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

From the time of the earliest settlements during the Revolu­tionary War era to the present day, Columbia County has been three sepa­rate neighborhoods-the southern re­gion (Catawissa and Centralia); the northern area (Benton and Millville) and the north bank of the Susquehanna River (Bloomsburg and Berwick). They are distinguishable by varied physical environments, ethnic origins and social characteristics, values and aspirations, political behaviors and economies. The court decree creating Columbia out of Northumberland County in 1813, con­ferring political boundaries subsequent­ly modified in 1850, imposed an imper­fect unity on a diversity which remains the county’s most striking historical fea­ture.

The earliest substantial number of permanent settlers located in the southern region, below the Susquehan­na River. Containing approximately forty percent of the area of the county, this section is itself three geographic dis­tricts. A large rich agricultural valley at­tracted the earliest settlers, Quakers from Berks County and German churchmen from other parts of Pennsyl­vania and New Jersey. By 1800 settle­ment had spread co the fertile plain along the river. It was not until nearly mid-century, however, that people be­gan to move into the more isolated mountainous southern and eastern reaches, as Welshmen and others, pri­marily of British origin, began to dig for coal.

The farmers in the valley from the outset re-created the traditional and fa­miliar rural pattern of scattered family farms. By means of trade in cereal grains shipped via the Old Reading Road, they achieved a measure of com­fort and a gently rising standard of liv­ing throughout the nineteenth century. The valley became the prosperous agri­cultural heartland of the county, peo­pled by neighbors proud of their own, distant toward outsiders, and united by common experiences and cultural com­promises.

Along the Susquehanna, settlers prac­ticed a more varied economy and life style with fishing and the processing of agricultural commodities supplementing farming from the beginning. Catawissa, because of its location adjacent to the river, emerged as the center of neighbor­hood trade and transportation. While neither steamboats nor the North Branch Canal contributed appreciably to the growth of Catawissa, railroads did provide the stimulus for its develop­ment. The initial railroad connected Catawissa to the upper Schuylkill River in 1854. During the ensuing thirty years, two other railroads passed through the community, while a third connected with Catawissa via a bridge across the Susquehanna.

Residents along the river shared with those in the valley many of the same characteristics and values but looked forward to greater returns by adopting the latest advances in transportation and technology and allying themselves with the outside world. Between 1869 and 1885, Catawissa enjoyed its peak period as a railroad center; the number of businesses more than doubled and the population increased nearly sixty­-five percent. Catawissa proudly spoke of itself as a “thriving town” and specu­lated happily amidst rumors of further railroad expansion.

Anthracite coal attracted Welsh, Eng­lish, Scottish, Irish, German and East­ern European settlers to the mountains at the southern tip of the county. Entre­preneurs, spurred by an accelerating na­tional demand for fossil fuels, estab­lished about a dozen collieries and near­ly as many breakers in the Centralia area by 1870. Rapid growth brought wealth to a few: to colliery operators, managers and bosses, to land owners and merchants, and to saloon keepers. (On the eve of World War I there was one saloon for every two hundred per­sons in Centralia!) But for many, growth outstripped the capacity to pro­vide adequate housing, commodities at reasonable prices, clear water and neces­sary social services. The quality of life for most was stark, turbulent and per­ilous. Cooperation and compromise among miners became defenses against injustice rather than expressions of con­tentment. Resentful and distrusting of those in other sections of the county, whose different experiences seemed to make them insensitive to the needs of the district, Centralians looked south­ward to Schuylkill and Northumberland counties for understanding and services. In the process, they isolated themselves from Columbia County, feeling unpro­tected and unwanted.

At the opening of the twentieth cen­tury, each district in the southern region thrived and looked confidently forward. Valley farmers continued to prosper, trading surpluses with communities to the south or, more often, with Cata­wissa. Catawissa reflected the good times shared by local farmers, business­men and laborers. Even in the mining district, the vigorous hum of activity held forth a promise that muted disap­pointment and isolation. But expecta­tions gradually faded in the ensuing dec­ades.

For the Centralia district, the nationwide demand for coal throughout the years before the Great Depression kept production at high levels which resulted in a better condition of life for the miners. But the area became dependent solely on coal. By the 1930s the costs of mining exceeded profits; collieries closed and mines began to shut down. Within a few years, World War II cre­ated a temporary demand, and the mines reopened until the 1950s when consumer needs changed. By the 1960s operations had once again all but ceased. Shortly afterward, gases from underground fires began to rise to the surface which to this day imperil the community of Centralia, forcing its people to face the future with fear and uncertainty.

