- A Story of Lore, Lumberjacks & Local History
Hiawatha, built nearly a century ago after its namesake, is a paddlewheel
excursion boat that cruises up and down the Susquehanna River. It is a tribute
to hundreds of Lycoming County businesses and private citizens who supplied the
monies, labor and materials to create her. It is just one more way in which area
residents, and visitors, too, can recall the remarkable heritage surrounding the
original Hiawatha was a steam-driven stern-wheeler that was one of the delights
of the summer season. Under the command of Captain Jack English, the shallow
draft craft would take Sunday picnickers to Sylvan Dell Park on the south side
of the river about 3 ½ miles below Williamsport. With an 80-foot length, an
18-foot beam and 2 decks, the original Hiawatha carried several hundred
passengers from Market Street downstream to Sylvan Dell in 20 to 25 minutes. The
return trip upstream against the current took 30 to 35 minutes. Once aboard the
new Hiawatha, one can easily imagine the swish of long skirts, the tap-tap of
high-buttoned shoes on deck and the excited squeals of children as families
climbed aboard for Sunday outings. Unfortunately, in the winter of 1914 the
Hiawatha was caught in ice at its Market Street mooring. During the break-up of
the ice the following spring, it was heaved and crushed and finally carried away
in the flood.
The body of water that both the original Hiawatha and the new Hiawatha call home
is the beautiful west branch of the Susquehanna River. It joins the north branch
of the Susquehanna around 40 miles downstream at Sunbury. It then flows south to
Harrisburg and eventually empties into the Atlantic Ocean by way of the
The name Susquehanna comes from the Susquehannock Indians who lived along the
river from before 1500 until after the Revolutionary War. In their native
language, Susquehannock means “from the smooth-flowing stream.” Many Indian
arrowheads and artifacts can still be found in the fields along both sides of
The Indian heritage of the
Susquehanna Valley has its somber side as well. During the American Revolution
Indians in this area were encouraged by the British to fight against the
Colonists. They were given rewards in return for the settlers’ scalps. On July
3, 1778, the worst massacre of the revolution occurred at Plum Tree Thicket. The
site of the massacre is now the corner of West Fourth Street and Cemetery
Streets in Williamsport. On that day around sunset, Indians attacked a party of
16 men, women and children. Twelve were killed and scalped. Only their leader,
Peter Smith, one other man and 2 children escaped.
After the Plum Tree Thicket massacre, the marauding continued throughout the
Valley. Finally Colonel Samuel Hunter, Commander of Fort Augusta in Sunbury,
ordered settlers to evacuate the West Branch Valley. Then a fearless scout and
Indian fighter named Robert Convenhoven rode through the valley to Lock Haven
warning the settlers to leave. His journey was much like Paul Revere’s ride,
only under more dangerous circumstances! The resulting mass exodus that followed
is now known as the “Great Runaway,” and it took place on the Susquehanna River.
Imagine, if you can, hundreds of people floating down the river on boats, rafts,
hog troughs, washtubs, and practically anything that would float. With them they
carried as many of their possessions as they could. The settlers did not return
to their homes and fields until years later when the Indian uprisings were
The Pennsylvania Railroad which
ran from Harrisburg to Buffalo was once located on the south shore of the
Susquehanna River. It is now Conrail and, although it hauls only freight, it is
still a major railroad line.
South of Williamsport is the Bald Eagle chain of mountains. The mountains were
appropriately named since they were once home to numerous bald eagles. Today
much of this range is State Forest land and is inhabited by wildlife, including
deer and bear. Occasionally, bald eagles can still be seen.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the flood control dike on the north
shore in 1953. During the Agnes Flood of 1972, the river rose to within one foot
of the top of the dike. Also on the north shore of the river is the dry bed of
the former West Branch Canal which ran from Harrisburg to Lock Haven. Built by
hand, the canal prospered from 1834 to 1889 when railroads put it out of
business. Mules or horses that walked along the side of the canal towed the
canal boats. In addition to freight boats, there were several huge packet boats
that could carry up to 100 passengers. It took two weeks to travel from
Williamsport to Harrisburg on the packet boats, but this was not a hardship
since they were furnished as luxuriously as the finest hotels.
