McKean County, Chapter 1, Topography and Natural History

Created: Monday, 20 October 2008 Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 February 2014 Written by Nathan Zipfel Print Email

McKean County




THIS county is bounded on the north by the New York- Pennsylvania line; east by Potter county; south by Cameron and Elk counties, and west by Warren county. The area is placed at 640,000 acres, a tract the most interesting in the country, owing to its mineral resources and railroad systems; and the most picturesque, on account of its ten thousand hills, many of which are still clothed in their suits of hemlock.

Under the treaties of 1784 the lands of McKean and adjoining counties were ceded to Pennsylvania by the Six Nations Indians, and within a year thousands of acres were sold by lottery. In 1796 John Keating made his first purchases here (buying 300,000 acres for $80, 000 from the original buyers), and a year later a line was traced, for a road from the head of Pine creek to the Oswayo. Surveyors Lightfoot, King, Ayers and others were on the ground at an early date, so that before the close of the first decade of the nineteenth century the territory was explored, and a few villages established, Ceres and Instanter being the most important.

In 1810 there were 142 inhabitants; in 1820, 728, and in 1830 there were 1,439, of whom 764 were white males and 674 white females, two deaf and dumb and two blind persons. In 1840 the population increased to 2,975; in 1850 to 5,254; in 1860, exclusive of Shippen (added to the new Cameron county), 7,651, and in 1870, 8,826. The population in 1880 was 42,578, the remarkable increase being due to the development of the great oil field from 1875 to date of census. The total vote in 1888 was 7,709 or 4,066 Republican, 2,922 Democratic, 426 Prohibitionists and 295 Labor Unionists. The population estimated on this vote of November, 1888, is 40,424, as shown in the sketches of the townships and boroughs.

By the assessment of 1829 the seated lands were valued at $39,340; the unseated at $490, 740, and personal property at $32, 707.25. The tax levy was 5 mills with $17.26 collected for duties on foreign merchandise amounting to $102. 26. The valuation of trades and occupations in 1889 was $434, 710; of seated real estate, $4,756,923; of unseated real estate, $1,650,620; of 4,064 horses, $94,035; of 4,547 cows and neat cattle, $48,735, or a total of $6,985,033. The moneys at interest were estimated at $1, 296,911, and for the luxury of keeping 2,228 canines the owners paid a tax of $2, 512. The amount of money at interest, including stocks, bonds, etc., assessed at the rate of three mills on the dollar, was $1, 296,911. Smethport leads with $594, 903. Bradford comes next with $264, 162, and Port Allegany third with $94,228. Wetmore township stands fourth with $83,004, and Kane seventh with $28,893. In January, 1889, the commissioners of Potter, McKean and Cameron counties agreed to value unseated lands per acre for the next three years as follows: Barren lands, 50 cents to $1.50; sparsely timbered hemlock, $2.50 to $4; good hemlock, $5 to $8; sparsely timbered pine, $6 to $8; good pine, $10 to $20. The assessed value of real and personal estate in the boroughs of McKean county stand in the following order: Port Allegany, $161,836; Smethport, $159,585; Kane, $100,538; Eldred, $97,046; Kendall, $85,382.

The Gazetteer, giving a description of McKean county in 1832, says:

It is everywhere hilly along the streams, but nowhere mountainous, and abounds with coal, iron and salt. The first is found in every township, and works have been erected for manufacturing salt at the small village of Emporium, on a branch of the Sinnemahoning. The only places that can claim the slightest pretension to be considered as towns are Smethport, Emporium and Ceres; neither of the two last named contains six houses. There is not a church in the county; yet an academy, endowed by John Keating and others, and further receiving $2,000 from the State, was incorporated January 19, 1829. There are in this town also a very substantial brick court- house, and a stone prison; there is also a newspaper published here. Lumber seeks the western market at Pittsburgh by the Allegheny, and the eastern markets by the Sinnemahoning creek.

