Did you ever wonder about the history of Raystown Lake PA in Huntingdon PA?
Most people realize it’s not a natural lake, but don’t know the history behind this amazing hidden gem in Pennsylvania that is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
I spent a few days in the Raystown Lake area thanks to the hospitality of the Huntingdon County Vistors Bureau, and got a true behind-the-scenes view of the Raystown dam, the beautiful lake and how they both impact the local community.
As the community commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Raystown dam’s completion, it is the perfect time to discover the beauty of Raystown Lake and learn about its influence on the region.
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When Was the Raystown Lake Dam Built?
October 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Raystown Dam (1973), and June 2024 is the 50th anniversary of its dedication of the dam by Gerald Ford (1974).
How Big Is Raystown Lake?
Raystown Lake covers 8,300 surface acres of water and is more than 28 miles long. It is around 250-feet deep near the spillway.
The Raystown dam is a historical marvel that was not without controversy when it was built half a century ago.
Read on to learn about about the history of Raystown Lake, Huntingdon PA, including the building of the dam and how it impacted the residents then and now.
Whether you enjoy fishing, hiking, or just enjoying the beauty of nature, Raystown Lake is truly a treasure hidden in the hills of Pennsylvania.
What Is Raystown Lake?
For those who don’t know anything about Raystown Lake, it is a multi-purpose lake located in Huntingdon County Pennsylvania, close to the middle of the state.
With 8,300 surface acres of clear water, it is the largest lake located entirely in the Commonwealth of PA.
Additionally, Raystown Lake is surrounded by 21,000 acres of forested mountain slopes and has no private development on the shoreline.
The story behind Raystown Lake is fascinating, and the events that are planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary will continue into June 2024, which is the anniversary of the dam’s official dedication by then-vice president Gerald Ford.
Fun Fact: Did you know that Gerald Ford was the only U.S. President to have served as a park ranger? (Yellowstone National Park in 1936)
Quick History of Raystown Lake
The history of the Raystown Lake area goes all the way back to before this country was born.
Native Americans were prevelant in the area and used a large overhanging ledge on the Juniata River as shelter, calling it Sheep Rock Shelter.
Skip ahead to the early 1900s when the local Simpson family dammed the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River as a hydroelectric project. The rise in water level resulted in a large reservoir that was then used for recreation.
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In the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to expand the reservoir as a water control measure, which would unfortunately flood Sheep Rock Shelter.
To prevent loss of Native American archeological evidence, researchers from Juniata College and the Pennsylvania State University excavated Sheep Rock Shelter, uncovering human remains from more than 6,000 years ago.
Jump ahead to 1973, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the dam expansion project. The resulting dam backed up water for almost 30 miles and created an 8,300 acre lake.
The Raystown Lake project provided flood control, recreational opportunities AND electricity.
Allegheny Electric Cooperative operates the Raystown Hydroelectric Project/William F. Matson Generating Station that provides power to about 8,500 homes.
To see photos of Old Raystown Lake before the new dam, visit Huntingdon County History.
The Impact Of The Raystown Lake Dam On Locals
Of course when the Raystown Dam was first proposed, the local residents were skeptical.
As the talks became more serious, local resident Claire Grove recalls his father telling him “They’ve been talking about a dam for years. It’s never going to happen.”
But this time was different. Government officials offered Grove $42,000 for his 210-acre farm that had three businesses: a dairy farm, a sawmill and a maple syrup business.
Eminent domain was used to take the properties of all those in the flood zone. Some families spent the rest of their lives paying off the mortgage for a new house, due to the low amount they were paid for their homes.
Related Post: If you like history, here are some important historical sites in Pennsylvania.
Many locals moved away and Grove’s relatives from the Raystown Lake area became scattered.
In the end 1,800 property owners sold their deeds or easements to the federal government and 407 graves were relocated.
Luckily, Grove was able to purchase a farm directly from the owner with just a handshake, rather than having to get a mortgage through a bank.
If you enjoy beautiful overlook views like the ones at Raystown Lake, check out Monterey Pass, near Gettysburg. It’s another hidden gem in Pennsylvania.
Grove said he believes the Raystown Lake ended up being a good thing for the region overall, despite the hardships that some endured during its creation.
It is estimated that in 1972, when the Lake Raystown Dam was only 85 percent complete, it helped precent damages in the Juniata Basin downstream from the dam of $48 million and of almost $12 million along the lower Susquehanna River during Tropical Storm Agnes.
The Scope Of The Raystown Lake Dam
The amount of land needed for the Raystown Dam project was significant.
