The county's terrain is a succession of ridges and hills with the West Branch Susquehanna River cutting through the region from southwest to northeast. Larger in area than the state of Rhode Island, the county takes its name from the buffalo wallows Native Americans found here and used as cornfields in the midst of the forest. Great Shamokin Path, used mostly by Seneca and Lenni Lenape tribes up to and during the French and Indian War, ran east–west between what are now the towns of Clearfield and Curwensville. After Pontiac's Rebellion was quashed in 1763 and Native Americans left the area, the unexplored territory reverted to wilderness.
The northern third of present-day Clearfield County was claimed by Connecticut until the Trenton Decree of 1782 declared it part of Pennsylvania. The county, formed in 1804 from Huntingdon and Lycoming counties, was so undeveloped that its judiciary was overseen by Centre County from 1804 to 1822. Between approximately 1810 and the Civil War, a series of turnpikes was built and abandoned, and so the river and streams remained the most important modes of transportation.
Coal, mined as early as 1810, was floated downriver on arks, large elaborate wooden rafts, which were sold for lumber at the end of the trip. The arks became outmoded when a sequence of dams blocked their progress down the Susquehanna. Sawmills supplied nearby farms until c. 1820, when they began to ship to Harrisburg and beyond. Eventually the county had four hundred sawmills. Although logging peaked around 1860, it remains an important industry because by the early twentieth century, lumbermen began treating trees as a renewable resource and replanted.
The Clearfield Coke and Iron Company built a coke-fired furnace in 1836 at Karthaus. Coal mines became profitable, and their products found a larger market once the railroads began hauling and spreading feeder lines in the 1870s throughout the county. In 1874, the Berwind-White Coal Company opened its first mine at Houtzdale. It supplied coal for trans-Atlantic steamboats and the New York transportation system. Berwind-White had a major impact in Jefferson and Somerset (see Windber, p. 393) counties as well.
The West Branch Susquehanna River changed from an industrial highway to a recreational river over the years. Today, I-80 offers six exits across the county's width, bringing visitors and development possibilities to the area.
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