In Catawissa, the hoped-for railroad expansion failed to materialize after 1890. Instead, slow irreversible contrac­tion began. Factories and mills shut down; hotels and entertainment facili­ties closed. By the 1920s Catawissa had become a center for everyday goods and services required only by the immediate locality, a pattern of operation which still prevails. Small industries ex­isted – and still exist – primarily because of management’s need for a small, low­-cost labor pool. Still, Catawissa pro­vided cultural and educational opportu­nities even while her economic base de­clined; but television and the regional school concept deprived it of even those functions by the 1960s. A community of 2,053 in 1900, Catawissa eight decades later has a population of less than 2,000, a great many of whom work and shop elsewhere. Memories, traditions and stillness are now hallmarks of the neigh­borhood.

Change has borne down heavily on the valley, too. The farms generally prospered until the 1930s and the de­pression. After a brief revival during the 1940s, local families suffered increas­ingly from the competition of corporate farms. The agricultural character has diminished and fields and orchards are now often residential sites. Much of the earlier neighborhood camaraderie and closeness is gone. Neighbors are strangers as often as they are friends, living in the district without sharing its her­itage or feeling a common pulse.

The northern area consists of rolling hills, narrow valleys and shallow streams, where pine and hardwoods once covered much of the land. The moderately fertile soil served agriculture adequately, but the chief attraction of the area has always been the numerous streams crossing the landscape in a pre­dominately north-south direction. Lum­bering, farming, fishing and hunting lured settlers to the area, molded their character and aspirations, and in the process created a distinctive community of remarkable sameness spread rather evenly over more than fifty-five percent of the county.

Between 1785 and 1800, Quakers from outside of Philadelphia, Scotch­-Irish, English churchmen, and German­Americans from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York established home­steads spread paper-thin throughout the lower two-thirds of the area. (Glacial residue and disputed land titles postponed development of the upper portion – the north country – for a genera­tion.) The difficulty of hewing the wil­derness into a civilization reduced cul­tural differences. A pervasive isolation made settlers wary of strangers and re­sistant to novelty.

Like their counterparts in the south­ern region, the people in the north were agricultural frontiersmen who looked forward to prosperity through trade. The abundance of streams flowing toward the Susquehanna initially fos­tered this hope. Yet, the dream failed early. The streams lacked the regularity of course, the smoothness of current, the depth and breadth necessary for profitable commerce. The ten miles and more to the Susquehanna made a for­midable and expensive journey, dou­bling the price of commodities in com­petition with similar goods sent from Catawissa and other communities. Al­though some residents continued to risk traffic on the streams long into the nine­teenth century, only roads could have served their needs. But not until 1856 did a state-funded highway reach the productive central section of the area. By then, patterns of economic behavior and related social characteristics and at­titudes had already been molded.

Consequently, the settlers of the northern area developed an outlook dif­ferent from that of the southern region, being more provincial and self-con­tained and less progressive and expan­sive. The urgency to progress was comparatively underdeveloped. In politics, Democrats nearly all, they opposed “Mr. Lincoln’s War” and the modern­ism expressed in the Republican plat­form; so also in the affairs of the church, the school and the village, they preferred continuity to change.

None of the opportunities to alter this traditional outlook materialized, even though the richness of local buckwheat harvests at one time held forth the possi­bility of regional and national market­ing of the product. However, it took too long to develop the necessary transpor­tation and to find a way to remove tiny bits of gravel from the flour. Growers also could not overcome popular resist­ance to the product, thus dooming it to a primarily local market. Moreover, neither better roads nor the arrival of railroads in the area by the close of the 1880s enabled local farmers to take ef­fective advantage of urban growth along the Susquehanna River. Even business interests from Bloomsburg, Williamsport and Philadelphia, which created the Jamison City “boom” through full-scale exploitation of timber along the rim of the mountains in the north country, failed to affect residents of the area. Throughout the prosperous years to World War I and afterward, the residents of the community preserved accustomed personal relationships and social patterns, thereby sustaining tradi­tions apart from either the flurry of lumbering and tanning activity or the si­lence that followed.

