Potter County, Chapter 1, Topography and Natural History

Created: Tuesday, 21 October 2008 Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 February 2014 Written by Nathan Zipfel





JAMES POTTER, after whom the county is named, came into the Susquehanna country soon after the treaty of 1768. He served under Washington or Lafayette during the Revolution, and, when the new purchase was made, he was the agent and surveyor of the land company on the Sinnemahoning.

This county, extending south from latitude 42° thirty-six miles, borders the line of New York State for thirty-one miles, and embraces 1,071 square miles, prairie measure. It is bounded on the west by McKean county; south- west by Cameron county; south by Clinton county, and east by Tioga county. The acreage, prairie measure, would be about 685,440, but owing to the great number of high, cone- like hills, the figure given is far below the area which a true measurement would credit. The population is estimated at about 24,000.*1

The altitudes, based on reports made, to the geological bureau, are given in the introductions to the township historical sketches, but for the purposes of this chapter, the altitudes of the following- named places are given: Coudersport depot, 1,661 feet above ocean level; Roulette, 1,537; southeast corner of Pike township, east of Galeton, 1,300; near Port Allegany, 1,508 feet; Port Allegany, 1,481; Keating Summit, 1,881; Cobb Hill, near Raymond, is said to be 2,500 feet; Summit, southeast of river and opposite quarry at Coudersport, 2,302; hill, northeast of river, one- half mile from town, 2,250; Lamont Summit, 2,297; Newton and Bigby's dam, on Oswayo Creek, 1,525; Hebron Hill, 2,387; near Sharon Centre, 2,320. But the general elevation may be placed at 2,500 feet, from which heights the waters of the great rivers of northern Pennsylvania pour out. The synclinals or troughs occasioned by the dip or incline of their rocks to the center, number seven, named in the order of districts to which they belong, thus: Blossburg basin, in the southeast; Kettle Creek basin next; Mill Creek; Pine Creek basin; Cowanesque basin; Coudersport basin, Oswayo basin and a fraction of the Ceres basin, in the extreme northwest. The synclinals traverse the county from, southwest to northeast, and are separated by the anticlinals or valleys, the rocks of which dip outward toward the base of the synclinal walls. There are six of such valleys in the county: the Stewardson, two miles wide, between the Blossburg and Kettle Creek; next the New Bergen, three or four miles wide; then the C-F, irregular in width, except at county line; next the central, from the corner of Cameron, McKean and Potter counties to north fork in Harrison township -  called the Ulysses-  Homer, anticlinal, two miles wide on the west and six on the northeast; and in the northwest the Roulette- Hebron- Bingham, from two to three miles wide, and the broad Sharon, from five to six miles wide. The geological structure of the clinals, in each section of the county is shown in the pages devoted to township history, where also the attempts to develop gas, oil, coal, lime, building sand and glass sand are noted.

Among the shells discovered in Potter county are orthoceras, cypricardia and rhynchonella in Fishing creek near Stearns; spirifer at Sharon Centre saw- mill, and spirifer and sanguinolites in Fishing creek. In the Catskill red beds of West branch peculiar lithological specimens were found; one and three-fourths miles from Coudersport, on the Homer road, were found stigmaria with long, narrow stems, and one stem eighteen inches long by two and one- half wide. Plant stems of other species were also found here. In 1876 the little archaeopteris was found in Roulette in railroad cut; a mile below the village of Harrison Valley, on Holcomb's farm, a grindstone grist was found, in. 18 76, in the upper Chemung strata, and in a similar strata in Sharon, conglomerate pebbles and small rocks were discovered, and again in the railroad cut near Roulette, plant sterns, fish scales, pieces of plants and obscure lamellibranchita were exhumed.

