Elk County lies on the Allegheny High Plateau, with elevations of 1,400 feet rising to 2,500 feet above sea level. There are two major watersheds: the Clarion River flowing west to the Allegheny and Sinnemahoning Creek flowing east to the Susquehanna.
The Seneca Indians and their Iroquois allies used the Kittanning-Olean Trail that cut across the northwestern corner of the county as a hunting route. By the late eighteenth century, agents for the largest Anglo-American landholders wanted to attract potential settlers from the East Coast. Joseph Fox and his son Samuel, who held nearly 120,000 acres of land in central Pennsylvania, had their agent, William Kersey, appeal to people in New England, Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore. Among Kersey's contacts was the German Catholic Bund that sent a group of Roman Catholics to settle at St. Mary's in 1842. Jacob Ridgway, a Philadelphia Quaker, owned 40,000 acres in McKean and Elk counties. His agent, James L. Gillis, laid out the towns of Montmorency (1822) and Ridgway (1833). The county was established in 1843, with Ridgway designated as the county seat the following year.
Initially, the main industry was lumber. Wood felled and dragged to the many streams was floated to the Clarion River and down the Allegheny to Pittsburgh. The tanning industry also relied on lumber, using bark to cure the hides of elk and, later, buffalo. After the native elk were annihilated in 1857, the tannery at Wilcox processed nearly one million buffalo hides between 1866 and 1876. Elk were reintroduced to the region in 1913, imported from Wyoming and Montana. Today, Pennsylvania's protected herd of approximately eight hundred elk is a tourist attraction, especially near Benezette.
Extractive industries such as coal, oil, gas, and clay grew once rail connections were made. Both the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio ran branches through Ridgway, allowing the paper mill in Johnsonburg to flourish. Today, while no major interstates touch the county, U.S. 219 bisects it from north to south and carries traffic to I-80 in the counties to the south. A continuing wood products industry and a flourishing powdered metals industry employ those not working in agriculture or on the public recreation lands that cover more than half of the county. Elk County's population has remained remarkably stable, hovering near 35,000 since 1900.
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