Before Williamsport became the lumber capital of the world in the middle and late 1800ís, it was one thing to fell trees and float the timber downriver, but it was another to stop the timber. Major James Perkins solved the problem by building a chain of logs to reach out from the riverbank and "catch" the floating harvest. This gigantic outstretched arm was known as the Susquehanna Boom, and it did, in fact, make the lumber business boom. In the peak days of the lumber era, Williamsport had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States, and the surrounding forests swarmed with lumberjacks. One of them, Cherry Tree Joe McCreary, moved north in later years to do his lumbering, and author James Humes says that Paul Bunyan legends were based on the real-life exploits of McCreary.
Little League Baseball started in Lycoming County over five decades ago with a man of vision named Carl Stotz, a carload of eager kids and a chunk of hard rubber fashioned with a paring knife into a home plate. It wound up as one of the greatest sports stories of the century, affecting the lives of tens of millions of children and adult volunteers worldwide. Visitors to Williamsport can see not only the baseball diamond where the first game was played but also the splendid sports complex where the Little League World Series takes place each year before thousands of spectators. The Peter J. McGovern Little League Museum traces the history and development of the small-fry sport through special hands-on exhibits and other displays.
What experts concede is one of the finest toy train collections in the United States is housed in the Thomas T. Taber Museum of the Lycoming County Historical Society on West Fourth Street in Williamsport. Assembled by the late LaRue Shempp, the collection includes three hundred forty-seven complete trains, one hundred individual locomotives and two working exhibits. Among the rare pieces on display is a No. 1 Gauge German LGB owned by President Ronald Regan. The Orient Express has nine cars, each outfitted on the inside with furniture. The value of individual pieces in the Shempp collection ranges to an astounding $50,000.
In one of the most unusual coincidences in American history, the original settlers of present Ė day Lycoming County declared their independence from Great Britain while, unbeknownst to them, the nationís founding fathers were doing the same thing two hundred miles away in Philadelphia. Assembling under the legendary Tiadaghton Elm Tree at Jersey Shore, west of Williamsport, the Susquehanna Valley settlers signed and approved their own document on July 4, 1776. They then sent it to Philadelphia with two messengers. On their way they encountered hostile Indians but finally arrived in Philadelphia two weeks later, only to discover that a Declaration of Independence had already been approved.
Williamsportís most prominent lumber baron, the wily and fabulously wealthy Peter Herdic was also an inventor. After he completed construction of a glittering resort hotel, one of the finest in the eastern United States, he invented a horse-drawn conveyance-the worldís first taxicab-to take his guests to and from the center of town. Not known for his modesty and humility, Herdic called his invention a "herdic," a word that found its way into the English language and can be found in dictionaries today. Eventually, Herdicís horse-drawn taxi sprouted wheels and took its place as one of the mainstays of urban transportation all over the world.
If youíve toured the White House in Washington, you may have noticed the still-life painting by Severin Rosen, the German native who came to Williamsport in the late 1850ís. He took up residence in a building on the southwest corner of Market and Third Streets. There, smoking his pipe and drinking his beer, he painted his pictures of fruit and flowers, each work extraordinary for its meticulous detail. One Williamsport artist claimed that he could copy exactly any painting anywhere. But after spending several months trying to copy Roesen, he despaired and ordered the painting removed from his sight, saying, "Itís driving me crazy." Roesen was said to have remarked to a young women, "Miss, my paintings will live long after me." Of course, they did and eventually found their way into private collections and museums around the country. Jacqueline Kennedy acquired the White House Roesen in 1961.
On Williamsportís Millionairesí Row on West Fourth Street lived the wealthiest woman in the world in the late 1800ís. She was Anne Weightman Walker Penfield, the "Woman Midas," as she was called in her obituary. Mrs. Penfield entertained lavishly, her guests wearing the latest Paris fashions as they entered her English High Victorian Gothic mansion for parties. It was not uncommon for Mrs. Walker to rent railroad cars and haul her guests off to Niagara Falls for a weekend of entertainment. Her home at 1005 West Fourth Street still stands today, a reminder of the cityís glorious past.
Did you know that when engineers decided to replace the steel cables supporting the Brooklyn Bridge, they called upon Bethlehem Steel Corporationís wire rope plant in Williamsport? The plant had earlier made the wire rope that now supports the roof of Madison Square Garden. Did you know that at one time Avco Lycoming made engines for fifty-seven different auto manufacturers, including the producers of the legendary Auburn, Cord and Duesenburg? Today Avco manufactures engines for more than one hundred-eighty different models of aircrafts and helicopters made in the United States. Avco engines are also used in aircrafts made by thirty-two foreign companies. Over the years Avco, located on High Street, has manufactured more than a quarter million aircraft engines.