The measured elevations of the county are given as follows [However the average elevation must not be based on such figures; as, within short distances of the points named, mountain peaks rise abruptly to heights of from 300 to 700 feet above the track.]: Sergeant, 1,716 feet above mean ocean level; Clarion summit, 2,025; Kane, 2,020; Cumming's siding, 1,878; Wetmore, 1,808; May's siding, 1,739, and Ludlow, 1,604, in the southwest corner on the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad. The elevation at the Forks of Kinzua creek is 1,304 feet above tide level; at the sulphur spring, near Kane, 1,619 feet, and at Morrison's mill- dam, 1,264 feet.

Keating summit, 1,876 feet above tide; Liberty, 1,641; Port Allegany, 1,477; Sartwell, 1,447, Larrabee, 1,476; McKean & Buffalo Railroad junction, 1,472, and Eldred, 1,438 feet above tide, the track of the Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad being the measured elevation, which is comparatively level from Eldred to the State line, except below Duffy's tannery, where the elevation is more marked than at Eldred.

The Eldred or Dennis hill is at least 250 feet above the track; Frisbee, 1,459; Farmers Valley, 1,470; Smethport, 1,488; Crosby, 1,535; Colegrove, 1,538; Hamlin, 1,552; Wernwag, 1,855; Clermont, 2,074; Bishops Summit, 2,108; Bunker Hill, 2,095, and old Instanter, 2,200; Carrollton, N.Y., 1,394 feet; Limestone, 1,405; State Line and Babcock, 1,414; Tarport or Kendall Creek, 1,433; Bradford, 1,439 (Mount Raub is 2,250 feet at summit); DeGolier, 1,496; Lewis run, 1,560: Big Shanty, 1,667; Crawford's, 1,959; Summit, 2,133; Alton, 2,067;. Bond View or Gilesville, 2,025, and Buttsville, 1,996; Creek water at Kinzua crossing, 1,796; Howard Hill Hotel, 2,225; Kane and Howard Hill road crossing, 2,196; Clarion crossing, 1,734; Schultz gas well and Wilcox well No. 2, 1,646; Lanigan run, 1,634, and county line, 1,605 feet. The places named, south of Buttsville, were measured in 1879 for the proposed continuation of the road to Wilcox, in Elk county, the elevation of which is 1,526 feet; Dalton summit is 2,249 feet above ocean level; Seven Mile summit, 2,200; crossing of Wilcox and Smethport State road, 2,186; head of west branch of Warner brook, 2,210; Port Allegany depot, 1,477; Smethport depot, 1,488; cross roads (on warrant 3,064), 1,643; summit near southeast corner of No. 2,083 warrant, 2,140 feet; southwest part of No. 2,073 warrant, 1,725 feet; the Devil's Elbow, on warrant 2,063, is 2,060 feet, and the highest point in Pennsylvania west of the fifth coal basin is Prospect hill, or the summit on warrant No. 2,063, which is 2,495 feet above tide.

The highest measured point between Ceres and Port Allegany is near the cross- roads on the northeast corner of warrant 2,220, which is 2,185 feet above tide. The lowest point is at Turtle bridge over Rock run, on No. 115 warrant, being 1,445 feet, or ten feet below the elevation of hotel at Ceres. The highest measured point between Ceres and Eldred, except Dennis hill, is 1,558 feet above tide- water, being 120 feet above Eldred and 103 feet above Ceres. Up Lillibridge creek from Port Allegany an elevation of 1,770 feet is reached at the crossing of creek near warrant 2,236 or near the Ames farm, but at the head the elevation is 2,260 feet. On warrant 2,203, near Annin Creek post- office, the altitude is 2,255, and at the office 1,723; at Cooper's sawmill, southwest part of No. 3,444 warrant, 1,665 feet, and at the Methodist building on same warrant, 1,740 feet. Between Port Allegany and Norwich post- office the highest measured elevation above tide is 1,785 feet, the bridge over Wolcott creek being the point measured. At the old Dennis well, near Bradford, the elevation was found to be 2,055 feet above ocean level; Two Mile run summit is 2,375 feet, and Comes creek summit, on road, is 2,255 feet. The ridge between the branches of Brewer's run shows an altitude above tide of 2,232 feet.

