Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Between 1880 and 1920 a dialectic of sorts operated in Snyder County. These were years of decline. This decline was both absolute, in population and the generation of wealth, and relative, when compared to the growth in numbers, wealth and cultural richness occuring elsewhere. The area did not have easily tilled fertile soil; its minerals were neither accessible nor rich; its population was scattered and small; and it was relatively remote from the larger economic and cultural “markets” being developed in America during those years. There was little that Snyder countians could do to affect most of these factors and the lives of many in the area had an inertial quality to them.

Nevertheless, during these very years a “boom” of sorts developed in the county. This “boom” was expressed in specific projects bringing the amenities of “modern” life to the area, and in the attitudes of aggressive local boosters. These projects and attitudes, while largely indigenous to the county, were dependent upon outside capital and ideas. This “boom” peaked in 1907, but the energies it had released led to several new projects in succeeding years.

Between 1800 and 1880 the population in the Snyder County area grew from 4,636 to 17,797. This population increase correlated with the economic opportunities to be had in this rural central Pennsylvania area. Most of the settlers were farmers mixing self-sufficiency with minor commercial relationships. The bulk of the population tended to concentrate in the eastern boroughs and townships adjacent to the Susquehanna Division of the Pennsylvania Canal System. Port Trevorton, for example, was founded in 1854 and was given its name because the Trevorton, Mahanoy and Susquehanna Railroad built a railroad bridge and line to that town to ship anthracite coal down the canal. The canal also facilitated the development of local industries such as the modest canal-boat building industry developed at Selinsgrove in the years before the Civil War.

The canal lowered transportation costs and made the extraction and processing of local raw materials economically feasible. Timber was logged off Shade and Jack’s Moun­tains and ripped into boards at the several lumber mills operating near the logging camps. Iron ore was mined from the mountains and an iron smelting furnace was built at Paxtonville in 1848. This furnace ceased operations in 1866 but iron continued to be mined and was carried to the canal by six- and eight-mule teams.

In 1871 the Sunbury and Lewistown Railroad was built through the central valley causing the population to grow westward out into the county and encouraging local far­mers to increase their production of commercial crops. Although the economy of the area remained principally agricultural, light industries began to emerge – again, because the railroad lowered transportation charges. These industries were small, labor-intensive and vulnerable to national economic crises. Villages, such as McClure and Kreamer, emerged because of the opportunities presented by these light industries and the railroad.

The population growth of the county and the economic opportunities which caused this growth, ended during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Population declined from 1880 through 1910 and did not reach its previous high until 1930. The canal had never been a finan­cial success and was abandoned in the 1890’s, a decade after the end of the boat building industry. By 1900 the lumber boom in the whole central Pennsylvania area had turned to a bust and milling and logging in Snyder County ended. The iron mines had also closed because, like Snyder County’s farms, they were put at a competitive disadvan­tage when superior and cheaper output from the West was shipped East. Although light industries of various types (to manufacture bricks, shirts, shoes, whips and the like) continued to be established in the county, these em­ployed few people and had a very tenuous existence.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Snyder countians faced the bleak prospects awaiting many of the rural areas of a nation which was rapidly urbanizing and industrializ­ing. Young people migrated from the county seeking better life-chances in the cities or in the West. Many of those who remained did not have the spirit or resources to exact change. George Washington Wagenseller, the editor of the Middleburg Post, summarized the situation as follows:

The records of deaths and births of Snyder County during the period (1890-1914) have shown at least 200 more births each year than deaths – often more. What has become of these 200 per year? They emigrated to other terri­tory. Why? In search of employment.

Had we provided employment and kept here only those who were born here, Snyder County would have 10,000 more people now just by taking care of her own offspring. We have a conservative people; we commend their thrift and economy, but the broader use of money, in industrial development is a new and an untried field for them.

These basic conditions of population attrition and eco­nomic malaise were not reversed in Snyder County until the 1920’s when light industries expanded and the number of residents increased. Nevertheless, from 1900 to 1920 im­portant elements in the county’s infrastructure were developed and a spirit of “boom” briefly existed. Instigation for this development came both from inside and outside the county. Local boosters touted the advantages of Snyder County through weekly newspapers and gathered some local capital for the expansion of telephone, electric and transportation services. An editorial in the Snyder County Tribune in 1906, however, indicated that the energy of local residents was not enough to make the county move ahead:

We have a dearth of men of means and a dis­position on the part of the few who have some means to keep their hands off of everything which might lead to the betterment of the financial conditions of Selinsgrove and the sur­rounding country. We are looking forward to a better condition of things and have faith enough to believe that there are brighter days in store for us, but certain it is that if this new state of affairs is to successfully dawn upon us, it must be brought about through the agency of outside influence.

