Philip Benner was an early business leader in Centre County who established the Rock Ironworks, one of the first iron forges in the county.
Benner was born in Chester County in 1762 and served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. After the war, he operated an iron forge in Chester County. He married Ruth Roberts, and they eventually had eight children.
Benner learned about the rich iron ore found in the Nittany Valley that had led to the founding of the Centre Furnace by other Philadelphians in 1791. He acquired land along Spring Creek and, using ninety-two workers he brought from Chester County, constructed a house and sawmill.
Benner and his workers built an iron forge in 1794, later adding a second forge and iron furnace, as well as a grist mill, slitting mill, and nail mill. He called the operation the Rock Ironworks. (The large rock outcropping that inspired the name is visible along Rock Road.) At its height in the 1830s, the various operations employed about 200 workers.
Benner constructed several of the early homes in Bellefonte, including the Linn House, which is now the home of the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County. He also operated stores in Bellefonte and Ferguson Township.
Over the years, Benner acquired other property in the county. Because boundary disputes were commonplace at the time, some of his land purchases had to be litigated in the state Supreme Court. Some of his ventures ended in losses, including a plan to haul iron from Pittsburgh to New Orleans via steamboat.
Benner was the first president of the Centre and Kishacoquillas Turnpike Company, playing a major role in building the road between Bellefonte and Lewistown. He was an ardent supporter of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party that emerged in the 1820s. He was twice selected to be a presidential elector.
Benner founded the Centre Democrat in 1827 to support Jackson, who was elected president in 1828. However, he disagreed vehemently with Jackson’s opposition to re-chartering the National Bank, and in 1830 he sold the newspaper to its editor, John Bigler.
Benner died on July 27, 1832, and he was buried near the Rock Ironworks. Benner Township and the Benner Pike are named for him.
Benner’s children sold Rock Iron Works and his properties to several individuals, including William Reynolds of Bellefonte. Reynolds operated the forge for a time, but it became unprofitable and was closed. Reynolds later willed the former Benner land to his nephew, Fred Reynolds. In 1912, Reynolds deeded about 2,000 acres to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for construction of State Correctional Institute-Rockview.
Linn, John Blair. History of Centre and Clinton Counties. Philadelphia: Louis H. Evans, 1883.
First Published: June 11, 2021
Last Modified: April 22, 2022