Monday, 16 May 2016 00:56

History of Elk County

The history of Elk County is an inspiring chronicle of events, but is also a story of fortitude and courage and a tribute to the hardy pioneers who withstood adversities and hardships over 150 years ago to pave the way for other who later followed them.

The County possesses a great heritage that runs rampant through the soul and fiber of the area.  This heritage belongs to all its citizens who believe vehemently in its destiny.  From its stately Courthouse to its beauteous hills and valleys, our County looks forward with justification to a future sustained by the love and ardor of its people- all ages and persuasions.

Elk County's first inhabitants were presumed to be the Seneca or Cornplanter Indians.  Ruins of Indians forts have been found near Russell City in Highland Township.  Another Indian earthwork possibly could be situated in Jones Township.  The old Kittanning Indian Trial,  the most direct route from Olean, New York to Kittanning, passes through western Elk County.

The first pioneers probably came into the region during the last decade of the eighteenth century.  About 1787, John Bennett and his father came up the Susquehanna River and the Bennett's Branch to a point where Caledonia in Jay Township is now situated.  Bennett's Valley is undoubtedly named for them.  General Wade and his family, with a  friend named Slade, came to the headwaters of Little Toby, in 1798, and settled there temporarily.  In 1803, the party returned and built a  log house at the mouth of Little Toby.  Amos Davis came to what is now Fox Township, and is considered to be the first permanent settler in Elk County.

The abundant forest lands primarily attracted the early settler.  The first industries were indicative of the natural terrain.  They found the wilderness dense and challenging where the light of the sun rarely penetrated the damp and enmeshed undergrowth.  Finally, the strenuous wielding of the axe resounded, and felled some of the towering trees, breaking the forest's silence.  The most spectacular phase of the lumber industry was the rafting of square timbers and lumber down the Clarion, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers to Pittsburgh, Louisville, and New Orleans.  Other industries, such as coal mining and the tanning business, soon followed.  The coming of the railroads added impetus to the early economy and increased the shipping of timber and coal.

Today, the powder metal and carbon industries are thriving in the County, and a large percentage of the population in 1993 were employed in these industries.  Ridgway Township was a part of Jefferson County with Brookville, the County Seat forty miles distant.  This distance placed a burden on the people to transact their business.  In 1835, initial efforts were made to form a separate County.  Hostility from surrounding counties had to be overcome, and the first bill introduced into the State Legislature, probably on February 8, 1837, to erect the "County of Ridgway" and several other bills for the same purpose were defeated.  Finally the Honorable James Lyle Gillis of Ridgway was elected to the State Legislature in 1840, where he served three years, and one term in the Senate.  He was successful in having a bill passed on April 18, 1843, establishing Elk County.  Governor David Porter signed the birth certificate.  The new county was formed from parts of Clearfield, Jefferson, and McKean Counties.  For this contribution to our County, the Honorable James Lyle Gillis is considered the "Patriarch of Elk County."

Timothy Ives, Jr., of Potter County, James W. Guthrie, of Clarion County, and Zachariah E. Eddy, of Warren County were appointed commissioners to mark the boundary lines and perform such other duties as was delegated to them until the new county could elect commissioners duly qualified to conduct the County's business.

The evolution of Elk County's borders is interesting.  It took twenty-nine years for the County's outline map to assume its present shape, which is in the form of a crouched eagle in flight.

The first election for county offices was held on October 10, 1843, and the results were as follows: County Commissioners, John Brooks, Chauncey Brockway, Sr. and Reuben Winslow; Coroner, James Mix; Sheriff Eusebius Kincaid; Prothonotary, W.J.B Andres.  The new County Commissioners appointed B. Rush Petrikin as Clerk and David Wheeler as Treasurer.  In May 1844, Leonard Morey was appointed Commissioner's Clerk.

The act establishing Elk County stated:  "Court would be held on the third Monday of February, May, September, and December in each and every year, and continue one week of each term, if necessary."

