History of Lycoming County, Lloyd, Chapter 07

Created: Tuesday, 12 April 2011 Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 March 2017 Written by Nathan Zipfel Print Email

CHAPTER VII

LYCOMING COUNTY ERECTED

AN ATTRACTIVE LOCATION - NECESSITY FOR A NEW COUNTY - FAILURE OF MEASURE IN 1786  -  EFFORT TO REMOVE COUNTY SEAT DEFEATED - BILL ERECTING COUNTY PASSED IN 1795 - EXTENT OF NEW COUNTY - FIRST OFFICIALS - SELECTING A COUNTY SEAT - COURTS ORGANIZED - RIVAL CLAIMANTS FOR COUNTY SEAT - WILLIAMSPORT SELECTED - JAIL AND COURT HOUSE BUILT

Following the restoration of peace that portion of the Susquehanna Valley lying west of the Muncy Hills began to fill up rapidly. it was an attractive country for settlers, the soil was fertile and the climate healthful. The Indian menace had vanished with the close of hostilities and the inhabitants could now live in peace

It was not long after this that it became apparent that the county of Northumberland embraced too much territory and its townships were too large. It covered almost one-fourth of the entire state in point of area and at the close of the Revolution was divided into five townships located between the Muncy Hills and Lock Haven, a distance of forty miles. In 1786 Muncy Township, the largest of these, was stripped of that portion lying between the Loyalsock and Lycoming creeks and a new one erected to which was given the name of Loyalsock and thus it has continued to the present day except that portion of it embraced within the limits of the city of Williamsport.

As the population increased, the difficulties, of traveling all the way to Sunbury to attend court increased at the same time. It was a week's journey to go and come from the upper part of the county and the trip was accompanied by a very considerable expense which those whose attendance upon the courts was necessary could ill afford.

The necessity for another county became urgent. Had the lands in Northumberland County have lain in a compact body the case might have been different. But they stretched along both sides of the river forming a narrow ribbon so long that it was necessary to traverse half the width of the state to reach the county seat. Naturally, those persons residing at Sunbury and the lower parts of the county were opposed to surrendering any part of the territory and thus lessen the number of persons who were helping pay the taxes.

Agitation for a new county began as early as 1786 and was pushed with more or less vigor for nine years, before success was achieved. A bill was presented to the provincial council in 1786 providing for the erection of a new county and although it met with considerable favor, it failed by reason of the determined opposition brought against it. Nothing daunted, the proponents of the measure changed their tactics. At the next session of the council a measure was introduced changing the location of the county seat from Sunbury to a point farther up the river. But this was also doomed to failure. The opposition to it was intense and the representatives of the lower part of the county fearing the success of the latter move, if renewed, switched over to the support of the first bill providing for a separate county and it was actually passed, but for some reason it was not signed by the presiding officer of the council and thus failed of becoming a Law.

This was but the beginning of a supreme struggle which increased in bitterness as the fight progressed and aroused animosities which ramified all over the state. Bill after bill was introduced in the years that followed only to meet the same fate as the first ones. Then, for two years the matter was left in abeyance. In the meantime the population of the upper part of the county was growing rapidly and these people began to have a preponderating influence at Harrisburg.

The struggle was renewed in 1794 when another petition was presented for the removal of the county seat to some point west of Lycoming Creek. This petition was ordered to lie on the table. Then, on the twenty-sixth day of February, a committee of the Senate was ordered to bring in a bill providing for the erection of a new county. One of the members of this committee was William Hepburn, who was the owner of a tract of land at the foot of what is now Park Street in the city of Williamsport and, as a matter of course, he was deeply interested in having a new county organized with the county seat somewhere near his farm. Hepburn was a state senator from the county of Northumberland and was a man of very considerable influence among his colleagues and a full power of this influence was thrown in favor of the new county.

