One Should Not Overlook Union County

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

Union County on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River is one of Pennsylvania’s smaller counties, encompassing a bare 258 square miles, with a population of 30,000, including 3000 college stu­dents and 1900 inmates of two federal prisons. Few of its residents have held high political office and fewer of its names have appeared in Who’s Who in America. Yet the historical significance of beautiful Buffalo Valley, bor­dered on the east by the river and on the two other sides of its triangular conformation by ridges of the Allegheny Mountains, requires little documentation. And its fertile land truly deserves William Penn’s evaluation that the “country itself, its soil, air, water, seasons and produce, both natural and artificial, is not to be despised.”

Situated on the frontier during the bloody struggles for the interior of the continent during the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars, it was first the home of intrepid Scots-Irish and German men and women. The vanguard entered the area as early as 1754. But a year later, following General Braddock’s ill-fated expedition against the French near the forks of the Ohio River, hostile Indians drove them out, and the, so called, Penn’s Creek Massacre at this time remains the best remembered incident from this early period.

Coming upon the cabin of the Jean Jacques LeRoy family, the Indians tomahawked LeRoy and captured the daughter Marie, about twelve, and her older brother. Near­by, the savages killed Sebastian Leininger (or “Leining”) and his son, and carried off Barbara, twelve, and Regina, about ten. Three years later Barbara and Marie escaped from their captors in the Ohio country, and made their way to Fort Pitt. But Regina remained in captivity, and was not freed until Colonel Bouquet defeated the indians at Bushy Run. With other prisoners she was taken to Carlisle, where her mother waited with others hopeful of finding their long lost loved ones. Mrs. Leininger saw none who resembled the child she had lost nine years earlier. “For Regina was now more. than eighteen years of age, fully grown to womanhood , stout, with the bearing of an Indian, and speaking the language of the savages.

The Commissioners asked the mother whether she could designate some characteristic by which her daughter might be known. The mother replied in German that her daughter frequently sang the hymns, ‘Jesus I Love Evermore,’ and ‘Alone, and Yet Not Atone Am I in My Dread Solitude.’ Hardly had the widow said this when Regina sprang from among the others and repeated the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the hymns named. Finally, the mother and daughter fell upon each other’s neck shedding tears of joy.” (The Rev. Heinrich Melchior Muhlenberg to the church at Halle, Germany.)

The erection of Fort Augusta at the forks of the Susquehanna River (later Sunbury) in 1756, General Forbes’ expedition against Fort Duquesne in 1758, the restoration of peace in 1763, and the disposal of some thousands of acres of land through the land office in Philadelphia in 1769 unloosed another stream of migration to the frontier, and by 1775 scattered clearings had been made in the area. In 1772 the Provincial government provided for home rule on this frontier by creating Northumberland County from the back country of Northampton, Berks, Lancaster, Cumberland and Bedford counties, and the first court which was convened at Sunbury divided the county into seven townships, including Buffalo, which encompassed present day Union County, and parts of Snyder, Centre and Lycoming as well.

The township was named for Buffalo Creek, and resi­dents would like to believe that the creek, in turn, was identified with the herds of wood buffalo said to have roamed the area. But the absence of the buffalo from the culture of the aborigine leaves the issue in doubt.

Though somewhat isolated from the controversial issues culminating in the American Revolution, Buffalo Valley’s citizens gave an enthusiastic support to the resistance to what they considered oppressive measures on the part of Crown and Parliament. They flocked to the ad hoc assem­blies to elect delegates to the Provincial Congress at Philadelphia, and their delegates took a hand in declaring that the inhabitants of the colonies were entitled to the same rights and liberties to which subjects born in England were entitled. Though acknowledging themselves “liege subjects of His Majesty, King George,” to whom they owed “true and faithful allegiance,” they dared to assert that his government had acted illegally and that they were awaiting satisfaction. There appear to have been no Tories in the Valley.

When word arrived in late April of 1775 of the action at Lexington and Concord, local militia men fell into line under Captain John Lowdon, and within a few weeks were off to Boston to serve under General Washington. Arriving at Cambridge they were integrated into Thomp­son’s Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion.

During the war so many of the men were enrolled in the armed forces that man power was drained to the fighting front, leaving the region exposed to Indian and Tory assaults from the north and west. The tragedies accompany­ing the “Great Runaway” following the Wyoming Massacre were only a few of the many hit and run incidents spread over a period of three years.

