First-time visitors who walk along the Victorian streets of Bellefonte are often astonished at the architecture. Here is a tiny town, tucked into a valley almost exactly in the center of rural Pennsylvania, that seems strikingly out of place amid the surrounding farm villages and mining towns. The downtown streetscapes are primarily Victorian, the buildings immense, and all of them are adorned with filigree and cornices and pilasters from another era.
Bellefonte has an old origin; an interesting list of accomplishments and events, especially given its size and location, and, to this day, great physical charm. Thanks in part to its economic setbacks, Bellefonte has largely been spared "urban renewal" and the wholesale destruction of its original architecture.
Local American Indians would have been well acquainted with the lavishly gushing natural spring in central Pennsylvania, but not until July 20, 1769, did three white surveyors come upon it. They were running the lines of the "Officers' Surveys," previously unchartered tracts of land being given in lieu of pay to officers of the Indian wars. A circle and wording traced on the map the trio made indicated "a Big Spring" in the area for which Ensign Griffith Gibbon had a warranty application.
In 1785 William Lamb bought 750 acres of the Gibbon tract and erected a grain mill on the flowing creek. Nine years later, Col. James Dunlop, an iron master and his son John purchased 700 acres of the tract then known as Lamb's Crossing. The pair had noted the success of other charcoal furnaces in the area, some of which had been operating as early as 1792.
James Harris and his wife Ann Dunlop Harris (the colonel's daughter) built the first home in the new town, in fall of 1794. In spring 1795 the town was laid out by Harris and James Dunlop.
Bellefonte, was named, so the story goes, by Mrs. Harris during the visit of the French statesman, Talleyrand. She took Talleyrand to view the spring and he exclaimed..."La belle font" a perfect name for the town.
The iron industry in the region was booming for much of the nineteenth century. In 1836, there were twelve furnaces, six forges, and five rolling mills in operation. When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, most of its ironwork had Bellefonte origins. The wealth of the community was evident in it's the lavish mansions and commercial buildings, many of which survive today.
Around 1880, Thomas Edison came to town and set up a display in a small shop, demonstrating his "talking machine" to the amazed citizens. He visited several times, eventually broaching the idea of starting a plant to generate electricity for the town. On July 25, 1883, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company was chartered in Bellefonte and began generating electricity within seven months.
In 1910, Bellefonte had 4,145 citizens. By the following year, only two of the iron furnaces were left and the economic success that the borough experienced from the iron industry was over.
One success story was the Pennsylvania Match Company, which in 1911 was one of the eight largest match factories in the nation. But in 1947 operations at the factory ceased.
In recent years, Bellefonte has focused on encouraging the tourist industry, a reasonable expectation given its architectural attractions, lovely natural setting, interesting places to stay, quaint shops, and proximity to Interstate 80 (and soon, Interstate 99). Bellefonte and neighboring Milesburg are the I-81 exits for State College, and the regional airport is halfway between Bellefonte and State College.
In 1970, the Bellefonte Historical & Architectural Review Board District was created by local ordinance in an effort to preserve the existing architecture. The town was awarded a National Register of Historic Places district in 1977 that contains some 360 properties. The local historic district contains 431 properties. A number of the buildings mentioned in this article earned individual listings in the National Register district, including the courthouse, the Brockerhoft Hotel, the Bellefonte Academy, and the Pennsylvania Match Company.
"Celebrating the past, planning for the future" is Bellefonte's slogan in the 21st century and the town is well worth a visit.
The material above is an excerpt from the article, "Bellefonte, A History", American Philatelist (February 2002) by Kitty Wunderly. The author is grateful for research help from Susan B. Hannegan, Planning and Preservation officer, Bellefonte Borough, and Joyce Hoy Adgate, librarian and curator. Pennsylvania Room of the Centre County Library and Historical Museum, Bellefonte. Kitty Wunderly is a freelance philatelic writer and consultant for Collectors Advisory Team in State College, Pennsylvania.