Lewistown is a borough in and the county seat of Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, United States. It is the principal city of the Lewistown, Pennsylvania Metropolitan Statistical Area which encompasses all of Mifflin County. It lies along the Juniata River, northwest of Harrisburg. The number of people living in the borough in 1900 was 4,451; in 1910, 8,166; in 1940, 13,017; and in 2000, 8,998. The population was 8,338 at the 2010 census. It is the principal borough of the Lewistown Micropolitan Statistical Area. Of the four communities in the United States named "Lewistown", this borough is the largest.
The borough was incorporated in 1795 and was named for William "Bill" Lewis, a Quaker and a member of the legislature, who was responsible for the designation of the borough, which was then known as the Village of Ohesson, as the county seat of Mifflin County.
During the late 19th century Mifflin County became the crossroads of the Commonwealth. Located near the geographic center of the state, the area became a hub for traffic moving in every direction.
Early roads crisscrossed the region, but it was the eventual construction of the Pennsylvania Canal and the railroads that followed that truly positioned Mifflin County as an economic force in the state.
Lewistown, as the major city in Mifflin County, saw its economy expand dramatically as entrepreneurs launched companies to construct canal boats or build inns offering lodging for travelers and workers.
At its zenith, Mifflin County was one of the busiest centers for cargo and passenger traffic in the United States. But with the demise of the canal system, Mifflin County eventually lost its place as a major transportation hub.
American Civil War
On April 16, 1861, Lewistown sent its Logan Guards, a militia group originally formed in 1858, to Washington, D.C. for its defense. They were one of only five companies, all recruited in Pennsylvania, to share the honor of being the first U.S. troops sent to the capital. Monument Square, situated at the intersection of Main and Market Streets in Lewistown, serves as a memorial to these men.
Tropical Storm Agnes
Lewistown lost its role as a major transportation hub, but still boasted a strong industrial economy until the early 1970s when the county's industries began a slow decline. A ruinous natural event in June 1972 would cripple the local economy and Lewistown has never recovered.
One June 19, Agnes made initial landfall along the Florida Panhandle as a weak Category 1 Hurricane. Agnes then proceeded through Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina before she moved back over the Atlantic off the North Carolina coast on June 21.
After regaining strength over the Atlantic, she made landfall again over southeastern New York on June 22 and moved westward in an arc over southern New York into north-central Pennsylvania. She became nearly stationary over Pennsylvania by morning of June 23, but was soon absorbed by a low-pressure system that slowly drifted northeastward from Pennsylvania into New York.
Rainfall from storm over the Mid-Atlantic region ranged from 2-3 inches in the extreme upper basins of the Potomac and North Branch Susquehanna Rivers to near Shamokin, Pennsylvania, in the Main Stem Susquehanna River basin. An average of 6-10 inches of rain fell over the Mid-Atlantic region. The soil, already well watered by spring rains, could not absorb so much water so quickly.
While flooding from the Juniata River was somewhat controlled due to a dam at Raystown Lake, west of Lewistown, the county experienced extensive flooding from the river and major streams which resulted in the permanent closure of many businesses along the river. Most notably, the flood submerged much of the American Viscose Plant, then a division of FMC Corporation. The facility, located on the banks of the Juniata River across from Lewistown proper, manufactured rayon fiber (primarily for rayon-belted automobile tires), polyester and Avistrap.
FMC was one of two major employers in the area at the time, the other being the Standard Steel Works. The "Viscose" plant was only marginally profitable before the storm and the cost to reopen was prohibitive. (Ironically, the demand for rayon fabric for trendy clothing shot upward only a few years later.) Rayon production, and with it, thousands of good-paying jobs, moved to another FMC plant in Front Royal, Virginia. The Lewistown polyester plant reopened, but it rehired only a fraction of the previous workforce. The site eventually became the Mifflin County Industrial Plaza and a variety of businesses have come and gone since then.
While Lewistown did receive the prestigious All-American City award in 1973 for its rebuilding process following the disaster, many of the blue collar workforce left the area to head south, along with the companies which chose not to rebuild in Lewistown.
Lewistown is home to the Pennsylvania State Fire School, which is the only such facility in the state. Firefighting in Lewistown is very important, as volunteer firefighters have strong allegiance to the multiple independent fire companies in the borough to which they devote their time.
Today, Lewistown is still looking to rebuild, but is now overshadowed by nearby State College. Due to the growth of Penn State and the construction of a new highway system, Lewistown is now struggling to avoid becoming the last rest stop for travelers coming from the east on their way to State College.