by Ishaan Anavkar
The Highlands District of State College today has a rich history of growth and immigration, but being one of the oldest in the town, one wonders how it came to be, particularly what was there before it? I attempted to look for answers. The district defined by the map provided by the Highlands Civic Association: land bound by Beaver Avenue, University Drive, Easterly Parkway, and Atherton Street. Since the Borough of State College was officially incorporated in 1896, there are no mentions of it before then. Hence, this area, the pre-incorporated Highlands district, refers to all land that existed in the same geographic space as the district today, even if not designated as such in history.
Early county histories published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have some records of how the Highlands district was populated, but there is very little on what existed before State College town was incorporated in 1896, and especially so before the Farmers’ High School was founded in 1855. There are some details in the Centre County Historical Society’s (henceforth CCHS) database of newsletters and historical magazines, US Census records, and Centre County’s naturalization records, but they are scattered and limited in accessibility.
My attempt was to aggregate available information into a coherent structure to better understand what was there before the Highlands, and how the original landowners came to own that land in the first place. I supplemented these sources with historical aerial photographs and warrant registers for historic land ownership prepared by the Centre County Genealogical Society. Three authors of secondary sources were of remarkable help: Walter Lincoln Ferree, John Blair Linn, and J. Thomas Mitchell, who used old images, financial records, sketched maps, and physical fieldwork to write impressively detailed chronicles of Centre County history.
Information on the earliest history of State College is scarce, but some evidence shows that it was generally inhabited by Native Americans about three hundred years ago, primarily the Shawnee, the Muncy, and the Mingo tribes at various points in time, acting as vassals to the Iroquois Nations. The Muncy were there before the Shawnee, but had essentially migrated out of the area by 1728, according to John Blair Linn. The Shawnee themselves had migrated to what is now Centre County from the eastern side of the Susquehanna in search of better hunting grounds. There is also an excavation site at Houserville that holds a prehistoric stone workshop, making it likely that indigenous people did use the greater State College area as hunting-gathering grounds.
The Penns, who controlled the Pennsylvania colony after 1681, attempted multiple times to formally buy the land from the natives. Though they technically owned all of the land on paper, in reality, they could only expand by buying lands from the indigenous tribes. In 1754, negotiations were held between representatives of the Iroquois League (on behalf of the Shawnee) and notable Pennsylvania Dutch diplomat Conrad Weiser (on behalf of Pennsylvania), but they failed to reach a settlement.
In his book, J. Thomas Mitchell, former president of the CCHS, alludes to the possibility that the French may have gotten there before the English. Supposedly, in 1755, the French military from Fort Duquesne, with an alliance of Native Americans, pushed through western Pennsylvania to Bald Eagle’s Creek. Given the geography of terrain en route from Fort Duquesne to Bald Eagle, it is possible that the French-Indian coalition passed through what is State College today.
As for the English, they sent multiple expeditions westwards to claim the land for Pennsylvania; it was one led by Captain James Potter of Fort Augusta, and his companion, Thompson, that marked the first arrival of white settlers in the State College area. A compiled album of historic photographs prepared by the CCHS, particularly a photograph taken by John Dubbs in 1950, provides partial support to this assertion. The image showed the area south of the mountain range, taken from around Pleasant Gap; if the Historical Society’s selected location for this spot was indeed accurate, that puts Potter’s expedition very close to the Highlands district, only about 8 miles away. That would make this area the earliest confirmed location near the Highlands that was stepped on by white settlers.
While Dubbs’ image placed the discovery in 1763, Ferree used 1759 instead, and Jo Chesworth’s account, 1764. One of Captain Potter’s sons, Judge James Potter Jr., later wrote an account of his father’s discovery, wherein the date of discovery is yet another year:
[…] having obtained leave of absence, he [Captain James Potter] set off with one attendant in the summer of the year 1764. Passing up the West Branch, he reached the mouth of Bald Eagle Creek, a distance of seventy-five miles. Then passing up Bald Eagle Creek to the place where Spring Creek enters it, a distance of thirty miles, they took to the mountains, and, having reached the top of Nittany Mountain, Capt. Potter, seeing the prairies and noble forest beneath him, cried out to his attendant, ‘By heavens, Thompson, I have discovered an empire!’
The exact year remains unconfirmed, but it was certainly between 1758 and 1764. News of the discovery spread through whispers, and a Native American named Job Chilloway, who caught wind of the discovery, reported it to his master, Colonel Hunter of Lycoming County, who sold the rights to Reuben Haines of Philadelphia. Through Haines, the warrant for the land legally became part of the Penn estate under the descendants of William Penn. Starting from 5 August 1766, the estate opened the lands westwards beyond the Alleghenies to white settlers and began selling land parcel patents. This system was how the landowners of the Highlands ended up with the particular land parcels in central Pennsylvania.
The next mention of the land in question was in 1774, when a survey was conducted for Captain Hawkins Boone from Milton, Pennsylvania. Captain Boone’s survey counted twenty-three distinct sets of land tracts in the Nittany Valley, each under a different landowner, particularly Cornelius Connerly and Joseph Burr. Ferree used land sale records to trace the change in land ownership from Connerly and Burr to Colonels John Patton and Samuel Miles in 1791, with a few more owners along the way. This estate was about 8000 acres of land and partly covered the Highlands. A map created by the CCHS in 1996 shows that the Patton and Miles estate was in fact what is Highlands land today. Dr. Walter Douglas Macneal also mentioned in his writing that ten of Miles and Patton’s combined land tracts bought in 1791-93 cover today’s State College.
