Background to the Virtual Walking Tour of Bellefonte,
The Talleyrand Park Citizens Committee
Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association
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Indians The earliest recorded history of the Bellefonte area goes back to 1745, when the first white man purchased land from the Indians that roamed the Nittany Valley. Memories of Chief Bald Eagle and of Chief Logan are still preserved in the names of prominent local geographic features.
Early Settlers The original legal provision for obtaining land, in what is now known as
Centre County, was made shortly before the Revolutionary War. The Treaty
of Stanwix, 1768, provided for tracts of land to be purchased from the Indians
and vested in proprietors, who were to open the land for settlement.
Griffith Gibbon made the first application for land, and in 1769 the tract was
laid out by a group of surveyors who, at that time, discovered the Big Spring.
In 1785 William Lamb purchased 750 acres of that tract and erected the building
which is now known as the Thomas House, reputedly the first residence in
Bellefonte. Lamb also built a mill and a mill race, and as the settlement
grew, it became known as "Lamb's Crossing."
The majority of the early settlers were of Scotch-Irish descent, among them being Andrew Boggs, the first immigrant to Centre County, Daniel and Jonas Davis, Richard Malone, and James Potter.
Benner and Patton After the turmoils of the Revolution, General Philip Benner and Colonel John Patton played an important role in the history of Centre County. In addition to being an influential civic leader, General Benner owned and operated Rock Forge, the first forge in Centre County. In 1827 he founded the Centre Democrat, one of the oldest weekly newspapers in the United States. Colonel Patton constructed Centre Furnace, where blasting operations were started in the spring of 1792.
Dunlop and Harris In 1794 John Dunlop, from Northumberland County, inspected the existing iron works. His father, impressed by the reports of high-grade ore, purchased two tracts of land, and in the autumn of the same year, Colonel James Dunlop, his son John, and son-in-law James Harris moved onto the land. In 1795 Harris, a deputy surveyor of the State, and Colonel Dunlop laid out the original plan of Bellefonte, then known as "Big Spring." Click here for the original layout of the town. James Harris continued to be prominent in the early history of the town and the area in general. In 1798 a post office was established in the town, and he became the first postmaster. Later he was elected state senator; and, joined by Colonel Samuel Miles, he instigated a movement to create Centre County. This was accomplished on February 13, 1800. In keeping with his social position, Harris entertained lavishly at his fine home, "Marlbrook" (later known as "Willowbank"), just west of town on the banks of Spring Creek.
Competition for County Seat A legend, which is probably based on a factual event, concerns the competition that developed among towns as to which should become the seat of the newly created county. To counter the argument that Milesburg was the leader in navigation, Harris and Dunlop loaded a flatboat with furniture and had it pulled in Spring Creek from the Bald Eagle Creek (which is a tributary of the Susquehanna River) at Milesburg to Bellefonte. This is said to have influenced the decision to make Bellefonte the county seat.
Courthouse The new status of Bellefonte and its corresponding functions required the erection of governmental buildings. The first of these, the County Courthouse -- an unpretentious two story stone building -- was erected in 1805 on the site of the present court house. The facilities being inadequate in 1811, the building was expanded. The Ionic columned porch was added in 1835 to "ornament and add dignity" to the structure. By 1854 the building had deteriorated to such an extent that the Board of Commissioners petitioned Grand Juries for a new building. Finally they were granted "alterations and repairs," and the Board, using its full powers, tore down all but the columned porch and contracted Newman and Harris, Architects, to design the structure that exists today. In 1909-11 an addition was added to the rear of the building, along with a further addition in 1963.
Jail The first jail, built in the early 1800s, had an eight-foot underground dungeon for "hardened criminals," and was located on the rear of the lot of the present YMCA. A second jail, with sheriff's quarters above, was erected on East High Street, opposite the courthouse. In 1868 another jail was constructed to the rear of the courthouse. Following its destruction by fire in 1959, another structure was built in 1963. It served until 2005, when a correctional facility was built on former Rockview SCI land, west of Bellefonte, on Route 150.
Iron Industry From its earliest history, the economy of Bellefonte and the surrounding area centered around the iron works. There were many factors advantageous to the location of this industry in the Bellefonte area: a good supply of easily obtainable, good quality limestone, timber, iron ore, and coal; and, Spring Creek provided water power for machinery. In 1813 Jacob Thomas visited Dunlop's iron works. When John Dunlop was killed in a mine accident the following year, William Thomas and Samuel, Jacob, George and Reuben Valentine took over the firm, which became known as "Valentines and Thomas." The new owners built the first rolling mill in Centre County in 1824. The high-purity limestone beds that are still mined today are called, geologically, the Valentine Member of the Linden Hall Formation.
Residences The prosperity of the community was reflected in the
many fine residences that were built during this period. The building
known as the Linn Home was originally erected for Judge Jonathan Walker in 1810
by Philip Benner. It was later occupied by Judge Charles Huston and
Governor James A Beaver. Historian
John Blair Linn, who wrote Linn's
History of Pennsylvania, and who married Benner's granddaughter, moved into
the house that her grandfather had built. The structure is of Trenton
limestone, one of the excellent building materials found in this area. The
quality of this limestone has given rise to one of the major industries of
Another beautiful example is the Hastings Mansion, previously known as the "Red Lion Inn." The original frame inn, later occupied as a home by Mrs. John Lane, was purchased by Daniel H Hastings in the 1890s, when he was elected governor. He remodeled the building by facing it in brick, adding the south wing and fine architectural details.