The “agencies of outside influence” were speculators who sought investment opportunities in many rural areas of America between 1900 and 1920. They provided the tech­nical expertise and much of the capital for various projects developed in Snyder County in these years; and, they were largely responsible for a land boom in the eastern regions of the county from 1906 to 1908.

This mixture of local and outside interests led to the development of a telephone system in Snyder County. The convenience and utility of this device made it attractive to local residents. In 1897 the Penn Telephone Company of Selinsgrove was founded by stockholders living in Sunbury, Selinsgrove, Middleburg and Freeburg. By the end of that year, lines had been strung from Selinsgrove to Middleburg and Freeburg; in 1900 Port Trevorton was included in the system. This local telephone system appears to have been a financial burden to its owners, for in 1900 they sold out to a larger telephone system, the Juniata and Susquehanna with most of the original stockholders dropping out of the new company. This process, by which smaller companies were absorbed into larger telephone systems, continued during the first decade of the twentieth century and the local system eventually became part of the United Tele­phone and Telegraph Company of Delaware.

The result of this growth was shoddy telephone service, deteriorating equipment, and eventually a competing com­pany organized and operated by Snyder countians. In 1910 a group of men from Middleburg organized the Middle­creek Valley Telephone Company, but this company was not wholly the product of local interest. The Belt Tele­phone system operated to the north and east of the county and the ineptitude of the United Telephone Company’s operation prevented long distance calls from r􀀝aching Snyder County. As a result, representatives of the Bell system encouraged local residents to create this new service. The Middlecreek Valley Company strung lines ahead of cus­tomer interest, reaching Selinsgrove and Mifflinburg (Union County) in 1910 and Kratzerville in 1912. As service ex­panded, the company slowly became financially solvent. Two telephone systems competed in the county until 1931 when the Middlecreek Valley Company finally bought out the United.

Local telephone service presaged the development of an electrical system by acquiring franchise rights from local political bodies, encouraging customers, and putting in poles and stringing wires. Many local residents were active in both enterprises, particularly George W. Wagenseller, the aforementioned editor of the Middleburg Post. However, the generation and extension of electrical service encountered engineering and political complications that the telephone systems did not have to face.

The first electrical service in the county was established by individuals who generated electricity with their own dy­namos for use in their own homes or businesses. Others, who lacked the capacity to generate their own electricity, also wanted the service. So, between 1898 and 1906 boroughs in the county granted franchises to various compan­ies to build electric generators for their towns, but none was built apparently because capital for such projects was difficult to raise.

In 1906 a merger of three “paper” electric companies and one company in actual operation resulted in the creation of the Middlecreek Electric Company. The three “paper” companies, the Selinsgrove, Middleburg and Sun­bury electric companies, were owned by the same five men who merely had franchise rights to provide electricity to those boroughs. The Northumberland Electric Light, Heat and Power Company, the fourth company, had a generating plant. The stockholders in the merged Middlecreek Electric Company were all from Snyder and Northumberland counties.

Many problems had to be solved before the dream of electrical service became a reality. The initial plan of the company was to dam Middle Creek just below Selinsgrove and divert water into a tunnel (dug through a mountain adjacent to the Susquehanna River) into which a water turbine was to be placed. Because the water drop through the proposed tunnel was deemed to be insufficient, how­ever, that plan was abandoned and the dam was built sim­ply to provide the power for an electric generator. But labor problems arose when the crew of 150 Italians who were hired to build the dam went on strike and had to be replaced by local men. With these difficulties overcome, right-of-ways were acquired and electrical poles were strung throughout eastern Snyder County.

Unfortunately, as the engineering problems encountered by the Middlecreek Electric Company were solved, finan­cial and political problems emerged. The whole project was more expensive than had been estimated and local and out­side (Scranton) capital was drawn with two bond drives. Releases to permit electrical lines north of Selinsgrove were obtained only by promises to build an electric trolley which would connect Selinsgrove and Sunbury. To carry both the electric lines and the trolley over the Susquehanna River to Sunbury, a bridge had to be built. The local “boosters” pushing the electric company thus found themselves also promoting an electric trolley and a toll bridge.