The mountain sides and valleys of Potter county were formerly covered with a luxuriant growth of timber, pine and hemlock*2 greatly predominating. This timber, were it upon the stumps today, would yield a wonderful capital; but at this date (1887) the last straggling pines are being gathered. This year will probably finish up the pine lumbering of our section, and the hemlock is beginning to fall rapidly beneath the woodman's ax, more for its bark than for its lumber. It would naturally be supposed by those who know nothing of the history of the county that the marketing of this great mass of timber would have made at least a few of our citizens very wealthy, and have greatly improved the financial standing of many more, but this is not the case. We know of no Potter citizen who has been made wealthy by the pine of Potter, and very few who have been benefited even to a moderate degree therefrom. On solution of this problem we will advance the first and most important reasons, and. this is that the bulk of the land in the county has been and still is owned by capitalists living without the county-  in Philadelphia, New York, Williamsport and elsewhere. In an early day, when a piece of land was sold to an actual settler, there was little chance of marketing, and the forest was chopped down and the logs burned in the log heaps of the fallows, many of the fine pines being cut into rails. Later, as the pine became more valuable, when a piece of land was sold the pine was reserved, as is still done, giving the settler so much for preparing it for market, or the land was held until the pine was taken off of it. There were no large mills in the county to manufacture the lumber, and thus bring money into the community. The logs were peeled by gangs of men, and rafted or driven along the streams into the great booms beyond the borders of the county. Many logs went to Pittsburgh, down the Allegheny, in an early day, but of late years the pine has found its way to the boom at Williamsport, to be manufactured in the giant saw- mill at that city, either by way of Pine creek or the Sinnemahoning and Susquehanna. A great majority of the men working in the lumber camps of the county came from beyond the limits of the county. Some camps were made up entirely with loggers from Maine, and even from Canada and other remote points. It was necessary to the prosperity of the owners and jobbers that this should be so, for Potter could not supply the men to do the work. There has ever been sufficient work in the woods for all of the citizens of Potter. But aside from the wages of the rough men, there has been comparatively little of the great profits of the business which has remained in the county. An evil this system has brought is that farms were neglected, and that tracts of land have been left unimproved. One can realize this in an instant when entering a section where a little pine is left, and where lumbering has not yet ceased to tempt the settlers from their homes. A great part of the farms lay in old slashings, with the tree stems lying where they fell. The houses are very primitive, small and uncomfortable. The cattle have a lean, half- starved look, and the people you meet are more or less costumed in the bizarre fashion of the backwoods. Their language overflows with coarse slang, and with the men it is mingled with much profanity. The fences about the farms are tumble- down affairs constructed of mossy rails, logs or brush, slashed in windrows. A general air of dilapidation crowns the whole of the landscape. It is not until this section is entirely cleared of its lumber camps that we may begin to expect improvements upon the farms, whilst a more civilized manner of dressing, and a more Christian- like use of language would be desirable. This same lumbering business which invaded Potter at an early day, and has bound it in slavery down to the present time, is to blame for the uncultivated condition of the greater portion of our county today. It has kept us fifty years in the rear of sections unhampered thereby. Many have been ruined by attempting to work as contractors in a business they did not thoroughly understand. Others have lost their years work by working for unscrupulous contractors or those who were unlucky and insolvent also. Men have been made rich by dealing in the pine of Potter county, but they were foreigners, and they took their money with them to spend elsewhere. Whatever others may have done, our county has been made poorer in every way by the pine forests which at one time beautified its mountain slopes. Could the pine have belonged to our citizens, it would not have been so bad, and even this, we doubt not, would not have made the difference which some believe, As soon as there was a way to market, the pine would have been cut and sold, with more or less of the demoralizing influences at work, the effects of which we now deplore. Potter has been despoiled of her pine, while where it stood are vast barrens to remind us of what once was our pride.

Of the hemlock, much land has been cut over for the bark for tanning purposes, and this has been nearly as demoralizing to the denizens of the hemlock districts as the cutting of the pine. Thousands of acres have been slashed for this purpose, and the timber left to rot and the ground to grow up to fire cherries and briars. At present the prospect is more cheering, as mills are rapidly being built to manufacture the hemlock lumber, with now and then a giant in its way like the great saw-mill at Austin, capable of manufacturing 100,000 feet per day, or 11,000,000 feet every ten days; the colossal mill at Galeton, and the large mill to be built at Nelson by the Lackawanna Lumber Company. Millions of feet of hemlock logs are now being cut every year, and the advantage to us is that we shall reap some benefit from the industry of home manufacture. Beyond the immediate earnings from the lumber business we shall probably have more railway facilities, and be brought nearer en rapport with the vast world of life, an action which lies beyond our borders.

