Susquehanna County: A Touch of New England, 1869-1927

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

Susquehanna County, one of several counties formed from territory originally claimed by both Connecticut and Pennsylvania, reflects a blend of New England and Pennsylvania traditions. Although the land would remain part of Pennsylvania, the majority of pioneer settlers to this northern tier region were actually from Connecticut and other New England states. It was not until 1787, however, that settlement by anyone actually began, for the northeastern corner of the state was barren, covered by dense forest. The wilderness was broken only by an occasional Indian trail used by the Oneidas, Delawares and Tuscaroras to penetrate the area’s rich hunting grounds. These trails proved useful to early settlers in exploring the new terri­tory.

Although there were reports that In­dian villages once existed near the pres­ent towns of Lanesboro and Great Bend, by the time of white settlement, none re­mained. Following the successful mili­tary expeditions in 1779 against the Six Nations in western New York and north­ern Pennsylvania, the Indians of the region generally migrated from the area. Besides their trails, they left behind them the word Susquehanna, meaning “crooked stream of water,” as their name for the river which enters the Commonwealth in the county’s north­east corner and curves its way through the land. It was from this river that the county took its name; it was along this river that white settlers originally built their homes.

The region first came to the attention of colonists during the Revolution. In the summer of 1779, a detachment of men under the command of Gen. James Clinton camped at Great Bend en route to join Maj. Gen. John Sullivan in the campaign to check Indian attacks on border settlements. After the war, many soldiers returned to this area securing tracts of land either as squatters or through payment to the Connecticut or Pennsylvania land companies which claimed ownership.

Records do not show inhabitants in what would become Susquehanna Coun­ty, however, until the spring of 1787 when John Nicholson, a Philadelphia landowner, sent forty families to settle the region around present-day Brook­lyn. Among them was William Conrad, a man born in Germany but kidnapped to serve in the Hessian army for the British in the American Revolution. He deserted in Philadelphia and was shel­tered by friends in the German section of the city before coming to Brooklyn with the Nicholson Company. Conrad boasted that he was the first permanent settler and that his son and daughter were the earliest white births in Susquehanna County. Descendants of the fami­ly, in fact, still live there.

Later, in the summer of 1787, two families settled on the Susquehanna River at Great Bend. Within the follow­ing decade, scores of families came to make their homes in this wilderness. The uncertainty of land title, however, was a deterrent to rapid settlement. Although the area into which these settlers moved was purchased from the Indians as a re­sult of a treaty at Fort Stanwix, con­cluded in 1768, a dispute over ownership erupted immediately. The controversy over control of this territory, claimed by both Connecticut and Pennsylvania, resulted in court battles and bloodshed.

The Trenton Decree of 1782, which stated that Connecticut had no right to the lands lying within the Pennsylvania charter claims, laid legal groundwork for Pennsylvania control. Settlers who had purchased land through the Connec­ticut based Susquehanna or Delaware Land Companies after 1782 eventually were ruled to have no legal title to it. In time, they were required to repurchase their land from Pennsylvania (at a re­duced rate) and to pay for whatever im­provements had been made upon it.

One of these men, Col. Thomas Parke, came from Rhode Island to Parkvale (Dimock Township) in 1796 where he purchased 10,000 acres under the Connecticut claim. Through the Pennsylvania Compromise Law of 1799, however, it was declared that he could not own the land under Connecticut title, and he was ejected by the Pennsyl­vania legislature. In order to regain some of what he had lost, he was forced to re­purchase his former land from a Penn­sylvania landholder. Unable to raise enough funds to buy back all the land, he did finally repurchase some 600 acres. Ironically, Parke was eventually hired by the Commonwealth to survey the boun­daries of both the county, in 1811, and the original seventeen townships, in 1813.

Other settlers who had purchased land also had difficulty obtaining clear title. Ejections, court trials and hearings were very common and greatly disturbing to the first inhabitants. Problems persisted for years and it was not until after 1850 that all early land deeds were fully cleared.

