Mifflin County was formed from Cumberland and Northumberland counties in 1789 and included all of Juniata County until 1831. It was named for Major General Thomas Mifflin, who had just become the first governor of Pennsylvania (1790–1799). When the first settlers ventured into the area, it was in the possession of the Delaware and the Shawnee, who gradually yielded the territory to the proprietary with the treaties of 1736, 1749, and 1754. Ohesson, a Shawnee town of domed bark huts, or wigwams, with a population estimated around 100, was located on the site of present-day Lewistown. On his map of 1749, Welshman Lewis Evans named the site “Kishacoquillas Town” after its leader, Kishacoquillas, the Shawnee chief who signed the treaty of friendship with the provincial government in Philadelphia in 1739. An ally of the English, his name was given to Kishacoquillas Valley (familiarly known as Big Valley) and Kishacoquillas Creek.
The first Europeans in Mifflin were Scots-Irish immigrants who traded with the Native Americans. When the French and Indian War flared up, Fort Granville, a link in the Franklin-directed chain of defenses, was erected one mile west of Lewistown. On July 31, 1756, the fort was captured and burnt to the ground by fifty French troops and one hundred of their Indian allies under the command of Captain Coulon de Villiers. Settlers took refuge in Carlisle, but immediately returned after Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763–1764. The land rush that took place from 1765 to 1770 resulted in the formation of the first townships, Derry (1768) and Armagh (1770), named for settlers' Ulster homelands. The intrepid Scots-Irish held their ground throughout the Revolution, but hundreds of them moved westward into Appalachia and the Ohio Valley when these territories opened to settlement in 1783. Mifflin was repopulated by Germans from Berks, Northumberland, and Northampton counties, and Amish from Lancaster. Mennonites eventually settled in the western part of Big Valley, where in 1837 a township was named Menno, for their founder, Menno Simon.
Located in the deeply cleft terrain of the Juniata watershed, Mifflin County is shaped by the parallel ridges of Stone and Jacks mountains that enclose Kishacoquillas Valley between their 2,000-foot-high walls. The Juniata River, declared a public highway in 1771, was the primary means of transporting the iron, grain, leather, wool, whiskey, and wood products of the colonial economy. Manufacturing the keelboats used for this purpose became a local industry. The first road through the county, the Harrisburg-Pittsburgh turnpike, was built along the Juniata and reached Lewistown in 1817. The graceful single-span Stone Arch Bridge over Jack's Creek in Derry Park, a mile east of Lewistown (intersection of Jack's Creek Road and U.S. 22), was built by Philip Diehl for the turnpike in 1813 (2006 restored). Completion of the main line of the Pennsylvania Canal on the northern side of the Juniata in 1829 stimulated economic growth in the river towns of McVeytown, Newton-Hamilton, and Lewistown, which became a shipping port. Twenty years later, the Pennsylvania Railroad laid track through the county along the river's south bank to Lewistown where they constructed a freight station and train yard ( MI8). As the terminus of the Mifflin and Centre (1865), Sunbury and Lewistown (1871), and Kishacoquillas Valley (1892) short line railroads, Lewistown Junction was the transportation hub of central Pennsylvania. In the twentieth century, state roads were built north and south through the long valleys, but even today PA 322 along the Juniata River is the only modern road through the stony barrier of the ridges.
Within these limitations, Mifflin County established an early diverse industrial base that has been maintained for more than two centuries. Shale and clay for brick making, limestone sand for glassmaking, hemlock bark for tanneries, timber for sawmills, and wood pulp for paper mills kept the economy humming through the nineteenth century. Juniata hematite ores and an abundance of wood for charcoal made the iron industry the pride of the county. Freedom Forge, founded in 1795 at Burnham, grew into the Standard Steel Company operating there today. Traditional farming practices and pioneering environmental policy have preserved the integrity of the county's landscape. When the thick pine and hemlock forests were depleted in the 1890s, Dr. Joseph Trimble Rothrock (1839–1922) of McVeytown, the first Pennsylvania commissioner of forestry in 1895, bought land from the lumber companies to establish the State Forest System. Today 60 percent of the county is wooded. Although most of the acidic rocky soil is planted with grain that supports the dairy industry, limestone deposits and traditional Amish and Mennonite farming methods have made Big Valley the breadbasket of the county for two hundred years.
Mifflin County's architectural heritage is distinguished by these urban and rural extremes. The sophisticated design and commercial buildings of Lewistown were directly related to boom generated by industrialization. The history of industrial planning is preserved in two company towns at opposite ends of the county. In the southwest, Kistler (off U.S. 522 south of U.S. 22) was designed in 1916 by nationally famed planner John Nolen, with the assistance of New York architects Mann and MacNeille, as a suburban village with small period houses for workers at Mount Union Refractories. Twentyfour miles northeast, the American Viscose Company, one of the largest employers in the county for half a century, in 1920 built Juniata Terrace ( MI9) outside of Lewistown on PA 103 for its workforce.
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