Port Royal History:
Its Ebb and Flow
(Go to the bottom of this page for ordering instructions for the the 212 page history: "Perrysville to Port Royal: A 200 Year Journey")
Port Royal is a small town of about 1,000 residents situated where the Tuscarora Creek flows into the Juniata River in central Pennsylvania. It is located in Juniata County approximately 40 miles northwest of Harrisburg. Colonial settlers moved into the valley that adjoins Port Royal about 1750.
For much of its history, the town primarily served the farming community that surrounded it in Turbett, Spruce Hill and Milford Townships. These townships are commonly known as the Tuscarora Valley. It appears that settlers migrated up the Valley, first focusing on Old Port and later on Port Royal.
Originally named Perrysville, after Commodore Perry, a hero of the War of 1812, the name of the town was changed to Port Royal in 1874 and the latter name remains until this day.
Transportation has had a great effect on the town. Its location along the Juniata River means that it was impacted by the opening of the Pennsylvania Canal in 1829. Two decades later Perrysville (Port Royal) was one of the stops on the Middle Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. After the opening of the PRR, a small narrow gage rail line was built that transported people and goods from the Tuscarora Valley to a terminus at Port Royal. This latter rail line was commonly known as the “TV” and made Port Royal the hub of activity for travel to and from the area.
Commercial activity in the town has shifted. Before the construction of the canal, most of the commercial activity was located across the Tuscarora Creek in an area of Turbett Township known as Old Port. The canal caused the commercial center to move to First (Water) Street. The railroad caused a shift from Water Street toward the eastern end of Market Street between Second and Fourth Streets. The advent of the automobile, and larger shopping malls has since shifted commercial activity toward Mifflintown and Lewistown.
At one time there was an effort to relocate the county seat from Mifflintown to Port Royal but that effort went down to defeat in a county wide referendum.
The first fair was held in Port Royal in 1852 and there has been an annual fair in the town thereafter. In 1887 the original fairgrounds south of town was found to lack adequate space and a larger tract of land was purchased north of the town, from Smith Kepner, in what is presently known as the Juniata County Fair Grounds. Beginning as primarily a showcase for agrarian enterprise, the fair has slowly changed so that today it has much less of its agrarian roots. In 1953 weekly summer automobile racing began on a track that was originally built for horse racing and this activity has played a large part in focusing attention on the town during the summer months.
Livelihoods have changed over time. A century ago, most people were either directly or indirectly engaged in agricultural pursuits. As mechanization came to the farms, fewer persons were needed for those activities and a sizable number of residents worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. As the railroad era began to wane, many worked for Standard Steel in Burnham, the Viscose in Lewistown and Van Dyke Brick near Thompsontown. After World War I garment factories sprung up in many small towns of Central Pennsylvania and Port Royal had a factory known by a variety of names but most recently as Rae-Sel that provided employment for seamstresses from the community. Today much of the employment is focused outside of the borough. Some work for Empire Kosher Poultry in Mifflintown, while others travel as far as Harrisburg to earn a living.
There was always strong support in Port Royal and the surrounding community for both education and religion. The Airy View Academy was one of the first post-elementary schools in the county and it drew students from a sizable area. Eventually the building for the Academy became the Port Royal and later the Tuscarora Valley High School. Two of the first churches in the county were established in Turbett Township at an area known as “Church Hill” and in Beale Township at Academia. Eventually these and other denominations build churches in town and the town now serves as the spiritual home for a number of congregations.
Modern means of transportation and communication: automobiles, telephone, television and the internet have brought Port Royal and most small towns closer to the outside world. It is impossible to know the impact that even newer technologies might have on the town in the next two hundred years.
Copies of a newly published History of Port Royal are available from the Juniata County Historical Society, Mifflintown, PA. The cost is $20 for the book plus $4 for shipping and handling. The Society can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-436-5152. (The Society is open Tuesday and Wednesday 9:00 am till 3:00 pm.)