Another fine building was erected in 1815 by Joseph Miles, and was sold to The Honorable W W Potter, lawyer and congressman. After Potter's death, the home was occupied by E C Humes, one of the leading businessmen, and his wife, the niece of Congressman Potter. The house was bequeathed in 1935 to Bellefonte for use as county library.
Turnpikes and Canal Not long after the first buildings were constructed in Bellefonte, a major link with the rest of the rapidly developing area -- the turnpike -- was begun. The Northumberland and Anderson's Creek Turnpike, connecting Bellefonte with Clearfield to the west and Sunbury to the east, took ten years to build, completed in 1822. This was the mail stage route. The same year, a turnpike to the south, The Centre and Kishacoquillas Turnpike, was built by the iron masters for a more direct link with the main roads. The best route for the shipment of iron, however, proved to be east through Lock Haven and Mill Hall to the Susquehanna River; then south on the river to Harrisburg. The Bald Eagle, Nittany, and Bellefonte Turnpike was built in 1833 to accomplish this. The following year the Bald Eagle and Spring Creek Navigation Company began the construction of a canal to provide barge transportation of the iron along the same route as the turnpike, following Spring Creek into Bellefonte. It was completed in 1848.
Decline of Iron But Not of Bellefonte After about 1850 the
hardwood forests around Bellefonte were becoming depleted, and better and more
easily obtainable ores were being discovered elsewhere. The reason for
Bellefonte's natural beginning, the reason for its natural growth -- the iron
industry -- was in a state of decline.
When the iron industry declined, why did Bellefonte not become a "ghost town" as did other iron centers in central Pennsylvania, and the gold-rush towns of the West when the supply of gold was exhausted? During the first sixty years of its existence, Bellefonte grew in economy, population and, above all, political influence. William Bigler, from Clearfield County, who worked on the Centre Democrat for many years, was elected Governor of Pennsylvania in 1851. In 1857 William F Packer, a native of Howard, received the gubernatorial post.
Those who had come to Bellefonte to "monopolize" on the iron industry found that there was also a "gold-mine" in the fact that it had not only become the political center of the county, but also of the state. Solid commercial establishments appeared to cater to the influx of important personages. Colonel W F Reynolds, who came to Bellefonte in 1841, established his bank on the Diamond in 1859 and amassed quite a fortune through his financial transactions. When he died in 1893, he left an estate of $801,000. Daniel G Bush, realizing the potentialities of the growing town, erected a total of twenty-seven buildings including the Bush House. Constructed in 1869, the Bush House "ranked as one of the most perfectly appointed and commodious hotels in central Pennsylvania."
Limestone Mining By this time lime-burning for private use had been practiced, but there were no commercial enterprises in this field until Cyrus Alexander established a quarry near the present Warner Company plant. Later it was discovered that one of the best high calcium limestones in the world -- the Valentine Member of the Linden Hall Formation -- was present in the Bellefonte area. It was this early quarry that produced a basis for one of the major industries of today's Bellefonte.
Andrew Curtin 1860 saw a Bellefonte son, Andrew G Curtin, elected Governor of Pennsylvania. He was re-elected in 1863 after refusing an offer of nomination for the vice-presidency on the Lincoln ticket. The site on which the Curtin House now stands was originally purchased for $48.00. The Governor bought the land for $3,000 in 1868 and built the limestone structure which stands today. The front porch, constructed from the piers of a viaduct over Spring Creek in 1895 by the Warner Company, was added in 1909 by the Elks who purchased the property for $10,000.
Civil War In 1869 F Potts Green, a druggist who had established his store in the Brockerhoff Hotel a year after its opening, moved his business to the Bush House, where he received news of the Civil War over the town's telegraph.
Coal and Trains In 1857 bituminous coal was discovered at Snow Shoe and by 1862, the coal was being brought to Bellefonte on the new Bald Eagle Valley Railroad, constructed with assistance from the Pennsylvania Railroad. By 1864 a complete rail system from Lock Haven, through Milesburg, to Tyrone had been established. It was on this system that twelve passenger trains a day came into Bellefonte.
Electric Developments A representative of the Edison Electric Company visited Bellefonte in 1883 with the purpose of contracting for a lamp plant. By February, 1884 the second 3-wire Central Station in the world was generating electricity for the citizens of Bellefonte. In a letter dated July 8, 1883, the representative told his New York firm about Bellefonte. "This place is truly wonderful... it supports two daily papers, three banks, an opera house, a Christian Association, and a gas company.... There are comparatively few houses that are not good, considered from a lighting standpoint; and the proportion of first class dwellings is very large. These buildings are mostly granite or marble and in a style of architecture that cannot be surpassed.... There are car shops on one side of the town considerably removed from the boundary of the district which I canvassed, and a large iron foundry on the other side about the same distance off, which is owned by the president of the local Edison Company. Bellefonte is very hilly -- many of the streets are so steep that they can only be used by foot passengers. I don't know how I can give you an accurate idea of the grades, since there is not a foot of level ground in the town." The first president of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Bellefonte was George Valentine. Included among the backers were J P Harris, E C Humes, and D G Bush.
Fire The development of the business district about The Diamond (directly in front of the Courthouse) is natural when one considers the political influence upon the town. In 1888 a block of stores owned by E C Humes was totally destroyed by fire. Fountain W Crider, a shrewd businessman, bought the charred ruins and constructed the Crider Exchange Building.
Cars and Brass The largest industry in Centre County was significantly located on the site of the Valentines and Thomas Iron Foundry. William P Sieg, who came to Bellefonte in 1913 to manufacture an automobile, "The Bellefonte Six," abandoned the project and founded The Titan Metal Manufacturing Company in 1915, now Cerro Copper and Brass, and still an industry in Bellefonte.