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

Tucked high away in Pennsylvania’s once foreboding northern tier, the little county called Cameron was a segment of the vast wilderness known for many years as the Com­monwealth’s last frontier. In fact, the county was not for­mally established until 1860, the sixty-sixth of the sixty­-seven counties apportioned and organized by the state legislature.

Actual settlement of Ca­meron County began as early as the opening decade of the nineteenth century, when small bands of settlers – in quest of new opportunities and enterprise – traveled the meandering Susquehanna River deep into the uncharted region. Most were lured by the abundant timber and game. The Indian title to the great wilderness was relinquished by the New Purchase, signed by the chiefs of the Six Nations on October 23, 1784, and con­firmed by the Wyandot and Delaware Indians the follow­ing January. Earliest warrant holders for land in Cameron County were James Hamilton (whose holdings included part of present-day Emporium), Ephraim Blaine and John Wilson.

The county’s early settlers were hampered by the lack of natural waterways. The only major river, the Sinnemahon­ing, which empties into the west branch of the Susque­hanna River, drains nearly the entire county. Due to the dearth of rivers and streams, farmers avoided the region, and settlement only began in earnest when the area’s natu­ral resources were discovered and subsequently exploited. These resources included great tracts of white pine, hemlock, oak, elm, sugar maple, butter­nut and cherry trees, as well as several significant veins of bituminous (soft) coal. Bark stripped from the towering hemlock trees supplied the county’s large tanning opera­tions, and the coal was mined and shipped to markets out­side the area. Through the nineteenth century, the im­mense forest offered lumber­men lucrative livelihoods. In February 1867, W. L. Ensign felled a giant oak, which yielded more than five thou­sand feet of board timber; a pine tree cut down in 1876 measured one hundred and five feet tall.

One of the earliest ventures was the drilling of a salt well near the borough of Drift­wood. Between 1811 and 1819, local residents worked the sixty-five foot shaft for the Lycoming Salt Company, and in 1830 salt works were opened at Sizerville. Oil fever – which had erupted in northwestern Pennsylvania in the 1860s­ – encouraged the sinking of oil wells at Emporium in 1876 and at Hughston in 1878.

Before the utilization of the area’s many and varied re­sources, settlement was slow and sparse. John Jordan, the first inhabitant of Driftwood­ – then called Second Fork­ – settled there in 1804. Emporium, now the county seat, was founded six years later by a North Carolina na­tive, John Earl. Rich Valley, established on a large tract originally owned by the Hol­land Land Company, was founded in 1811, followed by Sizerville in 1820. For two decades, settlement remained agonizingly slow, and it was not until 1844 that sizeable farms were being cleared near the West Creek in the county’s southeastern corner.

Transportation for the early settlers was arduous at best. A network of Indian trails punc­tuated the rugged terrain and most nineteenth century in­habitants negotiated the nar­row paths on horseback. Incoming supplies had to be hauled from Big Island (Lock Haven in adjacent Clinton County), a distance of fifty difficult miles, on the unpre­dictable West Creek and Sinne­mahoning River. The traders’ and trappers’ log rafts, which carried their goods to outside markets, were usually bartered in exchange for food and pro­visions. During the first quar­ter of the nineteenth century, farmers had milled corn for market, but wheat was not processed for many years. However, the transport of grains and other produce was nearly impossible; one early resident, Seneca Freeman, routinely hand-carried as much as sixty pounds of grain from his farm to a mill twenty­-two miles away.

Cameron County’s nine­teenth century residents, char­acterized as a hardy and stalwart breed, soon discovered that the entire unspoiled region abounded with fish and game; the deep forests shel­tered countless herds of deer and elk, as well as countless bears. According to a well known legend, deer near Em­porium were so abundant that several would leap into hunters’ canoes if disturbed while watering. It was normal for hunters to stumble upon dozens of elk in a single herd. Countian George Parker was known to have killed more than three thousand deer, three hundred elk, one hun­dred and fifty black bears and ten panthers as late as the mid-nineteenth century. Pan­thers freely roamed the moun­tainous wilderness; in fact, a number of stories, many of which are documented, re­count the capture or killing of the large animals throughout the nineteenth century. A panther killed by John Earl in 1810 measured eleven feet in length.