The government was authorized to acquire 15,000 acres for the dam and reservoir area; 13,000 acres for the public access/recreation area; and 2,000 acres for the wildlife mitigation area. The total acreage was 30,000 acres at a cost of $20,000,000.
Because the Army Corps of Engineers purchased land up to the ridgeline instead of just the land that was flooded, there is no private residential development along the lake.
This makes the experience of boating on the lake very different from many other lakes. Trees blanket the hills on the shores of the winding lake right down to the water.
Raystown Lake is well known for its quality fishing, and hosts more than a 100 tournaments a year.
It also has a fishery with everything from all types of bass, to muskellunge, walleye, pickerel, perch, all kinds of trout, bluegill, catfish, carp, salmon and shad.
There are two marinas on Raystown Lake, including Seven Points Marina, which was first founded in 1946 as a place to rent boats. It is now the largest marina in Pennsylvania.
There’s another important anniversary happening this year! December marks the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.
The Impact Of The Raystown Dam
Perhaps one of the best–and most unusual–things about the history of Raystown Lake is that the environment and conservation were always at the forefront of the dam project.
Sustainable practices were put in place from the beginning to ensure that the lake’s pristine beauty would endure for generations.
Even though the dam was necessary for flood control, it ultimately became a transformational force for the Huntingdon area. After the completion of the dam, Raystown Lake became a magnet for tourists, drawing in visitors who sought its natural beauty and recreational opportunities.
This influx of tourism breathed new life into nearby towns, leading to the growth of businesses that catered to travelers and outdoor enthusiasts.
There are now five campgrounds at Raystown Lake with a total of 594 campsites, 10 boat launches, two marinas, 68.5 miles of trails, picnic shelters and tables, an amphitheater, a resort complex, 21,000 acres for hunting and 8,300 surface acres for fishing.
Secrets Of Raystown Lake
The Hidden Ruins Of Raystown Lake
Who really knows all of the secrets that Raystown Lake holds?
They say that some buildings that had been built around the first lake remain within its depths, as well as roads and bridges. However, all wooden structures were either relocated or bulldozed and covered with earth before the dam was flooded to prevent floating debris.
Bridges, roads, the old dam and building foundations or stone work may be still intact, but not entire summer cottages.
Other nearby structures, while not covered by water, are slowly detoriating and being reclaimed by Mother Nature.
One ruin that still remains is the Brumbaugh homestead, which can be found off Weller Road.
Originally constructed in 1804, the Brumbaugh homestead was home to seven generations of the same family. One of them, Martin Brumbaugh, would later become Governor of Pennsylvania from 1915-1919.
The Brumbaugh homestead became part of the Raystown Lake property, and the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Sadly, a number of fires, followed by decades of neglect, have left the historic structure barely recognizeable.
The Aitch area (pronounced “H”), was arguably the most affected by the flooding. According to records, graves and many cabins had to be removed before the area was flooded.
What Most People Don’t Know: Aitch was named using the first letter of initials from 5 pioneering settlers.
But wait! Raystown Lake holds another secret that I found especially intriguing!
The Legend Of Raystown Ray
Did you know that the history of Raystown includes its own Lochness Monster?
I was so excited to learn about the Legend of Raystown Ray.
Some say it’s a myth, but there are old photos that show large shadowy figures just below the surface. Boaters have described sudden water turbulence, as well as the strange appearance of a large water creature.
You can read about more about the sightings on the Raystown Ray official page.
Here is a sighting from 2008, but there are many more:
“It was 7:15 PM and we just loaded the jet skis and started to dry them off. My girlfriend jokingly said “Look, It’s Raystown Ray”!
I looked to see what she was talking about and saw a neck and a head sticking about 3 to 4 feet out of the water and it was striding toward a boat that was coming into the no wake zone at the 7 Points.
We watched it for about 3 minutes. We saw a wake in the water from its neck and about 15 to 20 feet behind that wake was another wake, but we couldnt see what was causing that wake…”
The newest photo of Raystown Ray is from 2009. The legendary “lake monster” has been featured on television shows and has its own line of merchandise, as well as a song.
Celebrating The 50th Anniversary Of Raystown Lake
What makes Raystown Lake’s 50th anniversary celebration truly special is the active involvement of the local community.
The Corps of Engineers, Friends of Raystown Lake and Huntingdon County Visitors Bureau paln to celebrate the anniversary through September 2024.
There are all kinds of events in the works, including guided tours of the Raystown Lake dam by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
All of the tours in October, 2023, are sold out, but more tours are planned for June of 2024.
