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Conemaugh Rivers History

Canoe and Kayak into the History of Conemaugh, Loyalhanna, Kiskiminitas and Stoneycreek Wild and Scenic Pennsylvania Rivers

Native American Heritage in the Conemaugh - Kiski Valley Towns & Villages

Of course, long before the European settlement of the Conemaugh River basin, native peoples lived along the rivers and streams.

The Monongahela were prehistoric peoples known to have been in the area, and later the Senecas. Senecas invited Shawnee and Delaware into the region and eventually those two tribes became much more prominent as Senecas moved out.

Seneca Nation

Of the Six Iroquois 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  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.   As a result of raids like the Wyoming Massacre, General George Washington, in 1779, began a campaign against the Native American allies of the British, particularly the Iroquois Confederation. Colonel Daniel Brodhead  lead the 8th Pennsylvania regiment north from Fort Pitt (modern-day Pittsburgh) destroying Native American villages in their path.

Delaware (Lenape) Indians

Following America’s becoming an independent nation the Delaware (Lenape) Indians continued to resist a renewed flood of settlers into Ohio.  In 1794 General Anthony Wayne defeated the Delaware tribe at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in Ohio.  After this battle they surrendered most of their Ohio lands and in 1795 signed the first treaty with the new American nation when they signed the treaty of Greenville. 

By 1829 the United States government forced the Delaware tribe to move west across the Mississippi river into modern day Oklahoma where most of the tribe resides today.

Conemaugh Old Town

In 1764 Thomas Hutchins, a lieutenant in Forbes’ Army surveyed the Kiskeminetas and Conemaugh Rivers and their branches, identifying five Indian towns in the area. Variations provided for the spelling of the Delaware and Shawnee village located on the Conemaugh River are Connumach Old Town, Conemach Old Town, and Conemough Old Town.  The location of Conemaugh Old Town is in the city of Johnstown, the site of multiple floods including the famous flood of 1889.

Black Legs Town - 

A Lenape (Delaware) Indian Village probably on both sides of Black Legs Creek at the juncture with the Kiskiminetas below Saltsburg. It was inhabited by the Lenape in the 1730’s and 1740’s. The juncture of Loyalhanna Creek with the Kiskiminetas, a mile or so above this made it rather central point for the movement of Indians and traders.

Many of these peoples continued to be pushed out of the region with the development and settlement of the frontier by Europeans. Our surrounding mountains, rivers, and creeks were given names by these people, reflecting what they were, rather than names established as a means for personal immortality.

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.

The Shawnees were the deadliest of forest warriors. Painting by Doug Hall

The Lenape Indians mean common or real people. Also called the Delaware.

Iriquois territory map
Seneca Chief Cornplnter

Seneca Chief Cornplanter

1828 Pennsylvania Canal System

In 1828, the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Canal system  was constructed as part of a 320 mile long transportation system connecting  Philadelphia with Pittsburgh for the movement of people and goods from Philadelphia and New York to the western frontier and back. It continued operation in heavy use for the next two decades.


Traversing Western Pennsylvania’s forbidding topography required a number of engineering feats: Cutting through the two deepest gorges east of the Mississippi River; building a series of 10 inclines to carry canal boats on rail cars over the mountains between Hollidaysburg and Johnstown; digging 1000-foot long canal tunnels through Bow Ridge on the Conemaugh River and under Grant’s Hill in Pittsburgh; building the first railroad tunnel in the United States at Staple Bend; and constructing the first suspension bridge in the United States.

This massive project followed the Kiskiminetas  and Conemaugh Rivers and led to the growth and prosperity of Johnstown, Leechburg, Apollo, Saltsburg, Freeport and Pittsburgh  as eastern river ports.

Dams and locks were built to provide water for the canal at Leechburg and the mouth of Roaring Run, and an aqueduct was built at Freeport, the junction of the Kiskiminetas River and Allegheny River.

The Western Division of the canal ran 105 miles between Johnstown and Pittsburgh and had 68 locks.

By midcentury, the railroads had replaced the canal. They were faster and didn’t freeze in wintertime. The canal was abandoned. Locks were dismantled.

The long ditch was filled in, the land around it developed.

