Hartslog, the name attached to the land surrounding Alexandria, evolved from the large white oak where a mid-eighteenth century trader named John Hart slept and salted his horse. A trapper's sleeping place was sometimes called his “log.” The town itself was laid out in 1793 by Elizabeth Gemmill (1735–1823) after her husband, John, died. By 1796, log houses dotted the landscape, and Gemmill and her descendants constructed several buildings and collected ground rents on the lots in Alexandria from 1793 to 1920, when the practice was banned. Strategically located at a natural water gap made by the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River through Tussey Mountain, Alexandria grew as a transportation center. By 1808, the Harrisburg, Lewistown, Huntingdon, and Pittsburgh Turnpike cut through town, and the village was incorporated as a borough in 1827, just as the Pennsylvania Canal's route was decided. Alexandria had a long relationship with the canal, since it remained open in this area from 1833 until 1875, well after other segments had closed.
The borough retains an interesting assemblage of buildings dating from nearly every decade of the nineteenth century. The Cresswell House (c. 1816; 112 Main Street), a stone three-bay, two-story house, and a log house covered with wood siding (1829; 710 Main Street) are examples of the earliest vernacular building. The four-and-one-half-story, frame Gemmill Grist Mill (c. 1833) at the west end of Main Street and the handsome Greek Revival house built by local carpenter Benjamin Cross (c. 1851) at 703 Main Street illustrate the architectural legacy of the town. Most of the houses face the grid pattern of the streets, but several buildings remain at odd angles, outlining the former canal route and, after 1900, that of the PRR's spur line. The lockmaster's frame house (c. 1832; Hartslog Street at Shelton Avenue) originally faced the canal and its two local locks. Nearby, the small, pyramidal-roofed frame former PRR station was built in 1897. The Alexandria Public Library designed by Frederick James Shollar in 1899–1901 (311 Main Street) was donated by descendants of the town's founder, Elizabeth Gemmill, who maintained summer estates nearby.
A federal refractories plant built west of town at the base of Tussey Mountain in 1904 took advantage of the nearby clay deposits and new rail access. The bypass for U.S. 22, built in 1941, spared the small town's architectural integrity and increased its accessibility from Huntingdon, seven miles east. Today, Alexandria serves as a bedroom suburb of the county seat.
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