Centre County Overview

By Douglas Macneal

Located in the center of Pennsylvania, Centre County lies on a striking landscape overlaid with history. Rock and water shape the surface. The County is divided diagonally almost equally into two parts, bisected by the Allegheny Front:

  • The northwestern half, the Allegheny Plateau, is a forested high plateau divided by deep valleys and fast moving streams. Despite the richness of its timber stands and the early discovery of coal, the plateau’s rugged foothills north of Bald Eagle Creek served as a discouragement to westward-bound settlement and remained sparsely settled throughout much of the nineteenth century.
  • The southeastern Ridge and Valley half, made up of forested sandstone ridges and gently rolling limestone valleys, is framed by Bald Eagle Ridge to the north and the Seven Mountains to the south. The eastern slope is cut by Spring Creek and its tributaries; the western slope by Spruce Creek. The discovery of high quality iron ore brought settlement to this region, as did the richness of its agricultural land.

Native Americans

Native Americans – Delaware, Shawnee, Mingo, Iroquois – flourished in the early history of Centre County, planting the valleys in corn and squash, and hunting in the ridges. Their paths through the valleys and the water gaps were linked to paths extending to the Susquehanna and the Allegheny River systems. County place names suggest this early history. Some examples: the legend of Princess Nita-nee has provided the names for Nittany Valley and Nittany Mountain; Chief Bald Eagle’s principal camp was near Milesburg, resulting in the naming of Bald Eagle Creek, Bald Eagle Mountain, and Bald Eagle Valley; and Chief Logan is referenced by Logan Branch of Spring Creek and Logan Gap.

Original Land Warrants

The documented history of Centre County began with the original land warrants, legal documents conveying William Penn’s domain to private owners. Penn had repurchased from resident tribes, land given him by the King of England. Penn allowed a white settler to choose an open piece of land, obtain a warrant for it, have it surveyed and patented as previously unowned, and then record it in the land office for a few shillings an acre. This process, which reflected Penn’s faith in fairness and initiative, resulted in a jigsaw pattern of warrant boundaries. Many are still evident in fence lines, property lines, and roads, and represent the first layer of the modern cultural landscape of Centre County.

Centre County was part of the frontier that divided settled and unsettled land at the time of the American Revolution. Many local warrants date to this time. By limiting claims to 400 acres for any one person, the warrant process was intended to favor poor settlers. However, Penn and his descendants took prime land as “Manors,” consisting of 1/10th of any new land opened to warranting. Merchants, speculators, and military officers claimed multiple warrants under their own names and those of relatives and friends. Most settlers, predominantly Scotch-Irish and German, bought land already warranted or took out later, “junior,” warrants on tracts where they had squatted.

First Settlers

Using rivers, creeks, and the paths that had been established by Native Americans, the earliest settlers moved east and west into the valleys. James Potter, the first to record his exploration of the area, followed the West Branch of the Susquehanna upriver from Sunbury to Bald Eagle Creek in 1764. At its junction with Spring Creek, Potter headed south into unfamiliar land. Reaching the approximate place where Bellefonte now stands, he continued along an Indian trail to the edge of Nittany Mountain and crossed through the mountain, perhaps at Black Hawk Gap west of Centre Hall. As he overlooked Penns Valley for the first time he is reported to have exclaimed to his traveling companion, “My Heavens, Thompson, I have discovered an empire.” Through an accumulation of warrants he acquired that empire, and built a fortified log home near Old Fort in 1774.

The first white settler emigrant to this area was Andrew Boggs, who settled in 1769 in present day Milesburg, near the junction of Spring and Bald Eagle Creeks. In 1775, Reverend Philip Vickers Fithian, a young Presbyterian minister from Princeton who was touring frontier settlements, wrote a vivid account of frontier life at the Boggs and Potter homes.

Discovery of Iron Ore

While farmland was being set aside in Penns Valley and elsewhere, the discovery of iron ore, in 1784, brought a new momentum. An ample supply of excellent quality iron – central Pennsylvania’s “gold” – brought settlement to the area in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Centre Furnace, the first iron furnace to be built (in 1791) by prominent Philadelphians Samuel Miles and John Patton, was known far beyond the central Pennsylvania frontier. For example, French aristocrat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand spent the winter of 1794-95 with John Patton at his Mansion House. The success of Centre Furnace led to a rapid multiplication of ironworks along local streams with the furnace giving its name to the county in 1800. Under the ownership of entrepreneurs Philip Benner, John Dunlop, Roland Curtain, and others, by 1832 more than a dozen new iron furnaces and forges were in operation along Spring and Bald Eagle Creeks and their tributaries.

Thousands of acres of land were acquired by these ironmasters to provide the natural resources needed to operate the furnace. In addition to the ore and a supply of fast moving water power to operate the bellows, limestone was necessary for flux to collect impurities, along with enough hardwood to supply each furnace with an acre a day to be used for making charcoal. Put into blast in the spring, iron furnaces and forges remained in continuous operation until cold weather froze or slowed their water power sources.

These early ironmaking communities or plantations were isolated and largely self sufficient. In addition to the furnace stack and accessory buildings, the villages consisted of the ironmaster’s mansion, post office, store, church, school, and a small settlement of homes for workers and their families. A large labor force was essential to the operation, to mine and deliver the ore and limestone, make and bring the charcoal to the furnace, process the iron, transport it to market, and work the farms to feed the community.

Early Transportation

Philadelphia land speculator Reuben Haines built the first road into what would become Centre County in 1771. The road extended from the Northumberland bridge on the Susquehanna River into Penns Valley and the approximate location of Spring Mills. A chain of communities began to form along this and other major transportation routes, serving both as stopping points with inns for travelers and as local centers of goods and services for surrounding farmers.