The Allegheny river enters the county in the west center of Liberty township coming down from the heights of Potter county, receives the waters of the Portage at Port Allegany, and of Nunundah creek south of Larrabee. Hundreds of small streams enter the creeks named, while other hundreds feed the main river directly. The river leaves the county at the State line, flows for a short distance through New York State and, returning to Pennsylvania, forms the natural, but not the political, boundary of the north half of the county's west line. The Tuna river and feeders water the central part of the northern half, while the Kinzua and headwaters of the Clarion, fed by hundreds of streams, are found in the south and southwest.

Over thirty years ago Orb J. Hamlin completed his historical notes on this county. From his unpublished manuscript, referred to in the chapter on pioneers, the writer learns that Kinzua creek is named from the Indian word Kinzua (fish); Tuna or Tunuanguant creek, from Tunuan (big) and guant (frog or bullfrog). Nun- un- dah (Potato creek), from the Indian word for potato; Marvin creek, from the pioneer of that name who settled on its bank. Blacksmith run and spring were named from the pioneer blacksmith's shop near the spring in the western part of Smethport; Cole's creek from Squire Cole, the pioneer of its valley; Tobey, now known as the Clarion, and other creeks derive their names in a similar manner. Mr. Hamlin, speaking on the name of Potato creek, stated that Indians in the long ago lost some potatoes in this stream through the upsetting of their canoe, and they called it Nun- un- dah. In 1832 he placed a potato before an Indian school- teacher, asking for its Indian name; the teacher replied, "nun- un- dab." In after years he interviewed members of the Cornplanter and Seneca bands, who gave it the same name. The stream was also called "Six's creek," a Quaker name conferred likely by Francis King; Conondaw and Cononondaw were titles conferred by some old surveyors, likely in honor of some Indian who accompanied them, and in John Keating's letter to the county seat commissioners, he gives it the name "Cononoclan," undoubtedly reading "ondaw " as "oclan." Up to the period of Mr. Hamlin's death he always regretted the action of his fellow- citizens in adhering to the anglicized form of the euphonious Indian name - Nun- un- dah. It is not too late yet to reform. The commissioners and courts may order the Indian title to be used henceforth, authorize the change on the maps, and a few years will banish the present barbarous name from a beautiful valley.

All the trees and shrubs common to northern Pennsylvania find a congenial home on the hills and in the valleys of this county. Most of the pine has fallen beneath the ax of the lumberman, but great areas of hemlock remain almost untouched, while beech, birch, maple, elm, cucumber, ironwood, butternut, cherry, ash, walnut and other species of the hard- wood family present themselves everywhere. The hemlock however may be said to be the pride of the modern lumberman. Those dark green forests of the once despised giants now look admirable in his eyes, and he speaks of these great trees as the jockey would of his pet racer, the pugilist of Sullivan, the oilman of his wealth giving well, or the engineer of his favorite locomotive. To point out the qualities of this hemlock, the following story is told: On February, 28, 1835, B.H. Lamphier, his father, and Squire Wright cut down a cucumber tree with the object of making from its wood troughs for sap. In falling it lodged against a hemlock, which had also to be cut down. In 1885 B.H. Lamphier found this hemlock in sound condition, and used part of it in his building of that year. In 1849 an estimate of lumber manufactured here showed 14,500,000 feet of pine boards and 5,000,000 of cherry boards; 2,500,000 feet of square timber (board measure) and 5,000,000 shingles. In modern times one milling concern aims to do even more than all the mills in this county, forty years ago, accomplished in a year.

