Lewisburg Borough

Union County, Pennsylvania

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Lewisburg Borough Hall is located at 55 South Fifth Street, Lewisburg PA 17837.
Phone: 570‑523‑3614.

A Brief History of Lewisburg [1]

Lewisburg's development as an urban center was initiated by Ludwig Derr, a Pennsylvania German miller who settled and established a grain mill on the west bank of the West Branch of the Susquehanna on a 320-acre tract that he purchased in 1773 from Richard Peters, the Philadelphia grandee and Proprietary official. At that date, the Lewisburg site was situated on what was then the frontier, within the newly created county of Northumberland. When Union County was erected in 1813, Lewisburg was included within its bounds. Most of the proposed historic district is contained within Derr's original 1773 purchase of one half square mile. In 1785, having no doubt noted the increasing traffic carried by the ferry operating by his mill, Derr commissioned surveyor Samuel Weiser to lay out a town on 128 acres, composed of 350 lots. Derr set a few lots aside for churches or meetinghouses.

The fledgling town, incorporated in 1822, grew somewhat slowly at first but steadily, attaining a population of 924 in 1830. In 1832, gazetteerist Thomas Gordon noted that Lewisburg had emerged as a center for the commerce of its immediate region and that the town contained "about 200 dwellings, many of which are brick, a grist and saw mill, 2 churches, 2 or 3 school houses, 3 large commodious store houses on the river bank [see Susquehanna River], 12 stores, and 2 extensive tanneries. This is the customary market for the products of Brush, Penn, and Buffalo valleys."

Gordon also referred to the transportation improvements that were by that date facilitating Lewisburg's growing role as an entrepot for agricultural commodities and consumer goods exported from or imported into the area. These improvements included a "permanent and beautiful" Market Street bridge over the West Branch of the Susquehanna, built in 1818. The Lewisburg and Mifflinburg Turnpike (present-day Route 43, completed in 1829, extended westward from the bridge to link the town to the Bellefonte and Lewistown Turnpike (U.S. 322), an arterial highway for the larger central Pennsylvania region west of the river. Gordon noted the cross-cut channel that was undergoing improvement at Lewisburg to afford the town service from the Eastern Division of the Pennsylvania Canal, then being built along the east bank of the river opposite the town. The cross cut was completed, and direct canal service to Lewisburg commenced, in 1834.

The growth of commerce in Lewisburg spurred growth in the town's population, which more than doubled between 1830 and 1850, from 924 to 2,042. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the town took on new roles as a college town and center for local government. Education-minded Baptists founded the University at Lewisburg in 1846 (renamed Bucknell University in 1886). As first established, the University consisted of a college and an academy or secondary school, both for male students only. A Female Institute or girls' secondary school was added in 1852. In 1855, Union County was divided to create Snyder County and Lewisburg was designated county seat for the new smaller Union. Lewisburg's population reached 3,121 inhabitants in 1870.

Lewisburg's strong position relative to the ever improving transportation network was reinforced in this period with a trio of railroad connections. In 1855, the North Central Railroad line was completed running north-south through the village of Montandon, about 1.5 miles east of Lewisburg. In 1869, the Lewisburg Center and Spruce Creek line of the Pennsylvania Railroad opened, spanning the river to connect the town with the North Central line and also serving the countryside to the west, thereby reinforcing the commercial preeminence of Lewisburg with that portion of its hinterland. 1883 saw the completion of the Shamokin, Sunbuy and Lewisburg line of the Philadelphia&Reading Railroad (later simply the Reading Railroad), which entered town running along the west bank of the river. This line provided direct service to and from Philadelphia, in addition to creating a more direct transportation link with the Coal Region than had existed previously.

