoreland County), and won one of the most important battles In American history. The victory cleared the way for settlement in” northwestern Pennsylvania after the year 1790.

History acknowledges the initial beginnings of Pennsyl­vania and Elk County to William Penn. Penn divided his province into three areas or counties: Bucks, Philadelphia, and Chester. Chester County extended over the western part of the Commonwealth at that time. Elk County was in the original Chester County portion.

By a treaty made in 1784 at Fort Stanwix, New York, the Iroquois Six Nations relinquished all their remaining lands in Pennsylvania. The Indians received for this purchase the sum of $10,000. Elk County was within the boundaries of the great northwestern purchase.

After the Revolutionary War, land speculators entered western Pennsylvania. Their business was to buy tracts of land and to sell them to settlers. Donation lands were the bonuses paid to Revolutionary War veterans, but most of the men were desperate for ready money and sold their lands to speculators. Speculators advertised the country, organized settlement companies and had laws passed to make settlement easy.

With the purchase of 1784 completed and confirmed, the land office was opened for sales December 21, 1785. Following several decreases in price, the figure was finally set at six and two-thirds cents per acre. Elk County was at this time part of Northumberland County. Major land purchasers in the Elk County area were Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, Thomas Willy, and Robert Morris.

The portion of the purchase of 1784 lying east of the Allegheny River and Conewango Creek was divided into 18 districts, with a deputy surveyor appointed for each. Elk County, as it now exists, would be in District Numbers 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 as was then constituted.

The Holland Land Company, a group of Dutch bankers or merchants from Amsterdam, had lent large sums of money to the Provincial Government of Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War. Their representatives sug­gested the purchase of lands for speculations. The most prominent among them was Wilhelm Willink. These busi­nessmen purchased land from Robert Morris and James Wilson. The area known as Elk County was included in this purchase. Elk County history records other individuals and companies involved in land transactions, but for the sake of brevity the writer did not Include them in this article.

The first pioneers came into the region during the latter part of the eighteenth century. About 1787, John Bennett and his father came up the Susquehanna River and the Bennetts Branch to a point where Caledonia in Jay Town­ship is now situated. Bennetts Valley is undoubtedly named for them. Gen. John Wade and a friend named Slade came to the headwaters of Little Toby in 1798 and settled there temporarily. In 1803, the party returned and built a log house at the mouth of Little Toby. Recorded indications are that a surveyor was working in the area near the present Penn Avenue in Ridgway in 1794.

The remoteness of the region now Elk County delayed its eventual settlement. The waterways became the initial mode of transportation commencing In the 1800’s when the permanent settlers came. However, there were several other means of transportation. It is almost beyond our comprehension to understand the hardships and dangers they faced as they came by water, on horseback, oxcart, and even on foot. Every foot of land had to be cleared by hard labor, the huge timbers hauled and sawed, homes built. The Hon. James L. Gillis of Ridgway had a bill enacted in the Pennsylvania Legislature on April 11, 1825, authorizing the Smethport-Milesburg Turnpike, which played a major role in the county’s early development.


Early Settlers

The first doctor in Elk County was Dr. Daniel Rogers, who came to Summerson below Benezett in 1809. Amos Davis came to what is now Fox Township in 1810, and is considered to be the first permanent settler in Elk County. Leonard Morey followed in 1812, locating and building a sawmill at the mouth of Trout Run on the Bennetts Branch.

The abundant forest lands basically drew the early settlers to Elk County, so it was natural that the county’s first industries reflected the area’s natural terrain. The marketing of timber, in one form or another, was Elk County’s first major industry. Timber was cut and saw­mills erected very early in the history of Elk County.

The first sawmill in Elk County is reported to have been erected by Zebulon Warner at Caledonia. Enos Gillis had a sawmill in Ridgway by 1826. These, and the mills that followed in intervening years, were water-powered.

For many years only the white pine, with an occasional hardwood, was marketed. At first hemlock was left standing, or if the land were being cleared, it was burned as rubbish. Later, as the tanning industry developed, hemlock bark was marketed, and fallen stripped trees were left in the woods to decay.

Gradually the timbering operations became bigger -the output greater. Steam-powered and gin mills were put into operation. Mills were operated on Elk Creek and along Toby Creek. For the duration of the local lumber industry, the Clarion River was the main shipping route to Pittsburgh and points south.

Fortunes were made in Elk County woods, and the foundations laid for the formation of many other in­dustries.


Lumber Industry

The most spectacular phase of the local lumber industry was the rafting of square timbers and lumber down the Clarion, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers to Pittsburgh, Louis­ville and New Orleans. For many years a reckless breed of hearty men ran huge rafts at the fall of the flood down­river to the big city. In square timbering, the axemen would enter the woods, cut the trees and square the logs by land.