After Patton’s death, this land was all inherited by Miles and sold to John Irvin in 1832, later inherited by his son, General James Irvin. Some of Irvin’s land was bought by William Foster from Union County in 1845, which Ferree described as bounded “on the west by Atherton street, on the south by the O’Bryan farm or just south of Hamilton avenue, on the east by the approximate location of Pugh street, while the north boundary was closely aligned with College avenue.” Ferree collected his data from interviews with descendants of the original landowning family of Foster’s farm where the Highlands district stands, making it the first confirmed land tract in history to exist where the Highlands stands now.
However, the oldest surviving map depicting an actual settlement in the Highlands was not created until 1861, by H.F. Walling. This was towards the beginning of the Civil War, shortly after The Pennsylvania State University had been established in 1855 as the Farmers’ High School. The school was then in Harris Township, built on land donated by James Irvin, with a recognizable College Avenue separating it from downtown. The areas of State College at the time sat upon the properties of William Foster, Robert M. Foster, John C. Krumrine, Fred Krumrine, and Henry Hartswick. By 1861, the Highlands, specifically, belonged to Professor William Griffith Waring and William Foster. Most of what Foster owned is now part of the Holmes-Foster district, on the western side of Atherton Street, but some of his land, and a majority of Waring’s, form the Highlands today. The place was, by no means, a town yet; in the 1850s, State College, excluding the college itself, consisted of just four houses and five farms.
The next decade saw significant growth of the town; many of the renowned families whose names decorate streets and buildings today moved in during this time. Regarding these few years, Ferree wrote:
Prior to 1856 there was no semblance of a town where the Borough of State College is now located. The land on which the town stands was divided among six farmers or land owners, General James Irvin, William Foster, Robert M. Foster, Frederick Krumrine, John C. Krumrine and John Heidigh. […] Naturally these people constituted the first settlers of State College; […] In 1858, the town of State College was composed of ten families, of whom Robert M. Foster, David Ozman, William Foster, John C. Krumrine, Frederick Krumrine and John Neidigh were farmers; the others belonged to the faculty of the Farm School, they were, William G. Waring S. Baird, R.C. Allison, J.S. Whitman.
According to a map published by A. Pomeroy and Co. in 1874, the college at that point had taken on the name “the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania.” The town had grown southward and paved Calder Way, and the Highlands was owned mostly by William Waring and brothers Samuel and Daniel Garner, with small patches under Professors J. Hamilton and J.Y. McKee. The fact that they were on Highlands land is irrefutable, as map measurements will instantly agree. It is also supported by Ferree’s descriptions of the farms, Waring’s bounded “on the west by Pugh street, east on Beaver avenue to McAllister street, north to College avenue or the College farm, east to Heister Street, south to Beaver avenue to Garner street and south on Garner street to Hamilton avenue, which constitutes the southern boundary of this farm,” and “on the west by Garner street, east on Beaver avenue, to Pine street, north on Pine street to College avenue, east on college avenue and Route 45 to a point just north of the sewerage disposal plant, south from that to an extension of Hamilton avenue, which avenue constituted the south boundary of the farm.” Another resident was Miss Sophie Hunter, who lived on South Allen Street, where the First National Bank stands today.
Before President George W. Atherton, the seventh president of the Pennsylvania State College, expanded the reaches of the college, State College was a small village of about a hundred people, with no churches, public schools, or general civic establishments. This was just before Atherton’s tenure began in 1882. The Evan Pugh Collection at the university has an old photograph taken of downtown State College in 1883, just before development took off. There was no urban infrastructure, save a few houses. It is clear, however, that Pugh Street existed by this time, running perpendicular to what is College Avenue; that places the Highlands on the land photographed in the background, behind the furthest visible houses.
Under President Atherton’s reforms, the college’s popularity spread. Between 1890 and 1896, the town grew so rapidly that farmlands downtown had to be sold and replaced with residential and fraternity buildings, quintessential features of the Highlands. Newer landowners like E.C. Humes and H.N. McAllister began selling away plots of land in the middle of town. As the Highlands transformed, so did infrastructure; around this time, Beaver Avenue, Pugh Street, Allen Street, Atherton Street, Fraser Street, Hamilton Avenue, Garner Street, and Foster Avenue were either paved or properly developed.
George Graham, in conversations with the CCHS, spoke of when he came to State College, a village of about 600, as a young man in 1896. The information he provided confirmed the three sole entities on Highlands land during the time: “Going across Beaver Avenue, there was on that corner a good-sized frame building that was used by Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. From that on back on Allen Street was the William Foster farm and no houses. On the southwest corner of Allen Street and Beaver was a home occupied by a maiden lady by the name of Price.”
The Borough of State College was incorporated in 1896, receiving the status of borough; the Highlands district was named shortly after, in 1909, to commemorate the core, south of downtown State College, with its striking origin story and a rich history of development.
Ishaan Anavkar is an undergraduate at The Pennsylvania State University, set to graduate in May 2022 with degrees in History, International Politics, and Geography. He was always fascinated by the intersection of history, geography, and politics, and hopes to continue learning for as long as possible. His next goal in life is to go to graduate school, so eventually he can get into academia and become a professor one day. In his free time, he likes collecting coins and maps, listening to music, and working on personal mapping projects. He also works as a librarian and a barista. He spends his time between the USA, the UAE, and India.
To get in touch with Ishaan, kindly reach out to him on his email address at firstname.lastname@example.org – he would love to answer any questions you may have!
Linn, John Blair. History of Centre and Clinton Counties, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1883. Archives Unbound (accessed October 12, 2021). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/SC5104396007/GDCS?u=psucic&sid=PennState&xid=99ba4eb4&pg=1.
Pomeroy & Co. Atlas of Centre County, Pennsylvania: From Actual Surveys. Philadelphia: A. Pomeroy and Co., 1874. https://digital.libraries.psu.edu/digital/collection/maps1/id/25423/rec/2.
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