There were (and are) but three busi­ness and population centers in the northern area, each of them compara­tively small since residents responded cautiously to the opportunities opened to them during the growth period fol­lowing Appomattox. Benton and Mill­ville never counted more than 1,000 people each during the past century and Orangeville about 500. Few wished to risk the consequences of uncontrolled change, uncertain that richer meant bet­ter or made life happier.

Benton enjoyed a short prosperous era as a timber-finishing center between 1890 and 1910, its small industries spe­cializing in lumber-related activities. Additionally, local agriculture respond­ed to the boom days in Jamison City, and the sale of fertilizers and the shipment of farm commodities arose as new businesses. The McHenry Distillery, af­ter eighty years of marketing its product only in the immediate vicinity, began to regionally merchandise its whiskey, “Born in 1812,” shortly after 1900. In 1910, a disastrous fire on the Fourth of July leveled the community, and despite assertions that the people would rebuild a finer and busier Benton, the promise died far from fulfilled. Within two years, the distillery closed and the lum­bering and tanning heydays had passed. The community returned to the comfortable familiarity of the past.

Millville, noted for its wagon works, had long been an established center of educational and religious activities. During a brief moment of expansiveness between the turn of the 1890s and World War I, it prospered from proc­essing and transporting farm and timber products via the Sunbury, Bloomsburg and Berwick Railroad. Nonetheless, Millville limited its vision and interest to the neighborhood, handling local com­modities, working with and for friends, and serving the preferences of its own. As the days of lumbering, the horse and wagon, and the short-line railroad passed, much of the borough returned to its earlier pace.

Milling and the manufacture of farm implements provided Orangeville with a firm but narrow base for its economy by the middle of the nineteenth century. When, in 1892, two railroads passed through the borough, distant markets opened. The community, however, re­sponded with the caution characteristic of the area. No notable new firms lo­cated there. Existing businesses did in­crease their capacities but demonstrated reluctance to experiment with products intended for sale only in unfamiliar re­gions. Orangeville neither grew nor changed in any noteworthy fashion dur­ing the early years of this century; nei­ther did it change appreciably a quarter century afterward as the railroads fell into disuse and local agriculture faced hard times.

During the interwar years and since, although the northern area has seemed to settle comfortably into serenity, it has, in fact, changed markedly. Modern communications and systems of trans­portation have tied the neighborhood to farther points. Where once the village served the countryside, TV advertising and highways have drawn residents to places outside the area to shop, work and play. Meanwhile, rising congestion and mounting pressures felt in cities and suburbs have driven growing numbers to seek safety in rural districts. The northern area, even more extensively than its southern counterpart, has been affected by this trend. Provincialism, consequently, shows unmistakable signs of weakening; self-containment has dis­appeared.

In Bloomsburg and Berwick, located on the north bank of the Susque­hanna River, an entirely different his­tory has unfolded. Within half a century after the first settlements, residents be­gan turning away from agriculture toward serving distant markets through business and industry. From Blooms­burg eastward to Berwick, a character and record different from those of the areas of the county above and below the river were being forged between the 1830s and the turn of this century.

At first, the land and the water direct­ed the lives of the English and Germans who settled in the Bloomsburg neigh­borhood after the Revolution. Farming thrived on the low river terrace, and grist mills multiplied as the Susquehan­na provided a ready avenue for trans­porting surpluses to Sunbury and be­yond. Shad fishing supplemented trade and agriculture. The river seemed to contain inexhaustible amounts of fish which were sold at prices that rose from $6 per hundred in 1800 to twice that amount after 1830.

Success and reward bred demand for more. Residents chafed at the designa­tion of Danville in 1813 as the county seat, for they wished to capitalize on their own growth and vitality. But there were few such disappointments. In 1829 the North Branch Canal opened in the area, and farm and fish prices rose im­mediately. Soon new saw mills and tan­neries opened and older ones expanded. Hotels multiplied, as did the number of wagon makers, harness makers, sad­dlers, carpentry shops and other services for travelers and shippers. In nearby Espy, businessmen established a boat­yard in 1834 that was to operate contin­uously until the canal closed in 1901. In 1850, the earlier “wrong” was righted, and residents celebrated the act of legis­lature which created a redrawn Colum­bia County with Bloomsburg as the seat of government.

