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Blair County

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European settlers first filed land patents in 1755 in what later became Blair County on land purchased a year earlier from the Iroquois. The latter had sold it, despite the presence of their allies the Shawnee, Delaware, and Seneca tribes living in the territory. Nearly a hundred Scots-Irish, German, and English families moved to the region between the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 and 1776, the start of the Revolution. Their presence incited the tribes, prompting settlers to build a series of forts. Fort Roberdeau ( BL25), for example, erected in Sinking Valley in 1778, was designed to protect lead mines from the British and their native allies.

Juniata Valley was a fine source of limestone and a seemingly endless supply of timber. The region's many streams powered bellows to heat furnaces for the production of iron used for household goods and machine parts, and later for railroad rails. Twenty iron furnaces and twelve forges were constructed between 1807 and 1850, with an entire iron plantation developing around them. After the War of 1812, the “Northern Turnpike” connected Pittsburgh to the Susquehanna River through the towns of Ebensburg, Hollidaysburg, and Huntingdon. Until the 1830s, nearly all the iron made in Blair County was carried to Pittsburgh on this route, rather than to towns along the East Coast. The completion of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal in 1826 expedited the trip from western to eastern Pennsylvania. In 1832, a settler named John Blair ensured that the canal's last stop before the Allegheny Mountains was in Hollidaysburg on the Juniata River. The state legislature, recognizing his local prominence, named the county for him in 1846. Canal traffic peaked in 1852, just as the railroad was establishing itself across the state. From Hollidaysburg westward, the Allegheny Portage Railroad (APRR) replaced canal transportation. Fully loaded canal boats were lifted onto wheeled flatbeds. Ten inclined planes, five on each side of the mountains, connected the two segments of the canal by rail. Canal boats were attached to cars, which were raised up the inclined planes powered by steam engines and transported between planes by teams of mules. Engineered by Moncure Robinson, the APRR opened to regular traffic in 1834 and was double tracked in 1835. The PRR completed a line to Hollidaysburg from Harrisburg, Dauphin County, in 1847, and two years later, Pittsburgh and Johnstown in Cambria County were connected by rail. Although the canal and rail systems coexisted for over twenty years, the railroad proved itself consistently superior with its year-round operation. The Pennsylvania Canal essentially closed by 1872.

The fate of the iron industry in Blair County paralleled waning canal usage. By the 1870s, coke manufacturers were mining cheaper ore farther west, and improved manufacturing methods made it possible to use steel rather than iron for railroad rails, leading to the death of the iron industry by 1885. Blair County's major industry then became the Pennsylvania Railroad. Enormous service shops were built in Altoona. The railroad's peak years were between 1924 and 1928 and from 1943 to 1946. As late as 1952, the Pennsylvania Railroad built one of the largest freight-car building and repair facilities in the world at Hollidaysburg. Diesel power and highway construction after World War II crimped the railroad's growth, and air travel sounded its death knell. The last steam locomotive was built in 1946, and by the 1950s, old locomotives were often cut into scrap.

Recovery from the devastating loss of the railroads has been under way since the late 1960s. During the 1980s and 1990s, the county added such attractions as the Railroaders Memorial Museum ( BL7), a new baseball stadium and park ( BL22), and a convention center ( BL23) in Altoona. The town of Hollidaysburg is proving to be an attractive alternative to big-city living and has several designated historic districts. Tourism continues to grow, offering bike trails and the Horseshoe Curve ( BL24) to attract visitors.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Lu Donnelly et al.

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