Most of the early settlers in Buffalo Valley arrived by way of the Tulpehocken Road, as familiar to the pioneer as Interstate routes 80 and 81 are to residents of the region today. Leaving Berks near the home of Conrad Weiser, the road wound through the rugged Blue Mountains to Sun­bury, where the land seeker might take Reuben Haines’ Road into Buffalo Valley; or finding it occupied, continue into Centre County or what would later be Snyder County. The sizable congregations of the Lutheran, German Re­formed (United Church of Christ), and Evangelical (United Methodist) churches in the fourth quarter of the twentieth century suggest the extent of this Germanic flood tide. And by the middle of the nineteenth century their love of the land – no longer available in Buffalo Valley – encouraged second generation farm families to migrate to Ohio and Illinois, and later to Iowa and Kansas.

In the second decade of the nineteenth century the centrifugal force which had split older counties was at work in Northumberland – political leaders from the easternmost and westernmost townships joining to detach themselves. Despite opposition from the county seat the fragmentation succeeded in 1813, when Columbia (including Montour) on the east, and Union (including Snyder) on the west, were created. Union was originally a rough rectangle containing about 650 square miles and a population of 15,000. With no sizable town near its center, the legislature tried to avoid a battle royal between claimants for the county seat by providing that commissioners would select a convenient spot for it. And to implement the requirement, Governor Simon Snyder, whose home in Selinsgrove would fall within Union County, appointed “three discreet and disinterested persons not residing in the counties of Northumberland or Union.” The commissioners settled upon New Berlin, a village of forty-four log and one frame houses and fifty-nine taxables. Forty-two years later a second fragmen­tation would halve the county so as to create Snyder County out of the southern portion.

As might be expected from their location on the frontier most of Union County’s residents were ardent Jeffersonian Republicans. They disliked the “Federalist” taxes on windows and whiskey, displayed liberty poles in defiance of them, voted overwhelmingly for their Republican neighbor, Simon Snyder, for Governor, and helped to re­tain him in office for three terms, the maximum under the Constitution of 1790.

After the decline of the Federalist Party, Union County voters, particularly those of German ancestry, were drawn into the Antimasonic Party, in part as a protest against the “elite” who dominated the Democratic and Whig parties. And in 1835 they celebrated the election of Joseph Ritner, the only Anti masonic Governor. with bonfires and torch­lights. After the collapse of Antimasonry the Democratic Party was the usual victor, but sectional issues and the Civil War propelled most voters into the Republican ranks, where they have remained.

While the fertile countryside filled quickly, the towns of Union County grew rather slowly. New Berlin never had a population of more than eight hundred before World War ti, but as plank, brick and stone replaced the log structures, it took on a charm which has endured to this day – its broad, tree lined streets, Georgian brick court house, lime­stone jail and sheriff’s headquarters, graceful Greek Revival Presbyterian Church, and Federal styled domestic architecture suggesting a sophistication not unlike older county towns.

It was also the seed-bed of the Evangelical Church. the history of which is “New Berlin written large.” Its first church, a simple log structure, and its first publishing house stood on Water Street. The church’s first institution of higher learning, Union Seminary (later Central Pennsylvania College) was founded here, its first camp meeting was held in a grove near by, and its first General Conference met on the farm of Martin Dreisbach.

An incident said to have occurred in New Berlin in 1805 became one of the most beloved traditions in Evangelical Church history. The Reverend John Walter, a follower of Jacob Albrecht (Albright) founder of the Move­ment, had expected to preach in a local one room school, but finding the door locked against him, he opened the service standing on the front step. Suddenly the door burst open, and Walter led his flock into the building. “God has opened us a door in New Berlin,” he prophesied. “and he will establish his work here in spite of the opposition of hell and that of wicked men.”

While New Berlin’s growth ceased in 1855 when the county offices were moved to Lewisburg, a surprising number of its architectural gems have survived.

Lewisburg remained a small river town until 1830. But its fortunes changed overnight when it was linked to the West Branch Division of the Pennsylvania Canal system by a one mile side-cut canal. This public improvement brought boat and barge building, flour milling, woodworking, iron moulding and farm implement manufacture to the village, and initiated its growth. The founding of the College at Lewisburg (Bucknell University) in 1846 and its selection as county seat in 1855 continued the momentum. During this heady period the community was a stepping stone for several of the county’s outstanding business and political figures: Eli Slifer, Secretary of the Commonwealth during the Civil War, whose Tuscan villa, Delta Place, has recently been converted into a museum; William Cameron, brother of Simon Cameron, who made a fortune as contractor on the state canals and left his name to the local fire company; State Senator Andrew H. Dill, who was the Democratic nominee for Governor in 1878, and Charles S. Wolfe, who as a State Senator fought the party machine and ran as an Independent for Governor in 1886.

