County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

Potter, one of the Com­monwealth’s larger counties in size, but one of the smaller in population, is located in the center of what is popularly called the northern tier. Its location on a highly dissected plateau with narrow, steep­-sided valleys made travel diffi­cult and settlement hesitant. Even today with modern tech­nology, the pace of life is slower than in Pennsylvania’s more populated counties. Logging, natural gas and out­door recreation, along with farming, have been important factors throughout its history.

Pine, hemlock and hard­wood trees formed a seem­ingly endless canopy – one which gave use to the term “Black Forest,” a sobriquet still popular. Eighty-eight percent of Potter County’s 698,880 acres is forested, and most of the southern half of the county is owned by the Common­wealth as State Forest lands.

Potter County on the east­ern continental divide, claims the distinction of being the birthplace of three river sys­tems which flow into three different bodies of water. One may stand on the top of the plateau in Ulysses Township and look into the headwaters of the Allegheny, Pine Creek and the Genesee rivers. The Allegheny flows westward into the Ohio and Mississippi and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. The waters of Pine Creek join the Susquehanna and flow into the Chesapeake Bay. The Genesee flows north­ward through New York, emp­tying into Lake Ontario. Two other Large streams in Potter County, Kettle and Sinnema­honing creeks, are part of the Susquehanna watershed. Although the county’s streams are small at their source, they played an important part in the development of the early lumber industry. Each was declared a public highway during the first decade of the nineteenth century and each served as an outlet for logs and timber products.

Potter was one of the coun­ties formed from land obtained by purchase from the Indians in 1784. Upon the county’s creation twenty years later, it was proposed that the name be Sinnemahoning, but this was changed to honor James Potter, a soldier of the Ameri­can Revolution and a noted Indian fighter on the central Pennsylvania frontier.

Lack of verifiable informa­tion impedes any attempt to form a synthesis of aboriginal occupation. Camp and village sites, along with corn pits, have been uncovered but ar­chaeological work has been limited. The first recorded settlement was by a French­man named Jaundrie, who in 1806 built a house on the banks of Oswayo Creek. Because this house was sided with shingles, the present-day borough of Shinglehouse received its name.

The first permanent settler was William Ayers who, with his family and a young Black, arrived in 1808. The following year Major Isaac Lyman ar­rived, and the village of Ly­mansville (now Ladona) had its beginning. It was in Ly­mansville that the region’s first birth, death and wedding occurred. The village was also the site of the first gristmill, sawmill, hotel and post office in the county. At the time of the 1810 Census, twenty-three of Potter County’s twenty-nine residents lived at Lymansvil1e.

Until the Civil War most of the settlers were Yankees who had moved from New England into southern New York and then across into northern Pennsylvania. For the 1850 Census, 6,048 people were counted in 1,319 households. More than half of the heads of households were born in New York State, most of whom claimed New England roots. Of the 141 heads of house­holds in Ulysses Township, only four were native Pennsyl­vanians. Some of the Yankees later moved west but those who did remain began to make a living from the soil, often working at logging during the winter to add substance to their often meager fare. As settlement increased between 1820 and 1830, more roads were opened and facilities for the traveler were established. Early hotels were opened at Cherry Springs by Jonathan Edge­comb and at Sweden by Ches­ter Corsaw.

In 1825, John L. Cartee settled in Coudersport which had been surveyed in 1807 and set aside as the seat of the new county. Cartee opened a hotel where the county jail now stands. The Commissioners had cleared a few squares which Cartee planted in wheat. At that time there were about two dozen families along the East-West Road across the county.

Because of sparse settle­ment a county government could not be organized, so it was attached to Lycoming County as Eulalia Township. After 1824 it was attached to McKean County and the two counties shared officers. Potter had its own officers but shared the court with McKean. Finally, in 1835 the first court was held in Potter County. John Keating had set aside a square for public buildings but the area was too steep so the commissioners chose a square in the center of the village.

The early courthouse, which also housed the jail and the sheriff’s quarters, proved inadequate and after seventeen years the Commissioners were pressured to build a new facil­ity. This stirred a controversy as many felt that it was more important that a plank road be built northward to the Erie Railroad which had just been completed to Wellsville, New York. The controversy was settled by Timothy Ives, a representative to the General Assembly, through whose influence an Act of Legislation authorized the new court­house, which still serves the county.