The people of Lewisburg undertook additional improvements in this period to complement those in transportation. A gas works was established in 1859, and gas lighting was provided for the borough's streets in 1870. Electric street lighting replaced the gas lighting in 1887. Lewisburg has continued to the present day the distinctive design for three-globe iron streetlight poles that was drafted for the town in the late nineteenth century, providing a symbol for the town. A waterworks began operating and providing running water to town residents in 1883. The Market Street Bridge was replaced with a modern metal truss structure in 1889.

Manufacturing industry played a secondary though noteworthy role in Lewisburg's development during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An iron foundry producing cook stoves and agricultural implements, probably encouraged by the availability of canal service, was established in 1834, though destroyed by fire in 1878. The Buckeye Reapers and Mowers Company, later the Central Manufacturing Company, began producing farm machinery in 1840. It too closed due to a fire, in 1900. A boatyard commenced the production of canal boats and barges in 1852. The Lewisburg Woolen Mills opened in 1866. The original Derr grain mill business was succeeded by the Lewisburg Star Mills in 1874, in an enlargement of the old Derr mill building, and in 1883 the Buffalo Mills was built and opened, strategically situated at the newly created junction of the Pennsylvania and the Reading rail lines and using steam power to employ the new roller milling process of flour production. The Lewisburg Furniture and Planing Company was founded in 1885. Despite these many beginnings, the town never really emerged as a major center for manufacturing, even on a regional basis. When the state government published the Eleventh Industrial Directory in 1947, the town's operating industrial concerns were limited to the old Buffalo Mills, then under the ownership of the milling company Dietrich&Gambrill of Frederick, Maryland, the furniture company, then named the Lewisburg Chair and Furniture Company, the woolen company Lewisburg Mills, and the Quaker Manufacturing Company, a producer of underwear. The boatyard and the Lewisburg Star Mills had probably closed well before that date, due to the decline of the canal and the ongoing trends toward contraction and centralization in the Pennsylvania grain milling industry.

The University supplanted industry as an influential factor in Lewisburg's economy when it began to grow following a donation of $50,000 from benefactor William Bucknell in 1882. Admitting women as coeducational college students in 1883 and renamed Bucknell University in 1886, the college was operating with a faculty of just eight instructors at the time of the donation. During the period between 1882 and 1930, the University constructed many new buildings and gradually expanded the scope of subjects taught, emphasizing the addition of facilities for instruction in the sciences and engineering, moving away from the classical ideal of the generally educated individual and toward a vocational approach to education. The Female Institute was discontinued in 1916, the boys' Academy in 1917. The Bucknell University property grew to be an extensive tract straddling Lewisburg's corporate boundary.

As regards the size of its permanent population (as opposed to the size of the student body), Lewisburg entered a long period of relative stasis in the 1870s, advancing to just 3,308 inhabitants in 1930, an increase of six percent over a span of six decades. The town's handsome assemblage of residential and commercial architecture from the period 1870-1930, however, indicates that Lewisburg continued to enjoy a state of considerable vitality and prosperity despite its limited population growth. In 1933, Lewisburg was chosen to be the location for the district Federal Courthouse.

Bucknell University enjoyed its most vital phase of growth yet during the period from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, constructing many new buildings and other facilities, largely on the portion of the campus lying outside the boundary of the Borough of Lewisburg, and reorganizing the curriculum. The University's charter was amended in 1953, ending for practical purposes its official connection with the Baptist Church.

Although the rise of shopping malls and commercial strip businesses along U.S. 15 in and near Lewisburg has been an increasing concern for downtown retail business owners since around 1960, retail commerce has continued as a vital presence in the town up to the present day. With the renewed expansion of Bucknell University encouraging gradual sustained population growth since circa 1945, Lewisburg's population was recorded at 5,620 in 2000. In addition to the economic boost that downtown Lewisburg receives from the presence of the university community, over recent decades the town with its historic architecture and cultural opportunities has increasingly taken on a role as residential community for Union County's well off residents.

  1. Pendleton, Philip E., Lewisburg Historic District, Union County Pennsylvania, nomination document, 2003, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Nearby Towns: Northumberland Boro • Sunbury City •

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