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The Hiawatha - A Story of Lore, Lumberjacks & Local History

The 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 Susquehanna River.

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 Chesapeake Bay.

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 river.

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 ended.

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 coonskin caps.

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 houses.

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 today.

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. Greevey.

Of 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 money.

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.

When 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 drawn cab.”

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!

See the Visitor's Bureau for additional information.

 

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