As Coudersport’s population increased to more than two hundred, the village fathers petitioned the Common­wealth for a borough charter. Coudersport formally became an organized borough in Feb­ruary 1848, followed by Lewis­ville (now Ulysses) in 1869, Austin in 1888, Galeton in 1896 and Oswayo and Shingle­house in 1901. These boroughs survive today but all had reached their peaks of popula­tion and activity near the be­ginning of the twentieth century.

Several areas of the county were settled by ethnic groups who kept their Old World customs alive. The first of these was Irish Settlement in Genesee Township in 1842. Martin Moran and several others migrated to south, central New York with hopes of getting employment on the Erie Railroad, but the road was not ready for construction, so the men purchased the land in Pennsylvania and began to move here during February 1842. Other Irish immigrants followed, until a thriving farm­ing community existed. The church at Irish Settlement was one of the earliest constructed in the county.

In 1852, a colony of Norwe­gians, under the leadership of Ole Bull, a famous Norwegian violinist, settled a tract of land along Kettle Creek in Steward­son and Abbott townships. Bull had purchased a tract of nearly twelve thousand acres from John Cowan with the hope of establishing a colony for Norwegian refugees. The four towns of New Bergen, New Norway, Valhalla and Oleana were laid out, and dwellings were erected. Early in 1853, however, it was discov­ered that the deeds included reservations. Without enough money to purchase the reser­vations, Ole Bull sold the land back to Cowan, and aban­doned the colony. Only a few Norwegians remained; most moved westward to Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Two years later, William Radde of New York City, orga­nized the Pennsylvania Farm and Land Association on fifty thousand acres purchased from Cowan in West Branch and Abbott townships. He induced Germans to purchase farms and village lots, and planned a city where each farmer would – in the Euro­pean fashion – travel from the town to work his farm. A handsome residence was built for the land agent, around which a thriving village named Germania developed. The farmers remained on their farms and the city of fourteen thousand never developed, but the village and the farms flourished, making the Ger­man influence important to this day.

During the following dec­ade, from 1860 to 1870, the population of Potter County decreased, but the following decades marked a boom in activity, especially in the for­ests. Most of the timber in the northern part of the county had been harvested by farmer­-lumbermen before the Civil War using small water pow­ered mills. By 1851, eighty­-three sawmills, with an annual capacity of 20,750,000 feet, sawed mostly,white pine. However staggering this may seem, the total capacity was much less than that of one mill a half century later.

During the pioneer period much of northern Potter was covered by a majestic forest of white pine, some towering more than 150 feet and some with a diameter of well more than six feet. The best of these trees were taken in full length to be used as spar timbers. Since the pine was soft and easy to work it was used for building, but most were sent downstream to the larger mills. Except for one tract on Dingman Run, the large white pine stands were exhausted before 1880.

Commercialized lumber business began in 1837 when the Oswayo Lumber Company was organized at Millport, an important departure from the earlier,mills on the Honeoye and at Sharon Center, since most of the early ventures employed only a few men.

A new era for lumbering began in 1884 when the Good­year Brothers of Buffalo, New York, bought timber tracts and began to adapt railroads to the industry. Railroads had been used with limited success, but the Goodyears developed railroads to haul logs to the mill, as well as lumber to the market. Since the white pine had been harvested they had to turn to the vast hemlock forests in the southern part of the county. Until then, the hemlock had been used only for its bark, rich in tannic acid.

The sawmill, which was the largest in the state, was con­structed at Freeman Run where the Sinnemahoning Valley Railroad was built to connect with the B.N.Y. & P. at Keating Summit. Within a short time the thriving town of Austin developed where only a few farms had existed. The rapid growth brought the incorporation of Austin in September 1888 and by 1890, it was the largest borough in the county with a population of 1,670.

The Sinnemahoning Valley Railroad was extended to Cos­tello, where a large tannery was located in 1886. By using a series of switchbacks the railroad was constructed across the hills and valleys to Galeton in 1893. Two years later the Goodyears purchased the Galeton mill of R. W. Clinton which they later rebuilt to a capacity of 360,000 feet per day. Galeton became the site of the railroad shops and the Goodyears moved their inter­ests from Austin to Galeton.

With the mills, railroad shops, tannery, brewery and several smaller industries, Galeton was the scene of more industrial activity than any other town in the county. The activity brought an influx of people causing a rapid growth. By the 1910 Census Galeton Borough had 4,027 people, the only borough in the county to ever count more than four thousand residents.

