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

Despite its size, Mon­tour County – with an area measuring one hundred and thirty square miles, making it the smallest county in the Commonwealth – claims an undeniably large role in the cultural, political and indus­trial development of Pennsyl­vania. Organized less than a century and a half ago, the county lays hold to a number of distinctions which hallmark its place in Pennsylvania’s history and heritage. Among other unique characteristics, it is the only county named in honor of a woman. Montour County is also the birthplace of the inventor of the typewriter.

Pioneers credited with the settling and earliest development of Montour County were the members of the Montgom­ery family, the head of which, Gen. William Montgomery, had already achieved recogni­tion as a member of the Asso­ciators, Benjamin Franklin’s military unit, and as a delegate to the convention “of the peo­ple of the Province of Pennsyl­vania” called for the founding of a form of “modern” state government which officially ended William Penn’s provin­cial government. From Chester County, General Montgomery settled in the area of Northum­berland County where he purchased one hundred and eighty acres on the bank of the north branch of the Susque­hanna River called Karkaase. He founded a settlement, later known as Danville, in 1774.

Prior to Montgomery’s settlement, a band of Delaware Indians, the Lenni-Lenape, inhabited the territory at the mouth of the nearby Mahon­ing Creek. The earliest settlers, mostly Scotch-Irish and Ger­man immigrants, lived-and with good reason-in constant fear of Indian attacks. In addi­tion to the Delaware Indians and tribes of Senecas and Shawnees, the pioneers had to bravely contend with the Six Nations (Iroquois) lead by the famous Shikellamy. Incited by British emissaries, the Indians aided Great Britain and ma­rauded through the wilderness territory, terrorizing and, in some cases, murdering the early pioneers.

Widespread were Indian atrocities. General Montgom­ery built a house and mill at Mahoning and brought his wife and children from Ches­ter County in 1776. His family was forced to return southeast two years later as the Indian attacks grew more frequent and much more brutal. They returned to Montour County in 1780, but only after some modicum of safety could be assured.

Montgomery’s settlement, founded in 1774, was officially laid out in 1792 and formally named Danville in honor of the general’s son, Daniel. During the same year General Montgomery built his hand­some stone and wooden resi­dence, commonly called “the mansion,” at the intersection of Bloom and Mill streets. The last member of the Montgom­ery family, Helen Russell, Lived in the residence until her death in 1940, after which the substantial property became the Montgomery House Museum.

Early settlers braved fero­cious Indian assaults and it was not until Sullivan’s expe­dition of 1779 that the remote countryside was cleared of both the British and the Native Americans. Roads through the mountainous region were virtually non-existent, except for the Indian paths which were narrow and circuitous. Supplies for the pioneers were hauled up the Susquehanna River in large Durham boats during the summer months. During the winter, the pio­neers traveled the snow-laden landscape in sleds as far as Reading, Berks County seat, and bartered for goods such as salt, iron, nails, even Jamaica rum.

When Northumberland County was established in 1772, it included what is now Columbia County, of which Montour was a part. Columbia was sliced out of Northumber­land and organized as a new county on March 15, 1813. Danville served as its county seat until 1845 when Blooms­burg became the seat of county government. Danville’s resi­dents protested the move of the county seat and demanded a division of Columbia County. Valentine Best, publisher of the Danville Intelligencer, was elected to the state senate, of which he was named presi­dent. Through his influence, an act creating a new county called Montour, with Danville as its seat, was passed by the legislature on May 3, 1850. Upon passage of the act, Best resigned his seat in the senate, returning to Danville to con­tinue publication of the news­paper. Elated with their victory, residents of the new county hauled a cannon to the mountaintop overlooking Danville and fired it through­out the day.

The new county was named for Madame Catharine Mon­tour (1680?-1752?), Indian interpreter, negotiator and peacemaker. A woman with a contradictory history – perhaps much of it self-inspired­ – Madame Montour claimed to be a half-breed French Indian whose father had been a gov­ernor of Canada. Although her lineage is unconfirmed, it is known that a French noble­man named Montour did settle in Canada about 1685, where he married a Huron Indian woman and fathered one son and two daughters. The son, while in the French service, was wounded during a fight with two Mohawk warriors on Lake Champlain. He was killed in 1709 while attempting to induce twelve of the western tribes to support the British. One of his sisters, a Madame Montour, became a noted interpreter and friend of the English. At the age of ten, she was captured by some Iroquois Indians and adopted by the Senecas. She eventually married a Seneca and bore him five children. Upon his death she married the noted Oneida chief, Carondowanen, or “Big Tree,” who later took the name Robert Hunter in honor of the royal governor of the province of New York. In 1729 Hunter was killed while waging war against the Catawbas.