Stories and legends of Ca­meron County’s wildlife are legion, comprising a rich mo­saic of intertwined facts and fanciful fiction. Rattlesnakes, much like the region’s huge panthers, are responsible for a plethora of fascinating accounts, even though many have been passed from one generation to the next without documentation. In July 1871, thirteen rattlesnakes were killed by three hunters who discovered in “some of the reptiles were five and six soft shelled eggs, nearly as large as hens’ eggs.” In September 1873, twenty-one rattlesnakes were found in a hollowed log by hunters in Grove Township. One early account tells of a Jack Spence who, in August 1886, unwittingly ambled into a glade near Emporium whose mossy floor was littered with reptiles, several of which mea­sured five feet long.

Because much of the coun­ty’s early history has gone unrecorded, it seems that many of the folk tales and legends have assumed an undeniable place in the region’s distinctive heritage. Even descriptions of floods have, through the years, ac­quired epic proportions. Flooding had plagued Ca­meron County for many years, but the first-person narratives recall, in chilling detail, many of the nineteenth century disasters. Reports of the 1847 flood included:

The house of James Miller, of Bennett’s branch, was swept away with himself and family within. He and family were living in a small log cabin built on the bank of the stream below Miller’s Bend, when in the autumn of 1847 there came a very high flood, the streams rising suddenly; Mr. Miller neglected to leave the house until it was too late. By night the banks were overflowing and the water was sweeping everything before it. The cabin of course was swept away and floated in a whole condition for about a mile, when the roof fell in injuring all the family more or less. Mr. Miller and his two oldest boys saved themselves by jumping on the top of a tree as they went by it. Mr. Miller endeavored to take his wife with him, but in her own efforts to save her three remaining little ones lost her own life.

It was supposed that the mother and two of the children were drowned immediately after the tearing asunder of the house. Little Charley, about five years old, was seen the next morning clinging to a tree in the middle of the stream, with the merciless waters roaring around him. It must have been a sad sight to have seen the babe hurried on to certain death, without any one being able to render him any assistance. He was seen passing Sinnemahoning and was never heard of after. Mrs. Miller was found below Sinnemahoning, all buried in the sand excepting one hand. Mr. Miller and the two boys remained in their perilous position for two days and nights before succor could reach them.

The flood of October 1861, no less severe than the 1847 catastrophe, carried off large warehouses and commercial structures. Although flooding occurred in 1865 and 1884, the flood of spring 1889 was the worst since 1861. In Emporium alone, properties estimated at more than one hundred thou­sand dollars were destroyed. A large pond for the storage of logs gave way, sending four hundred thousand feet of lumber crashing through the river valley. Other storage ponds, most of which con­tained more than a hundred thousand feet of board lumber, tore open, sending the logs and accumulated debris thun­dering through the narrow valleys. Water levels reached up to six feet in many of the houses and businesses throughout Cameron County.

The huge timberlands also suffered great fires which ravaged acres of the dense forests by which the county is characterized. With the estab­lishment of a newspaper, many of the forest fires were duly reported beginning in the 1870s, but the conflagrations which raced through the area in April and May of 1884 were the most terrifying. According to eyewitness accounts, For a week circles of flame surrounded the hills, but the storm coming up urged on the fiery element, and may be said to have begun the work of destruction at Sterling, as recorded in the history of that village. The scene in the forests defied description. The flames leaped fifty feet in the air; sweep­ing everything. Great sheets of flame would sweep across a clear­ing half a mile in length. While the destruction of property was great, it is almost a miracle that anything was saved – the heat was so intense that logs in the streams caught fire and burned Like cord­wood.