In 1857 the canal was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad.  Ultimately the Pennsylvania  Canal system had stimulated early growth of the iron and steel industries in Western PA and drew the population westward along its route to populate the many communities along it’s path.

Map illustrating the canals of Pennsylvania which were not in operation all at the same time. (Western Division in red.) Courtesy of the PA Historical and Museum Commission.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889

The South Fork dam located on the Little Conemaugh river near Johnstown, Pennsylvania was constructed in 1853 to supply water for the Pennsylvania Main Line canal, but was abandoned a few years later when the railroad rendered the canal obsolete.

From 1881-1889 the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an assocation of Pittsburgh steel and coal magnates, owned the dam and lake. However, by 1889, neglect and unsound alterations by the Club had dangerously weakened the dam.

At 3:15 p.m. May 31, 1889, the dam gave way. The center of the dam seemed to “melt away” under the force of the flood. And, as one witness observed, “the entire lake began to move.”  The ultimate result was the historic  Flood which destroyed the city of Johnstown killing 2,290 people and causing  $425 million (2012) dollars damage.

Today, kayakers, paddlers and bikers along this scenic 86 mile Kiski-Conemaugh Rivers corridor from Johnstown to Freeport, can still see remnants of the canal system of bygone days.  Many are noted  on the maps in this river guidebook.

The Western Division of the canal ran 105 miles between Johnstown and Pittsburgh and had 68 locks.

By midcentury, the railroads had replaced the canal. They were faster and didn’t freeze in wintertime. The canal was abandoned. Locks were dismantled. The long ditch was filled in, the land around it developed.

In 1857 the canal was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad.  Ultimately the Pennsylvania  Canal system had stimulated early growth of the iron and steel industries in Western PA and drew the population westward along its route to populate the many communities along it’s path.

Saltsburg on the Kiskiminetas River

The first settlers in the Saltsburg area appeared as early as 1769, when a new law encouraged large-scale settlement of the region. settlement was slow and sporadic due to Indian uprisings and the turmoil of the French and Indian War. Not until the Treaty of 1795 did the climate for new settlement improve.

Early settlers of the  region were mainly  Scots-Irish immigrants. From 1768 until 1795, people migrated west and found the town of Saltsburg and Indiana County. Those settlers did not take full advantage of the area near the Kiskiminetas River until 1795 because of the threat and attacks of Native Americans.

Sometime between 1795 and 1798, a woman named s Mrs. Deemer was boiling water from a spring near  a town now known as Moween which is upriver from what was to become Saltsburg. As the water evaporated, she noticed a formation of salt crystals in the bottom of her kettle.

The abundance of salt in the low lands along the Conemaugh River, coupled with the rise in price as the War of 1812 blocked salt-shipping routes from New York and encouraged local entrepreneurs and new settlers to bore salt wells in the region near Saltsburg known as the Great Conemaugh Salt Works. By 1830, at least 21 salt manufacturing establishments were in successful operation. Saltsburg became the primary distrubition hub.

In 1816, land lots were being sold and quickly grabbed up by the early pioneers. Driven by the salt industry, businesses began springing up - coopers, blacksmiths, wagon makers, stone masons and carpenters. 

Pennsylvania Canal
Before there were roads, highways, rail lines, or a canal system, it took 3-4 weeks to travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh by wagon or horseback. In 1828, this all changed. The 104-mile Western Division of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal was completed and ran through Saltsburg as it connected Johnstown with Pittsburgh. The same journey was  now possible in only 4 days.  It was the lifeblood of Saltsburg for more than 30 years.

The canal channels and tow paths, generally 62 feet wide, ran along the river. Mules were used along the canal path to pull the boats through the waterway. Canal lock #8, and a warehouse  were located on the northern end of Saltsburg.

As Saltsburg grew, salt and locally mined coal were transported along the canal and the building of canal boats became a profitable business in the area. By 1828, the population  was estimated to be 335.

The salt industry continued to thrive until the 1860’s, when a Conemaugh River flood destroyed a number of the saltworks and increasing competition from western states rendered reconstruction infeasible.

The Railroad
As the railroad technology became more cost-effective and a faster means of transpoting goods and people, the canal transportation system declined.