While the West Branch of the Pine Creek hummed with industrial activity, other towns and villages grew as the result of the lumbering and its allied industries. The Lackawanna Lumber Company, based in Scranton, purchased large tracts of land and built a saw­mill at Mina, west of Couder­sport, in 1887. The sawmill was operated until 1903 and sold to the Central Pennsylva­nia Lumber Company the next year. They moved their opera­tion to Cross Fork where they had constructed a large mill in 1893. A village of several hun­dred grew up around the Mina mill while Cross Fork became a thriving town of about 2,000 people. Cross Fork also had a stave and heading mill, but other industries could not be induced to locate there. This resulted in a drastic decrease in population as soon as the timber was cut. The last boards were cut at the hem­lock mill in 1909 and the stave mill ceased operation in 1912 one year before the last train ran into Cross Fork. Today a small village, which is heavily dependent upon tourism sur­vives.

Austin, Galeton and Cross Fork each at one time during the period between 1885 and 1910 claimed the largest saw­mill in the Commonwealth. Running two eleven hour shifts these mills each had a capacity for cutting from 300,000 to 360,000 feet of lum­ber daily.

Early settlers took advan­tage of the tannic acid of the hemlock bark and established several small tanneries which provided the cobbler and the harness maker with the leather. These operations were most often family operated with perhaps a few hired hands. It was not until after sixty years of settlement that the first large tannery was built at Oswayo in 1877, which brought a new short-lived prosperity to the village since the tannery was destroyed by fire in 1903. The early years of the 1880s saw the building of tanneries in all parts of the county. The Gale Tannery at Galeton was the impetus that started that village toward its Later prosperity. The Ham­mond Tannery, built in Coudersport in 1880, lasted longer than any of the others, turning out its last bides in 1978. The tannery built at North Wharton in 1881 was, for a time, the largest in the world. The leading employer at Harrison Valley, Walter Hor­ton & Company, was also established the same year in North Wharton. Smaller facili­ties at Roulette and Shingle­house closed near the turn of the century, while most of the others closed operations be­fore 1930.

In addition to the tanneries, chemical companies used smaller hardwoods to produce acetate of lime, charcoal, wood alcohol and wood tar. The longest lasting of these was the Gray Chemical Company located at Roulette from 1902 until after World War n. As with the lumbering, chemical companies brought periods of prosperity to villages for a few years and closed when the forests were depleted, only to allow the area to be reclaimed by nature.

As the forest-related indus­tries began to curtail opera­tions, other sources of employment were needed to fill the void. Because newly discovered gas fields could supply cheap, clean fuel, glass plants were opened at Shingle­house after the turn of the century. As a result, a village which had remained small for many years became a bustling town, supporting the Palmer and Sons Glass Plant and the Elk-Flint Bottle Plant. Palmer had one of the largest inde­pendent glass factories in the world, but it was not long before financial difficulties surfaced; bankruptcy proceed­ings were initiated in 1909. The plant operated erratically un­der various owners until 1921. A glass plant opened in Rou­lette in 1903 and two plants, a window glass factory and the Webb Tile Company, were located at Coudersport, all of which were short-lived.

Potter County experienced a period of prosperity during the 1930s when deep gas wells were drilled and natural gas was piped td cities outside of the area. Previously, the gas was taken from shallow wells and most was used within a relatively short distance from its source. The gas wells soon gave up their bounty, but remain a source of employ­ment since they are used to store gas pumped from Texas and other areas. Pumping stations were built to maintain pressure and to relay the gas to market.

Agriculture, which has always been an important occupation since pioneer days, still plays an important part in the economy. Dairy farms located in the northern town­ships provide milk for city markets. Seed potatoes have been grown in the county since 1920, when Lewis S. Erway produced “The Erway Certified Seed Potato.” In addition, farmers grow pota­toes for the regular market, as well as for making potato chips.

Potter County presently supports several small indus­tries with St. Marys Carbon at Galeton and Pure Carbon at Coudersport among the larg­est industrial employers. The Charles Cole Hospital, estab­lished with money from its namesake’s estate, has been one of the county’s leading em­ployers since its creation in 1967.

The lack of outlets to out­side markets were a deterrent to early settlers. It was as diffi­cult to get finished products from the outside as it was to send out locally produced products. Streams were used for timber, but they were of little use for other products.

Residents thought that railroads would be a remedy to the problem, so agitation be­gan but with no success. When the Erie Railroad reached Wellsville, New York, in 1851, the people turned to getting a connection to that outlet. A main and passenger service was opened, but freight was still the producers problem.

