The history Elk County, Pennsylvania has its roots in the time between the American Revolution and the War of 1812, when brave adventurers scouted the vast inland wilds of North America to find suitable land for the continent’s ever increasing population.
Named for the now extinct native herds of elk, known as wapiti, the area was rugged, covered in white pine and hemlock, and crossed by streams and rivers that would one day carry lumber to the urban centers of the Gilded Age to build rambling homes for America’s barons of industry.
Other adventurers soon followed. William Kersey was sent by a conglomerate of Philadelphia Quakers to construct a road into their landholdings and build a mill to begin harvesting the 140,000 acres of wooded land they held. In what would become Ridgway Township, James L. Gillis arrived in the early 1820s, sent by his uncle, Jacob Ridgway, one of the wealthiest men in the country at that time. Gillis cleared 500 acres of land and built a large frame house and a grist mill. Perhaps one of Elk County’s more colorful characters Gillis was a veteran of the War of 1812, a member of the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives, a judge, and a state senator. Gillis was also embroiled in a sensational mystery involving the fraternal brotherhood of Masons and was arrested and tried for murder but was later found innocent.
As roads began to be constructed, more and more towns throughout Elk County began springing up. Some are mere ghost towns today, while others are still thriving and display fine examples of 19th-century architecture. Lumber manufactured in the sawmills of Elk County was sent as far away as Louisville and New Orleans to build mansions for America’s new elite. Life, however, was hard for those who worked in the mills. Services were limited and goods had to be brought in by river or overland from distances of many miles. Panthers and wolves still roamed the region in great numbers in the 1850s. Their pelts commanded large sums of money which, would eventually lead to their extinction.
In the 1840s a group of German immigrants in Baltimore and Philadelphia formed the German American Catholic Brotherhood Society. Scouts from this group settled what is now St. Marys, Pennsylvania. The first public school opened in Benziger Township in 1846 or 1847, and, during that same time, a struggling businessman named Joseph Smith Hyde returned to Elk County determined to make his fortune there. Hyde would go on to become the wealthiest man in the county and two of the Hyde family mansions still stand in Ridgway today.
By the end of the 19th century, Elk County was home to wealthy families who built their fortunes on lumber, tanneries, and the railroads. Remnants of the county’s Gilded Age splendor are still visible today in mansions and public buildings found throughout the many towns and villages that make up Elk County.
Elk County, once the wild hunting grounds for the Seneca Indians, is known today for its recreation and natural beauty. Visitors can see wild elk, descendants of the herd of Yellowstone elk, which were introduced to the county in 1913. The area is also known for its many festivals which draw visitors from around the country, including the annual Chainsaw Carvers Rendezvous, held each year in Ridgway.