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Union County

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During the War of 1812, residents living along the West Branch Susquehanna River in Northumberland County battled the state legislature for separate county status. The following year, the patriotically named Union County was created out of the western half of Northumberland, giving political victory to the region's survivors who had been the frontline of Pontiac's Rebellion and the French and Indian, the Revolutionary, and the Yankee-Pennamite wars. The first settlers, Pennsylvanians from English and Scots-Irish communities in Dauphin County and from German-speaking enclaves in Lancaster and Berks counties, had been decimated by repeated attacks from Native American allies of the French and the British. Those who remained did so at their peril, evident from the tombstone carved with crossed tomahawks on Brouse Road in Limestone Township stating that George Etzweiler “was killed by Indians on May 26, 1780.” According to local legend, the pioneers also fought migrating herds of buffalo that grazed on their crops until they were driven to extinction in 1801. While Native American names are conspicuously absent from the county nomenclature, the extinct eastern bison is commemorated by Buffalo Valley, Buffalo Creek, Little Buffalo Creek, Buffalo Crossroads, three townships, and Bucknell University's mascot.

Union's 317 square miles are wedged between the West Branch Susquehanna to the east and the convergence of two spurs of Bald Eagle Mountain to the southwest. Reaching elevations of more than 2,000 feet, the ridges make roughly one-third of the county unsuitable for agriculture. As a result, development was confined to the river and the central valley. Despite these limitations, trade along the Susquehanna sustained the county's economy through the nineteenth century, particularly after the construction of the “Lewisburg Cut” canal gave Lewisburg access to the west branch of the Pennsylvania Canal in 1834. Road building through Bald Eagle Mountain was facilitated by the paths of Penns Creek, Rapid Run, and White Deer Creek, where the Keystone “Shortway” interstate (I-80) was constructed in the 1960s. Limestone, so abundant along Penns Creek that a township was named for it, provided rich soil, building material, and smelting flux for the iron industry. Buffalo Valley's farms yielded enough produce to export to the coal towns east of the river. Large deposits of iron ore were processed at Glen Iron Furnace in Hartley Township, Union Furnace in Winfield, and Forest Iron Works on White Deer Creek. The timber industry developed in the northern and western limits of the valleys where pine and hemlock forests of Bald Eagle Mountain were most accessible. German craftsmen made Union County one of the leading producers of wood products in Pennsylvania. The Lewisburg Chair Company, founded at the end of the nineteenth century, grew into the famous Pennsylvania House Furniture Company, which reproduced colonial furniture from 1933 until 2005.

Union County's earliest architectural heritage is best represented by the exceptional quality of its late-eighteenth-century houses, many of which were built by Scots-Irish officers on land grants they received from General Henry Bouquet after the French and Indian and the Revolutionary wars. With the exception of Colonel John Kelly's log house ( UN21), they were typically built with fieldstone. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Samuel Maclay, U.S. senator from 1802 to 1809, built the stone farmhouse near Dreisbach Church, five miles west of Lewisburg. Georgian stone mansions such as the William Barber House (1780) on Red Ridge Road west of White Springs, with its fanlight door surround, twelve-over-twelve windows, and spiral staircase in the foyer, were not uncommon in the countryside. Although early German settlers built their houses and barns with stone, many preferred heavy timber construction. In the 1770s, German Baptists, known as “Dunkards” for their practice of baptism by full immersion, established a community at White Springs on Penns Creek, where a log house, frame barn, and broom-making shop are preserved from their colonial homesteads. When the Dunkards reorganized as the Church of the Brethren in the 1860s, they built white frame meetinghouses in the Mennonite style, three of which are located in Kelly, Hartley, and Limestone townships.

Union's urban culture was the product of German entrepreneurs who founded Lewisburg (1785), Mifflinburg (1792), and New Berlin (1793), and, remarkably, these small towns have preserved their original plans. Designated the county seat in 1813, centrally located New Berlin rapidly developed into the regional center for the German-language press and as the seat of the Evangelical Church in America and its Union Seminary. After Union County was divided in 1855 to form Snyder County, New Berlin was no longer the geographical center. By midcentury, an influx of Scots-Irish and English residents ended the homogeneity of the German towns, and a younger generation free from its ancestors' frontier resentments toward Philadelphia was eager to participate in the emerging national culture. Mifflinburg, passed over for county seat the first time, had become a transportation hub and once again vied to be county seat. This time it lost to Lewisburg, which was situated on the Susquehanna where the cross-cut canal, the railroad, and, in 1851, the telegraph connected it to the outside world.

Lewisburg also became the cultural capital of the county. The University at Lewisburg (now Bucknell University; UN19) played a pivotal role in the future of the county's architecture by engaging Philadelphian Thomas Ustick Walter to design their first buildings in 1847. Walter had just completed his celebrated Greek Revival temple for Girard College ( PH127). He was later assisted by Lewis Palmer from Blair County, who moved to Lewisburg to build the new courthouse. Palmer would become the county's most influential architect. Lewisburg's architecture had attracted attention a few years earlier when Samuel Sloan designed a “Tuscan villa” just outside of the town for its leading citizen, Eli Slifer (1860–1862; U.S. 15, 1 mile north of Lewisburg). Sloan's plans, published in Godey's Lady's Bookin December 1862, helped popularize the Italianate style. Toward the end of the century, Philadelphia architects David S. Gendell ( UN19.1) and Frank Furness and local designers John A. Dempwolf ( UN10) and Charles S. Wetzel introduced High Victorian Gothic and Romanesque styles to the region. However, the twentieth century brought a decline in construction. The building of the progressive, Renaissance Revival Northeastern Penitentiary in 1932 ( UN20) was welcomed as a boost to the economy. While interstate highway construction stimulated the economy in the 1960s, the expansion of U.S. 15 destroyed the Congregational Christian Church, Old Fire Engine House, and Frank Furness's Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Station in Lewisburg. Today a building boom of generic housing developments and commercial strips threatens to spoil the county's traditional balance of town and country with suburban sprawl.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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