The average raft was 100 to 120 feet long and 30 to 50 feet in width. Square timbers were held together by saplings placed crosswise and held in place by ash bows and pins. Two huge oars at each end were used for steering. A short stocky post set into a timber at the rear of the raft was used to tie up the raft at the river’s bank. An agile riverman would leap from raft to shore, encircling a tree with a rope. A man on the raft would snub the rope on the post.

Pilots, familiar with the river channel, were employed to guide the raft. Besides rafts of squared timbers, there were rafts of lumber – the product of local sawmills. Lumber rafts had heavy timber prows to protect the cargo from damage. Some rafts were equipped with shanties in which the crews stayed during their trip downriver. Many pioneer women made the trip as cooks on shanty rafts.

After entering the Allegheny, two or more such rafts were fastened together for the trip down the river. Some­times all or part of the crew left the raft at the Allegheny and walked back to their homes or camps. Later train service was available. In other cases, the same crew would make the trip to Pittsburgh under the guidance of another pilot.

In the heyday of lumbering, thousands of rafts made this run down the river. However, an era has passed, and since the turn of the century, it exists only in story and legend.

When it became evident that hemlock bark was useful, the tanning business sprang alive. In the spring the bark was hauled from the woods to a nearby tannery, where extractions from it were used to tan hides of animals to make leather for shoes, harnesses and clothing. The first tannery in Elk County was built in 1820 in Jay Township. Large tanneries were constructed in Johnsonburg, Ridgway, St. Marys, Spring Creek Township, Jones Township and Wilcox. Enos Gillis began a pioneer tannery in Ridgway during the 1820’s.


Railroads Bring Change

With the advent of railroads, Elk County was placed in closer contact with industrial markets – hence more diversification of industries. The three dominant rail­roads transversing Elk County were the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and the Pitts­burgh Shawmut and Northern Railroad.

The present line of the Penn Central Railroad in Elk County from the Cameron County to the McKean County lines, consisting of approximately 35 miles of main line, is part of the original roadbed of the former Sunbury and Erie Railroad. which in 1861 was renamed the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad. The line, which was proposed in the 1830’s, was a long time in construction due to financial reasons. However, upon its completion in 1864, new life entered with it into many regions, and the area of Elk County in particular no longer remained so isolated.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had three separate lines in Elk County which had no junction points within the county. The major route of the “B & O” through Elk County is the former line of the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh Railroad.

The seed for the “Shawmut Line” was planted in Elk County in 1860 when Joseph Veazie and some Boston capitalists purchased several thousand acres of the Kings­bury lands on Meade Run to mine coal. The Shawmut Line was constructed to transport coal from Shawmut. However, Boot Jack Mountain was an obstacle between Shawmut and the new Philadelphia and Erie Railroad, which was coming into Ridgway. Veazle then built a railroad over the mountain. The grade was so excessive that a series of switchbacks was built so that a train had to stop and reverse about six times in getting over the mountain. These switchbacks can still be seen on Route 120 between Ridgway and St. Marys. The steepness of the grade made the idea impractical and was one of the reasons the Shawmut Mining Company did not prosper. The Pittsburgh, Shawmut and Northern Rail· road was organized on August 2, 1899, by the merger and consolidation of six railroads. This merger made a single line railroad from the western Pennsylvania coal fields located in the Byrnedale, Brandy Camp, and Shawmut areas to terminal points in western New York State at Wayland and Hornell.

Despite the coming of railroads, horse and buggy re­mained the chief source of transportation in Elk County until well into the twentieth century when automobiles first made their appearance.


Early Customs

The customs of Elk County in the early days were typical of pioneer times. The people were religious, and religion followed the founding of industries and homes. The first religious service of any kind in Elk County was held in Jay Township about 1817 by Rev. Jonathan Nichols, a Revolutionary War veteran. Examples of Elk County’s religious heritage may be seen in Jay Township where the county’s oldest Protestant Church (Mt. Zion). dating from the year 1855, is located, and in Benzinger Township where perhaps the world’s smallest church (Decker’s Chapel­-Catholic), dating from the year 1856, is located. (It burned to the ground in August, 1976.)

Citizens of Elk County in pioneer days were vitally concerned about their children’s education. Records conflict as to where the first school in Elk County was located. The earliest claim ls that in September, 1807, John Keating set aside 150 acres in Instanter for the support of a teacher and subscribed $500 toward a school building. The school was opened in the year 1809. Instanter in Jones Township was then a part of McKean County. Another reference states that the first school was opened in 1821. It was presided over by Cephas Morey and “carried on in one of the two rooms into which the leading building on Meadic (Medix) Run, in what is now Benezette Township, was divided.” Three students attended.

