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Union City Borough


The Union City Borough Hall is located at 13 South Main Street, Union City PA 16438; phone: 814-438-2331.

Beginnings [1]

The settlement of what was known as Miles Mills was established in 1800. William Miles had fought in the American Revolution and had been captured by the Iroquois and imprisoned at Quebec. He built a dam on the south branch of French Creek and erected a gristmill and sawmill. Until 1855, Miles Mills remained nothing more than a thin strand of small mills along this waterway. That year in anticipation of the coming of the railroad, town lots were plotted north and east of the creek. The Philadelphia and Erie Railroad entered the town in 1858 shortly before Edwin L. Drake successfully drilled for oil in Titusville. The impact on the young town serving as a rail head for oil was dramatic. In 1860, the same year that a second rail line, the Atlantic and Great Western, was built through Miles Mills, the town boasted three refineries and a barrel-making industry in addition to its saw and planing mills. Caught up in a booming oil economy, the exuberant citizens of Miles Mills incorporated themselves as the Borough of Union Mills in 1865. The diversion of the oil freight business to Corry after 1862 gradually extinguished the oil refinery business. What remained proved important for the town's future. Over time, barrel-making for oil bequeathed a wood products industry that has marked the town's economy to the present day.

By 1870, the town's population had risen to 1,500, and the sawmills which had been shut down as part of the scramble for oil riches, were back in business. Six saw mills and planing mills including those of Clark, and Hunter and Wade, appear in the 1870 census. Barrels continued to be a major wood product and their importance increased in 1870 with the founding of Wood and Johnson's factory. It employed 70 workers and produced an annual inventory valued at $165,000. The company advertised itself as the largest manufacturer of oil barrels in the country. Sensing a new start the town changed its name to Union City in 1871.

The next decade revealed only modest changes in the town's socio-economic profile. Part of the slowdown was no doubt due to a disastrous fire which consumed most of the business establishments along both sides of Main Street south of the creek in 1879. But in the course of a few years what had been destroyed was replaced, and the new buildings were mostly of brick and in nearly every instance a great improvement over what had been there before. Typical was the town hall erected in 1884, a handsome brick building with accommodations for the town clerk and other officers, as well as council meetings and public gatherings. Coincident with all this activity was the transfer of the Union City Chair Co. from Jamestown, N.Y. in 1882. It signaled the beginning of Union City as an important center for furniture making in Pennsylvania.

The 1880's marked a decade of considerable residential construction. Whereas the owners of the town's many sawmills had tended to build their residences nearby, the constant threat of fire convinced the managers of the new furniture plants to erect their homes in the developing neighborhoods further removed. Among those who chose to build fine homes on higher ground west of the creek were John D. Wescott at 27 West High Street, Louis P. Hansen at 4 South Street, and Marvin Cooper at 30 Second Avenue.

Other prominent citizens who moved into this part of town during the same years were: merchant W. F. Conway at 27 Second Avenue, merchant James Smiley at 48 West High Street, banker R. Fuller at 28 Second Avenue, and physician E. B. Smith at 32 First Avenue. By 1900 a good percentage of the lots along West High Street and South Street and the avenues that connected them were filled. Despite two crises, one local and one national, Union City managed to grow and prosper during the 1890's.

In 1892 following two torrential rainstorms, the south branch of French Creek overflowed its banks and flooded the center of the town. Several businesses along Main Street were destroyed, leading the Union City Times to declare the disaster "a serious blow to our thriving town..." The flood provided a complete reassessment of the use of the creek for waterpower, and at the same time sparked interest in public improvements in general. While the Main Street Bridge survived the flood, it was severely weakened, and a concrete one for its replacement was awarded in 1896. A campaign to pave Main Street was launched the following year and this was accomplished in 1899. In the meantime sewers had been laid along both Main and Crooked Streets.

Union City's inelastic wood products economy helped the town to weather the crippling depression of 1892. Local firms successfully bucked the financial tide. Blanchard and Hansen, a firm which combined casket making with furniture production, added a third floor to its Main Street plant. Increased orders at Novelty Wood Works required that company to put on a night shift. In 1897 the Union City Times reported that the real estate market had revived and that builders were advertising lots and moderately priced Queen Anne residential designs in large new subdivisions. Substantial homes began to go up again in the established neighborhoods as well, among them Dr. A. G. Sherwood's Colonial Revival residence at 25 West High Street, and Assemblyman John Mulkie's handsome Shingle Style mansion at First Avenue and South Street.

By the early 20th century Union City's "Mill and Mansion" era had pretty well ended. While eight houses would still be built in the West High Street/South Street district, they would be of a smaller scale and far less ornate than what was already there. This is also true of those homes erected beyond Third Avenue. While the area still remained essentially a neighborhood of single family dwellings, it could no longer claim to be the town's "A-No. 1 place-to-live."

Among the places of employment, things had changed too. The wood products industry with several new firms was still very important, but with the exception of the Union City Chair Co. it was no longer centered on Main Street and the creek. That company is the only one in existence that can trace its lineage directly to the 19th century and the "Mill and Mansion" period.

  1. Claridge, John R. and Sisson, William, Union City Historic District, nomination document, 1989, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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