The first court in Elk County was held on December 19, 1843, in a schoolhouse in Caledonia (Jay Township) on the Smethport and Milesburg Turnpike.  It was near the house of Hezekiah Warner, and is identified as being opposite the former Ingram store and between the former Herbert Fox Tavern and the turnpike.  An inspection of the site made in the 1800's by Erasmus Morey and Squire Dixon showed that three sides of the building were still standing in a fair state of preservation, and the measurements of the foundation indicated it to be twenty feed by twenty-four feet.  There is now no vestige of the building or foundation discernible.  The building was also known as the old seminary.  At the first court of record, no law judge was present.  The Associate Judges present were James L. Gillis and Isaac Horton.

The next session of Elk County Court was held in Ridgway on February 19, 1844, in a schoolhouse.  Some of the officials at this court were: President Judge, Alex McCalmont and Associate Judge Isaac Horton.

In March the court assembled, but adjourned until May 20, 1844, when a petition for a new township was presented, and the original County Seat Commissioners asked to show cause why they should not report their proceedings to the constituted authorities of Elk County.  All that part of Shippen Township south of Jones Township and north of Fox and Jay Townships, was attached to Fox Township for administrative purposes.

The ultimate selection of Ridgway as the Elk County Seat of Justice and events leading to this choice are most interesting.   The County Commissioners proceeded to solicit offers from any interested persons as to donations of money and/or lands for the purpose of establishing a county seat of justice.  Finally, the offer of John J. Ridgway (Jacob Ridgway's son) with assistance from James L. Gillis, Lyman Wilmarth, and George Dickinson was accepted on December 16, 1844. The land (nearly two acres) for the first Courthouse had been reserved from sale by Jacob Ridgway and James L. Gillis during the Survey of 1833 as a town public square.

The first courthouse was of wood frame construction and was completed in May 1845.  It is presumed that the first courthouse stood on or near the present courthouse.  The contractors for the 1845 Courthouse were Levi G. Clover and Edward H. Derby.  Mr. Derby is given recognition as the builder.  Supplies were furnished through the store of James L. Gillis.

The Courthouse, built by Edward H. Derby, Served as Elk County's seat of justice for thirty-four years. With the expansion of population, growth of industry, and increasing demands on its facilities, it became necessary to replace the old Courthouse with a larger and more modern structure.  Two grand juries had also condemned the wooden Courthouse.

In early 1879, Commissioners Michael Weidert of Jones Township, W.H. Osterhout of Ridgway, and George Reuscher of St. Mary's inspected the courthouses at Clarion, Warren, Tionesta, and Franklin, and decided the recently built courthouse at Warren, PA would suit their needs.  They hired its architect and builder, J.P. Marston, to superintend Elk County's new edifice.  It was finished in 1880 with the addition being completed in 1970. 

In April 1879, the old courthouse was sold at an auction to Hugh McGeehin who moved it down Main Street in Ridgway and became a part of the Bogert House, a hotel owned by Mr. McGeehin and P.F. Bogert.  The old courthouse formed a part of the rear portion of a later Bogert House built in 1906, the dining room being a part of the former courtroom. Tragically the Bogert House was consumed by fire on January 28, 1990. 

The first Elk County Jail was completed on January 20, 1848.  It stood adjacent to the first courthouse.  This jail was torn down in April 1885.  The cornerstone for the present Elk County Jail was laid on July 16, 1885.  The jail matched the 1879-1880 Courthouse in style and construction.  Plans in 1993 call for extensive remodeling of the present jail.

As everyone knows, Elk County is named for the noble animal that once abounded in great numbers.  Today, Pennsylvania's only elk herd roams freely over the area bounded by Elk and Cameron Counties.

The elk, numbering now about 230, can be seen near the airport in Benzinger Township or in the Benezette area (more specifically Winslow Hill).

Thus, Elk County grew and expanded with each decade so that all its citizens can be proud to be called "Elk Countians" on the occasion of its 150th birthday commemoration.

©  Written by: Alice Wessman

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Elk County Courthouse
250 Main Street
P.O. Box 448
Ridgway, PA 15853

Elk County Courthouse Annex
300 Center Street
P.O. Box 448
Ridgway, PA 15853