The Susquehanna Valley was once densely forested with beautiful hardwood and
softwood trees. That’s why raw timber and, later, lumber played such an
important part in the history of Williamsport and Lycoming County.
The first lumbering enterprise
that took place on the Susquehanna River was
rafting which began as early as 1796. Rafts made of huge tree
trunks were bound together and floated downriver to the markets in Philadelphia
and Baltimore. Some rafts were 100 feet long and were steered by oars. A
primitive cabin on board provided a place for the rafts men to eat and sleep.
These men were colorful characters with their red wool shirts, high boots and
The spar rafts were very important. They were made up of straight, round
Susquehanna pine trees that were eventually used as masts for ships. In the days
of wooden ships and iron men, many
U. S. Navy warships were built of timber that passed from the Susquehanna Valley
to the Chesapeake Bay.
Today piles of stones, like
small islands in the water, can still be seen at regular intervals. These are
cribs—the remains of the famous Susquehanna Boom. What exactly was the Boom?
Well, it was really a floating fence in the river used to catch and store logs.
The man who started it was calico tycoon, James Perkins. When Perkins came to
the Susquehanna Valley in 1845 he noticed the gentle fall of the river in the
section known as the Long Reach. At the same time lumber companies needed a fast
and cost-efficient way to transport logs downriver to their mills. To prevent
the logs from floating away, Perkins built something similar to a giant
catcher’s mitt. It was a series of square wooden cribs that were filled with
stones and sunk to the river bottom. Logs were chained end-to-end between the
cribs to make the “webbing” which would catch the floating logs.
Of course, log catching wasn’t free. Lumber companies had to pay a toll to use
this huge floating fence called a Boom. After convincing local Williamsport
businessmen of the potential success of his idea, James Perkins’s Susquehanna
Boom Company gradually came into being. It was incorporated in 1846.
The Susquehanna Boom became an overwhelming success. Lumber companies were well
served, but much had to be accomplished before the lumber reached the Boom.
First of all, the trees, mostly white pine and hemlock, were cut in the forests
upriver. Then the sawmill companies branded their logs with a particular company
mark. Usually cut in the wintertime, the trees were then skidded or hauled over
the ice and snow to the banks of the smaller streams that fed the Susquehanna
River. They were stacked there until spring. When the waters rose with the
spring thaw, the logs were then floated downstream to the Susquehanna River and
finally to the Boom.
The chain link of logs called the Susquehanna Boom started on the south side of
the river and ran upriver for 7 miles to the north side. There were 352 cribs in
all, each 22 feet high. At the upper end of the boom was a device called a sheer
boom. It was 1,000 feet long and was operated by a hand-powered windlass. Its
job was to gather the logs into the main boom which could hold 300 million board
feet of logs.
At the lower end of the boom, the logs were sorted so that each mill would
receive its own branded logs. As needed, they were moved into the holding ponds
of the 35 sawmills that lined the riverfront in Williamsport. From there, West
Branch Valley lumber went all over the world to make chairs, tables, desks and
During the lumber companies’ three best decades, 1861 to 1891, the Susquehanna
Boom prospered. So did Williamsport. More than 30 million logs were floated into
the boom and delivered to sawmills. The sawmills produced five and a half
billion board feet of lumber --enough to construct 650,000 average houses of
Williamsport had 35 sawmills in
operation at the peak of activity. The owners of the sawmills were called lumber
barons, and no wonder! They became rich and built opulent,
Victorian-style homes along what is now Williamsport’s Fourth Street. Today it
is still called “Millionaires Row.” It has been said
that the Williamsport sawmills put the “mill” into “Millionaire.” These lumber
magnets competed with each other in building their rambling, multi-winged
houses. They strived to duplicate the grandeur of European villas. In fact, the
section of West Fourth Street, from the 400 block to the 1000 block, claimed to
have more millionaires living on it than any other such street in the world.