Even without the claims controversy, settlement would have been slow in this mountainous and wilderness area. It was, however, because of the dense forests and the almost limitless expanse of timber with its prospects for lumber­ing that many of the early settlers ven­tured into the region. One willing to challenge the wilderness was Samuel Preston, who planned a road to be built eastward from the mouth of Cascade Creek. In 1789, Preston cleared several acres, constructed a number of houses and built a store and saw mill. The place was called Harmony, the same name given to the township established there in 1809.

By an act of the Pennsylvania Assem­bly, Susquehanna County was separated from Luzerne on February 21, 1810, although it was not fully organized until 1812. The county eventually was divided into twenty-seven townships and thir­teen boroughs, and by 1820 could list 9,958 as residents. After much discus­sion and plotting by rival communities, Montrose was chosen as the county seat, even though most of its rivals could claim larger populations. The commun­ity rests near the geographical center of the county and possesses the immaculate appearance of a Connecticut village. Public Avenue extends the length of the town to the village green, library, post office and, of course, courthouse. The present seat of justice was built in 1854-55 and because of its location and exceptional beauty, it commands the awe of each beholder.

The dense growth of the forest gave rise to the county’s first industries. Initially, many early settlers spent much of their time engaged in the production of maple sugar which could be traded anywhere for all other necessary com­modities. Tons of it were transported out of the area. Later, the trees were fell­ed and lumbering became the chief in­dustry. In Lathrop, at Lord Pond, virgin pine logs of exceptional quality were cut straight as an arrow to a length of seventy-five feet, one-foot square. These were floated down stream to mills and markets, some eventually finding their way to Washington, D.C. where they were used in the building of the original Smithsonian Institution. Furniture, chair, wagon, sleigh and other wood­working factories were in constant oper­ation and produced an abundance of products necessary for pioneer living. For over a century, Macks Mills at Brooklyn manufactured some of the finest furniture which could be purchas­ed. Their pieces are now valued as priceless antiques.

Closely connected with the lumber in­dustry were tanning operations. The largest of these, founded by Ezra, Ogden, George and Francis Pratt in New Milford, was opened in 1848 and con­tinued in production for almost half a century. Hemlock bark was used in the tanning process for the 30 thousand sides of leather which were treated per year. Profits from this business were shared generously wth several commun­ities and charities. The Pratt Memorial Library, the public park and the Presbyterian Church in New Milford all benefitted from the company’s success.

Another enterprise which relied heavi­ly upon wood was the Beach Manu­facturing Company. The company’s founder, Henry L. Beach, was noted for the many patents which he had been granted for his inventions and designs. Of those, the invention which attracted perhaps the greatest amount of attention was a scroll saw displayed at the 1876 Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia. The Beach Manufacturing Company flooded the region with its beautiful pieces of art in wood.

C. M. Crandall Company, yet another firm associated with the wood industry, began operation in Montrose in 1867. The factory, a pioneer in the production of wooden toys in the United States, was started principally for the purpose of manufacturing building-blocks which Crandall had invented and patented. The blocks enjoyed tremendous success and sold extremely well, but the com­pany also created toy pianos, puzzles and games which, like the blocks, were shipped to au pans of the world. Cran­dall was the most complete factory of its kind in the world, employing sixty-five people and doing a business of $60 thou­sand per year. Unfortunately, the fire of 1886 which destroyed a large section of the Montrose business center was also responsible for bringing down the toy company. The factory was later reestab­lished in Elkland (Tioga County), how­ever, where it remained in operation for many years.

