History is Alive and Well in Beaver County

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

On June 6, 1824, the steamboat Ploughboy with the first contingent of Harmony Society members came around the bend in the river at Legionville; the skipper gave a cannon salute. After dropping anchor, the passengers disembarked and made camp. The following day, Father Rapp, leader of the Harmonists, wrote to the remaining members at New Harmony: “I consider this place the most healthful in all America.” He continued, ‘What we are doing, we do for you, and what you do. you are doing for us.” So began the construction of one of Beaver County’s best known landmarks, the third and last home of the Harmony Society, Old Economy.

Old Economy Village was built by a group of pious communal Germans who called themselves the Harmony Society. They first settled in Harmony, Pennsylvania, in 1800. In 1815, they moved to Harmony, Indiana, but by 1824 decided to leave there and return to western Pennsylvania. The entire tract laid out was 3,000 acres and fronted on the Ohio River for five miles. And for the next seventy years they influenced the growth of the Beaver Valley.

The establishment of this village was a remarkable social experiment. The village fulfilled the entire spiritual, cul­tural and physical needs of the Society. They helped themselves – but refused to help no man. The town of Ambridge and many institutions in the Ohio and Beaver River Valley owe their existence to these people.

Old Economy Village is the first outdoor museum in America. It is under the direction of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

This is, perhaps, the best known chapter in the county’s history. It is, however, only one chapter. The history of Beaver County is an excellent microcosm of the history of the United States from a primitive frontier society to the complex urban-industrial society of the twentieth century.

The recorded history of Beaver Valley began in the mid-1720’s when a band of Delaware Indians migrated westward from their traditional home in the Delaware Valley and settled at the mouth of the Beaver River. They called their village “Sawkunk,” which means “at the mouth of a stream.”

The river and subsequently the county got its name from the French who called it “Riviere au Castor” and to the Indians it was “Amockwisipu.” Both names mean the same thing: Beaver River.

By the 1740’s the Delawares were jointed by Shawnees and Wyandots, undoubtedly attracted by the beaver, whose pelt had become quite valuable. The Indian village of Logs­town, founded on the banks of the Ohio between Ambridge and Baden, attracted French, British and American fur traders and was an important site of treaties and conflict over the Ohio Valley and the West.

George Croghan, known as the “King of the Traders,” was sent to Logstown by Pennsylvania authorities to extend the influence of the colony over the Indians of the west at the expense of the French. He arrived in April, 1748, with presents and to prepare the way for a treaty. In August, Conrad Weiser arrived and was met by representatives of the Indian tribes assembled at Logstown. The treaty which he concluded, the First Treaty of Logstown, marked the high point in English and Pennsylvania influence in the Ohio Valley before the French and Indian War.

It was at Logstown where young Maj. George Washington, in 1753, conferred with the Indian leaders before confronting the French garrison at Fort LeBoeuf, to the north.

White settlement of the area began prior to the Revolu­tion. Alexander McKee and John Gibson had established a trading post on the site presently occupied by the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation furnaces in Aliquippa. Levi Dugan and George Baker both arrived in 1772.

Outbreak of the Revolution hampered westward settlement because the Indian Allies of the British harassed the settlers. Gen. Lacklan Mcintosh proposed a string of forts through the wilderness to discourage Indian raids on settlements in Western Pennsylvania.

The first of these forts was built in 1778 near the site of Sawkunk village and was named after its commander. The forts served as a frontier outpost for eight years. Frank Carver has recently published a book about the settlement of what is now Beaver County, the fort and its commander entitled, It Happened Right Here, 1748-1788.

Since the summer of 1974 the Beaver Area Heritage Foundation and local members of the Amockwi chapter of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology have been excavating the site of the old fort. Thousands of artifacts have been unearthed and the outline of the fort’s walls, in part, have been uncovered.

The signing of the Treaty of Fort Mcintosh on January 9, 1785, marked the beginning of land and Indian policy followed by the United States for a century. Under the terms of the treaty the Indians acknowledged that they were under the protection of the United States and surrendered all title to land in western Pennsylvania. The treaty set the stage for the Land Ordinance of 1785.

The Indian threat to the frontier continued. In the fall of 1792, Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne moved his army, known as the Legion of the United States, from the distractions of Pittsburgh to a site a few miles down the Ohio in what was to become Harmony Township in Beaver County. At this site, known today as Legionville, Wayne established the first United States military camp for the training of troops. In the spring of 1793 the troops moved west and defeated the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in the Maumu Valley in Ohio, breaking forever their resistance in the east. The Anthony Wayne Historical Society of Beaver County is trying to preserve the area as an historical park.

The history of Beaver County proper begins in 1800 when the state legislature organized it from parts of Washington and Allegheny Counties. The County was organized into six townships with a combined population of 5,776. During the nineteenth century the population of the county grew slowly and was comprised essentially of three ethnic groups: the Scotch-Irish, Germans and English.

The demands created by the late nineteenth century industry expansion, however, began to draw more and more European laborers from southern and eastern Europe. Vast numbers of Poles, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Croats, and Italians were drawn to these industrial centers. The growing industrial demands and curtailment of European immigration by World War I saw the Afro-American moving to the northern states.

The ethnic heritage of the county is still evident in the 1970’s. According to the United States Census of 1970, there were 48,548 persons of ethnic origin in the county. This is 23.3 percent of the total population of 208,418. Only eight counties in Pennsylvania have a larger ethnic-based population.