The Boom era’s most flamboyant entrepreneur was lumber baron, Peter Herdic. He
undertook one of the biggest financial ventures of the time. He built one of the
grandest hotels on the eastern seaboard, the Herdic House. It’s construction
cost was $225, 00, a tremendous sum for those days. This magnificent structure
could accommodate 700 guests in luxurious comfort. The main entrance to the
Herdic House was a beautiful deer park in which guests could see deer roaming
about. With its lavish furnishings and sparkling chandeliers, Peter Herdic’s
beautiful hotel was a showplace for visiting luminaries for many years. Today,
with two of its original four floors remaining, Herdic House can be seen at 800
West Fourth Street. It was last known as the Park Home.
Not everyone lived as comfortably as those in the Herdic House and on
Millionaire’s Row. During the lumber era, mill hands worked 12-hour days, six
days a week, at $1.50 per day. Due to the low wages and long workdays, in 1872
there was a workers’ strike called the “Sawdust War.” The mill workers wanted
10-hour days with no cut in pay. Martial law was declared, the strikers were
arrested and their leaders were jailed. Lumber baron, Peter Herdic, bailed them
out. Interestingly enough, one of the strike’s ringleaders was Thomas Greevey, a
great uncle of Williamsport’s retired, and quite honorable, Judge Charles F.
course, Williamsport was a lively place during the Lumber Era, too. Just like an
Old West Gold Rush town, there were saloons on many street corners to
accommodate the boisterous lumberjacks and mill hands. One of the most memorable
characters of the boom era was a big, strong lumberjack named “Cherry Tree” Joe
McCreary. The Susquehanna Valley’s own Paul Bunyan, Cherry Tree Joe was born
near Muncy, probably with an ax in his hand! One story tells of how he single
handedly broke up a 7-mile logjam on the Chess Creek. There’s another tale about
how Cherry Tree Joe actually backed down the world-champion prizefighter, John
L. Sullivan, after the two of them exchanged angry words in a Renovo saloon.
Naturally, there other forms of entertainment. Lavish balls and soirees were
held in the stately homes of the wealthy. There were beautiful ornate opera
house--the Ulman, the Lycoming and the Academy of Music--that attracted the
likes of Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell.
The workingmen and the wealthy may not have socialized together, but they came
together when it was time to get the timber to market. The lumberjacks chopped
it, the lumber barons sold it, and everybody was happy because they all made
Life in a logging camp was not easy. These camps were located upriver from
Williamsport. High on the mountainsides, the camps were limited to hardy souls
only. A typical camp included 100 to 150 men who went into the forests late in
the fall and, with the exception of Christmas, did not emerge until spring. The
loggers earned as high as $2.50 a day, which was considered good pay. Food and
supplies were imported for the winter. The camp cook prepared simple, yet
abundant food. The workday at the lumber camps began before dawn and ended after
dusk. Each man was trained to do particular job. “Choppers” used axes to notch
the tree to direct the fall. “Fellers” used a two-man cross cut saw to remove
the bark from the tree. “Sawyers” cut the tree into various length logs.
“Scalers” determined the amount of board feet in each log. “Haulers” transported
the logs to the nearest stream for the float downstream to the boom.
The haulers were generally recognized as having the toughest job: getting the
logs to the closest stream. Split log chutes, some of which were four miles
long, were constructed for this purpose. If not frozen, the chutes were greased
in order for the logs to slide down. In the lower elevations, oxen or horses
could be used to drag the logs to the stream bank. In winter sleds were
sometimes used. The hauling continued all winter long so that logs would be
ready to float away with the high waters in the spring.
the waters rose with the spring thaw, thousands of waiting logs were pushed down
the mountain streams and into the Susquehanna River. An aerial view of the
Susquehanna Boom at this time would have had the appearance of millions of
floating matchsticks. Naturally, serious logjams developed. Men called jam
crackers would then try to extricate the key log in the jam with long, pointed
poles known as pikes and cant hooks. Once the logs were loosened, the men leaped
to safety for fear of being crushed by an avalanche of logs.
The colorful men who worked the boom, from the lumberjacks in the logging camps
to the jam crackers like Cherry Tree Joe, were collectively called boom rats.