Lumbering and related industries are still big business in the county, but the most important continuously operating industry is agriculture. Fifty years ago there were nearly two cows for every county resident and dairy farming pro­vided the livelihood for the majority of citizens. Grazing cattle dominated every landscape. Hay crops were exceptionally large and meadow grass was abundant. Creameries were in operation in nearly every township and the West Lathrop Creamery was one of the first to make and ship ice cream and cottage cheese to outside markets. Butter was produced by the ton each day and the railroads ran special milk trains from the county to New York City on a regular schedule. Regrettably, dairy farming seems now to be on the decline. In only four decades, for example, the number of milk pro­ducing farms in Lathrop Township has dropped from ninety-six to seventeen.

With the development of farming came the organization of Agricultural Societies, the first chartered on January 27, 1820 in Montrose. Each community developed an annual fair, a very important event and general holiday. The Har­ford Agricultural Society, organized Oc­tober 21, 1858, held the first such festi­val behind the Congregational Church in Montrose the very same year the society was created. Later, grounds were pur­chased and permanent buildings erected. A fair has been held there every year since 1858, making it the oldest annual fair in continuous operation in the Com­monwealth. The grounds have been greatly improved, and each year the fair grows and the crowds increase.

In 1874-75, granges (Patrons of Hus­bandry) were established across the county, many of which still flourish. They, in turn, were responsible for organizing other farm advocacy groups, such as the Grant League Federation and the Dairyman’s League, both of which were cooperatives. The lobbying efforts of the Grangers and members of other such organizations had a tremen­dous influence on Pennsylvania legisla­tors and assisted farmers in many ways. Among the programs which they cham­pioned were Pinchot or paved rural roads, free rural mail delivery, rural electrification projects and uniform milk prices.

In addition to agriculture and lumber­ing, other industries developed. A number of foundries operated in the county, the largest of these opened in 1856 by Samuel H. and Daniel Sayre. The buildings of Sayre Brothers, which made agricultural implements of every type plus stoves, kettles, steam engines and accessories for grist mills, covered more than two blocks in Montrose. The foundry flourished for three decades and furnished the county with mechanical equipment. Today, the only foundry still in operation is located in Hallstead.

Flag stone exists in many parts of the county, especially in the eastern section, and at one time brought in an average of $100 thousand in sales annually. Quar­ries still produce excellent platform stones and building material, but it is the blue stone which is of exceptional quali­ty and has always found ready markets. Stone of various cuts is hauled by truck to most large cities.

There have been several mineral springs in the county, the histories of which are enveloped in Indian tradition and romance. A salt spring was found at Great Bend by early pioneers who de­clared that squaws had revealed its loca­tion to them. Others were found in various parts of the county and it was thought that Salt Lick Creek, with origins in the highlands of New Milford Township, originated from the overflow of one such spring. Wells were sunk and some good dairy salt was in fact manu­factured.

Mills were of course important to the county’s early history, but only one water-powered grist mill, operated by Spencer Milling Inc. of Thompson, re­mains. Water from a dam flows in a flume to a modern turbine, whose twenty-one-inch wheel produces seventy-six horse power. The mill grinds corn, oats, barley and wheat, mixing the feed if desired. Three generations of the Spencer family have spent their lives working this historic mill.

A company with a more recent history is the Bendix Corporation which moved to South Montrose in 1951. Part of the Teterboro, New Jersey, Bendix Corp. which manufactures electronic equip­ment, the plant has employed as many as 1,500 workers.

Railroads came to the area in the mid­-nineteenth century. The New York, Lake Erie and Western approached from the east, and the Delaware, Lacka­wanna and Western; the Lehigh Valley; and the Delaware and Hudson came from the south. The Erie was opened with much fanfare on December 27, 1848 with cars “bearing the President of the United States, Daniel Webster and a large and noble company of the most distinguished citizens of America as guests of the gratified and justly proud directors of the road from the Hudson to Lake Erie.”

