top of page

Clarion River  History

Canoe and Kayak into the History of  Pennsylvania Wild and Scenic Clarion River



In 1996, 51.7 miles of the Clarion River were designated a component of the Wild & Scenic Rivers System by Congress.  Two sections totaling 17 miles, from Portland Mills to Irwin Run, and Cooksburg to the Piney Dam backwaters, qualify as “scenic.” The remaining 34.7 miles qualify as “recreational.” 


The Clarion River is considered a Class I river. Its characteristics make the Clarion a desirable river for canoeists and kayakers of all abilities. On a scale of I-VI, the I denotes fast-moving water with riffles and small waves; few or no obstructions, all obvious and easily missed with little training; risk to swimmer is slight; and self-rescue is easy. Keep in mind that classifications can change with high water levels.



The section between Arroyo bridge and the Irwin Run canoe launch is in the National Forest and has the most enjoyable  riverside wilderness camping that is available in western PA, as well as three of the most challenging rapids, called ‘X’, ‘Y’, and ‘Z’. There are other rapids between Hallton and Belltown, as well as a few smaller ones downstream. 


There is camping at Cooks Forest State Park, Clear Creek State Park, and several campgrounds in the National Forest. Primitive camping is allowed in most of the National Forest and there are a few sites right beside the river between Clarington and Irwin Run.


The best time to float the Clarion River is in early summer.  In late summer, the river becomes shallow at times and boat bottoms can drag on the streambed. Your float time will vary according to the season and weather. Contact the  local Canoe/Kayak Outfitters for water level and safe paddling conditions

On summer weekends the river near Cooksburg is crowded with paddlers dragging  rental canoes through the shallows, so stick to the upper half. The favorite for many is from Portland Mills to Irwin Run canoe launch- about 8 miles with 5 fun little rapids to play in.

Clarion River at Summer low water flow.
Primitive Camping on the Clarion River
Kayaking the Clarion River Pennsylvania

Clarion River Native American Heritage
Tobacco Creek

The first name applied to the Clarion River was “River au Fiel” - “River of Hate,” as shown on Father Bonnecamp’s map of 1749. The Indians called it “Tobeco Creek,” meaning “Alder Creek.” On some other early maps, it is named “Stump Creek,” and later “Big Tobe Creek.” The older settlers clung tenaciously to the name “Toby’s Creek” until 1850, although the stream became officially the “Clarion River,” meaning “Clear River,” in 1819.

The Iroquois Nations

At the time the first European traders and settlers appeared in the region around the fork of the Ohio, the primary occupants of the land were the confederation of the Five Nations, called the Iroquois. The other Indian nations in Ohio Country were the Delaware and the Shawnee.

The Five Nations were comprised of the Mohawks,  the Oneidas, the Onondagas,  the Cayugas, and the Senecas, In 1712, the Tuscaroras, were admitted to the tribal union, and henceforth the confederacy of the Iroquois has been known as the Six Nations. The home of the Iroquois was in New York, but they were a very warlike people and their conquests extended from New York to the Carolinas, and from New England to the Mississippi. 

Seneca Nation

Of the Six Nations, the Senecas were the most western in geographical position, with villages extending from the head waters of the Allegheny River some distance down the Ohio.  To this nation belonged Queen Aliquippa, Tanacharison, Guyasuta and Chief Cornplanter (of Kinzua country). In 1778, Seneca fought on the side of the British in the revolutionary war and participated in well planned raids in Northern Pennsylvania. 

On November 11, 1794, the Seneca signed the Treaty of Canandaigua with the United States, agreeing to peaceful relations. On September 15, 1797 at the Treaty of Big Tree, the Seneca sold their lands west of the Genesee River, retaining ten reservations for themselves. The sale opened up the rest of Western New York for settlement by European Americans. On January 15, 1838, the US and some Seneca leaders signed the Treaty of Buffalo Creek, by which the Seneca were to relocate to a tract of land west of the state of Missouri,  but most refused to go. The majority of the Seneca in New York formed a modern elected government, the Seneca Nation of Indians, in 1848. 

US and some Seneca leaders signed the Treaty of Buffalo Creek, by which the Seneca were to relocate to a tract of land west of the state of Missouri,  but most refused to go. The majority of the Seneca in New York formed a modern elected government, the Seneca Nation of Indians, in 1848.

Native American Traces

There are documented accounts of the Delaware, Seneca and Iroquois Indians in the Clarion River region. 