The first railroad to enter the county was the Buffalo, New York and Philadelphia Railroad, which entered near Keating Summit and exited after a few miles. It took ten years to develop a network of railroads in the region. The Coudersport and Port Alle­gheny Railroad constructed narrow gauge tracks between the two towns in 1882. The road was changed to standard gauge in 1889, and was later extended to Ulysses and to Sweden Valley. The flood of July 1942 washed out several bridges which were never replaced. Service continued between Roulette and New­field Junction where the C. & P.A. connected with the B. & 0. The railroad was sold to the Wellsville, Addison and Gale­ton in 1964 and ceased opera­tion on December 8, 1970.

By 1893, the Goodyear railroad interests connected Buffalo and the Susquehanna Valley, and the name was changed from the Sinnema­honing Valley R.R. to the Buf­falo and Susquehanna. The B. & S. operated until after the flood of 1942 when it closed fifty-four miles of track and then merged with the B. & O. System. The road ended its service as part of the Wells­ville, Addison and Galeton Railroad.

The New York and Pennsyl­vania R.R. began at Genesee and ran to Oswayo in 1894. It was later extended to Shingle­house and Ceres, New York on the west and to Canisteo, New York to the north. Shingle­house was the only town in the county to be served by a trolley line (1902-1927).

Austin has had its share of misfortune. Fires in 1890 and 1897 destroyed major portions of the borough, and floods in 1889 and 1894 caused many thousands of dollars in de­struction. But nothing could prepare them for what was yet to come.

By the turn of the century the hills around Austin had been harvested and loggers began to move out. This caused an uneasiness among the businessmen in town, so they began to look for indus­tries to replace the lumbering. They found George C. Bay­less, a paper manufacturer from Binghamton, New York, who would utilize the pulp­wood left by the loggers.

Bayless built a plant that would employ two hundred men in the valley above Austin and began operation in 1901. A small dam was built to provide the necessary water for the paper-making process but this proved inadequate and was replaced with a concrete dam large enough to keep the plant running year ’round.

The dam was located above the mill, upstream from Aus­tin’s main street. Construction of the dam in 1909 brought prosperity and the population grew to almost three thousand. Austin’s businessmen were pleased with the new wave of customers and the community’s future seemed secure.

Construction, which was completed late in 1909, pro­duced a lake reaching for a mile up the valley. The con­crete wall was 534 feet long and forty-nine feet high, an imposing structure in the narrow valley.

Early in 1910 the dam devel­oped a bulge caused by the shifting of the concrete. To alleviate the problem – to which most residents paid little attention – the company broke a hole in the concrete to lower the water and release the pressure.

September 1911 had been wetter than usual. The local newspaper commented about the abundance of rainfall, but Saturday, September 30, was a warm, pleasant day. Saturday was also Primary Election Day, but the votes cast in the valley that day were not destined to be counted. Two alarms early in the day reported breaks in the dam. These false alarms probably contributed to some deaths later when the break came, as some assumed that it was just another false report.

That afternoon, at about two o’clock, a plug of concrete broke out near the base of the dam. As the water shot through the hole, the concrete suddenly ripped clear to the top, releasing millions of gal­lons of water. A fifty foot wall of water pressed down the valley.

In a few minutes the wall was slowed as it struck the huge piles of pulpwood above the mill. The pulpwood served as a battering ram sweeping the valley clean of every struc­ture. The low-lying residential section was completely de­stroyed. The water hurled locomotives and railroad cars as if they were toys. Terror­-stricken residents fled for the steep hillsides to escape the almost certain death.

As the flood cascaded through the valley survivors began to look for loved ones who had become separated. Most were found alive but seventy-eight perished. The flood caused several million dollars in damage and destruc­tion and the town never really recovered, although the paper mill remained until 1942 when another flood caused consider­able damage. Today, Austin counts about seven hundred people but very little industry.

The ruins of the dam stand as a reminder of its former prosperity, which today seems to pass it by.


For Further Reading

Beebe, Victor L. History of Pot­ter County. Coudersport, Pa.: Potter County Historical Society, 1934.

Beers, J. H. History of the Counties of McKean, Elk, Cameron and Potter, Pennsyl­vania. Chicago: J. H. Beers and Company, 1890.

Day, Sherman. Historical Col­lections of the State of Penn­sylvania. Philadelphia: G. W. Gorton, 1843.

Egle, William H. An Illustrated History of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg, W. C. Goodrich, 1876.

Stevens, Sylvester K. My Penn­sylvania. Harrisburg: Common­wealth of Pennsylvania, 1946.


Robert K. Currin of Coudersport is a former teacher and high school principal. He currently serves as president of the Potter County Historical Society, head­quartered in Coudersport. This is his first contribution to Pennsyl­vania Heritage.