One of the largest operations in the county for over a century was the Erie Railroad Shops, located at Susquehan­na. The buildings alone covered seven acres of ground, exclusive of the railroad yards, switches, courts, sidetracks, and depot, and represented an outlay of a million and a half dollars by the com­pany. The shops employed nearly a thousand men and the equipment was valued at $300 thousand. The remaining railroad station buildings are large, fine brick structures. The passenger depot, about three hundred feet long and thirty-six feet wide, included waiting rooms as well as ticket, transportation and telegraph offices together with an excellent hotel. It has recently been re­furbished and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

The railroads also brought to the county one of the most imposing struc­tures anywhere to be seen – the Starruc­ca Viaduct, a railroad bridge which spans Starrucca Creek. Built in 1847-48 at a cost of $350 thousand, it was at that time the most costly bridge ever con­structed in the world. Built of solid masonry from stone taken out of newly developed quarries up the Starrucca Creek, the bridge measures over one thousand feet long, ninety to one hun­dred feet high and wide enough for dou­ble tracks. Stones cut to size, numbered and hauled to the site were anchored in­to place without the sound of a hammer. The viaduct has seventeen beautifully symmetrical arches over which ponderous locomotives with long trains run as smoothly as on solid rock. Tradi­tion has it, however, that the first engine to cross the bridge made the trip un­manned, as the engineers were afraid the structure would collapse under the weight of the single engine. The bridge stands today as a marvelous example of what can be accomplished through the science of engineering.

Susquehanna County has no real con­centration of population. It con­tains, instead, a succession of quaint and rather quiet small towns. The Borough of Forest City, as an example, sits in the county’s southeast corner. The main, mile-long street is in a very narrow valley about eighty feet above the level of the Lackawanna River, along which the Jef­ferson Branch of the Erie Railroad (now the Delaware and Hudson) was built in 1871. Other streets were laid out on the hillside, one about thirty feet above the next. Its early appearance gave the im­pression of a city within a forest and, as might be guessed from its name, lumber was shipped from there in great quan­tity.

In thirty years, the town grew out of a wilderness to become home to thirty-five hundred people and the largest com­munity in the county. This rapid growth followed the discovery of a very pure grade of anthracite coal which was un­covered while building the railroad. The Hillside Coal and Iron Company was formed, land was purchased for mining and an excellent paying vein was struck at seventy feet. A breaker was erected and new veins of unusual thickness, most measuring at least seven feet wide, made it possible to ship eleven thousand tons of coal to market each month. Coal from Forest City was judged by some to be the best anthracite ever mined in the state.

Forest City became the county’s only mining town and in order to work the mines, Hillside began to bring in Welsh families about 1884. Following the Welsh came the Poles, Slovaks, Irish, Russians, Slovenians and Lithuanians, making Forest City not only the largest but also the most ethnic community in the county. Evidence of the ethnic influ­ence can be seen in the churches, for each group built their own: Sacred Heart (Polish), St. Michael’s (Slovak), St. Agnes (Irish), St. Joseph’s (Slovenian), St. Anthony’s (Lithuanian) and St. John’s (Russian).

Dundaff Borough, incorporated March 5, 1828, owes its growth to the Newburgh Turnpike. By 1820, it was the county’s most thriving community with a bank, newspaper, academy, a number of factories, three churches and various mills. Among its industries could be found the only glass factory in the area. Using the very superior sand of nearby Crystal Lake in the production process, one hundred employees turned out a very marketable, clear window glass.

At one time the community exerted a great influence in the area. Believing that Dundaff had a great future, its am­bitious and enterprising residents peti­tioned the legislature to locate the coun­ty seat there. Their petition failed and Dundaff, which had neither railroads nor coal mines, eventually lost its in­dustry and many of its residents to near­by Carbondale in Lackawanna County. Today, Dundaff is a small hamlet whose most enhancing qualities are its rural surroundings and the attractive Crystal Lake.