Elk County’s first settlers and their immediate descendants enjoyed entertainment, pleasure, and sports. Music was an important segment of their leisure hours. Many pleasant hours were spent in the various opera houses. Other pleasures enjoyed were balls, cake walks, parades, barn raisings, skating and sleighing parties, clam bakes, oyster suppers, picnics and later railroad excursions. Major sports for the men and boys, beginning in the 1 BBO’s were base­ball, billiards and bowling. Elk County Fairs were annual events during those years when cattle exhibits and farm products were displayed. The Elk County Fair concept was revived In 1974.


Ethnic History in the County

Immigrants came to Elk County in the decades of the 1860’s and 1870’s to seek a better way of life because of poverty conditions in Europe. However, the impact of the ethnic influence was really not felt until the turn of the century when the great influx of immigrants literally poured into Elk County. The early pioneers in Elk County were basically of Anglo-Saxon stock and originated from New England and upper New York State. Then prior to 1809 the immigrant stream had flowed to Elk County out of Sweden, Germany, Scotland and Ireland. However, the impression that “America was paved with gold” soon spread to other countries, and many more immigrants came from Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Greece and Slovakia.

Ridgway Borough and Ridgway Township have the largest mixture of ethnic populations found anywhere in Elk County, for in these two municipalities can be found types of all the aforementioned nationalities. They labored in the tanneries, the sawmills, brick yard, planing mill, and later in the Elliot Company, the area’s major industry for 78 years. Today, the Ridgway area’s industries are indicative of powder metal products, lumber, and brake lining.

Johnsonburg’s citizenry is composed of descendants of Swedish, Italian, Polish, German, English and Swiss immigrants. Despite the fact that Johnsonburg had other in­dustries (such as a tannery and chemical works) over the years, the Paper Mill in 1888 became the principal Industry of the borough. It continues at the present time as the main employer in Johnsonburg as PennTech Papers, Inc.

As noted, St. Marys Borough and Benzinger Township were founded by the German Union Bond Society of Baitimore and Philadelphia for religious freedom. About 1860, the Irish moved into the area because of employment possibilities with the construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The early sawmills, planing mills, tannery, sewer pipe factory, breweries, railroads, farming and other occupations became the leading sources of employment. However, the St. Marys-Benzinger Township area became and still is considered the “Carbon Center of the World”; the electronic, powdered metal, and incandescent lamp industries, however, add to the area’s industrial might. The Stackpole Carbon Company and the Speer Carbon Company (now known as Airco Speer Carbon) paved the way for the area to become a carbon center. Space simply does not permit naming the many other diversified industries of the St. Marys-Benzinger Township area. St. Marys Borough and Benzinger Township are unique in retaining their almost singular ethnic German heritage.

The immigrant influence likewise was felt in other townships. Benezette and Jay Townships received an influx of Italian and Polish citizenry, employed mainly in the coal mines. Horton Township immigrants from Sweden, Ger­many, England and Italy toiled in the coal mines of the township.

Many immigrants from Sweden, Italy, Ireland ‘and Ger­many moved into Fox Township and the Kersey area. For the most part they followed the occupations of farming and coal mining. Fox Township and Kersey in the year of 1977 are fortunate in having several small diversified industries.

The Swedes settled the village of Wilcox in Jones Township and were drawn to the area by the lumbering, tanning and chemical interests. The remainder of Jones Township can be proud of its English, German, Italian and Slovakian heritage, as these ethnic groups also came to the area because of the lumbering, tanning and chemical interests as well as farming and coal mining.

Spring Creek Township received an interesting mixture of ethnic groups: English, Swedes, Swiss, German and Scotch-Irish. They came for employment in the tannery, sawmills, chemical works and rafting on the Clarion River.

The Germans, English and other groups settled in Millstone Township. Although there were a few sawmills in the township, rafting on the Clarion River and farming were the chief sources of employment of the settlers.

Early names in historical records indicate that settlers in Highland Township were probably of Dutch, English, Irish and even French ancestry. Lumber, natural gas, oil and farms were four of the early employment sources for these persons. The chief industry in Highland Township was the glass plant at James City.

Johnsonburg, the oldest of the three boroughs in Elk County, was founded in 1810, and is named in honor of David Johnson, a pioneer settler. Rolfe, now annexed to Johnsonburg Borough, is named after H. M. Rolfe. John­sonburg’s main Industry is the paper mill – PennTech Papers, Inc.

The histories of Ridgway Borough and Ridgway Township are entwined as one. James Lyle Gillis of Victor, Ontario County, New York, settled on Montmorenci in 1821 as land agent for Jacob Ridgway, a wealthy Quaker Philadelphian who owned 40,000 acres of land in Elk County. Enos Gillis, who followed his brother to Montmorenci, and James Gallagher settled in what is now Ridgway Borough in 1824. James L. Gillis moved to “the budding town in the valley” in 1830. Ridgway’s early busi­ness Interests were tanning, lumbering, planing mills, trading, railroading and mining. Ridgway’s major industries of today relate to the categories of powdered metal, lum­bering, plastic and color.