The onset of heavy industry and rail­roads provided an even greater stimulus to local growth. In 1839, the Blooms­burg Rail-Road and Iron Company re­ceived a charter to build furnaces at the north end of Bloomsburg and tracks to carry the pig iron from local mines to the canal two miles away. For fifty years the population increased at rates unmatched elsewhere in the county, iron- and transportation-related indus­tries opened and enlarged, wages climbed and jobs were so prevalent that many went unfilled. A graceful court­house stood near the center of the com­munity, while in all directions homes, many of them mansions, rose alongside splendid churches, massive mercantile houses and factories.

During the 1880s, things began to change, and the community entered into a recession as iron and the canal sudden­ly ceased to serve as the basis for contin­ued growth. The railroad remained, however, and the public pinned its hope on a proposed New York, Bloomsburg and Western Railroad to Chicago and on the recently completed line to Jami­son City. The latter did contribute to the health of the local economy for a short while, but the former never material­ized.

Despite economic problems during the decade, the community remained undaunted. The experiences of the pre­ceding half century had instilled the per­sonal qualities of aggressiveness and ex­perimentalism necessary to maintain optimism. Civic and business leaders sought new foundations and welcomed textiles at the turn of the nineties. The Bloomsburg Silk Mills and James Ma­gee’s carpet manufactory revived the community and sparked another era of fervid activity. More than a dozen di­verse small industries located in town, and as Bloomsburg celebrated its cen­tennial in 1902, it perceived itself once more as a bold and energetic community on the threshold of major regional standing.

However, the new firms and busi­nesses, large and small, collectively did not provide the substantial economic foundation of the earlier years. Chang­ing technology and the effects of busi­ness consolidation drove them away, ex­cept for the textiles. Between 1900 and 1920, stability, decline and then resta­bilization became a repeated pattern; by the mid-1920s the community faced se­rious financial difficulties which the de­pression of the thirties further exacer­bated. Textiles alone virtually sustained the neighborhood, while among the peo­ple a loss of nerve set in.

Even during the two decades follow­ing World War II, while the nation lurched forward into affluence, Bloomsburg remained numbly quiet, re­lying on textile industry leaders to direct the course of a community which had been branded the “parlor city of the Susquehanna.” The physical appear­ance of the town exhibited an edge-worn splendor. The people demonstrated an obstinance, a reluctance to venture, and self-doubt. Bloomsburg and its sur­roundings made a fine appearance, from a little distance.

Then, in the mid-1960s, three phe­nomena occurred simultaneously which have been affecting the community ever since. Bloomsburg State College, founded over a century earlier. expand­ed dramatically. Within a decade it boasted the highest payroll in area his­tory and had attracted young consumers and householders with an assortment of ideas and attitudes which challenged the timidity of the town. Second, the textile industry sagged under the pressure of foreign competition at the very moment inflation and consumerism undercut the stability of labor’s wages. Neither in fact nor in appearance did Bloomsburg any longer have a sound industrial base. Third, Interstate 80 opened, connecting Bloomsburg at long last with New York and Chicago. As yet, the significance of these changes remains imperfectly dis­closed; but Bloomsburg is a town in transition, moving away from the dream of major regional importance based on industrial excellence toward some new but as yet undefined future.

Berwick, the other large community along the river’s north bank, lies at the eastern edge of the county. Laid out on a bluff in orderly grid fashion by specu­lator Evan Owen in 1783, the town was settled by people of British heritage be­ginning in 1786. Until the Civil War, Berwick remained nothing more than a way station along a turnpike and the North Branch Canal. By 1860 the popu­lation numbered merely 625, serving passing traffic with repairs, foodstuffs and newspapers. The community may have been a pleasant place to visit, but few found reason to locate there.

The groundwork for change had been laid, however. In 1840, Mordecai Jack­son and George Mack built a foundry on the northern edge of the borough co manufacture agricultural implements. For a decade it remained a small oper­ation, employing about fifteen workers. Then, in the 1850s, Jackson, now in partnership with William H. Woodin, rapidly expanded the plant and added castings for railroad rolling stock to his list of products. The Civil War provided a boon to the business. In 1865-66 the company received an order from the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad for hun­dreds of coal cars, which were built at the rate of five or six each day. The foundry employed 150 men by 1866, had enlarged the car shop and installed the finest available steam-powered ma­chinery. Despite a devastating fire that year, the plant continued to be enlarged an,d, as railroad construction began to peak in America, production increased. Throughout the 1870s, orders poured in, the labor force quadrupled and buildings went up on two separate sites in Berwick.