Formal education began with the first settlements and at one time there were more than 270 one-room school houses scattered throughout the county. Private schools began to appear in 1816 with the granting of a charter to Susquehanna Academy in Montrose. Hundreds of boys prepared for college there until the academy was merged a half century later with the Public Graded School in Mon­trose.

lo 1817, a classical select school was opened by Rev. Lyman Richardson in Harford. His brother, Preston, became the principal and incorporated the insti­tution as Franklin Academy in 1836. Soon afterward, Lyman enlarged the school under the more ambitious title of Harford University. Several governors, senators and railroad presidents received their basic educations there before going on to college. Among them were Cyrus Clay carpenter, governor of Iowa: Galusha A. Grow, congressman during the Civil War and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives; William S. Tyler, president of Amherst College; and Henry W. Williams, president judge of the Fourth Judicial District. Harford University underwent yet another change of name and eventually became Harford Orphan School, where hundreds of war orphan children from all over the state were educated until the turn of the cen­tury when the school was closed.

The Roman Catholic Church also established schools in Susquehanna County for the training of the priesthood. Saint Joseph’s College, founded in 1852, had an annual enroll­ment of 100 seminarians before it was destroyed by fire in 1864. Laurel Hill Academy, another such school, was established in 1857 in Susquehanna by the Very Rev. John Vincent O’Reilly, a native of Ireland and a missionary priest in the county. He came to Susquehanna in 1830 and, for the forty years follow­ing, organized more Catholic churches in northeastern Pennsylvania than any other Catholic priest. Also under his supervision were the Sisters of the Im­maculate Heart.

Beyond Father O’Reilly, Susque­hanna’s history is dotted with fascin­ating personalities. The Catlins, Putnam and his son George, were prominent among the early settlers. Putnam Catlin, a fifer and drum major in the Revolu­tion, came from Litchfield, Connec­ticut. He worked as an agent for the John B. Wallace estate, which owned some 14,000 acres of land in the county, was a businessman and became one of the first lawyers to practice in Montrose. In 1809, he moved to Brooklyn where he was the first postmaster, treasurer of the Milford and Owego Turnpike, and ser­ved as state Representative for Luzerne and Susquehanna counties. He also found time to act as the cashier of the Silver Lake Bank of Montrose, the first in the county.

His son, George Catlin, was to receive much wider recognition. Educated for the legal profession in Connecticut, he practiced law throughout northeastern Pennsylvania, including Susquehanna County. He was to achieve his greatest fame, however, as an author and artist. Catlin began his career as a portrait painter, but as time progressed, he dedi­cated his Life to painting Indians, to cap­ture “the looks and customs of the vanishing races of native man in America.” Today he stands as perhaps the foremost nineteenth century painter of the Native American.

Dr. Robert H. Rose, another promin­ent early settler, by 1809 owned all the land in Silver Lake Township and parts of those surrounding. In all, he held 99,200 acres, broken into 248 tracts of 400 acres each, making him the largest landholder and the wealthiest of the county’s earliest citizens. In order to prepare the land for development, he imported workmen to erect a saw mill for lumber and to clear fields for future cultivation. For their services he paid cash, a very unusual practice at so early a date. At his invitation, members of the Religious Society of Friends came to set­tle on his lands at Friendsville and Quaker Lake. He advertised everywhere for settlers, and for them be built saw mills, grist mills and a woolen factory. He would tolerate no abuses of the privileges he extended, however, and he was known to have forced undesirables to move from his land.

A native of Chester County, Rose constructed a fabulous home at Silver Lake and lived like an English baron. His residence and grounds were the finest in the county. consisting of a maze of walkways and gardens ornamented with statuary, while all around him was a howling wilderness. The Rose family was associated with almost every impor­tant enterprise in that region. For a cen­tury, R. H. Rose and his three sons after him made Silver Lake the most beautiful spot in the county.

Joseph Smith, founder of Mormon­ism, resided in Susquehanna County from 1825-29, living in Oakland Town­ship. While there, he married Emma Hale, and it is believed that he spent much of his time working on the trans­cription of The Book of Mormon. Along the banks of the Susquehanna River near the McKune Cemetery, where one of his children lies buried, stands an imposing monument which explains Joseph Smith’s work in Oakland.

