On February 22, 1802, Governor Thomas McKean signed an Act of the Pennsylvania General Assembly that incorporated the Borough of Canonsburg. It was just a coincidence that the date is George Washington's Birthday. The town on the stage road between Washington, the county seat, and Pittsburgh was about fifteen years old. The main street ran up a hill with a steep grade. The founder, developer, and proprietor was John Canon, whose flour and saw mill was at the foot of the hill.

Early in its history, Canonsburg became a market town. A market house stood at the intersection of what we now know as Central Avenue and College Street. The main street, Central Avenue (known at various times as Market, Main, and Front Street), was lined with shops, taverns, and artisans' workshops.

An academy was founded in Canonsburg in 1791, and in 1802 it was incorporated as Jefferson College. By 1840, the college had become the economic base of the town and it was by far the largest college in the state and was one of the largest colleges in the country. In the decades before the Civil War, about ten percent of the college students were sons of Southern planters, who carried big knives and heavy wallets.

The Civil War, lack of alumni support, and ill-conceived scholarship schemes drove Jefferson and Washington Colleges to merge in 1865. For three years, the upper classes and the commencement activities were in Canonsburg, but in 1868 the college was united on the Washington campus.

Photo of the Jefferson College Campus
by Lon Porter is from a postcard

The two Jefferson College literary societies each printed a lithograph of the college in its catalog in the late 1840s. This cut, from the 1847 Philo Literary Society Catalog, shows a fanciful view of Canonsburg from the south.
An academy was founded to use the campus, but adolescents did not make the economic impact the college students had. A committee convinced the Pennsylvania Railroad to construct a branch line between Pittsburgh and Washington by way of Mansfield (now Carnegie). The railroad made it easier for merchants to get goods for their stores, and it put Canonsburg in a favorable position for industrial production. The same was true for mining. Coal had been dug for local use, but a mine owner could not compete with mines along the river until the coming of the railroad.

In 1902, when Canonsburg celebrated its centennial, the borough was in a dynamic period. Industrial production was expanding, both in quantity and variety. Sewers, water and gas lines, electric and telephone wires were put in. A trolley line was constructed; first between Washington and Canonsburg, then to Pittsburgh. The town's dirt streets were paved, and new streets were constructed.

The first immigrants to be mentioned in print by the editor of the local newspaper were Italian men who were digging ditches for sewer pipe. New plants were built, and the ones that were here expanded. Manpower was needed, and very soon other accents were heard: Russian, Slovenian, Hungarian, Greek, Polish, Slovak, and a host of others.

In 1927, when Canonsburg celebrated its 125th Anniversary, the town was thriving and stable. Much of the celebration was held in what would be developed as Canonsburg's Town Park. Within a few years it would have a large swimming pool. Construction of the pool was accomplished through a number of federal employment programs that provided jobs during the Depression of the 1930s. Some local money was spent, but tax collection by the borough and the school district was far below what was needed.

Even so, Canonsburg was not hit as hard as many towns. The largest plant in town, Standard Tinplate, and Continental Can Co., which was adjacent, stayed in production. Even during the Great Depression, tin cans were a necessity. Then, with the end of the depression and the outbreak of World War 2, shortages in raw materials closed the mill. The process used at Standard Tinplate was outdated and inefficient.

Canonsburg's other plants quickly shifted to war production. The Fort Pitt Bridge Works broadened its range of products, though the production of bridges and girders for buildings continued. The Standard Tinplate plant was taken over by Alcoa to produce aircraft forgings. The old Canonsburg Iron and Steel Company rolling mill (commonly known as the Budke Works) had been closed, but it was renovated to produce 5-inch shells for the Navy. Just up Chartiers Creek, the plant that had been Standard Chemical when Madame Curie visited, Vitro Chemical Works, was engaged in secret work involving uranium for the Manhattan Project, research that would culminate in the production of the atomic bomb.

After the war, contracts for naval ordnance and aircraft forgings were canceled. It appeared there would be unemployment on a great scale in Canonsburg. As had happened before, beginning with the loss of the college in the 1860s, a committee was formed. In 1946, public-spirited citizens brought Pennsylvania Transformer Co. to Canonsburg from Pittsburgh's North Side. The Transformer used part of the space abandoned by Alcoa, and the following year, RCA also began operation in the mill buildings.

When Canonsburg celebrated its 150th Anniversary, the Sesquicentennial, in 1952, another longtime industrial operation, the Continental Can Company, had shut down the previous year. By the following year, railroad passenger service and the trolley line were no more. Changes came quickly in the years following the Sesquicentennial, both economic and social. Pittsburgh had been a quick trip on the interurban trolley (usually called the streetcar) or the railroad. The automobile was the preferred means of transportation, and the interstate highway system was being constructed.

Malls sprang up in profusion. Residents no longer walked or took the City Loop to stores along Pike Street; they got in their cars and went to a mall. Saturday night shopping changed to Friday night in 1955, but gradually the crowds along the streets thinned and the sidewalks weren't crowded at all. For many years there had been two movie theaters and numerous bars along Pike Street. Television reduced the need for entertainment outside the home. The movie theaters are gone and the kinds of businesses in town have changed over the years. A store selling hats would be as out of place today as a computer business would have been in the 1930s. Dress shops and shoe stores have become antique shops. The largest employer in the county, Cooper Power Systems, formerly Pennsylvania Transformer and McGraw-Edison, shut down in 1994.

Canonsburg's newspaper, the Daily Notes, came off the press for the last time in 1980 after more than a century of informing and sometimes hectoring the residents. Tabloid size newspapers, The Canon being the most successful, were published into 1992. Without a newspaper, there has been no organ to proclaim how dynamic Canonsburg is. No longer is it a market town where farmers visited the stores on Saturday nights. Gone is the college town where boys built bonfires in the street to gain a glance from the young maidens of Olome Seminary. Only vestiges remain of the mill and mining town where men walked home covered with grease and grime.

Change is a part of Canonsburg's history and its future. The Bridge Works is gone, but Colonial Iron Works uses part of the old facility, as Pennsylvania Transformer Technology and other businesses uses parts of the old transformer plant. East Pike Street has been renovated to the extent it is not recognizable. A jumble of dilapidated buildings has been replaced by modern structures with open spaces and adequate parking. Even the creek has been scoured and straightened.

If anything, there is more citizen involvement today than before. The town's Fourth of July Committee meets year-round to put on activities and a parade that has grown to be one of the largest in the state. There is a historical society, formed in the 1960s when the old college building known as the Chapel Gym was torn down. In the 1990s, the Heritage Society was formed and erected a statue of Perry Como in front of the municipal building. New projects are in the works. The Canonsburg Merchants and Professional Organization and the Chamber of Commerce are active, and a Renaissance organization is studying ways to improve the town and its environs.

Change is inevitable, and Canonsburg has seen more than two centuries' worth. The one constant has been Canonsburg's citizens. When a need is seen, people will form a committee and meet that need. That's just the way things are done.