The community responded to the growth of the company. Its population of 923 in I 870 reached 2,095 by I 880. The area encompassed by the borough had doubled by 1878. New school facili­ties were constructed in 1870 and en­larged four years later. Churches multi­plied and mercantile houses flourished along with many fraternal, patriotic and social associations. Movement, opti­mism, expansion, reward and expectancy characterized Berwick and its attitude as it commenced a dizzying ascent toward local, regional and, at the turn of the century, national prominence as a car-building community.

Whereas during the period between 1890 and World War II the other sec­tions of Columbia County struck pla­teaus and underwent changes of outlook which gradually converted optimism to diminished expectations, Berwick en­tered its halcyon days. To combat in­creasingly stiff competition and rising costs, thirteen car manufacturers on or east of the Mississippi River joined to form the American Car and Foundry Company in 1900. The Berwick divi­sion, the largest on the East Coast, be­came the corporation showpiece, with its head, Frederick H. Eaton, serving as the first president of the ACF. For half a century, the Berwick plant and com­munity grew.

The population of the town increased dramatically during the early decades, by forty-five percent during the 1890s and an additional one hundred and eighty percent by 1910, growing to more than 15,000. Despite having numerous businesses and services, Berwick existed because of one major employer, the American Car and Foundry Company, with its bi-weekly payroll of nearly $100,000 in 1913 for close to 6,000 workers. Public facilities kept pace with growth. The trolley provided a conven­ient system of intra-neighborhood trav­el to work or to new recreation sites throughout the vicinity. New businesses serving local needs and interests emerged in the 1920s and 1930s to com­plement ACF, among them the Wise po­tato chip company. Even throughout most of the depression, ACF managed to stay in operation.

During World War II, the plant em­ployed as many as 9,000 workers to build tanks and other armored vehicles. Payrolls soared and the population of Berwick edged upward toward 20,000 in the 1940s. With the end of the war, the company and the community fell back on the railroad industry, but as different technologies and marketing patterns re­duced the importance of trains, ACF cut steadily back. Then, in 1962, it closed its gates in Berwick, laying off the remaining 2,800 workers and hurl­ing the borough into a momentary pan­ic.

Berwick responded promptly, expect­ing to rebound, its traditional confi­dence undiminished. Borrowing money for business reconstruction under the provisions of the Area Redevelopment Act – the first borough in America to take advantage of the recent federal statute-it purchased the former ACF property and leased it to several foundries and related firms. As the war in Vietnam peaked, employment returned to earlier ACF levels, but peace once more unsettled the town’s economy. Since the mid-1970s there has been a se­rious downturn in manufacturing activ­ity. Unemployment is high, and none are certain of the future direction of the community; but having passed through a similar ordeal twenty years ago, Ber­wick plans for its future soberly, still confident.

Diversity within a superimposed po­litical boundary is the hallmark of Columbia County’s history. Long into the current century the people of each of the three geographic areas pursued sepa­rate goals in independent fashions. In the southern region, the valley and Catawissa developed selective mutual bonds through agriculture, even though outlooks consistently differed. Centra­lians faced away from Columbia Coun­ty, their isolation partly physical and partly the result of vastly different expe­riences. Residents of the northern area approached opportunities for change with caution, preferring familiar rela­tionships and comfortable traditions to novelty and uncertainty. In Bloomsburg and Berwick, on the other hand, growth and prosperity based on industry gave these communities a progressive opti­mism. When the industrial base col­lapsed, there followed a weakening of the aggressive self-confidence character­istic of these centers on the north bank of the Susquehanna.

During the past twenty years or so, new forces and conditions have seemed to lessen diversity and point toward uni­ty. The comparative decline of agricul­tural production, coupled with the im­pact of television, super highways and urban decay, has begun to affect the southern and northern portions of the county, turning them slowly into rural suburbs. Residents have become more and more dependent upon the multiple services and conveniences offered by Bloomsburg and Berwick at a time when both communities, no longer under­girded by their traditional industries, are moving carefully toward an uncer­tain future. As that future unfolds, it becomes increasingly apparent that the traditional regions of Columbia County will be forced to face their common problems together, challenging the uniqueness of their distinct and diverse pasts.

 

Craig A. Newton received his Ph.D. from Western Reserve University and has been a professor of history at Bloomsburg State College since 1966. He is the author and editor of more than a dozen articles and extended essays on local history, including the monograph (with James R. Sperry) A Quiet Boom­town: Jamison City, Pa., 1889-1912.