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A Place in History

Milestones Vol 26. No. 1

By Robert A. Smith

The following article appeared in the February edition of the journal of the American Association of State and Local History, which highlights the Beaver Area Historical Museum as recipient of the AASLH Albert Corey Award.

"You people don't realize what you have here!"

The hands were gentle but insistent as they grasped my lapel. It was 1967 and the voice belonged to a scholarly Greek immigrant and restaurant owner in the small western Pennsylvania town of Beaver. His name was Harry Phillips.

"To gain my U.S. Citizenship, I studied hard about the history of this area, and what I learned about this land and this town was absolutely amazing to me," he said, "and yet no one seems to give it any thought. You people must find some way to tell this story." As I would later learn, this same message was delivered in the same way to many other townsfolk.

So began the saga of the Beaver Area Heritage Foundation. Not willing to wait any longer for someone else to take up the challenge of historic preservation, Mr. Phillips himself founded this small-town historical society and became its first president. The first real impetus came with a volunteer archaeological project to rediscover the long-buried foundations of Fort McIntosh, a historical site high above the banks of the Ohio River about 28 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Fort McIntosh was built in 1778 to serve as a bulwark against the Revolutionary War assaults of the British and their Indian allies against the unprotected western frontier. The geographical location was strategically well chosen. The broad and level plateau near the mouth of the Beaver River had long before been a center for fur trading because of the abundance of beaver in the area and the great demand for their pelts in Europe. It proved to be equally suitable as a military stronghold and later as a most ideal town site and seat of local government.

As the excavations at the Fort McIntosh project site grew in 1974, so did interest in the history surrounding this remarkable place. It was here in 1778 that the beleaguered Continental Army posted the first real challenge to the British in the west. It was here in 1784, after the Revolution had ended, that the First American Regiment was raised and posted at Fort McIntosh, thus becoming the origin of the new United States Army. It was here in 1785 that the Treaty of Fort McIntosh was drawn, in which the native American tribes surrendered all further claims to the northwest territory, thus making possible the peaceful and orderly settlement of the Western Reserve.

In 1791, Pennsylvania Governor Muffin ordered a survey of the area and the layout of the first planned town site west of the Alleghenies and in 1802 the town of Beaver was incorporated. It was here in the latter nineteenth century that a Beaver attorney, U.S. Senator Matthew Stanley Quay, exercised his rule as Chairman of the Republican National Committee and steered the destinies of more than one presidential candidate. In 1967 the Beaver Area Heritage Foundation was formed and soon grew to over 500 members. It was here in 1978 that General William Westmoreland rededicated the Fort McIntosh Site as a historic landmark, and it was here in 1984 that the U.S. Army celebrated the bicentennial of its beginnings from the First American Regiment 200 years earlier. In 1996 the town of Beaver was designated a National Register Historic District, and in 1998 the Beaver Area Historical Museum - a project of the Beaver Area Heritage Foundation - was dedicated to at last provide a way to tell the history of this remarkable place.

The museum is housed in a nearly century-old restored railroad freight depot, and features exhibits that portray with artful precision the story of the people, places and events that are part of the history of the Beaver Area. The Beaver Area Heritage Foundation, through its members and local citizens, raised over $400,000 within two years for this project, assisted by a grant of $53,700 from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Keystone Historic Preservation Fund. The Museum opened on May 30, 1998 with all bills paid and in the first six months of operation hosted over 5,000 visitors.

In 1999 the Beaver Area Historical Museum was honored by being selected for the Award of Merit from the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Places, by the American Association of State and Local History with another Award of Merit, and by being chosen for the most prestigious Albert B. Corey Award for "vigor, imagination, scholarship and volunteer support in the creation of a small museum."

The late Harry Phillips would be proud indeed.

Reprinted from The Beaver Area Heritage Foundation publication