I had the opportunity to do one of these tours that included access to the spillway and the interior galleries. We went more than 100 steps down to really see the inner workings of the spillway, and also learned about the history of Raystown Lake, dam facility operations and local heritage.
For security reasons, there are no photos allowed inside the gates of the dam, but it was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see the flood gates and get a closeup view of the dam.
Other events include a special 50th anniversary exhibit at the Juniata College Museum of Art that documents the history of Raystown Lake and the dam project.
The library is a beautiful Carnegie building worth visiting when you’re in Huntingdon.
Kids can join in the fun of the 50th anniversary celebration too and become a junior ranger.
Pick up a copy of an activity book at the Raystown Lake Visitor Center, complete the activities and return it. Kids will be sworn in as an official Raystown Lake 50th Anniversary Junior Ranger and will even get a badge!
While you’re at the Visitor Center you can pick up some Raystown Lake 50th Anniversary commemoration souvenirs at the Raystown Reflections Gift Shoppe. There are coins, mugs, hats, and even candles.
A special 50th anniversary of Raystown Lake commemoration ceremony will be held on June 6, 2024, the anniversary of the official dedication of the new dam by U.S. Vice President Gerald Ford.
Where Is Raystown Lake?
Raystown Lake is a reservoir in Huntingdon County, PA, which is about 90 miles west of the state capital of Harrisburg and about 125 miles east of Pittsburgh.
Planning A Trip To Raystown Lake
Raystown Lake is a summer getaway, but it’s also a great place to visit in the fall when the leaves are changing, or to escape to during the holiday season.
If you like history like I do, you can take a ride on an old-fashioned steam engine train at East Broad Top Railroad. They have special tours in the Fall and over the holidays as well.
If you enjoy staying in Bed and Breakfasts, I recommend The Inn At Solvang. I received a complimentary stay, and was blown away by the delicious breakfasts and peaceful grounds. It’s close to everything, but far enough away to be restful and quiet.
Like Coffee? I got to do a “coffee cupping” to try different types of coffee, as well as a special Raystown 50th Anniversary Blend with Standing Stone Coffee. (It’s like a wine tasting, only with coffee). This is a family-owned business that prides itself on its commitment to the environment and on building communities.
If visiting a Brewery is more your style, check out Juniata Brewing Company. It’s a fun place to hang out, grab a light meal, or try out a craft beer.
Don’t worry, wine drinkers, there’s a local winery as well! ReKlaimed Vines has a tasting room and shares a space with Defiant Distillery for those who enjoy a stronger drink.
Need to grab a bite to eat? In season, you can visit the Marina Cafe or Moxmoe Pictures Famous Sandwiches.
I enjoyed at a delicious meal at McKinley’s at the Huntingdon Country Club and LOVED my meal at Memories at the Docks. The meal followed a Paint and Sip art session with Bluebird Designs by Bex, and was the perfect wrap-up for a fun day at Raystown Lake.
I also highly recommend a cruise on the Proud Mary. Not only is the scenery spectacular, but you get to hear about the history of the area from the beginning of time to present-day. We were treated to sightings of Bald Eagles as well!
The Story Behind Huntingdon PA And Standing Stone
While doing research for this article, I ran across some interesting history about Huntingdon PA, where Raystown Lake is located.
Pioneers traveling west through Pennsylvania reported the existence of a “Standing Stone” that Native Americans had apparently erected near the junction of Standing Stone Creek and the Juniata River.
Fun Fact: The word Juniata is thought to be a rough translation of the word Onayutta meaning “Standing Stone.”
An account written in 1754, described the stone as being 14 feet high and six inches square. Other accounts report that the shaft was covered with symbols and pictographs that may have had historical or religious significance to those who marked it.
Because of this noticeable landmark, the first name attached to the place now known as Huntingdon was “Standing Stone.”
Strangely enough, the original stone abruptly disappeared, but was replaced by a similar stone on which were scratched the names of early surveyors and the date “1768.”
In time, the second Standing Stone was removed from the “Ancient Stone lot,” as it was called, to the yard of a stone house still in existence at 105 William Smith Street in Huntingdon.
Despite the fact that it has survived the elements all those years, the stone was broken into several pieces by “malicious” persons, according to a contemporary report. One fragment of that stone survives and is displayed in the main corridor of the Huntingdon County Courthouse.
Amazingly the names and date scratched into it so long ago can still be seen on its smooth dark gray surface. A true piece of history!
Rev. Dr William Smith, provost of the University of Pennsylvania, named the town “Huntingdon” that he laid out in 1767 on the site of Standing Stone. However, the traders and military officers of the 18th century continued to use the old name.
