Enclosed by Tuscarora, Conococheague, and Blue mountains, Perry County has the most dramatic scenery of the ridge and valley region. Looking toward Perry's eastern boundary on the Susquehanna River, the succession of majestic hills rising above four water gaps seems more like a different country than a different county. Even after 250 years of settlement, human impact is slight. Thinly populated, it had no traffic lights or parking meters within its 554 square miles as the twentieth century ended; shopping centers are a recent phenomenon, as well. To an extreme even for central Pennsylvania, Perry's cultural landscape preserves much of the architecture and the vernacular patterns of living of the premodern era.
In the history of Perry County, geography was destiny. After the Albany Purchase of 1754, Scots-Irish and Germans settled the rugged terrain and named their communities after their heroes and homelands: Liverpool, Duncannon, Rye, New Germantown, and Little Germany. The initial decision to incorporate this area into Cumberland County proved untenable because the towering ridge of Blue Mountain impeded travel to the county seat at Carlisle. Residents of seven townships, known as the “Sherman Valley separatists,” successfully lobbied to establish a county north of Blue Mountain in 1820. They named it in honor of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the Scots-Irish hero of the battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812, who had died seven months earlier. Landisburg, a village near the southern boundary, was designated county seat from 1820 to 1827, but the inconvenience of travel made centrally located Bloomfield a more desirable choice. In recognition of its new status, the town was renamed New Bloomfield in 1824.
The county's first newspaper, The Perry Forester, established in Landisburg in 1820, was addressed to “ye who love the woods and wilds to range,” at a time when the region was still thickly forested with hemlock and hardwoods. Processed into lumber, charcoal, and tanbark, the forests fueled iron ore and tanning industries. Although houses, churches, and mills were initially built of native limestone and sandstone, once sawmills proliferated, wood frame on a stone foundation became the preferred method of construction. Perry County's contribution to the Pennsylvania story is largely captured by its nineteen mills. These date from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, four of which are still in operation. Many are located near creeks spanned by the county's fourteen covered bridges.
Perry was known as the “Land between the Rivers” because it benefited from the junction of the Juniata and Susquehanna. The Harrisburg and Millerstown Pike built along the Juniata River in 1807 opened up the interior mountainous region and flatboats carried lumber, barrel hoops, iron ore, leather, grain, and whiskey to the Susquehanna where they connected to markets in Harrisburg and Baltimore. In the 1830s, the Juniata branch of the Pennsylvania Canal accelerated the industrial growth of Newport and increased trade on the Susquehanna, enriching the river towns of Marysville, Duncannon, New Buffalo, and Liverpool. Perry's industrial prowess was admired by William Cullen Bryant, who included an engraving of the Duncannon Iron Works glowing in the moonlight in Picturesque America (1872–1874). The Pennsylvania Railroad linked the county to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh after 1854, connecting the local rural culture to the urban centers to the east and west. Stylish Gothic Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, and Second Empire houses were built, though often on a smaller scale than in the cities. With the decline of the railroads in the twentieth century, the county reverted to its earlier isolation. After World War II, ranch houses and generic school buildings lacking regional character were constructed, but slow economic growth resulted in the preservation of the county's architectural heritage.
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