Williamsport once was an important link in the Underground Railroad which was used by runaway slaves to gain their freedom. After they reached the city, Daniel Hughes, a Mohawk Indian, greeted them and gave them food and lodging. They then made their way north to Hepburnville using an old Indian trail. From there they continued on to New York State and eventually to Canada.
Although it is said that dead men tell no tales, a Williamsport spook once talked with Mark Twain about the deplorable condition of his grave. It happened on New Yearís Eve, 1869. Twain was in Williamsport to deliver a speech, "Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands," at the Ulman Opera House. The 34 year-old Twain was just blossoming as a major writer, after having published "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." After his lecture Twain visited the run-down Pine Street Cemetery, now the site of Old City Hall, and got the inspiration to write " A Curious Dream." In it a skeleton bemoans the fact that he is unable to get a wink of eternal sleep because of the confoundedly awful conditions of the cemetery.
Move over Mississippi. The Susquehanna River had its cruise boats, too. One, a double-decker steam powered paddle wheeler, called the Hiawatha, carried up to two hundred passengers from Williamsport to Sylvan Dell Park for picnics and outings. Adults paid a ten-cent fair, but kids rode free. In 1914 the boat fell victim to winter ice, and the spring break-up swept it over the dam. Today, however, a new Hiawatha plies the tranquil waters of the Susquehanna on pleasure cruises, thanks to the Chamber of Commerce and the citizens of Lycoming County who contributed their time, money and imaginations to launch her. You can ride this beautiful paddle wheeler, a throwback to an earlier day of bustles and bonnets, boarding her at Susquehanna State Park off of Arch Street.
Williamsport isnít exactly a music Mecca, but it has had composers whose music is known all over the world. One, for example, was James M. Black, a Williamsport Methodist lay revivalist. Although you probably never heard of him, you no doubt have heard two famous songs he composed, "When the Saint Go Marching In" and "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder." Another composer was Rev. J.H. Hopkins who was pastor of Williamsportís Christ Episcopal Church. He wrote the Christmas favorite, "We Three Kings of Orient Are." Williamsportís musicians have done themselves proud, too. Robert E. Lee, impeccably dressed in a crisp uniform complete with a sword, surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, unimpeccably dressed in a mud-spattered privateís coat, on April 9, 1865. The Williamsport Repasz Band was there at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, to play "Yankee Doodle" and the "Star Spangled Banner." The Repasz Band, today the oldest non-military brass band in the United States, also played in Washington for Presidents Taft, Roosevelt and Reagan.
Well known as an outdoorsmanís paradise, Lycoming County was a favorite fishing spot for President Hoover who was hosted by the Texas Blockhouse Fish and Game Club on Texas Blockhouse Creek. President Jimmy Carter went there to try his luck, too. Film actress Katherine Hepburn vacationed at Ogontz Lodge in Salladasburg between Williamsport and Jersey Shore. In western Lycoming County, the Fin, Fur, and Feather Wildlife Museum has an unusual collection of hundreds of wildlife trophies from all continents of the world. There are life size mounts expertly exhibited in authentic duplications of their natural habitats.
Historians say the United States Supreme Courtís Dred Scott decision in 1857 was one of the leading causes of the Civil War. Among the high court justices casting votes in that fateful case was Robert Grier whose home still stands on West Fourth Street at the foot of Grier Street. But Grier was not the cityís most famous judge. That honor goes to Thomas Cooper who served as one of Lycoming Countyís first judges. Of him Thomas Jefferson said, "Cooper is acknowledged by every enlightened man who knows him to be the greatest man in America, in the powers of mind and in acquitted information." Cooper, a physician, scientist and writer, was widely influential as a thinker in his day. As a scientist, he discovered a new way to produce potassium. He also was said to have originated the phrase "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people." Abraham Lincoln used this phrase in his Gettysburg Address.
Williamsportís Gothic masterpiece, Trinity Episcopal Church, received a singular honor when it was completed by Peter Herdicís architect in the last century. John W. Maynard presented the church Americaís first set of Westminster chimes-nine bells weighing seven tons. The church, built of stone quarried at nearly Bald Eagle Mountain, is Williamsportís tallest structure, with a steeple soaring to a height of well over 200 feet.
See the Visitor's Bureau for additional information.