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Portage Township -- rich in minerals and history got its name from the famous portage between the Juniata and Conemaugh Rivers. It is one of the "more recent" townships in Cambria County, being formed almost three-quarters of a century after the county was started.
The township was cut from Summerhill and Washington Townships on March 4, 1878, a few years before the first sawmill appeared in its then verdant woodland.
There is a community of interest - economic and social - between Portage Borough and adjacent Portage Township. Transportation, lumbering and coal nave played an important role in the development of each.
On the north the township is bounded by Washington Township, on the east by Blair County, on the south and west by Summerhill Township.
Growth during the booming coal years was rapid. In 1880 the township had only 765 residents as compared with almost 5,000 today.
Most of the population is in mining communities with colorful names such as: Sonman, Dutch Settlement, Benscreek, Shoemaker, Jamestown, Martindale, Puritan and Spring Hill.
First settlers in this area were Welsh, followed quickly by the Irish, English and Germans. Dense woodland made up most of the countryside, until the first sawmill was started in Sonman about 1880.
Sonman, a little community on the Allegheny Fork of the Little Conemaugh, has an interesting background. There are reports that Arent Sonman's father was permitted to select a 5,000-acre tract as payment of a debt the King of England owed him. However, when Pennsylvania became a Commonwealth, Sonman was forced to make another claim. In 1794 this was granted to a legal representative of Arent Sonman.
About 1890, the year Portage Borough was cut from the parent township, it was discovered that this tract bore rich coal reserves. Coal mining started late in the Nineteenth Century, but did not reach full bloom until after the start of the Twentieth Century. Piper's Mine and Benscreek Shaft were among the first mines. Two major companies, Eastern Gas and Fuel, and Johnstown Coal & Coke Company, now mine most of the coal in the township. Many years ago Dutch Settlement was a thriving little town having a store, two hotels, a schoolhouse, a church and a GBU Hall. One of the hotels - Odenthal Hotel - still stands and is occupied by several families.
Some schools were built in the area, even before the township was formed. One of the earliest was the Jamestown School, built in about 1870. Another early school was in Benscreek, starting about 1877. The first township high school was a one-room building on Spring Hill in 1925. Two years later the high school was moved to a larger building in the same community. At present the high school is operated in Portage Borough by a joint committee of Portage Borough and Portage Township.
Some historians say the first and only post office in the township was located at Myra, about a mile northwest of Benscreek.
Hunting and fishing abound in the mountainous woodland. Benscreek and Noel's Creek are good trout streams, most fishermen say. The woodland above Puritan, Munster and Benscreek is good for hunters intent on small game.