History & Heritage of Indiana County


Early History Lithograph Map of Indiana County

The recorded history of Indiana County begins around 1727, when James LeTort, a French Huguenot trader, set up a trading post for the Indians near what is now the town of Shelocta in the western part of the county. 

Other settlers traveled through the county in the 1700's, often using the 
Kittanning Path, an Indian trail which roughly parallels U.S. Route 422 through Indiana County. This route was renamed the Armstrong Trail and is now preserved by The Armstrong Trail Society, and a portion in Indiana County has been marked with signs and used for hiking and nature study.

The southern portion of the County was purchased from the Iroquois Six Nations in 1768 in the first Treaty of Fort Stanwix by Thomas and Richard Penn, sons of William Penn. The line of this purchase, extending across the center of Indiana County, is known as the Purchase Line and is commemorated today by a monument in the town of Cherry Tree, marking the corner of the Purchase. In 1784, the Penns signed the second Treaty of Fort Stanwix with the Indians and purchased the northern section of the county. The two parts of Indiana County, north and south of the Purchase Line, were joined when the County was created by the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1803.

The town of Indiana became the county seat in 1805, when George Clymer of Philadelphia (a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution) donated 250 acres of land in the center of the County. This clinched the county seat title for the town of Indiana, which by 1810 had a population of 125.

In 1806, the official business of the County was transferred from Greensburg and three years later the first Court House was built. According to the census of 1810, the new County had a population of 1,214.

Early Transportation Routes

Tunnelview Historic SiteEarly Indian trails and settlers' paths gave way to a more modern transportation system by the early 1800s. In 1807, the Frankstown Road was improved and tolls were charged when it became a turnpike. During the 1820s and 30s, the Canal Age established the Pennsylvania Canal to link Philadelphia and Pittsburgh through a system of waterways and railways. The Conemaugh River (the southern border of the county) was an important link in the section from Johnstown to Pittsburgh.

By 1829, the first canal boats were passing the Indiana County towns of Blairsville and Saltsburg and by 1834, the canal was opened its full length. Bow Ridge near the present-day Tunnelview Historic site boasted the third tunnel built in the nation and the only place on the canal with a tunnel and aqueduct next to each other.

Within 30 years the canal had been replaced by railroads, however, and the State government was almost bankrupt as a result of the canal-building fever. A spur line of the Pennsylvania Railroad was completed in Indiana in 1856.

Early Society

  • The first newspaper was started in 1814
  • In the 1830s and 1840s a strong anti-slavery movement gained strength in Indiana County
  • The Center Township Anti-Slavery Society was organized in 1838
  • An abolition newspaper, The Clarion Freedom, was established in 1843
  • The County was on one of the main lines of the Underground Railroad and many prominent citizens risked their lives by harboring runaway slaves
  • During the Civil War, Indiana County sent several regiments of troops to fight for the Union
  • Bethel Presbyterian Church is believed to be the oldest Protestant Church and dates back to 1788
  • The oldest Catholic Church is St. Patrick's in Pine Township, built in 1827, but the deed for the land was given in 1806 Indiana Normal School, c. 1870
  • Many churches dot the landscape and  their cemetaries memorialize the early inhabitants of the County

In 1855, a Normal School for training teachers was begun in the old Indiana Academy and in the basement of a church. Indiana State Normal School was established in 1870 and became a four-year State Teacher's College in 1927.  In 1965 the Normal School became Indiana University of Pennsylvania, now a significant cultural and business asset for the County.

Many historic structures from the late 1800's still remain, including Ebenezer Church, Bethel Church, the Silas M. Clark House, historic downtown Indiana, and the Smicksburg Amish Settlement. Browse a map of history sites in Indiana County to learn more.

Early Industry

Historic Salt Well DrillingIn the early 1800s, the County's first major industry was manufacturing salt by evaporating salt water pumped from wells. The salt boom in the southwestern part of the County accounted for the name of the town of Saltsburg.

Bituminous coal was dug from exposed outcroppings as early as 1795, but there is no record of the date or location of the first mine. Coal mining soon rivaled farming as the backbone of the County's economy. Several iron furnaces were built in the 1830's and 1840's, but ceased operations when the timber that supplied charcoal gave outa necessary ingredient in iron production.

By 1905, the production of coke (a coal product used in iron smelting) became a major industry with the construction of beehive ovens at Ernest and Coral. Another industry started in 1914, with the building of the McCreary tire plant in Indiana.

Development of Indiana County was closely linked to the production, processing and transportation of its abundant natural resources. In addition to agricultural activity, the extraction of vast resources of salt, coal, natural gas and timber guided Indiana County’s economic growth and cultural development, and has profoundly shaped the lands and people of the County.

Geographical Note

A disastrous St. Patrick's Day flood in 1936 devastated the region, including parts of Pittsburgh. In 1946, the Army Corps of Engineers began constructing the Conemaugh Dam on the Conemaugh River near Blairsville. Several towns were demolished and moved, and two railroad tunnels and the old Pennsylvania Canal tunnel were sealed to make way for the giant project. The work took seven years to complete and is the largest flood control dam in the Allegheny River system.

(Excerpted from the Indiana County Historical Society)


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