The bill was debated during the months of February and March that followed and on March 19, 1795, it was taken up on third reading. In the original bill the name of the new county was designated as Jefferson but an amendment was offered changing the name to Lycoming. This amendment was lost. It was then proposed to call it Susquehanna but that was voted down as was also the name of Muncy. Finally the name of Lycoming was selected, after the great stream passing through it, and the further consideration of the bill was postponed until March 25, when it was taken up in the Senate, on motion of Mr. Hepburn, and referred to the House. It did not come up in the House until April 11 and then after some discussion it was referred back to the Senate with several amendments. A conference committee was then appointed to endeavor to adjust the differences between the two houses and this committee reported on the thirteenth day of April, 1795, and the bill was then immediately taken up and passed by both houses. It was signed by Thomas Mifflin, the first governor of Pennsylvania. The county was attached to the third congressional district and was allowed one representative in the Legislature. It became a part of the senatorial district composed of Mifflin, Northumberland and Luzerne counties.

At the time of its erection Lycoming County embraced a territory vast in extent and of inestimable commercial value. It comprised, in whole or in part, sixteen of the present counties of the state and extended as far west as the Allegheny River and as far north as the New York state line. It contained more than 12,000 square miles, or over one-fourth of the whole state, and a glance at the map showing the counties which were originally included within its borders will indicate what a magnificent domain it once was. There were the present counties of Armstrong, Bradford, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Indiana, Jefferson, McKean, Potter, Sullivan, Tioga, Venango, Warren, Forest, Elk and Cameron. It was greater in extent than the whole of the state of Massachusetts, and would have made two or three of some of the smaller states. Lycoming County now contains only 1,220 square miles, or about one-twelfth of its original number.

The natural wealth of the county at the time of its creation was incalculable and at that time, of course, unknown. It included vast coal and iron deposits, almost inexhaustible forests of timber, immense quarries of various kinds of stone, valuable for building and other purposes, oil deposits which have since enriched their owners beyond the dreams of avarice, and some of the most fertile agricultural lands in the state. It would be impossible even to estimate the vast amount of wealth that has been developed within the limits of this territory, but it is a safe assertion that it would run into the hundreds of millions, and probably double that amount will be realized within the counties embraced in its original borders during the next half century.

The county was now erected, but it had no officials. Consequently, on the 14th day of April, 1795, Governor Mifflin appointed John Kidd recorder of deeds, register of wills and clerk of the various courts of the new county. The next day, April 15th, 1795, he appointed Samuel Wallis, William Hepburn, John Adlum and Dr. James Davidson first, second, third and fourth associate judges, respectively, with power to organize the courts. They met at the village of Jaysburg, at the bank of the river on the west side of Lycoming Creek, and organized by electing William Hepburn president, and he, therefore, became the first president judge of Lycoming County, although he was not a lawyer. Indeed, none of them was learned in the Jaw.

The next step was to select a county seat. Three places were candidates for the honor, namely Dunnstown, in what is now Clinton County, Jaysburg and Williamsport. A long and bitter fight ensued, which finally terminated in the selection of Williamsport.

The courts now being organized and a county seat selected, it next became necessary to elect officers to enforce the decrees of the courts. An election was therefore held on October 16, 1795, at which time John Hanna, James Crawford and Thomas Forster were elected county commissioners and Samuel Stewart was chosen sheriff. The board of commissioners at their first meeting appointed John Kidd county treasurer, adding one more office to those he already filled. Kidd probably held more offices at one time than any other man in the state. He was the "Pooh Bah" of the new county. He was, at one and the same time, recorder of deeds, register of wills, clerk of the orphans court, prothonotary of the court of common pleas, clerk of the court of quarter sessions, clerk of oyer and terminer and county treasurer. He was, however, a man of education and culture and became of great importance in the new county.

Lycoming County was now fully organized, and from that time down to the present has been one of the most important in the state. The first jail, on the site of the present structure, was completed in 1801, and the first court house, also on the site of the present one, was completed in 1804. The court house bell, hauled in a wagon from Philadelphia, was placed in position in the same year and from that day to this has continued in uninterrupted use.

Since its erection as a county, slice after slice has been taken from Lycoming's fair domain until but a small proportion of its original area is left, but it still ranks first in size in the state and in its material growth and development, its beauty of scenery and general healthfulness it is surpassed by none.

The officials of the new county organized sometime between the fifteenth and the twentieth of April, 1795, at the home of Thomas Caldwell at the town of Jaysburg situated at the mouth of Lycoming Creek on the west side. The first entry in the court records is a copy of the act creating a new county.