Among later residents who achieved national prominence was Galusha A. Grow, another countian transplanted from Connecticut. He moved to the area in 1824, living in Glenwood from 1834 until his death in 1907. Grow studied law and became a partner of the Hon. David Wilmot, author of the famed Wilmot Proviso. In 1850, he ran for Congress on the Democratic ticket and won, but later switched to the Republican party, in­fluencing many others in the county to do the same. Since that time, Sus­quehanna County has remained pre­dominately Republican.

Mr. Grow made his entry into politi­cal life in one of the most eventful periods of U.S. history. His wise counsel and skillful handling of issues in Con­gress, where he advocated freedom for blacks and better working conditions for all laboring people, brought him the highest respect and endeared him as a friend to Abraham Lincoln. He cham­pioned the Homestead Act, which gave land to the landless, and signed this bill as Speaker of the House of Representa­tives, the office to which he was elected on July 4, 1861. He served twelve years in Congress then retired as a merchant in Glenwood, where he operated a saw mill and engaged in general farming. In 1893, however, be was again returned to Con­gress and served another ten years. No one from Susquehanna County has ever been so widely known politically at home or abroad.

Susquehanna County has always been popular as a resort area, boasting pure fresh air in abundance and beau­tiful scenery. The most celebrated scenic spot, located east of Elle Mountain, is the Village of Four Seasons. Many Swiss-type chalets dot the hillside and are available for seasonal or permanent occupancy. The nearby Elk Mountain Ski Resort makes this a perfect spot for year-round sport.

The county’s most celebrated body of water is the spring-fed Crystal Lake. Its absolutely clear water reflects the basin with sparkling radiance, making it a prized summer resort for over a century and a half. The cottages there are of ex­ceptional size and quality; the beaches are smooth and the water perfect for swimming and boating.

The forest area near Woodbourne, consisting of 500 acres owned by the Cope family of Philadelphia since 1826, was donated in 1956 to be forever main­tained in its natural state as a wildlife sanctuary. Today it is known as the Woodbourne Forest and Wildlife Sanc­tuary and is managed by the Nature Conservancy. This is one of the very few areas of virgin forest left in Pennsyl­vania.

With such surroundings, it is no wonder that the area is a favorite of vacationers. Some who travel to the county choose to spend their time at the Montrose Bible Conference, held an­nually during July, August and early September. The conference, established in 1908 by the famous evangelist and author Dr. Reuben A. Torrey, has for years attracted many of the nation’s most noted preachers and is attended by thousands coming from distant states and countries.

Others who come to visit the county stay in privately owned cottages for seasonal retreats. Such is the case for those lodging at the Dimock Camp Grounds. The camp was first opened in 1875 by the Methodists, who still own the land. At one time the Lehigh Valley ran special trains to the site carrying people to worship services held at an outdoor amphitheater. The camp was frequently crowded with hundreds of wagons filled with people traveling from miles around to participate in the services. Today, summer guests stay in the old cottages and, although the am­phitheater is gone, regular services still draw clergy and lay people from the area.

Those who have visited Susquehanna County know of its beauty and advan­tages, of its numerous lakes which retain much of their pristine nature. They have witnessed the forests of maple, beech, ash, pine and hemlock which have long provided a source of revenue as well as an escape and place of retreat. They have experienced the sense of tranquility which has been relatively undisturbed by catastrophic disasters. They have seen the meadows and pasture lands upon which the dairy herds feed. All of these things, in combination with the county’s history and architecture, do indeed bring a touch of New England to the Com­monwealth.


Reverend Garford F. Williams is a member of the Historical Committee of the Susquehanna County Historical So­ciety and a life-long resident of Lathrop Township, Susquehanna County.