Madame Montour, reputed as well-educated and attrac­tive, was entertained by mem­bers of society on her trips to Philadelphia. In 1727 she served as the official inter­preter at a conference of the Six Nations, Conestoga, Gana­wese and Susquehanna Indi­ans on one side and Deputy Gov. Patrick Gordon and the Provincial Council on the other.

Although evidence was uncovered to support her French-Canadian nationality and deny her claims to Indian heritage, she preferred the lifestyle and dress of her adopted people. She resided among them at Ostonwackin (Montoursville), often called Frenchtown, in 1734. Famous Indian negotiator Conrad Weiser visited the settlement in 1737 on his way to Onon­daga. He described Madame Montour as French by birth, with a good background, but a woman “in mode of life, a complete Indian.”

Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, the Moravian missionary, visited Shamokin (now Sunbury) in 1742 and was welcomed by Madame Montour who had moved there from Ostonwackin. He had traveled to preach and was astonished to find that Madame Montour, who had been taught by French teach­ers, believed that Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, was in France, and that it was the English who crucified Him. She broke out in tears when she realized how much of the Christian doctrine she had forgotten – or never knew.

Because of her loyalty to the proprietary government, her sons, Henry and Andrew, received large grants of “dona­tion land” from the govern­ment. Henry’s tract overlooked the Chillisquaque Creek in Northumberland County; Andrew’s property bordered the Loyalsock Creek near present-day Montoursville, Lycoming County.

Once the site of Indian councils, Danville also wit­nessed great industrial devel­opment. For more than a century, Danville was known as an “iron town,” as its red earth contained rich iron ore and limestone deposits. Its location made it ideal for mar­keting and shipping the fin­ished products. From 1838 to 1938, when the “Big Mill” was dismantled, iron and steel monopolized the area’s indus­trial development. At first, workers and their families emigrated from England and Wales, but it was not long after that the Eastern European immigrants clamor,ed for jobs in the mills.

Ownership of the mills changed as frequently as their names. During the large oper­ation’s history, at least three explosions rocked the mill. The worst occurred in 1896 when a twenty-eight foot boiler exploded and a section catapulted through the sky, killing five men, an infant and injuring thirty-three people.

Danville – at times called Mahorung, Montgomery’s Landing and Dan’s Town – was the site in 1845 where the first iron T-rail in America was made. Robert Livingston Stevens (1787-1856) invented the T-rail while aboard a voy­age to England to study rail transportation. He also in­vented a metal plate, a “fish­plate,” to cover the joint between the rails.

The golden era of industri­alization lured puddlers and their families who arrived in Danville by boat. They were openly greeted by the towns­people and settled in the company-built tenements. The company store made it difficult for small independent stores to prosper, let alone compete, because the workers were forced to buy at the company­-owned provisions house. Boasting that it sold “every­thing,” the company store’s army of forty clerks sold more than a half-million dollars of merchandise in 1872 alone!

The next year saw a great decline in the rampant pros­perity. A general economic depression and sweeping unemployment followed the panic of 1873. Sir Henry Besse­mer’s innovative process of making steel (and ultimately steel rails) initiated the decline of Danville’s iron industry. Local iron deposits could not match Minnesota’s seemingly endless supplies; in fact, the local deposits began becoming depleted or were too deep to be mined profitably.

In 1873, the fame of Dan­ville’s “Big Mill” had spread around the world. Although many signs foretold a gradual weakening, the iron industry continued a hold, albeit some­what diminished, on the com­munity. In fact, the mill survived, in its lessened state, to 1938.

Even before the rail indus­try loomed so giant and powerful, Danville and Montour County enjoyed shipping via the Susquehanna River which was, by law in 1771, deemed a navigable river on which no dams or obstructions could be built.

Every spring, rafts were assembled to carry whiskey and flour downstream. Three men usually manned the raft, unloaded the goods at the marketplace, sold the raft for wood and returned to Danville on foot. During the first quar­ter of the nineteenth century, entrepreneurs were deter­mined to navigate the Susque­hanna River by steam boat. Early accounts chronicle one of the first journeys by steam during which the craft ex­ploded not far from Danville at the Nescopeck Falls. Although the boat steamed its way through the river’s rapids, it lost power and collided with a wall of stones, much to the horror of the crowds which had assembled on the banks of the river to cheer on the novel. Four passengers were scalded to death and many were in­jured. Daunted, the investors who had eagerly promoted river trade by steam boat called the Susquehanna River “dam­nable” and quickly lost interest in their project.

