Updated: Jul 2
Humans have used the land in Pennsylvania in many different ways throughout history. As we explored in last week’s issue on geology (link to this issue), central Pennsylvania remained a frontier longer than many other regions. During the fast-paced colonial expansion, the wonderful little town of Marietta, Ohio was founded in the late 1780’s while Bellefonte was not laid out until 1795.
New discoveries and science continually change the date of arrival to this region for the first people, but regardless, these early inhabitants would have experienced terrain and landscapes that would have only barely resembled those we see today. Locally the landscape would have ranged from small patches of coniferous tree species to large expanses of tundra. The landscape to the north would have been dominated by massive glaciers spanning the width of the continent. Eventually, the landscape morphed into something resembling today’s boreal forests throughout Canada.
Predominantly hunter-gatherers, the first human explorers would have stalked megafauna such as wooly mammoths, giant beavers, and elk moose—it really is called the elk moose (see Cervalces scotti). This lifestyle would have dominated the continent until climactic shifts were brought about by the retreating glaciers. As warmer temperatures crept up, the continent and rainfall became more stable and people began shifting from an archaic (or subsistence) society into what would become the pre-colonial societies.
Throughout this pre-colonial era there was a shift from following migratory paths and seasonal food supplies to actively managing the landscape and extracting resources. Charcoal and pollen evidence and soil samples from our valley floors indicate that large areas were maintained as open grassland or plains-style habitat. Stone tool creation was also plentiful in our area due to the relative ease of access to jasper deposits near Mount Nittany and Bald Eagle Creek. These regions were downright industrial in their production and were likely in use for over 1,000 years. Without a large river or other easy mode of transportation, however, most of what would become Centre County remained sparsely populated. Trade routes ferried produced goods to every corner of the state. The main route diverged from the population center located near modern-day Milesburg where goods could be put on Bald Eagle Creek and transported by water downstream. Over-land routes across the ridges were much less traveled but one route likely followed Spring Creek and Slab Cabin Run before crossing over Tussey Mountain and heading south to the Standing Stone Creek and eventually into present-day Huntingdon. These routes would have been the lifeblood of the settlements at either end.
All of this would drastically change with rapid encroachment of European colonists through the 1700’s. As the native lands were ceded to colonial growth, surveyors moved ahead of land men in order to find prime areas to settle. The very early maps placed great emphasis on the larger waterways, and a great deal was known about most of the primary tributaries of the Susquehanna. Central Pennsylvania, however, remained a mostly uncharted wildness (and was labeled as such on many early maps) well into the 1750’s. As maps of this time became more accurate, there was an obvious note of “great plains” over “Happy Valley” which support idea that the original keepers of the land had kept it open.
1757 Map of Pennsylvania - USGS
By the mid-1700’s, unfortunately, most native populations had moved much further west or had succumb to pestilence in the 100 or so years of colonial presence. Spurred by tales of spectacular unclaimed lands, early settlers followed the now deserted footpaths leading them into the Penns Valley area in the 1760’s. General James Potter was one of these early pioneers, and on a return trip from service in the frontier remarked to his assistant, “My Heavens, Thompson, I have discovered an empire.”
“My Heavens, Thompson, I have discovered an empire.” -James Potter, ca. 1759
It would take decades before Potter’s “empire” would take hold. A new nation at war would hamper the westward development of an area only reachable by canoe or foot. Following the Treaty of Paris and the recognition of the United States as an independent nation there were thousands of soldiers and officers who had served in the colonial army. The nation, unable to levy a national tax and with little in the way of assets, began to grant unclaimed parcels to these men throughout the frontier.
It was during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s that iron was discovered in our region. The iron boom gripped the landscape and inspired many prospectors and businessmen to collect claims near productive iron operations. In our area the prominent gentleman Philip Benner gathered nearly 100 men to make the overland voyage from Philadelphia and found Rock Iron Works. The iron industry demanded incredible resources nearly unchecked through the entirety of the 1800’s, but by the turn of the next century almost all of the work had moved out of the state. By then, 80% of the state had been cut to the ground to feed industry.
Phillip Benner addressing his crew by "the Rock"
The resulting barren landscape was awash with rampant erosion due to the lack of supporting forests and much of the state contained little in the way of wildlife. This devastation inspired early titans of conservation, including Theodore Roosevelt and Joseph Rothrock. These early foresters would establish the pattern that much of the nation would follow for managing and stewarding forest resources.
During the early 1900’s, work of these early environmentalists helped create the wonderfully forested place we call home. Today, many of our state parks are the legacy of the conservation programs that helped rejuvenate our forests.
Black Moshannon State Park features the history of early logging companies as they moved across the state collecting resources the rapidly growing nation needed. The Star Mill Trail, a 2-mile loop, goes past several original homestead locations as well as a local schoolhouse. While only the foundations of these early structures remain, it is easy to imagine the early life of the loggers as they hauled their work down to the lake.
Greenwood Furnace focuses heavily on the height of the iron boom. Guests can look to the park map to visit the informational displays at key locations around the park. The foundation of one of the original furnaces is fully restored and visitors can see first-hand the size of the industry that was at work even before indoor plumbing was commonplace.
A visit to Rhoneymeade Arboretum and Sculpture Garden offers a connection to the history of the early agrarian development of the region. The 2-mile trail takes guests along the same paths that farmers would follow when transporting their goods to the flag stops, where their goods would be picked up by trains and head to market. The railways, of course, were also the main distributor of correspondence, the key way learning what was happening in the world outside of the ridges and valleys.
The Scotia Barrens represent an area that is rich in history that spans hundreds of years. The iron works established by Andrew Carnegie are still somewhat visible here, but the true scope of the operation can be seen in the unusual features that litter the landscape. Vernal pools, quarter-mile earthen ramps, and undulating hills of the spoils (the leftover rock, mud, and other detritus from a mining operation) are but a few of the strange sights awaiting adventurers.
The Lower Trail follows along the other main form of Pennsylvanians’ transportation in the 1800’s, the canal. Canals were the only way to transport large mass of goods and supplies across the interior of the state prior to the widespread distribution of the railway systems. Going downstream was easy (and still is), but a towpath was required to haul the boats upstream. Many of the towpaths eventually became the sites for future railroads, as is the case for the Lower Trail.