The customs of these groups are kept alive in the county through special events and observances. In Ambridge, residents observe “Nationality Days,” where various ethnic groups display their foods, handicrafts in booths and perform the music and dances of their nationality. In Aliquip­pa, the Italians celebrate St. Rocco Day with a procession and festival.

In order to understand the industrial history of America from the early nineteenth century to the present, one can focus on the history of Beaver County.

The county was blessed with considerable mineral resources including iron ore, limestone, sandstone, bituminous and cannel coal, petroleum and its by-product natural gas. Along with this wealth of natural resources, cheap and de­pendable river transportation was readily available, creating ideal manufacturing conditions.

Mills of various kinds sprang up in the county. There were sawmills, flour mills, carding and fulling mills. White’s Mill on Raccoon Creek and Fox’s Sickle Factory situated on Travis Creek were among a number built before 1800.

Soon after the organization of Beaver County, the manu­facture of iron was undertaken. On the west side of the Beaver River, in New Brighton, Hoopes Townsend and Company built the first blast furnace in 1802. A forge connected with it from the beginning and it was in operation in 1806. In 1814, Dilmar Boose built the Bassenheim Furnace, located two or three miles west of Zelienople. An­other furnace in the northwestern part of Beaver County was Homewood, on the Beaver Canal, built by Janus Wood and operating in 1858. Such factories as Eider’s Cloth Factory, Thomson’s Sickle Shop, Shane’s, McCune’s and Gorson’s tanneries and Morgan Carriage Works came into being.

Towns such as Fallston became noted for the variety of its industries as early as 1830 when it produced wool, paper, linseed oil, scythes, baskets and carpets. Rochester, Monaca, Freedom and New Brighton were other towns which thrived as manufacturing centers of such diverse things as sash and door factories, glass works, cotton factories, and ship yards.

Beaver County has played a vital role in the development of transportation, which, in turn, has played an important role in the growth of America. A few years after Robert Ful· ton sailed the Clermont up the Hudson River, the county became an important center for the building of steam­boats. John Boles’ boat yard between Rochester and New Brighton was one of the earliest. The county continues to play a major role in transportation in the twentieth century. The Conway Railroad Yard is the largest automated railroad yard in the world, making the county a national transportation hub.

Edwin Drake’s oil strike in Titusville set off an “oil fever” in Pennsylvania. Three enterprising men, Messers. Pattens, Finlens, and Swan, were busy drilling Beaver County’s first oil well at Smith’s Ferry in Ohio Township. The well was completed in December of 1860 at a depth of 180 feet. Although not an extensive producer itself, this well ushered in an era that would eventually turn the section of the county into a “Boom Town.”

Most of the oil excitement centered around a mini boom town called Wallace City. The No. 2 Wallace came in at over 1,400 barrels a day. During the first decade of the twentieth century, more than one hundred wells alone were drilled in Economy and New Sewickley Townships and during its peak years, this area produced as much as 45,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

The discovery and production of crude oil in Beaver County spawned other local industries that included oil refineries and manufacturers of drilling, equipment. In 1860 Samuel M. Kier of Pittsburgh began refining crude petroleum in Beaver County. By 1861 P. M. Wallover, along with William Stewart, Milton Brown, and William Dawson, started an oil refinery at Smith’s Ferry that still exists as the Wallover Oil Company. Another refinery, the Freedom Oil Works, now the Valvoline Oil Company, had its be­ginning in 1879 at Conway with Stephen A. Craig and H. S. McConnel as its principle founders.

Other industries included manufacturer of drilling equipment such as the Spang Calfant Company of Am­bridge, now Armco, that produced oil field casing and the Keystone Driller Company, formerly of Beaver Falls, that made a portable steam drilling machine.

Today Beaver County remains a leader in the petro­chemical field with such companies as Arco-Palmers of Shippingport and a major supplier of electrical energy with the Shippingport Nuclear Power Station. Enough power will be produced by the station to serve one million homes.

The Beaver County Historical Research and Landmarks Foundation provides services to the public which are normally beyond the scope of the dozen or so local historical societies in the county. Designed to coordinate countywide activities, the Foundation cooperates with local societies in the mutual objective of increasing public interest in local history. The Foundation is the parent and coordinating organization.

The Foundation’s most visible accomplishments since 1970 have been annual symposiums on local history and genealogical workshops; the publication of Milestones, county historical quarterly; reprinting of Caldwell’s 1876 Atlas of Beaver County, and Bausman’s 1904 History of Beaver County; the establishment of a Research Center for Local History at the Beaver Falls Carnegie Library; the supervision of the manufacture and placing of historical markers throughout the county. A dozen or so markers have been erected and dedicated. The Foundation has also played a major role in the 175th Anniversary Celebration of Beaver County and County Bicentennial Celebration.

Local historical societies are engaged in a wide variety of activities ranging from archaeological and restoration work at places like Fort McIntosh, Greersburg Academy, and Legionville to the sponsorship of publications and research of local historical interest. During this Bicentennial year many communities throughout the county have published or soon will publish pamphlets on their history.

The County Commissioners, recognizing the value of preserving the community’s history, have established a Historical Research Office under the directorship of Mrs. Gladys L’Ashley Hoover, who is also chairman of the Historical Research and Landmarks Foundation. The Re­search Office provides assistance to those doing research on Beaver County and is a source of historical data for the people in the county.

Interest in history in Beaver County may be summed up in the words of a local historian, Denver Walton, “History is alive and well in Beaver County.”


Joseph T. Makarewicz is Assistant Professor, History, Pennsylvania State University, Beaver Campus. He is Assistant Editor, Milestones, Journal of Beaver County History.