California Borough

Washington County, Pennsylvania

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Borough municipal offices are located at 225 Third Street, California PA 15419.
Phone: 724‑938‑8878.

The borough is home to California University of Pennsylvania. Begun as a normal school in 1852, it evolved as the California State Teachers College (1928), California State College (1959), becoming part of the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

The borough is home to four properties that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places: Molly Fleming House (circa 1912), Jennings/Gallager House (circa 1903), Pennsylvania Railroad Passenger Station (circa 1910), and Old Main (circa 1868) on the California University Campus.

Beginnings [1]

Located within Washington County, California Borough was first inhabited by Mingo Indians who used the fertile lands as hunting grounds (Necciai, T. 1984). The rolling hills were home to wild game and fowl and the waters of the river were filled with fish. Many Indian archeological sites have been found with relics from hunting parties that had stayed and lived off the land. Soon however white settlers began to encroach upon these ancient hunting grounds and horrific tales of Indian raids and massacres were common as white farmers came to claim the land as their own. It is reported that in 1767, what is now California Borough was the site of an Indian council held in an attempt to hold onto the land (Crumrine, 1882). Although soldiers were sent to keep the settlers off of Indian land, by 1768 the lands were all but given to white settlers and the Indians were forced to move.

Shortly thereafter, Washington County, which was once a part of Westmoreland County, was formed to provide local courts for the inhabitants. Established during the revolutionary war period on March 28, 1781, Washington County was the first county formed after the signing of the Declaration of Independence (Washington Co. Planning Commission, 1981).

The region that surrounds California Borough was quickly recognized for its agricultural qualities and location to the Monongahela River. Early settlers included the Scotch-Irish who sought freedom from the religious persecution and began building forts and settlements as they cleared the land for farming (Van Voorhis, 1893). Later immigrants and settlers included English, Germans, Slovaks, Poles, Welsh and Africans.

Robert Jackman, who owned much of what was East Pike Run Township along with what are now Coal Center Borough and West Pike Run Township, owned the land where California Borough now lies (Hornbake, 1949). Following his death, Mr. Jackman’s heirs lost the land, which was later sold at a sheriff’s auction and eventually passed to John Ringland (Hornbake, 1949). In 1849, Mr. Ringland sold 304 acres to a company comprised of Job Johnson, George W. Hornbake, Abram Frye, William Jackman, William Ashmead, and John Wood who plotted the section of California Borough between West Pike Run and Green Street (Hornbake, 1949).

The town of California was laid out in a manner that was unusual for the time with wide streets that crossed at right angles courtesy of one of California’s earliest residents, surveyor and Esquire Job Johnson (Van Voorhis, 1893). The town was first called Columbia, but with the 1849 Gold Rush in the state of California, the town’s people chose to name their community California (Hornbake, 1949; California Focus, 1991). But it wasn’t until November 26, 1853 that the charter for the Borough of California was granted (California Focus, 1991).

During the Civil War era, the town of California was an important fixture on the Underground Railroad. Despite the threat of imprisonment, many California residents were instrumental in aiding fugitive slaves on their way north to Canada. Runaway slaves were transported up the Monongahela River to the California Wharf where they were sheltered at the Job Johnson Hotel until they could be moved to safer locales (Hornbake, 1949).

From the beginning, the founding fathers of California were interested in education. Following several attempts to establish a school system in the borough, in 1859 the Southwestern Normal College was established. Throughout its history, California University of Pennsylvania, as it is now known, helped to shape the borough and the region. Its legacy lives on and the university remains a significant presence in the daily lives of borough residents.

The first important industries in the region were boat building, brick making, and coal mining (Connors, 1996). Located next to the Monongahela River, California capitalized on the waterway and soon became a leader in the boat building business.

  1. California Borough Comprehensive Plan, Adopted 2003

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