For instance, the town is marked “Standing Stone” on Lewis Evans’ maps of 1755 and 1770, and it is listed as “Standing Stone, Huntingdon,” on the Pownall map of 1776.
In 1896, as the Borough of Huntingdon was preparing to celebrate the centennial anniversary of its incorporation, it was suggested that a stone shaft be erected.
The present stone at Penn & William Smith Streets was dedicated in September 1896 and has stood since then as a reminder of Huntingdon’s history.
Wrap-Up Of History Of Raystown Lake
Raystown Lake gets about a million visitors annually who come to fish, hunt, and enjoy panoramic views of undeveloped land and waters.
It’s incredible that 50 years have passed since the Raystown Lake dam was completed, yet heartwarming to see new generations enjoying its recreational opportunities and stunning scenery.
As the Raystown Lake 50th anniversary is commemorated, it’s the perfect time to celebrate the impact the dam and the lake have had on the region.
History of Raystown Lake Timeline
- 1905 – George Ernest and Warren Brown Simpson develop idea for hydroelectric dam on the Raystown Branch of the Juniata. (Elizabeth Cooney)
- 1907 – Construction of first dam begins. (Elizabeth Cooney)
- 1912 – Construction completed, area begins to become more developed with cottages along the river. (Elizabeth Cooney)
- 1936 – Massive flooding provokes discussion of a future flood control project in the region. (USACE)
- October 5, 1962 – After 25 years of debate, the Senate and the House give approval for a $32.5 million new, much larger dam, a project designed for flood control and to make the area a recreation haven. (Daily News)
- 1968 – Construction on the new dam begins. (Daily News)
- April 8, 1971 – Old Raystown Lake dam is breached. (Daily News)
- 1972 – Dam prevents further damage from Tropical Storm Agnes in the region. (Elizabeth Cooney)
- October, 1973 – Green Construction completes construction of dam
- June 6, 1974 – Vice President Gerald R. Ford speaks at the dedication of Raystown Lake, marking the culmination of the recreation/flood control project. (Daily News)
- December 29, 1974 – Raystown Lake hits recreational pool level, opening the lake to motor boats. (Daily News)
- February 3, 1975 – Juniata College gets lease to open field station on lake. (Daily News)
- March 6, 1975 – Raystown Lake surface elevation reaches recreational pool of 787.5 feet (240 meters) above sea level for the first time. (US Geological Survey) https://pubs.usgs.gov/wri/1978/0042/report.pdf
- 1976 – Seven Points Marina opens, bringing in thousands of tourists. (Daily News)
- 1977 – Plans to seek approval for a hydroelectric facility at the new dam are announced. (Daily News)
- 1978 – Rothrock Area (later known as Raystown Resort) opens, and proposals to build a hotel-lodge and cabin concession are released. (Daily News)
- 1984 – Raystown Resort holds grand opening and ribbon cutting for $9 million development program, including a new marina and water slide.
- 1986 – After years of controversy, ground breaks for the $41 million William F. Matson Hydroelectric Generating Station at Raystown Lake. (Daily News)
- 1988 – The 21-megawatt hydroelectric project, built by 14 rural electric cooperatives and serving 8,500 customers, is dedicated in August. (Daily News)
- 1996 – The Raystown Regatta, a Formula One racing event, comes to Raystown Lake for several years. (Daily News)
- December 18, 1998 – Raystown Country Visitors Bureau (succeeded by Huntingdon County Visitors Bureau) moves into newly built Raystown Lake Visitor Center at Seven Points (Daily News)
- April 1, 1999 – Raystown Lake Visitor Center opens to the public
- 2009 – The Allegrippis Trails, now nationally recognized and praised, open in May, bringing even more visitors to the region.
- June 20, 2013 – Greenside Pathway multi-use trail opens connecting recreation areas within Seven Points with a 2-mile loop trail paved with recycled tires, as well as spurs to Ridge and Point camping loops.
- June 6-7-8, 2014 – The Raystown Lake Region / Huntingdon County celebrated 40 years of Raystown Lake fun with a full weekend of activity and entertainment lake-wide.
- September 14, 2016 – Raystown Mountain Bike Skills Park opens in the Seven Points Recreation area
- June 12, 2022 – New small picnic pavilion on Oak peninsula in Seven Points Recreation Area dedicated in memory of longtime seasonal ranger, Don Donaldson.
- April 14, 2023 – Seven Points Recreational, and Raystown Lake Championship Disc Golf Courses open
I was hosted by the Huntingdon Visitors Bureau, but the opinions expressed here are my own.