Pressure to improve transportation increased as the iron industry began to flourish. The shipping of iron products to Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Philadelphia was initially done by slow and expensive caravans of pack horses along difficult-to-travel paths, or by water on flat-bottomed boats called arks. Turnpikes were completed in the 1820s and 1830s, and the canal system opened in the 1830s and 40s. The first railroad operation, which began in 1859, brought coal from the Snow Shoe area to fire furnaces, replacing a dwindling supply of wood needed for charcoal.


Thousands of acres of furnace lands that had been cleared for the making of charcoal were converted to agricultural purposes. The well-drained fertile limestone soil of Nittany and Bald Eagle Valley helped ensure the early success of these agricultural efforts. By the middle of the 1800s, area creeks were powering water-driven grist and flour mills, sawmills, woolen mills, tanneries, and providing water for distilleries, breweries, and even axe factories. Villages continued to develop to serve as marketplaces for farmers to sell their produce and purchase needed supplies. Houses were built on long and narrow lots; schools, churches, and in some cases, small cottage industries were added to meet the needs of rural residents.

The Impact of Ironmaking

Centre and neighboring Huntingdon, Blair, and Mifflin Counties became known as the Juniata Iron Region and in turn, became the primary iron producing area of the nation between 1800 and 1850. The success of this enormously significant industry brought wealth and political clout to Centre County and set the stage for its future development. Bellefonte, the county seat, became the most prosperous community between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh in the first half of the 19th century. Between 1850 and 1900 it was home to three Pennsylvania governors, as well as four others with Bellefonte connections, two who became governors of the Commonwealth and two others who served other states.


The iron industry served as the foundation for what would become Centre County’s key twentieth century industry – education – with the establishment of Penn State. Farmers of the mid-1800s sought an education program that would closely relate to their agricultural needs – information on how to use new farm machinery and how to apply new scientific techniques.

The Launching of Penn State

In 1851 a small group of gentlemen farmers created the Pennsylvania Agricultural Society with two objectives: to hold a Farm Fair every January in Harrisburg and to establish a school for farmers. A local chapter of the Society had already formed in Centre County with a large membership of prominent area businessmen, including James Irvin and Moses Thompson, then owners of Centre Furnace. Irvin and Thompson offered to donate 200 acres of furnace farm land and to join with Andrew Gregg Curtin, Hugh Nelson MacAllister, and other prominent county citizens on a $10,000 note for the school. Despite competition from six other counties. The offer was accepted and Centre County was selected for the location of the new Farmers High School.

This generous offer was also shrewd. Every eastern ironman knew that in mid-1855 the Sault Sainte Marie Canal would be completed and link Lake Superior and Michigan with Lake Erie, bringing Minnesota’s rich Mesabi Iron Ore to the new coke, hot-blast furnaces of Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Charcoal iron’s day had past. Centre Furnace ceased producing iron in 1858; but its owners had started a new venture of economic consequences that would become the largest educational institution in Pennsylvania.

Townships, Boroughs, Towns, Villages

Centre County, the state’s fifth largest county in land area (1115 square miles), has thirty-six governmental municipalities – twenty-five townships and eleven boroughs, and nearly 100 towns and villages extending geographically from Philipsburg to Rebersburg, and alphabetically from Aaronsburg to Zion. The oldest, Aaronsburg, was laid out in 1786; State College, one of the newest, celebrated its centennial in 1996.

Centre County in a New Century

With the turn of the 20th century, the days of iron smelting and canal transport were memories, and the era of lumbering and of turnpikes was at its end. The great county network of railways soon disintegrated as ore mining came to a halt and the “horseless carriage” absorbed local passenger traffic. Education became the county’s major emphasis in the 20th century as The Pennsylvania State University grew to become Centre County’s most well-known attraction.

Other Industries

Several of the extractive industries continued to thrive. Bituminous coal mining remained important and experienced an expansion when strip-mining was introduced. The terra cotta and fire clay industries, finding ready markets for their products, dug ever deepening gashes into the mountain ridges. Limestone quarries all over the county responded to new demands of the builders of hard-surfaced roads and fabricators in concrete. Brass and bronze products were added to the county’s output of manufactured goods, as were a variety of textile materials, bakery products, and canned foods. Electrical power production became a new phase of local enterprise. By mid-century, manufactured goods constituted two-thirds of the total value of all products in the county.

New Roads

Great changes in transportation, marked by the road-paving program of the 1920s and 1930s, more than compensated for the rapid curtailment of local railroad facilities, and motor-bus service became the main means of public transport.

Air Service

But at the same time air transport was slowly developing and gave evidence of becoming one of the major turning points in the history of the region. Air service came to the county in 1918 with the first flight of air mail in U.S. history. Bellefonte was a stopping point on the original route. About a decade later the State College Air Depot began operations at the Boalsburg Field. During WWII a large airstrip was built on the mountain top at Black Moshannon. And in 1949, at the new State College Air Depot, commercial air transport in and out of Centre County was formally inaugurated. This service ushered in a new era of transportation, overcoming for the first time the mountain barriers which had formerly rendered the region difficult to access, whether by Indian trail in 1740 or by concrete road in 1940.


Centre County’s population rose from 4,000 in 1800 to nearly 42,894 by 1900. Between 1900 and 1950 it grew again, to 65,000. Many of the newcomers who joined the Scotch-Irish and Germans already here, came from the southern and central parts of Europe. Two hundred years later, Centre County’s population is approximately135,000, with the largest concentration centered primarily in the Centre Region.

Natural Setting

One of Centre County’s greatest assets is its abundant wildlife in a setting of great natural beauty. Fishermen’s Paradise, the Scotia Game Lands, and Black Moshannon, Bald Eagle, and Poe Valley State Parks are just a few of these public parks and facilities available to Centre Countians.