Wagenseller and the other local residents involved in the electric company joined forces with the York Bridge Company to raise the capital for the toll bridge. The York Bridge Company had the rights to build such a bridge from Sunbury to Shamokin Dam but had not exercised these rights due to insufficient local interest. Taking advantage of the “boom atmosphere” that existed in 1906-1907, the York Bridge Company now planned to build not only the toll bridge but the electric trolley as well.

By the end of 1907 the electrical system was operating in the eastern section of the county, the toll bridge had been built across the Susquehanna River and the Sunbury­Selinsgrove Railway Company had six cars operating be­tween the two towns. The extension of electrical service into eastern Snyder County led to the bridge and trolley. The trolley, in turn, led to the creation of a large park in Hummel’s Wharf just north of Selinsgrove.

The owners of the trolley were not satisfied with local patronage of their service and decided to build a “people’s park” which would give local residents a reason to ride on their cars. To accomplish this end, Rolling Green Park was built half-way between Sunbury and Selinsgrove in 1908. The park, with its dance pavilion, band stand, picnic tables and shelters, came to be a focal point for recreational activity in eastern Snyder County for fifty years.

The completion of the electric system, toll bridge and trolley, contributed to a boom atmosphere that existed in Snyder County from 1906 to 1908. The editor of the Sny­der County Tribune, Joseph Lumbard, expressed the excitement and hopes which were alive in 1906: “the fame of Selins Grove has gone forth over the whole state and we its citizens are sure to reap a rich harvest along with outside capitalists who are spending their money here in vast de­velopments.” Among the “developments” to which Lumbard was referring, were the plans of the Sunbury Brick Company to open a $100,000 plant in the middle of the county; the engineering prospectus for an electric trolley connecting Lewisburg (Union County) with Selinsgrove and Middleburg; the founding of the Farmer’s National Bank in Selinsgrove; and a worker-survey undertaken in Selins­grove by an anonymous shirt manufacturer – all in 1907. The boom attitude was also manifested in the quest for land in eastern Snyder County.

Late in 1906 local newspapers reported that real estate speculators from Pittsburgh were looking at land adjoining Selinsgrove borough. This land was actually purchased by Wagenseller and three other men from Middleburg who were optimistic about the growth of Snyder County. They planned to lay out building lots, but the Selinsgrove Town Council refused to annex the property and their plans were dropped. In 1907 the land and adjoining properties of the defunct Maine Saw Mill in Selinsgrove were also purchased. These speculative land purchases were made because local residents believed their area to be on the verge of an extensive development. The creation of electrical service and the building of the toll bridge and trolley provided visible proof of this expansion, but the mysterious purchasing of land options on a vast tract of land just north of Selinsgrove fed the speculative fever.

Land options were purchased from June of 1906 until mid-1907 by J. Murray Africa, the chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Howard Schnure, the President of the First National Bank of Selinsgrove, assisted Africa as over three thousand acres in Monroe Township were obtained for reasons which were not then published. The Pennsylvania Railroad was planning to build a major freight classification yard and construction shop on this ground partly because the classification yards at Sunbury were becoming overly congested and the land there was deemed prohibitively expensive. While the land purchasing went on, the residents in eastern Snyder County were excited and hopeful. However, plans were altered late in 1908 when the death of the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad brought about a change in management. With that change, plans to develop eastern Snyder County were dropped. The land remained in the hands of the railroad, but rather than develop the area themselves, the owners leased the land to farmers and the National Guard.

The speculative fever that had gripped Snyder County for three years ended in 1908. The mysterious “Africa Project” added nothing to the county; the Middlecreek Electric Company proved to be a financial burden and was sold in 1911 to the Northumberland Gas and Electric Company; the Sunbury and Selinsgrove Railway Company went bankrupt in 1903 and was continually in receivership until it went out of business in 1934; the Sunbury Brick Company never raised sufficient capital to build its plant; and the speculative land boom in the eastern end of the county quietly ended.

The speculative fever would visit Snyder countians again but it was not the principal lever for growth in the area. Rather, Snyder County would grow in stow incremen­tal steps as light industry developed, the arteries of trans­portation and communication reached into the county and the quiet richness of small town life captured the affection of the area’s young. Nevertheless, as growth occurred, it would be built upon the services developed in the county during the speculative boom of this bygone era.


Dr. Housley is an Associate Professor of History and Director of Curriculum and Faculty Develop­ment at Susquehanna University. Besides writing various other articles on the county, he edited and was principal author of Snyder County, Pennsyl­vania From Pioneers to the Present.