Perhaps the greatest distinction – despite the vast logging operations or the ter­rific natural disasters – that Cameron County claims is as the home of the famous Buck­tails, a Civil War regiment mustered in spring 1861. Al­though the unit was scheduled for a June 1 muster, the volun­teers were in service by April 15.They took part in signifi­cant battles and many died for the Union cause. The outfit was labeled the Bucktail Regi­ment, because they enthusias­tically responded to President Lincoln’s call, reputedly wear­ing the tail of buck deer on their caps. They marched to battle wearing the buck tails and won respect and admira­tion for their courage and determination.

The county’s First Cavalry, raised the following July and August, was immediately dispatched to eastern Mary­land where it seized weapons and ammunition at Eastwood. The cavalry’s first regular service took place at Draines­ville where several scouts were killed or taken prisoner. Fol­lowing the Drainesville event, the First Cavalry participated in several extremely important campaigns, including the battle of Bull Run at Cen­treville, Maryland.

That Cameron County was so quickly able to answer the Union call in 1861 was no mean fete, considering the county was but organized one year when the Civil War erupted. Officially created March 29, 1860, Cameron County was hacked out of sections of Elk, McKean, Potter and Clinton counties. The impetus for the establishment of the county was not solely the great distance the area residents had to travel to court or to the various county seats, but was based, in part, on the Sunbury and Erie (now Phila­delphia and Erie) Railroad, which was being laid between Lock Haven and Warren. Railroads – beginning by mid­-nineteenth century – helped encourage the settlement and eventually shaped the destiny of Cameron County.

The network of railroads carried the county’s greatest natural resource – timber­ – from the remote logging camps to the many sawmills and, finally, to outside mar­kets. Following the lumbering operations were related indus­tries, such as sash and blind factories and furniture manu­facturers. The peak years after the Civil War witnessed the opening of numerous tan­neries which used the seem­ingly inexhaustible supplies of bark in the tanning process.

One of the county’s most peculiar resources is flagstone. The extremely high quality of the stone found in Cameron County recommended its use at the Arlington (Virginia) National Cemetery and in the building of the promenades at the cemetery’s famous Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Even today, and despite nearly two centuries of inhabi­tation, Cameron County re­mains almost isolated, hidden away in the undulating moun­tains of northern Pennsylva­nia. More than half of the county’s two hundred thou­sand acres are safeguarded as state parks or state gamelands. It is a tranquil area, a place in which the rugged grandeur of the steeply pitched and heav­ily wooded mountains and valleys continues to awe even the most disinterested visitor. And it is, in itself, a county to be preserved as a testimonial to the hardy pioneer spirit.

 

For Further Reading

Cornell, William A. and Millard Altland. Our Pennsylvania Heritage. State College: Penns Valley Publishers, 1959.

Cressman, Elmer Winfield. The History of Pennsylvania. New York: Noble and Noble, Inc., 1944.

Dunaway, W. F. A History of Pennsylvania. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1935.

Egle, William Henry. An Illus­trated History of Pennsylva­nia. Philadelphia: E. M. Gardner; 1883.

Leeson, Michael A. History of the Counties of McKean, Elk, Cameron and Potter, Pennsyl­vania. Chicago: J.H. Beers and Company, 1870.

Stevens, Sylvester K. Pennsyl­vania History in Outline. Harris­burg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1976.

 

Michael J. O’Malley III editor of this magazine. He received his bachelor of arts degree in English from the University of Scranton and completed his master of arts degree at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, in 1978. He joined the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission that year as public information specialist for the agency’s popular statewide historic preservation program. In 1981, he was appointed coordina­tor of “Pennsylvania’s 300th Birthday: A Celebration of Friends,” an eighteen month observance commemorating the founding of Pennsylvania. He joined the staff of Pennsylvania Heritage as assistant editor with the spring 1984 edition.