Three places were striving for the honor of being made the county seat and a bitter fight was waged for some time. Dunnstown, opposite what is now Lock Haven, put in an early claim and the people of Jaysburg were also active and went so far as to secure quarters for the county offices and a place of meeting for the courts. Williamsport also cast its hat into the ring, although not so well located as Jaysburg. The Jaysburg people felt very confident of winning out and, indeed, the location at the mouth of Lycoming Creek would have been an ideal one.

But there was political pull in those days as well as now, there were wheels within wheels and sometimes the little wheel was the biggest. Ex-Senator William Hepburn, being a large land owner in a portion of what is now Williamsport, was deeply interested in having the latter place selected and he brought all his influence to hear on the commissioners appointed to make the selection.

At this juncture another element was injected into the fight. Michael Ross appeared on the scene and joined forces with Judge Hepburn. Ross was the owner of something over two hundred acres of land on a portion of what is now Williamsport and had laid some of it out in lots and erected buildings thereon. He became an important factor in the bitter struggle being waged. And now a new danger confronted the proponents of both Jaysburg and Williamsport. The commissioners were getting tired of the struggle between these places and the selection of Dunnstown to settle the dispute became imminent. In this crisis Judge Hepburn urged upon Michael Ross the necessity of making some kind of inducements to the commissioners. Accordingly he offered to donate a lot for the court house and one for the jail. This seems to have been the deciding factor and Williamsport was selected. But Jaysburg died hard. The courts had already been held there and the county offices were located in the Caldwell tavern. Kidd, who practically filled all the county offices, refused to move to Williamsport and it was only after threats to report the matter to the governor that he consented to move the court records and his office to the county seat.

The fight between Jaysburg and Williamsport was waged with so much asperity that the effects of it are remotely felt even down to the present day. It was many years, after Williamsport had actually became a city of importance, before the residents on the western side of Lycoming Creek could be induced to become a part of it. No record of the report of the commissioners has been preserved but there is no doubt that one must have been made selecting Williamsport as the county seat.

The dissatisfaction that followed the selection of Williamsport for the county seat continued until the beginning of the nineteenth century, a period of four years, and improvements and progress in the village were greatly retarded. Except for a few log houses there were no buildings and when the matter of erecting a jail and court house was broached citizens of Jaysburg and many in the upper end of the county were unwilling to cooperate and, as a matter of fact, interposed obstacles at every turn. The court was a peripatetic affair and moved about from one place to another seeking a permanent abiding place.

In 1800 the building of the jail on the lot donated to the county by Michael Ross was begun on West Third Street where the present structure now stands. It was pushed with vigor and was ready for occupancy the succeeding fall and was fully completed in 1801. It has been used continuously ever since, although two new structures have been erected on the original site. In 1844 a part of the wall was removed and a brick addition built, the upper part of which was used as a lodge room by the Odd Fellows and the lower floor was occupied by the Washington Fire Company.

In 1867 fire destroyed a portion and the rest of it was torn down and an entirely new building erected built of stone completely and surrounded by a stone wall. This building is still standing and has never been altered except in minor details from that day to this, although the beautiful tower was torn down in 1927. It stands in the central part of the business section of the city and is a model of architectural beauty. The first courts were held in the old Russell Inn, a log house which stood at the corner of East Third and Mulberry streets, which was the first dwelling house to be erected within the present limits of the city of Williamsport. They were held in other places from time to time until the necessity of erecting a court house became urgent.

Before the jail was fully finished the erection of a court house on the present site on West Third Street was begun. It was pushed rapidly to completion and was ready for occupancy in 1804. The bell, which still hangs in the tower, was hauled in a wagon from Philadelphia by General John Burrows. This building continued to be used down to the year 1860, when the necessity for larger quarters for the county offices began to be felt. Consequently it was torn down and the present structure erected on the site of the old one. The original building, built at this time, remains unchanged down to the present day, but a commodious addition was erected in the year 1897.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 106-112, History of Lycoming County Pennsylvania, Col. Thomas W. Lloyd, Volume 1, Topeka - Indianapolis; Historical Publishing Company; 1929