It will now be in place to give some description of how the work has been done of marketing our pine, the modus operandi and the manner of living of the men who take part in this perilous enterprise, for perilous it is. Many a finely organized man has suddenly been stretched in death in the lumber woods, or been drowned during the "drive," or from the timber raft. The camps usually are built in as nearly a central position to the tract to be chopped as possible. Still, as the pine recedes beneath the blows of the ax, the camp is left farther from the scene of labor, until the lumberman finally has to walk two and three miles to and from work. These camps are located near springs of water, and are built of logs chinked with mud and moss, and the roofs covered with hand- made shingles. The interior is divided, usually, into two large rooms below, with pantry, store- room and two bedrooms, one of the latter for the jobber and his wife, if she accompanies him, the other for the female cook. Often a man is employed as cook. One of the large rooms is kitchen and dining- room combined, the other is supplied with benches, and is dubbed the "bar- room," it being the lounging place for the men in the evening. The second story of the building embraces but one room, and as the building is but. a story and a half affair it brings this room immediately under the roof. This is the sleeping apartment of the men. Here are rows of roughly made bunks, covered with heavy blankets and often hay or straw pillows. About this camp the trees are cut away to avoid the danger of having them blown upon the building by heavy winds. Flanking this cabin are the stables and the blacksmith shop. There is much business for the blacksmith here during the life of the job; horses and oxen must be shod, pevy or pike levers and cant hooks must be ironed, chains mended and spikes for the timber slides formed. This cluster of buildings constitutes the camp. The food is of the heartiest sort: pork, beef, potatoes, bread, butter, molasses, turnips, Indian bread, beans, cheese, pie and cake, and the invariable cup of coffee in the morning and at noon, and tea at supper. Some jobbers are noted for their stinginess with their larder, and they often run short of their crew of men in consequence of this reputation, for although the woodsman may wear coarse clothing he likes "good living," as he calls his food. Where the camp has a crew of Maine men the "bean hole" is ever to be found. It is a hole dug in the ground somewhat in the shape of an egg. When beans are to be cooked a fire is started in the "bean hole," and is kept going until a fine bed of coals is formed. Into this, furnace is plunged the bean kettle, with the right amount of beans and pork in it, and covered with a strong iron cover. Upon this cover and about the kettle are piled coals until it is literally embodied in fire. Upon the top are thrown ashes, and upon this earth, which is firmly packed upon the "bean hole." The beans are usually put in the hole at night and allowed to remain there until next morning, when they are ready for the table, and it is said that they are delicious.

The clothing of the woodsmen varies in form, but all wear the long stockings drawn up to the knee over the trousers, where they are held in place either by a strap or a red cord with tassels. Heavy rubber shoes cover the feet. These shoes are usually one or two sizes too large, in order to admit of the person wearing two or more pairs of coarse woolen socks beneath the long red outside hose. In the spring during the "drive" boots are worn, with a strap buckled around their tops to prevent the water finding too easy ingress. The soles and heels of these "driving" boots are filled with spikes from a half inch to an inch and a half in length, the longest spike being set in the heel. This is to prevent slipping upon the wet logs, which, as they have been divested of their bark, are almost as smooth as glass. They wear heavy, coarse woolen shirts, slouch hats or knit caps with a tassel depending therefrom, altogether presenting a somewhat picturesque appearance.

The woodsmen are rough and uncouth in their rays, but full of life and fun, and are hardy, and have proverbially splendid appetites. They are required to be at their place at daylight, frequently even in summer. At night they usually go to bed as soon after supper as they can manage to smoke their pipes, supper usually taking place at dark. While smoking their pipes they lounge about the "bar- room" telling stories, joking each other and singing songs not calculated for the drawing- room.