The actual tools they used can be seen at the Thomas T. Taber Museum of the
Lycoming County Historical Society, located at 858 West Fourth Street in
Williamsport. On display are pile poles, cant hooks, peaveys, cross cut saws,
the brands used to mark the lumber and much more. The museum features dioramas
that included the operation of the lumber mill, a log slide, a log railroad, and
the infamous Plum Tree Thicket Massacre. There is also a replica of what started
it all, the mighty Susquehanna Boom.
Susquehanna Boom days couldn’t last forever, and eventually it was the forces of
nature that combined to bring this magnificent era to a close. The Susquehanna
Boom survived numerous floods, but the flood of 1894 marked the beginning of the
end. After the devastation of that flood, may owners chose not to rebuild their
sawmills, and the mills that stayed in operation began to use the railroad
rather than the river to transport their lumber. In 1909 the last log drives
went down Kettle Creek and Little Pine Creek, and the boom stood empty with the
closing of the Central Pennsylvania Lumber Company in December 1919.
Another factor in the closing of the boom was the diminishing of its natural
resources—the forests themselves. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland
were stripped; so much so that the countryside around Williamsport had the
appearance of a barren desert. In the late 1870’s, the State legislature bought
much of the barren land for a dollar an acre, and this acreage now stands as
State Game Lands and recreational parks. Pennsylvania also enacted rebate offers
to farmers to plant trees in order to prevent erosion. Today, lush, green
forests once again surround the people of the Susquehanna Valley.
In addition to Williamsport’s
place in history as the one-time “Lumber Capital of the World,” it has many
other things about which to boast. For example, Williamsport is the home of the
oldest musical organization of its kind in the United States—the Repasz-Elks
Band, formed in 1831. An official band of the
National Guard, the Repasz Band played at Appomattox
Courthouse, Virginia, when Lee surrendered to Grant. It played during the
inauguration of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The
famous conductor, John Phillips Sousa, visited Williamsport and told the Repasz
Band director, “You have what I cannot but…a loyalty and enthusiasm…”
Other musical accomplishments include those of James M. Black, a Williamsport
Methodist lay revivalist, who wrote “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” as well
as the religious and jazz favorite, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The
Reverend J. H. Hopkins, a former rector of Christ Episcopal Church in
Williamsport, needed a carol for his annual Christmas pageant and wrote “We
Three Kings of Orient Are!”
Peter Herdic was enterprising in other areas besides lumber and grand hotels. He
introduced a delicacy to gourmet chefs that was first prepared by lumber camp
cooks. It was called planked shad. Peter Herdic also invented the horse drawn
taxicab. His idea was later copied in the metropolitan areas. In fact, the word
“Herdic” is listed in Webster’s Dictionary as “a 19th century American horse
Today, Williamsport’s newest millionaires are the members of the Williamsport
Area High School “Millionaire” Marching Band. This is just one reminder of the
community’s pride in its lumbering heritage.
Williamsport is also famous as the birthplace of Little League Baseball. Founded
in 1939 by Carl Stotz, Little League has grown to international proportions. Its
headquarters and the Little League Museum are located on Route 15 in South
Williamsport. The Little League campus includes Lamade Field, the site of the
annual Little League World Series Championship which is held each August.
From Indians to Millionaires! From logging camps and boom rats to Little League
Baseball! From Peter Herdic to the Hiawatha! Williamsport and the Susquehanna
Valley have enjoyed a rich and colorful history--one in which both back-breaking
labor and ingenuity brought fame and fortune to a community that still lies
nestled in one of the nation’s most lush river valleys. The Susquehanna River
still flows smoothly on its way to the Atlantic. And, oh! What stories she could
tell: Of Indians on the rampage and frightened settlers floating downstream in
the Great Runaway! Of colorful rafts men singing lusty ballads on the river at
dusk! Of brawny jam crackers jumping for their lives just ahead of an unloosened
logjam! The river could tell us stories about traveling aboard a gaily-painted
paddlewheel excursions boat…called the Hiawatha!
Visitor's Bureau for additional information.