St. Marys Borough and Benzinger Township were founded in 1842 by the German Union Bond Society (Catholics) of Baltimore and Philadelphia. The land was purchased on October 25, 1842, by Nickolaus Beimel, John Albert, and Michael Derleth. Father Alexander Cvitovich from Baltimore was in charge of the colony. On December 8, 1842, the settlers left their temporary homes at what is now Kersey in Fox Township. They arrived at their per­manent settlement, and named it St. Marys, in honor of the Virgin Mary since December 8 was the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Benzinger Township is named after Mattias Benzinger, who assisted the floundering colony. Early industries were lumbering, tanneries, planing mills and breweries.

Fox Township was formed between 1814-1820 from Clearfield County, and is named after Samuel Fox, a land owner. Jay Township, named for United States Supreme Court Justice John Jay and settled in the early 1800’s, was formed from Fox Township and Huston Township (Clearfield County). P. P. Bliss, the famous hymn writer, was a native of the Bennetts Valley Area. Benezett Township was founded in 1812 by Reuben Winslow. It was formed from Gibson Township, now a part of Cameron County. Horton Township, named for Isaac Horton who settled on Brandy Camp Creek In 1818, was formally erected from Fox Township in 1850.

Jones Township, settled in 1855, is named for Andrew M. Jones, a land owner. The township was formed about 1844 from Sergeant Township in McKean County. Wilcox, the major village in the township, was named after Col. A. I. Wilcox. The first game lands in Pennsylvania are sit­uated in Jones and Benzinger Townships, and the sign denoting these historic game lands is located at Glen Hazel. Spring Creek Township was formed from Ridgway Town­ship in 1846. Sea scorpion tracks were discovered near Hallton, and are on display at Carnegie Museum in Pitts­burgh. Highland Township was settled in 1835, and was formed in 1850 from Ridgway Township. The first settler was Alexander McNaughton. Millstone Township was first settled in 1826 by John Wynkoop. Once a part of Forest County, the township was added to Elk County in 1870.

The Hon. James L. Gillis of Ridgway was a member of the Pennsylvania State Legislature and was influential in having a bill enacted in April 18, 1843, establishing Elk County from parts of Jefferson, McKean, and Clearfield Counties. On October 10, 1843. John Brooks, Chauncey Brockway, Sr. and Reuben Winslow were elected Elk County’s first commissioners. The temporary seat of government was at Caledonia. The first court in Elk County was held on December 19, 1843, in a schoolhouse in Cale­donia (Jay Township). The next session was held in Ridg­way on February 19, 1844, in a schoolhouse.

The location of the county seat caused controversy for two years. However, James Gillis. Lyman Wilmarth, George Dickinson and John J. Ridgway (Jacob Ridgway’s son) made such an attractive offer regarding the Ridgway loca­tion, that despite offers from other parts of Elk County, the county commissioners selected Ridgway. Ridgway was also near the geographical center of Elk County.

The first courthouse was of wood with frame construc­tion, and was built in 1845 by Edward H. Derby. The courthouse served as Elk County’s seat of justice for thirty­four years. On April 8, 1879, the old courthouse was sold at public auction to Hugh McGeehin. It still forms a part of the present Bogert Hotel on Main Street.

The present courthouse was completed on December 28, 1880, at a cost of $65,000. J.P. Marston of Warren was the architect and builder. He was also the builder earlier of the Warren County Courthouse, which is similar in size and design to the Elk County Courthouse. The Elk County Courthouse was remodeled and an extension added in 1970.

The Elk County Historical Society is the major deposi­tory of information about the county. The historical society has its museum and office in the Elk County Court­house at Ridgway. The Historical Society of St. Marys and Benzinger Township has contributed much throughout the years to the preservation of that area’s heritage. Its museum is located in the St. Marys Municipal Building.



The Elk Horn, Official Publication of the Elk County Historical Society.

“Ridgway Centennial Historical Review 1824-1924” by H. S. Thayer.

“Story of Ridgway” by Harry M. Hill.

“Random Ridgway Recollections,” edited by Ruth W. Hill.

“Ridgway, lily of the Valley 1824-1974: A Sesquicentennial History” – compiled and edited by Alice L. Wessman and Harriet Faust.


Alice L. Wessman, currently vice-president of the Elk County Historical Society, is a charter member of the society. She was co-founder of The Elk Horn and served as its editor from 1966 to 1974. She was editor-in-chief of Ridgway, Lily of the Valley: 1824-1974: A Sesquicentennial History.