As part of the Allegheny Plateau, McKean County has hilly topography reaching heights of from 1,400 to 1,600 feet, and has earned the designation “High Plateau.” The Allegheny River, cutting across the northeastern corner of the county, and the watersheds of Potato, Tuna (aka Tunungwant), Kinzua, and Sinnemahoning creeks all contribute to this dramatic environment.
The land encompassing McKean County today was the hunting ground of the Seneca Indian tribes. The first European settlers came from Connecticut and that state claimed a swath of land along the northern tier of Pennsylvania. The border dispute was finally resolved in Pennsylvania's favor in 1782. Two years later, land was offered to citizens at $80 for one hundred acres with the stipulation that it be settled. Since the offer met without success, in 1792, the government then offered one hundred acres for $13 without the settlement clause. This time, wealthy buyers stepped in; the Holland Land Company alone bought two million acres in northern Pennsylvania and southern New York.
Settlers trickled into the area and began pushing for the creation of a new county. In 1804, the county was named for Thomas McKean, Pennsylvania's governor at the time, who purchased nearly three hundred acres there in 1805. McKean's goal was to fill the territory with Pennsylvanians rather than families from Connecticut, in the hope of resolving the boundary dispute with voters rather than written agreements. But settlement was very slow. By 1806, there were only 14 taxable inhabitants in the entire county, and merely 211 by 1821.
The county seat, at Smethport, was barely settled as late as 1832, since central and southwestern McKean County lacked navigable creeks. Lumbering began seriously in the 1830s. Borough names such as Port Allegany testify to the early transportation of goods by water in the eastern portions of the county. In 1856, Philadelphian Thomas L. Kane saw lumbering opportunity in the western part of the county and purchased the forested land around what today is the town of Kane. Railroads further spurred the lumber industry, and by 1900, nearly all the pine trees were harvested and only hemlock remained. Hemlock bark was used for tanning and wood chemical production as late as 1950. By 1925, however, both sawing and tanning were fading industries and nearly the entire county was deforested, causing erosion problems.
In the 1880s, McKean's population nearly quintupled with the discovery of oil. The county's oil was much deeper than oil in Venango County, and required drilling to 1,110 feet to make the labor cost effective. As wells farther west dried up, drilling in McKean became profitable. From 1879 to 1880, the number of producing wells in the Bradford area jumped from 4,000 to 11,200, and by 1881, the field produced twenty-three million barrels a year. Oil excitement lasted until 1900, when the field was considered exhausted, producing only two million barrels per year in 1906. There was a brief resurgence in the 1920s when engineers discovered that flooding old wells could force out more oil, but the industry was dying.
However, professional timber management began to rejuvenate the deforested areas with the planting of hardwoods, especially black cherry. In 1923, the creation of the Allegheny National Forest, with 135,000 of its 500,000 acres in McKean County, brought recreation and tourism. Another industry reliant on natural resources was glass, which, with the abundance of silica sandstone and cheap natural gas, flourished here. From 1895 to 1905, McKean County led the nation in glass production, making window glass, bottles, wire glass, and fireproof windows and doors. Port Allegany has the large Pittsburgh Corning Corporation complex (U.S. 6 at PA 155), with several additions designed c. 1950 by Raymond Viner Hall.
Bradford, the largest city along the northern tier after Erie, benefited from the variety of industries supported by the county's natural resources. Located on the major north–south access road, U.S. 219, the city also benefits from the marketing of U.S. 6, a scenic route across the northern counties of Pennsylvania, with tourist sites and lodgings advertised nationally. Hunting, hiking, and winter sports continue to grow in the county's state forest lands.
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