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Huntingdon County

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The Juniata River, a major east–west route through Huntingdon County, works its way through beautiful ridge and valley countryside surrounding Tussey Mountain, just south of the geographic center of the state. The earliest inhabitants of this region were the Juniata Tribe of the Standing Stone, which took their name from the stone obelisk displayed in the middle of their village. The Shawnee and Tuscaroras tribes, allied with the Iroquois, dispersed the Juniata but kept the name “Standing Stone” for the location, which ultimately became the borough of Huntingdon. To provide protection for the Scots-Irish and German settlers from the French and their Native American allies, the provincial government in Philadelphia planned a series of forts along the former frontier, now central Pennsylvania. One of these forts, Fort Shirley (c. 1755), which occupied a site near present-day Shirleysburg and what was then the Native American village of Aughwick, acted as a staging area for incursions against the hostile parties. The county was established in 1787, and Huntingdon was named the county seat.

Since the Juniata River provided the earliest access to the area, towns located on this waterway are the oldest in the county, among them Huntingdon and Petersburg. The earliest overland route was the east–west Huntingdon, Cambria, and Indiana Turnpike, completed in 1821. Ten years later, the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal opened to Huntingdon; it required many aqueducts and lift locks to cope with the difficult terrain.

The commemorative Standing Stone, south of the intersection of William Smith and Penn streets in Huntingdon. The original obelisk measured fourteen feet tall and six inches square and held the records of the Juniata tribe. It was removed by the tribes living in the area after the land was sold to the Penn family. The stone is inscribed: “Onajutta-Juniata-Achsinnic. Standing Stone erected September 8, 1896 as a Memorial of the Ancient Standing Stone removed by the Indians in 1754.”

Iron production started here as early as the 1790s. Rich deposits of brown hematite and fossil ores, trees from which to make charcoal, and rushing streams to move waterwheels to power blast furnaces and forges made iron production the economic mainstay of the county. Iron plantations were relatively large, generally self-sufficient operations that included a farm on their acreage to raise food and provide shelter for the workers and the mules. Fifty furnaces were once in operation in Huntingdon, and several iron furnace plantations survive with remarkable integrity. Villages often grew up around successful furnaces, especially those that kept pace with the technology to weather the continual boom and bust periods associated with the iron industry. By changing their fuel source from charcoal to coke when the trees were clear-cut and forming business ties with Pittsburgh and Lewistown, Mifflin County, several of the larger furnaces, like Spruce Creek and Greenwood ( HU11), remained in operation into the early twentieth century. The iron industry received a temporary boost with the completion of the railroads. The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) reached Huntingdon in 1850, and opened to Pittsburgh in 1852. Two smaller railroads built for coal transport connected small patch towns to the larger railroad. The narrow-gauge East Broad Top Railroad (EBT), for example, covered thirty-five miles between Mount Union on the PRR and Robertsdale. The latter, a typical coal town, retains several of its original concrete-block commercial buildings and a Methodist church (1890 and 1926).

As early as the 1870s, there were ore shortages, and within twenty years, the forests were clear-cut from the insatiable need for charcoal. The iron industry declined countywide by the early twentieth century, and the smelly, smoky, and noisy plantations were silenced, allowing the region's pastoral qualities to prevail and forests to regrow. This opened up a new industry: recreational tourism.

Huntingdon's appeal to recreational tourists grew throughout the twentieth century with activities such as fishing, spelunking, hiking, and biking, and attending the county's agricultural fair that has been held since 1831 in the borough of Huntingdon. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built bridges and stone culverts in the county's state forests. Raystown Lake, the third largest lake in the commonwealth, was created between 1968 and 1972 by damming the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River. In the county's eastern half, PA 655 traverses Kishacoquillas Valley, a stunning drive with beautiful, prosperous farms, many Amish owned, lining the roadway.

The county's largest employer is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which operates two large correctional facilities near Huntingdon. The older of the two was built between 1882 and 1886 as a reformatory for young first offenders. Several of its older buildings are visible from U.S. 22. Neither facility is accessible to the public.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Lu Donnelly et al.

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