The panic of 1873 closed Lewisburg’s implement works and slowed its growth, leaving the older section of the town virtually unchanged. The result is a period piece with block after block of original buildings bearing the stamp of their 1830-1870 construction.

Mifflinburg’s growth awaited the post-Civil War era, when it was transformed by the buggy industry. Like villages its size across Pennsylvania, there had usually been a wagon shop or two, but within the span of a single generation the number jumped to more than twenty, most of them employing but two or three hands, but several as many as twenty to thirty. In the 1880’s three members of the Gutelius family, each managing his own business, turned out more than one hundred buggies annually and almost as many sleighs in the fall and winter seasons. The expansion was not the result of patents or raw materials, but rather a reputation for quality and superior salesman­ship. The vehicles were displayed at the county fairs and delivered, four or more hitched in tandem, to local buyers, and shipped dismounted by the box car to buyers as far west as Kansas and as far south as the Carolinas. By 1890 Mifflinburg was known as the “buggy town” and the buggy capital of Pennsylvania. But the coming of the automobile closed the shops.

Today, the older streets retain their Victorian aura.

The canals succumbed to the competition of the rail· roads during the second half of the nineteenth century, but meanwhile two of the latter, the Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia and Reading, were serving the area. The Pennsylvania ran across the length of the county connecting with the railroad’s main line on the west and its Philadelphia and Erie branch on the east, and the Philadelphia and Reading, following the west bank of the river, provided connections with Williamsport, Philadelphia, and the anthracite coal region. The junction of two of its branches created the village of West Milton, where Ed Begley labored at the roundhouse before venturing to New York to even­tually star as William Jennings Bryan in Inherit the Wind, a version of the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Tennessee.

Touching numerous villages and hamlets the railroads offered markets for grains and other produce, much of it finding outlets in the anthracite coal towns. At the turn of the century, also, the railroads opened markets for millions of board feet of timber which had remained in the less accessible recesses of the mountains in the northern and western parts of the county. Ario Pardee, a “coal baron” from Hazelton, erected a large sawmill at Pardee, later to be a ghost town, and laid rails with an intricate series of switchbacks to reach timber on the fringes of Union, Snyder, Mifflin and Centre counties. A few miles east of his operation the Laurelton Lumber Company, later re­organized by William Whitmer and State Senator Charles Steele as the Whitmer, Steele Lumber Company, tapped thousands of acres of mountain land on the northern rim of the county. Lumbermen flocked to the region from older cuttings; some as distant as Maine. Wildcatting and dinkey were soon household words in the area.

While coal and oil were not discovered in the subsurface, iron ore was plentiful, and by the middle of the nineteenth century furnaces were operating in Glen Iron, White Deer and Winfield. All were closed by the early twentieth cen­tury, unable to compete with the richer Mesabi ores. But in the Civil War period, with iron at ninety dollars a ton, it was a thriving industry. In Lewisburg it was said that each exhaust at the furnace at Winfield (within hearing distance) was another dollar in the pockets of the owners.

In the twentieth century an unprofitable chair factory in Lewisburg blossomed into Pennsylvania House furniture, and with the coming of Interstate Route 80 in the 1960’s, trucking companies hurried to establish headquarters near the intersection of this highway with north-south running Route 15. Simultaneously shopping centers and industries spread across the rich farmland.

Union County’s population burst was primed, also, by the continuing growth of Bucknell University and the ex­pansion of the Northeastern and Allenwood federal peni­tentiaries. And at the west end of the county the Laurelton State School and Hospital became another substantial employer. In this “tight end” region, also, mountain streams have attracted summer campers ever since the rail­road made it accessible a century ago.

Today Union County offers beautiful Raymond B. Winter Park in the heart of its mountains on Route 192. It has Packwood House, a newly opened art museum housed in an early tavern in Lewisburg, and Ray’s Church Museum, a former rural church, and now the property of the Union County Historical Society. It has New Berlin Heritage Day held annually on the last Saturday of August. It also has a recently published county history sponsored by the local Bicentennial Commission, and a program of oral history studies extending into a broad spectrum of arts and crafts.

For a blend of the old and the new, one should not overlook Union County.


The illustrations for this article are printed through the courtesy of the Union County His­torical Society and Dr. Snyder.


Dr. Charles M. Snyder, a retired history professor, is author of The Jacksonian Heritage: Pennsylvania Politics, 1833-1848, editor of The Lady and The President and Union County, Pennsylvania: A Bicentennial History, as well as author and editor of other works. A native of Union County, he is a past president of the Union County His­torical Society.