Native American tribes called this location Aughwick. Fort Shirley was built here c. 1755 on the bluff at the northern end of the borough during the French and Indian War, but it was abandoned the following year. The borough, incorporated in 1837, is south of the Juniata River in a valley between Blacklog and Jack's mountains, and was settled in the late eighteenth century by German farmers. The commercial potential of the area expanded through coal shipping, especially after the East Broad Top Railroad (EBTRR) opened in 1872. The village has one of the handsomest collections of pre–Civil War buildings in western Pennsylvania, including several red brick houses with attic stories, as well as simpler frame houses. Two churches and a school contribute to the nineteenth-century atmosphere of the town: the frame Greek Revival former Shirleysburg Presbyterian Church of 1830 (Croghan's Pike); the red brick Shirleysburg United Methodist Church built in 1877 with a fine cupola (16000 block Croghan's Pike); and the two-story, three-bay red brick school building, also with a cupola, built in 1880 on West Street. A former Clover Farms Store of c. 1870 (17032 Croghan's Pike) has the distinctive look of that company's stores throughout the state: a board-and-batten cottage, with carved brackets and wide gable ends facing the street.
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