In 1867, the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the Saltsburg section of the canal system and constructed a railroad bridge spanning the Kiskiminetas River at Saltsburg.  The piers just north of the Route  286 bridge can still be seen. 

Between 1855 and 1864, a passenger and freight station were constructed in Saltsburg . The station still stands and functions as the borough offices.

The first rail line through Saltsburg ran parallel to the canal since it was still in declining use.  In 1882, it was decided to move the rails to the then abandoned canal bed. The tracks were laid and a new station constructed on Washington Street.

As early as 1866, the Fairbanks Coal Company was organized to extract bituminous coal employing over 100 laborers in 1875. By 1891, that number had more than tripled, as at least 325 Saltsburg residents were employed as miners .

By the first decade of the twentith century, Saltsburg had reached its peak in terms of population and new construction. 

Ligonier on the Conemaugh River

1758 - Fort Ligonier was built on a Native American village in 1758. This site  was the site of their westernmost camp before reaching the Ohio. It was an enormous army, a virtual moving city of 6,000 people, that temporarily made this the most populated spot in Pennsylvania second only to Philadelphia.  The fort held off two major attacks.

The fort was named Fort Ligonier after John Ligonier who was a British noble of French origin and  held the rank of Field Marshal in the British Army.  Eventually, the name of the settlement that grew up around the fort was shortened to Ligonier.

1817 - the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Turnpike was completed, a gravel road that was the precursor to today’s US Route 30. Fort Ligonier was a logical place for travelers to break their journey, and in 1834, Ligonier was incorporated as a borough.

1852 - The Pennsylvania Railroad was completed, which bypassed the town.  Traffic shifted from horse-drawn vehicles to the railroad, causing the community’s population to drop.  A quarter-century of stagnation ensued as the town withered.

1877 - Ligonier enjoyed a new prosperity  when the Ligonier Valley Railroad was completed which linked  connections to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Ligonier Valley Railroad enabled

lumber, coal, and quarried stone to be transported out of the Ligonier Valley, which spurred development of the town. In addition, the railroad made it easier for Pittsburgh residents to visit Ligonier, causing the town to develop as a summer resort. 


In 1952, the Ligonier Valley Railroad ceased operation, due to a combination of overlogging, decline of the coal industry, and the loss of passenger traffic to motor vehicles.


Idlewild Park and Soak Zone,  includes a merry-go-round listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a wooden roller-coaster and other rides. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make Believe, Story Book Forest and SoakZone are major attractions. 

Latrobe on the Loyalhanna Creek

Latrobe History

Latrobe is the home of Saint Vincent Archabbey, the Latrobe Brewing Company (original brewer of Rolling Rock beer), Saint Vincent College and famous golfer Arnold Palmer.

It was the childhood home of Fred Rogers, children’s television personality who was buried there in Unity Cemetery in 2003. It was believed for years that the first professional American Football  game was played in Latrobe.

Latrobe is home of the first banana split  invented in Latrobe by David Strickler in 1904. It is also home to the  training camp of the six time Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

In 2006, Anheuser-Busch purchased the Rolling Rock brands, but not the brewery. In September 2006, City Brewing Company from LaCrosse, Wisconsin  purchased the brewery, and they licensed it to the Boston Beer Company as a satellite brewery to produce Samuel Adams beers.

Benjamin Latrobe

1852 - In 1852, Oliver Barnes (a civil engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad)  laid out the plans for the community that was incorporated in 1854 as the Borough of Latrobe. Barnes named the town for his best friend and college classmate, 


Benjamin Latrobe , who was a civil engineer for the B&O Railroad. (His father, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, was the architect who rebuilt the U.S. Capital building  in Washington, D.C. after the War of 1812.)

Its location along the route of the Pennsylvania Railroad helped Latrobe develop into a significant industrial hub. Latrobe was also served by the Ligonier Valley Railroad from 1877 to 1952.

Football Team

1895 - 1909 - Latrobe was home of the Latrobe Athletic Association, one of the earliest proessional teams.  In 1897, Latrobe was the first football team to play a full season with a team composed entirely of professional players. In 1898 Latrobe and two players from their rivals,  Greensburg Athletic Association, formed the first professional football all-star team to be played at Pittsburgh’s Expostion Park. 

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