The first settlers to the area were farmers who were later followed by workers for the Portage Railroad, Pennsylvania Railroad and coal miners.
In the early 1800's travel and trade were done by Conestoga wagons. Travel time, using horses and wagons between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh took at least 23 days. In order to decrease travel time and increase trade the Pennsylvania Legislature, In February 1826, authorized the Mainline of Public Works to begin a system of canals between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. However, the Allegheny Mountains stood in the way.
The first plan was to avoid the mountain by building a four-mile tunnel through the bottom of the mountain, but this was costly and unrealistic. Tunnel building was new and it was questionable if water could be kept out of the tunnel. It was decided to go over the mountain by building a railroad system of ten inclined planes, five on each side of the mountain. The Allegheny Portage Railroad was 36 miles in length connecting the Hollidaysburg Canal Basin with the Johnstown Canal Basin.
The Allegheny Portage Railroad opened March 18, 1834 and cut travel time between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to four days. The canal system and the Allegheny Portage Railroad operated until 1854 when it was replaced by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The cost of the canal system was $16,504,655.84 and that of the railroad system was$1,828,461.38. The railroad and canal system spurred trade in Pennsylvania. The system carried raw materials to the east and manufactured goods to the west.
The new railroad faced the same problem as the canal system in traversing the Allegheny Mountains. To help overcome the steep grade on the eastern slope of the mountain the Horseshoe curve was constructed to provide a gradual climb along the mountain contour. At the top of the mountain the steep grade also presented an obstacle. This was overcome by building tunnels through the mountain. A twin set of tunnels followed by a third tunnel was built under the towns of Gallitzin and Tunnelhill and was the highest, 2,167 feet elevation and longest 3,605 on the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The first coal mines in the area were opened in 1816 with coal mining and railroading becoming the economic base for many years. Due to the pure mountain air and the healthy mineral springs, a large summer resort sprung up known as the Mountain House. Many wealthy city people and industrialists such as Benjamin Jones, Andrew Carnegie and William Thaw who built or leased summer homes in the area frequented it.
The healthful quality of the climate resulted in the establishment of the Tuberculosis Sanitarium in the early 1900's when fresh air was the cure for that disease. The Sanitarium is now the site of the state Correctional Institution at Cresson.
Cresson Township is also the birthplace of Admiral Robert E. Peary, discover of the North Pole. He was born in 1856.
No growing town is complete without fire protection and the Cresson Volunteer Fire Company was founded on September 22, 1908. Fire equipment at the time consisted of two hand drawn horse carriages, 25 buckets, 6 axes and 500 feet of hose. The Fire Company now included the latest in fire fighting apparatus and equipment.