Etna has a proud history enriched by the presence of famous people, events, and immigrants and frontier families who worked hard to make Etna what it is today. Names like George Washington, Chief Guyasuta, General Williams Wilkins, the Marquis De Lafayette, George Croghan, James Fenimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Henry Spang, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller all have their names tied to Etna’s beginnings.
Etna’s humble beginnings can be traced back to the early 1740’s where George Washington almost met his demise at the hands of the Seneca Indians when surveying the land for the Virginia Land Company. A “roughhewn” Dublin Irishman, George Croghan, was able to settle the land before Washington could claim it. By marrying a Seneca Indian Princess Croghan became the first white settler to come to Etna and establish a trading post in 1746. On August 2, 1749, Croghan purchased the land rights to all the lands at the forks of the Ohio River back to Turtle Creek, and along the river valleys making his plantation the largest frontier trading operation in the New World. Washington’s and Croghan’s paths crossed several times. In 1770 Croghan tried to sell his land rights to Washington who had also laid claim to them. Eventually, Croghan was charged by Washington for treason over his land deals in 1782. The rich natural resources made the area a great place to trade with Indian communities and a huge trading network was established. Eventually the Indians expanded their trade to include the “whiteman” and peacefully traded with both the French and the British at the mouth of Big Pine Creek. Chief Guyasuta, the Seneca Chief who ruled the area in the 1700’s and attacked George Washington while he was surveying, eventually befriended him.
The end of the Revolutionary War brought great change to the area. The Seneca Indians were made landowners to the area just north of Etna and the vacated land was divided up and sold off to pay off the Revolutionary War debt. Major General John Wilkins, Jr. bought up most of these lands and his “Newberry Estate” was built. The Estate mansion known as the “Blue House” was Etna’s first house. Construction of Pittsburgh-Freeport Road and the Pennsylvania Canal brought many immigrants to the area. The canal created a boom town between 1826 to 1868 bringing all kinds of industry.
Meanwhile, in 1825, General Wilkins sold his land and it was divided it into small town lots which were resold to the immigrant families. The community was called Centerville. Centerville immediately became home to an iron mill (Pine Creek Iron Works), a grist mill, and a lumber mill. Overnight a village was born. Henry S. Spang, an immigrant who moved to Etna in 1818, bought the Pine Creek Iron Works in 1828. Spang changed the name of the company to the "Etna Iron Works." Spang greatly expanded the existing mill, initially to manufacture farm implements for local residents and settlers who were moving west. "The original motives of setting up the Etna Iron Works in both Altoona and the Pittsburgh areas was to establish the "Etna" name as a primary supplier to the Pennsylvania Canal System." In 1838, the community changed its name to “Stewartstown,” naming the area after one of its leading residents. The name remained until Etna was incorporated in September 16, 1868.
The name "Etna" was said to have been chosen because the topography of the area surrounding the town was similar to that found near the famous volcano in Sicily, Mount Aetna. Other sources say it was applied to many other industries in the area owned by Spang in 1828. By September 16, 1868, the industries of the village had grown so much there was a constant glow from the industrial furnaces. When the furnaces were opened, fire, sparks and ash erupted 150 feet into the night sky. River travellers wrote, "The combination of the glowing sky, and the rumble of industrial operations filled the air and aroused the senses--as if one were witnessing the eruption of a volcano." It must have been notable, because the name "Etna", instead of a number of other options, stuck.