Publisher’s Note: This article first appeared in the 2006 edition of the Raystown Lake Region/Huntingdon County Visitors Guide. A new video-guided walking tour was created in 2010 for i-pods and smart phones.
By Sandy Carowick
The town of Huntingdon stands literally at the crossroads of history. Indian and trader paths, the early turnpike, the Main Line Canal, and the Pennsylvania Railroad, pathways crucial to the movement of people and goods, all either ran through or skirted the town limits. Few vestiges of the earliest thoroughfares remain, but the Union Depot train station still welcomes the casual visitor to town. Although currently vacant, it is reminiscent of the pride of place embodied in the structures built in the historic district of Huntingdon.
Once a bustling transportation hub, the train station has been silent since the 1960’s. The long, two-story structure exhibits a low-pitched roof with bracketed eaves, decorative brick ornamentation, and paired round-topped windows, all Italianate influences from the mid to late 1800’s. Although alterations have changed the appearance on the Allegheny Street side of the building since its construction in 1872, these structural elements may still be viewed on the railroad side of the building. Today this structure awaits rehabilitation for adaptive reuse.
Unlike many small cities and towns across the country, where today abandoned factory buildings dot the streetscape, the J.C. Blair factory building retains its character while continuing to contribute to the allure of historic Huntingdon. Located two blocks from the Union Depot at the corner of Sixth and Penn Streets, the J.C. Blair factory was once hailed as the “tallest building between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg” (some said Philadelphia!). Architect F.L. Olds, a Huntingdon native, modeled the design for the structure after H.H. Richardson’s design for the Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago. John Chalmers Blair, whose factory building exemplified the corporate motto of “Perfect Goods Only,” hired local contractor Henry Snare to build the stone and brick structure. Snare began work in the summer of 1888, and by July 11, 1889, the Huntingdon Globe proclaimed “J.C. Blair’s mammoth building looms far above other structures—and 24 more feet of wall to be built!” Converted to housing units in the early 1990’s, the imposing structure retains much of its original stylistic elements and charm.
A stroll along Penn Street and its connecting side streets reveals many exceptional examples of early 19th century homes. The oldest in the borough, located at 105 Third Street, was built in 1797 by Richard Smith, son of town founder William Smith. The appearance of the stone house has changed over the years, with improvements including porches and overhanging eaves. The substantial home was owned or occupied through the years by a number of influential men, including David R. Porter (Governor of Pennsylvania, 1839-1845) and his notable son, General Horace Porter (Civil War veteran; U.S. Ambassador to France, 1897-1905).
The immense and stately Queen Anne structure situated at 317 Penn Street remains largely untouched since its construction in 1896. The building was designed by George F. Barber and Company of Knoxville, Tennessee for George F. Gage, General Manager of the Huntingdon and Broad Top Railroad. Except for changes in color and the style of the front porch, the home has changed little throughout the years. Its asymmetrical design and elaborate ornamentation are hallmarks of the Queen Anne style, and this beautiful home invites a second look.
Not all of Huntingdon’s historic architectural features are visible from the outside. To really appreciate Huntingdon’s past one must step through the doors and examine some of the marvelous interior features. The interior of Boxer’s Café, located at 410 Penn Street, enhances the dining experience. The brick building, constructed in 1865 by John Read to replace a previous wooden structure, was touted as “the first modern business building in Huntingdon.” Today the original façade remains, including windows, iron window ornaments, and the store front, even the company name “Read’s” is still visible spelled out in the tile of the entrance floor. Once inside, the distinctive atmosphere heavy with chatter from the lunch crowd is thoroughly contemporary, but the surroundings reveal the building’s past as a drug store. Although the soda fountain installed in 1882 is long gone, the beautiful back bar remains, blending perfectly with later improvements to create a unique and relaxing environment.
In addition to the other fine structures originally constructed as homes or businesses that contribute to the ambiance of this town on the move, other historic public buildings include the 1829 stone jail at Third and Mifflin Street, the 1883 French Renaissance style courthouse on Penn Street, and St. John’s Episcopal Church, an 1845 Gothic building directly across from the courthouse.
Fortunately for us today, some of those who traveled past Huntingdon by foot, boat, train, or automobile decided to stop. The town that they started has been shaped and molded over the years by new residents, who in their turn continued pushing Huntingdon forward without forgetting the past. Today most of the opulent homes have other purposes. The McMurtrie property on Fourth Street houses the public library and the county historical society. Others house restaurants and specialty shops. But no matter what purposes the buildings now serve, every one contributes to the unique spirit of a bustling town humming with life.
You can find more information on the borough and county of Huntingdon in History of Huntingdon and Blair Counties, Pennsylvania, by J. Simpson Africa (1883), An Architectural Study of the Ancient Borough of Huntingdon (1976) and Two Centuries in Huntingdon(1996), both by Nancy S. Shedd, and a variety of other publications found at the Huntingdon County Historical Society, 106 Fourth Street. A walking tour brochure encompassing Huntingdon’s Historic District and a listing of downtown shopping and dining options is also available free at the historical society, Raystown Lake Visitor Center and at the courthouse.