For ages this territory was the grand preserve of the Indian. He came hither to hunt the panther, bear, wolf, fox and deer, and after a few months of easy sport each year returned to his home on the Allegheny. When the pioneers came hither the animals, which the Red-men hunted, were, like the old hunters, scarce; but enough remained to yield sport, bounty and food to the daring vanguard of civilization. Up to 1875 wild animals existed here almost as numerously as in the first years of the century; but the oil prospector, wild- cater, scout, railroader and farmer came, and acting like the Irishman at Donnybrook, struck at everything, upsetting the institutions of the wilderness. The great tan- yards, the saw-mills which were built on every stream, the stream of wasted oil which for twenty- five years has floated down the waters of the county, have all contributed to thin out the finny tribe; but fish are still found in sufficient quantities to entertain the angler; while many carp ponds have been constructed and used successfully for fish culture.

In 1876 Messrs. Ashburner & Fellows collected along the railroad on the east bank of the Tuna (Tunuanguant) near DeGolier, several specimens and slabs of the spirifera disjuncta, a piece of canalomerate and leptodesma mortoni, at or above Bradford; on the branch of the New York, Lake Erie & Western Railroad, a very indistinct brachiopod was found, and on the north slope of the hill on the Big Shanty and Lafayette road, several lithological curiosities and leptodesma were found. In 1877 L.E. Hicks reported the following discoveries at Big Shanty: Plant remains, slab covered with small oval elevations, some having the appearance of roots or stems; rhynchonella (sten oschisma) orbicularis; rhynchonella (stenoschisma) eximia; coelospira concava; leiopteria dekayii, and modiomorpha quadrula.. At Ludlow and Wetmore, along the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad, he discovered orthis, leucosia, streptorhynchus, chemungensis and athyrus angelica. At Larrabee, the streptorhynchus chemungensis, just named, and spirifera disjuncta, were found. At Kane, arthrophycus harlani; orthoceras, small fragment; rhynchonella (stenochisma) sappho; spirifera, lepidodendron and brachiopoda, small cast, poor. At Bradford, chonetes scitula; spirifera disjuncta; rhynchonella (stenoschisma) duplicata; rhynchonella; productella hirsuta; crinoid columns, impressions of ends and the plant. On Kinzua creek, near the county lines, he discovered ptychoparia salamanca; orthis leucosia, var. pennsylvanica; rhynchonella (stenoschisma) sappho; spirifera disjuncta; lamellibranch, poor and broken, and orthis impressa. In 1878 A.W. Sheafer reported among others orthis leucosia and plant impressions similar to those found in the green sandstone at Eldred and Emporium. The discoveries of shells reported include rhynchonella, etc., Bradford, point between east and west branches; also in that neighborhood alborisma; crinoids; avicula; and rhynchonella and spirifer; gram mysia, Bradford, east side of Tuna; rhynchonella, etc., in SS. Bradford, west branch, near "Boss Well" (loose); orthoceras in cong., Rodger's farm, one- half mile south of Bradford (loose) and at Morrison's dam; spirifer in cong. (two pieces, loose); orthoceras, etc., one and a half miles south of Bradford (loose), also spirifer, there, on Sugar creek and on road from Tally Ho to the Swede church; carboniferous plants, etc., Dennis well (two pieces) dug from Conductor hole; aviculopecten, Tarport (loose), and spirifer at railroad level.

In 1880 E.A. Barnum discovered on the Bingham lands near Kinzua junction the root of a maple tree which was almost a perfect figure of a girl two and one- half feet in height, near Kinzua village, and at an elevation of almost 1,000 feet above, is a small pond fifty by twenty feet in dimension, and from six to eight feet in depth. In this lake were found fish, most of them blind. In 1884 this locality was the home of rattlesnakes. In April, 1878, H.F. Northrup discovered (twenty rods east of the Windsor House, three miles east of Port Allegany), the impression of a gigantic lizard in the sand rock. In the history of Bradford township reference is made to the remains of a large race of men found some years ago.