You can see many of the historic Native American Indian paths today, such as Kittanning, Pigeon, and Venango-Frankstown paths. The Venango-Frankstown path is the present location of State Route 322, where it crosses the river by the town of Clarion. Other paths remain today as current roads or railways. 

Iriquois Confederacy MAp
Seneca Chief Cornplanter

Seneca Chief Cornplanter

9 Iroquois Clans

Just as the Iroquois Confederacy had six nations, each nation was made up of different clans. A person’s clan is the same as their mother’s clan. The members of each clan are all related to each other through their mothers. This is called a matrilineal system. Each clan is represented by a different animal.  There are nine clans, divided into animals from three earth elements: Land, Air & Water. The land creatures are Deer, Wolf and Bear. The water creatures are Turtle, Beaver & Eel. The creatures of the sky are Hawk, Heron & Snipe (illustrated on the shell of the turtle).

Illustration of 9 Iriquois clans

Clarion River Logging Era

No finer forests of pine were ever found in North America than those of the upper Allegheny Valley.  Forests of pine were on the Conewango, the Brokenstraw, the Kinzua, and the Tionesta valleys.  There were noble trees, measuring from three feet to five feet in diameter and remarkably tall and straight, and without limbs nearly to the top.


Lumber from the Upper Allegheny helped build  many of the towns and cities along the Allegheny, Ohio, and Lower Mississippi Rivers as far south as New Orleans.

The industrial history of the Clarion River region was almost entirely based on forestry or forest products. Lumbering began in the Clarion River corridor in the early 1800s and continued to be an important industry in the area through the late nineteenth century. Logging, sawmills, rafting, leather tanning and wood chemical plants once thrived. 


TIn 1827-8 local logging operations began in the vicinity of Ridgway, when settlements were inaugurated there. It was the beginning of rafting squared or board timber down the Clarion and the Allegheny from Elk County, to supply the growing city of Pittsburgh and markets on the Ohio. The logs were hewn on four sides, bound into rafts and ‘floated to the markets, some going as far as Louisville, Ky. 


Rafts were made up of from 3,500 to 5,000 cubic feet each, from 20 to 24 feet wide and 130 to 130 feet long.

The Tanning Industry

The timber industry was instrumental in the development of the extensive tanning industry in the region. Historic sawmills and tanneries that are remnants of this history can be found along the Clarion River Water Trail in historic towns like Laurel Mill, Island Run, Mill Haven, Croyland, Carmen, Portland Mills, Bear Creek Eddy, Arroyo, Lily Pond, Hallton, and Irwintown. 

Cook Forest State Park

Although much of the region was logged at some point in the past, some old growth forests remain in Cook Forest State Park. Portions of the state park include massive white pine trees, 3-5 ft. in diameter and 200-ft. tall. There is one particularly impressive area known as the “cathedral forest.” The Cook family protected this area.

Both the timber industry and the tanneries benefited from the development of the railroads in the area (railroad logging era of the late 1800s). Railroads were also important in timber extraction and transportation of hides to and from the tanneries, as well as opening up the plateau areas inaccessible by waterways. To find out more, see Elk County, A Journey In Time, by John D. Imhoff. Timber rafting on the Clarion ended forever with the building of the Piney dam in 1924. 

Timber Rafts of Spring 

In the spring, at the breaking up of the winter ice, and during floods,  the Allegheny and Clarion Rivers, were alive with  rafting preparation. Rafts of 60 or 70 feet wide and from 250 to 300 feet long were launched to persue their course to Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. 


 These rafts, like immense floating islands, formed the vehicle and temporary residence of families, on their way down the river. They had two oars at each end, were manned by 10 sturdy men, three to each forward oar and two to each stern oar.  In the middle, on an elevated platform, stood the pilot who shouted out rowing commands to the oarsmen.

Log cambins along Clarion River Pennsylvania
Swinging Bridge in Cook Sorest State PArk
Cook Forest State PArk



The last run of rafts down the Clarion River was Saturday and Sunday, May 22-23, 1915.  On May 23, 1924 Piney Dam's gates were closed and the Clarion River was no longer used to float lumber or any other products to Pittsburgh.  The river below the dam dropped sharply. 


The new dam's power plant immediately began to generate and transmit electric power.  The Clarion River Power Company announced that the new dam at Piney would serve consumers in twelve counties and would stop the flow of 1.4 billion cubic feet of water weighing 44 million tons.

Piney Dam on Clarion River
Jet Boats on Pine Dam Lake on Clarion River
bottom of page