In 1826, the legislature, recognizing the need for im­proved water transportation, passed an act which provided for the construction of a canal – and one which would be paid for entirely by the Commonwealth. Planners envisioned this man-made waterway as a link between eastern and western waters, as well as with Lake Erie. Prob­lems seemed almost insur­mountable as builders undertook the herculean task of digging the network of connecting canals solely by hand. Engineers were few, primarily because the only college offering studies in engineering at the time was the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The North Branch Division Canal, to serve Montour County, extended along the Susquehanna River from Northumberland to the Lack­awanna River above Pittston. It passed through Danville, opposite Catawissa, and through Rupert, Bloomsburg, Espy. Berwick, Nanticoke, Wilkes-Barre and Pittston. Seven locks facilitated the sixty-nine foot drop in water levels. The canal also required the building of a stone aque­duct at Rupert, weigh scales at Beach Haven and a dam across the river at Nanticoke. Boat building and repairs were undertaken at boat yards at Espy, Northumberland, Selins­grove, Bloomsburg and Wilkes-Barre.

The Pennsylvania Canal entered Danville parallel to the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, near the state hospital. Canal boats, laden with coal, pig iron, food­stuffs, salt, fire-clay and lum­ber, peacefully glided through the still canal waters to mar­kets never seen by the region’s land-locked residents and merchants.

It was not long until a mys­tique surrounded the canals and the canallers who piloted these boats. Babies were born on canal boats and lived their entire lives on the meandering canals. Education for the canal children consisted of only a few weeks of schooling during the frozen winter months. The odor of the mules and cramped quarters permeated their clothing and the school children called these strange young visitors “hair pounders.”

In Montour County, several of the Mottern family men “plowed the ditch,” one of whom, Chris, was not only a canaller, but a canal historian as well. Jerry Mottern’s record of hauling two hundred and eighty-seven tons of coal in twenty-three and a half days from Nanticoke to New York and back has never been sur­passed by a double canal boat. Charles, the youngest Mot­tern, actually transported Roach’s Iron and Rail Mill – the engine, flywheels, iron plates and four huge boilers – all on the deck of one Pennsylvania Canal Company Service boat.

By the mid-nineteenth century, a new method of transportation – one which did not rely on the vagaries of water levels – began threaten­ing the canal. The railroads, heavily promoted by wealthy investors and speculators, assumed most of the shipping both in and out of Pennsylva­nia, against which the canals were unable to compete.

The official demise of the canals serving Danville came in 1901. The canal was ordered drained immediately – even though a hundred boats, loaded with anthracite and destined for Harrisburg, waited in the holding basin at Nanticoke. James Bassinger of Lockport took charge and, with careful planning and exact timing, saw the last boat through the canal as the drain­ing began. Independent pilots who refused to heed numer­ous warnings awoke the next day to find their boats mired in the drained and muddy pas­sages. Many of the marooned boats were burned where they beached.

In addition to its promi­nence as an iron maker and as a canal town, Montour County has also supported clothing factories, various machinery industries and crushed stone plants. In industry, one of its more important “sons” was Christopher Sholes, born at Mooresburg in 1819, who in­vented the typewriter. His idea surfaced while he worked as a printer’s devil for the Danville Intelligencer. He further devel­oped his idea after moving to Wisconsin and invented his “writing machine,” forerunner of the modern typewriter. Sholes made the first working model in November 1866. Throughout its history, Mon­tour County, in spite of its size, has contributed greatly to the civilization and develop­ment of Pennsylvania. By exploiting its natural re­sources, primarily its rich lode of iron ore and its precious waters, the county has perse­vered. Several historians have independently concluded that many of the county’s accom­plishments can be traced to a sort of romance between county and countians. They point to the desperate years of Indian inhabitation, to the economic crises and to the industrial failures. But they, too, point with pride to the many achievements, the many “firsts” for Montour County. And it soon becomes evident that there is a romance in­volved. A romance that has allowed Montour County to thrive and prosper.

 

For Further Reading

Battle, J. H. History of Colum­bia and Montour Counties. Chicago: A. Warner and Co., 1887.

Diehl, Fred W. History of Mon­tour County 1769-1969. Dan­ville: Thomas Beaver Free Library, 1969.

Egle, William H. History of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: De Witt C. Goodrich and Co., 1876.

Foulke, Arthur Toye. My Dan­ville. North Quincy, Mass.: Christopher Publishing House, 1969.

Historical and Biographical Annals of Columbia and Mon­tour Counties, Pennsylvania. Chicago: J. H. Beers and Co., 1915.

 

Ethel V. Hinkel, a native Philadel­phian, received her bachelor of arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Following the death of her husband, Dr. Charles Luther Hinkel, in 1956, site taught French, English and his­tory from 1957 through 1978. Her civic and community interests and duties are many. She is curator of Danville’s Montgomery House Museum and a member of the Danville Art League. The author is serving her third term as school director of the Danville Area School District, her fourth term as an elder of Grove Church and currently serves as president of the Montour-Columbia Vo-Tech Board. She is also an active mem­ber of the Pennsylvania Health Care Policy Board, Central Penn­sylvania Health System and Head Start.