The first semi- bituminous coal found in this county was discovered by a surveying party (of which Jonathan Colegrove was chief) near Instanter in 1815 or 1816. They came to a windfall, and saw the stone coal lying beneath, forming a bed for the roots, and, in some cases, lumps of coal turned up with the roots. Wheeler Gallup, who was one of the party, related the facts to O.J. Hamlin in 1875. In 1817 Ransom Beckwith discovered coal on his lands one mile from Instanter; later the Barrus bed, known as the "Lyman Mine," was opened, and in 1821 coal was found on the Clermont farm. In 1845 coal was delivered at Smethport from the Barrus bed for 12 1/2 cents a bushel, and shipped by team to Allegany and Cattaraugus counties in New York State. In 1874 the Clermont mines were explored at the expense of Gen. George J. Magee, and in September the Buffalo Coal Company was organized with the General as president and B.D. Hamlin and O.J. Hamlin, local stockholders. The McKean & Buffalo Railroad Company was also organized with Byron P. Hamlin, president, and D.R. Hamlin, local director. Work was begun in October, 1874, and the road was completed to Clermont in 1875. Mr. John Forrest, now of Smethport, was appointed paymaster at that point. During the year ending October 1, 1849, there were 1,000 tons of bituminous coal sent by wagons into adjoining counties in this and New York State, and today the coal fields of McKean, whether in the eastern or western portion of the county, lend to the owners of manufacturing industries a confidence in supply of fuel which neither gas nor oil can destroy. In other sections of this work the history of the several coal mining industries is given, and notes made on the attempts to manufacture coal oil from. the smoky deposit.

In the history of the borough of Kane and of Wetmore, Eldred, Liberty and other townships, references are made to the gas wells. In Ohio, New York, Michigan, Illinois and other States, gas veins have been opened when excavating for water wells, and the flame converted into the uses of fuel; but the modern well is a something which was discovered by accident in boring for oil. Assistant State Geologist Ashburner, replying to Prof. I.C. White's statement that all great gas wells are found on the anticlinal axes, points out the exceptions in the Kane field, at Ridgway, at the old Mullin snorter and round Bolivar, where large gas wells have been found in or near the center of syncldines. He says:

Although it is a fact that many of our largest Pennsylvania gas wells are located near anticlinal axes, yet the position in which gas may be found, and the amount to be obtained, depend upon (a) the porosity and homogeneousness of the sandstone which serves as a reservoir to hold the gas; (b) the extent to which the strata above or below the gas sand are cracked; (c) the dip of the gas sand, and the position of the anticlines and synclines; (d) the relative proportions of water, oil and gas contained in the sand; and (e) the pressure under which gas exists before being tapped by wells. All oil- bearing sandstones contain a greater or less quantity of gas; and most gas- producing sandstones contain some oil, although a number of wells said to produce "dry gas," or that in which no oil or water can be detected, contain gas to the exclusion of fresh water, salt water or oil.

Whether found in the synclines or anticlines the gas wells of McKean have proved a luxury which even the poor may enjoy. Throughout the county gas is used for light and fuel, giving peace to the home and promises of success to every manufacturing industry.

In the Reporter of January 31, 1890, appeared the following poetical tribute to McKean county from the pen of Mrs. Jennie E. Groves:

When morn with its splendor illumines the sky,
Save where a star lingers to watch the night die,
And the gray shrouding mist from the valley uprolled
Is changed by the sun to an ocean of gold
That bears on its bosom cloud land as fair
As ever took shape in the realms of, the air:
Ah! who that, enraptured, has gazed on the scene
Can forget the bright valleys and hills of McKean?

Source: Page(s) 53-58, History of Counties of McKean, Elk and Forest, Pennsylvania. Chicago, J.H. Beers & Co., 1890.
Transcribed June 2007 by Nathan Zipfel, Published 2007 by PA-Roots