Armstrong County, formed in 1800 out of parts of Allegheny, Westmoreland, and Lycoming counties, has completed a difficult transition from heavy industry to lighter, more technical manufacturing. Since 2003, when it was made part of a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA, a federal census designation), the Armstrong County Tourist Bureau has marketed the area as a suburb of Pittsburgh. The borough of Kittanning, the county seat, is a mere fifty minutes by car from downtown Pittsburgh.
From the riverside camp at what is now Kittanning, the French and their Native American allies the Delaware sent raiding parties against English and German settlers. Colonel John Armstrong led a successful retaliatory attack on the French and the Delaware in 1756, and the county is named for him. The region was not secure from periodic attacks until the mid-1790s, when permanent settlements began. In 1826, the Pennsylvania Canal opened in the southern part of the county along the Allegheny and Kiskiminetas rivers, spurring the growth of such towns as Freeport, Leechburg, and Apollo. By the mid-1800s, the county was exporting coal, sand, gravel, limestone, salt, and timber, and simultaneously producing glass, iron, steel, gunpowder, pottery, and brick for use in the area and for export. Drawing upon local coal and iron ore deposits, as well as trees for charcoal, iron manufacture began in northern Armstrong County in 1839 with the opening of the Great Western Iron Works, later reorganized as the Brady's Bend Iron Works (see AR7and AR8). Industry benefited when the Allegheny Valley Railroad connected Kittanning to Pittsburgh in 1856. Oil was struck in the county in 1865, and for ten years Armstrong County was a major producer with oil exchanges in Parker City and Kittanning. Parker City was a typical boomtown, its population peaked at 15,000 in the late nineteenth century, although today it is less than 800. Closure of the wells in the late 1870s virtually halted further growth. After the canal closed in 1857, the Pennsylvania Railroad used a similar route through the same towns, maintaining their prosperity. Building stock in these towns reflects the periods of growth that followed the opening of the canal and the railroad. Although Armstrong County is still considered rural by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, in recent years, the region has begun to develop small businesses in places like Parks Bend Industrial Park, and suburban housing. Good highway accessibility in all directions, east to west on U.S. 422 and north and south on PA 66 and PA 28, allows over 25 percent of the county's residents to commute to work in nearby counties.
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