Organization of Cambria County, Pa.
From: History of Cambria County, Pennsylvania
By: John E. Gable
Historical Publishing Company
Topeka-Indianapolis, 1926


What is now known as Cambria County was taken from the original counties of Somerset and Huntington, by the act of March 26, 1804. A small settlement called Beulah was selected as the first county seat, but not meeting with popular favor it was later established by the act of 1805 at Ebensburg. The county was fully organized for judicial purposes in 1807. In the year 1810 the area was given as 670 square miles and a population of 2,117.

Ebensburg, the present county seat, was settled by the Welsh. Rev. Rees Lloyd was the first settler in Ebensburg and gave it its name. Soon after came the families of Thomas Phillips, William Jenkins. Theophilus Rees, Evan Roberts, William Griffith, James Nicholas, Daniel Griffith, John Jones, David Thomas, Evan James and George Roberts.

By virtue of his office as judge of the Tenth Judicial District, Judge John Young was the first president judge, having been appointed by the governor. Prior to the year 1838 the term of appointment of judges of the court was for life or during good behavior, but in that year the constitution limited the term to ten years. Judge Young served in office for twenty nine years, retiring on account of poor health. Governor Ritter appointed Thomas White, an eminent lawyer of Indiana County, to succeed Judge Young. His term of office expired Feb. 27, 1847. A petition was sent to Governor Shunk asking White's reappointment, but the governor appointed J. M. Burrell, whose appointment the senate refused to confirm. Samuel A. Gilmore and Wilson McCandless were successively appointed by the governor but failed of the senate's confirmation. As a result the governor, by virtue of a power which he possessed, appointed J. M. Burrell as judge of the court of the Tenth Judicial District. However, Judge Burrell resigned after serving less than a year of his term and John C. Knox, a young lawyer of Tioga County, was appointed by the governor to succeed him. His appointment received the confirmation of the senate.

Governor Shunk's disposition to disregard the will of the people in the matter of appointing judges aroused the leading legislators of the state and on April 15, 1851, an act was passed making the offices of judges of the county courts of the commonwealth elective. In 1880 Cambria County became the forty seventh judicial district. The elective judges were George Taylor, John Dean, Robert L. Johnston, Augustine V. Barker, Francis J. O'Connor, M. B. Stephens. The present judges are John E. Evans, president judge; John H. McCann, of the Common Pleas Court, and S. Lemon Reed of the Orphans Court. Hon. John W. Kephart of Cambria County is a member of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

April 13, 1869, the general assembly passed an act creating the district court with the courthouse in Johnstown. The district included the boroughs of Johnstown, Conemaugh, Millville, Cambria, Prospect, Franklin and East Conemaugh, as well as the townships of Yoder, Richland, Taylor and Conemaugh. This was done for the convenience of the people in the southern part of the county. Jurisdiction in criminal matters was limited to cases triable in the court of quarter sessions. It could not try the higher felonies. Its civil jurisdiction was limited to claims not to exceed two hundred dollars. This was later changed to include all criminal cases but treason and homicide, and all civil cases the same as any court of common pleas. Judge Taylor and Associate Judges George W. Easley and James Murray constituted the court.

In the year 1870 a movement was inaugurated for the removal of the courthouse from Ebensburg to Johnstown. The movement was defeated, which definitely settled the question of the removal of the county seat. The movement for removal from Ebensburg to Johnstown followed several unsuccessful attempts to have formed a new county to be known as the county of Conemaugh. This new county was to comprise a large part of Cambria and a part of each of the counties of Indiana and Westmoreland. The bill proposing the formation of the new county was defeated at the session of the legislature in 1848. The agitation was again revived in 1860 but met the same fate.

Good roads and street car transportation have done much to relieve the hardships endured by the people of southern Cambria in attending court, and it is not likely that the movement for a new county will ever be revived unless Cambria County or parts of it become involved in the modern movement to reduce the number of counties by consolidation of parts of two or more counties small in area or in population so as to minimize the cost of local government. In recent times the county maintained judge's chambers in Johnstown, but legal technicalities arose persistently because of the wording of various statutes requiring that certain judicial functions and proceedings be held or had in the court house at the county seat. So little Central Park in the city of Johnstown, dedicated by Father John as a site for a court house, is still only a beautiful breathing spot. While the whole county has been agitated more or less for 16 or 17 years over "additions, alterations and repairs" to the courthouse built in 1881 at Ebensburg, three modern wings being finally constructed about the old clock tower, with the ultimate removal of the tower. The political and legal battles over this improvement form an interesting chapter in the story of famous court house fights in Pennsylvania. At this date the chapter is still incomplete.

Section 1 of Article XIII of the Constitution of Pennsylvania, as it amended the Constitution of 1838, provides that "no new county shall be established which shall reduce any county to less than four hundred square miles, or to less than twenty thousand inhabitants; nor shall any county be formed of less area, or containing a less population; nor shall any line thereeof pass within ten miles of the county seat of any county proposed to be divided."

Physically a new county complying with these restrictions is easily possible with Johnstown at or near its center. Portions of Indiana, Westmoreland and Somerset County could be added to the new county without reducing the neighboring counties within the limitations set. This was not true when the Constitution of 1874 was adopted, and the section on new counties then probably was intended only to make one new county possible, but times have changed and growth of population has defeated the intent that the law should not be of use to this section of the state, if there was such an intent.

The commission on constitutional amendment and revision, in its report to the General Assembly in December, 1920, which was made after careful study and is important though nothing was done to make it generally effective, revised the proposed section on new counties to read:

"Section 4. A new county shall not be established if it would have less than three hundred square miles and fifty thousand inhabitants or if a line thereof would pass within ten miles of the boundary of the county seat of a county proposed to be divided or if its establishment would reduce another county below such area or population. A new county shall not be established without the consent of a majority of the electors resident within the proposed boundaries thereof voting on the question."

Such a provision, if adopted, would leave the way open to the creation of a new county with Johnstown as the county seat, but, as suggested above, good roads have greatly reduced the inconveniences of travel to and from Ebensburg. Besides that, the whole county as it now exists has been welded together by closer social and business ties, and by the vast amount of county indebtedness incurred through the financing of roads and other public improvements.

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