The work in the woods consists of "falling" the trees, sawing them into logs of proper length, peeling and skidding. From the skids, upon which the logs are scaled, they are taken to the slides or trails, and along these to the place for "banking" on the stream, along which they are to be driven when the spring floods come. The trailing is done with teams where the ground is level. The trail is a shallow trough made usually of timbers pinned to the ground; or, at times, what is known as a "ground trail" is constructed by plowing two or three furrows in the earth, and afterward drawing a log back and forth through it until it is compacted into a smooth trough. When the snows come, the trail becomes very, slippery, and long trails of logs, from ten to twenty, can be pushed by a single team, the team being hitched to the rear log. When there is a deficiency of snow, with cold weather, the trails have to be "watered," that is, water is poured into them and allowed to freeze, and upon this ice the logs are slid. Where the trail has sufficient inclination for the logs to run by their own gravity, it is called a slide. In some places where the slides are very steep it is necessary to drive spikes into the timbers composing them to retard the running of the logs, for if they arrive at too great a velocity the logs are split and broken into fragments by striking among the logs already at the landing place at the foot of the slide. It is wonderful with what momentum the logs are forced at times. Any old woodsman will tell you wonderful tales thereabout. We have seen a tree two feet in diameter cut off by a log jumping from the track, thirty feet from the ground, and with such force that it took out a length of the tree trunk equal to the diameter of the flying log, whilst the top portion of the tree descended by the side of its stump, standing in its original perpendicular position. Logs have been known to jump from the track, being forced out by heavier logs striking them from the rear, and going up the steep mountain side for from fifteen to twenty rods; and they have been known to spring from the slide, whirl about a standing tree and be flung back into the slide to continue their lightning course toward the valley. A number of years ago we were called to a lumber camp on the Pine creek to see a man who had been fatally injured by a log which encircled a tree. He had been working upon the slide, and as he started down the mountain along the slide, he looked back and saw a large log coming with a weaving movement. His practiced eye told him that this was a dangerous customer, and he sprang behind a tree. The log swayed out far enough to catch this tree and was thrown entirely around it, crushing the woodsman against it. The man was dead before we reached the camp; his name was Frank Rhodes. Upon some mountain sides it is so steep that the tree, as soon as it falls beneath the ax, starts for the valley below with terrific velocity; stripping off all of its branches in the descent, and sometimes being shivered into splinters. Generally the slide or trail reaches the "banking" ground. By the term "banking "is meant where the logs are heaped upon the side of the stream until the flood comes. When the waters rise the logs are rolled from these huge heaps into the water. This is a time of great peril to the log driver. He may be working out logs from the bottom of the pile near the water, when the whole heap may give way and come thundering down upon

him, and he is caught in a "dead fall." The banking frequently extends to the bed of the stream so that the stream is filled bank high from bank to bank for a mile or more. On some of the smaller streams "splash dams" are constructed. "These are simply large and high dams constructed across the valley with two great gates where the stream passes through. These gates are closed when it is desired to fill the pond. Logs are rolled into the bed of the stream below the dam to be ready to be floated by the "splash." When the pond is full, the gates are opened and the flood pours forth which carries away the logs, in readiness for it, into, the larger main stream beyond. The gates are so fastened that a blow upon a lever unfastens them, so that the person attending to this part of the work is in no danger.

The construction of rafts is now a thing of the past, so far as log-rafts are concerned. Occasionally lumber rafts are sent down the river, but in the old days of lumbering in Potter county, the logs found their way to market in rafts, going to Pittsburgh, and even below, by the Allegheny, and as far as Chesapeake Bay down the Pine creek and Sinnemahoning into the Susquehanna river. Many are the adventures told by the old raftsmen of their voyages; of their sharp work in the rapids of the Barbers of Pine creek; of the short turn to be made at Hanging Rock and Falling Spring; the running of the dams and chutes at Muncy and Shamokin, and the perilous ride through the breakers, of Kanawaga Falls, on to Columbia and Havre de Grace; then returning to their mountain homes on foot, walking often as far as fifty and sixty miles in a day. These raftsmen were a vigorous set of men, and a tough lot to encounter. Like life upon the canal, the raftsmen were expected to be ready to fight or drink at a moment's notice, and some of them, like Abram (or Brom) Rohrabacher, became noted the entire length of the route for their strength and skill. The men, or crew, of the raft slept and ate upon their low- running craft, having a shanty built upon the raft for a kitchen and dormitory; their f are continuing to be the same as that to which they were accustomed in the woods. Now, however, the logs are "driven" down the stream in a loose mass, carried along by the swift, swollen current, some of the drives upon Pine creek amounting to as high as 15,000,000 to 20,000,000 feet of logs at one time. A large crew of men accompany these "drives," wearing, their spike- shod boots and carrying their cant hooks. No matter how cold the wafer is, and it may be filled with running ice in an early flood, they must plunge into it to loosen logs that have stranded upon bars, or caught upon rocks or points of land, the logs frequently floating, but would remain there until the water went down if they were not thrust out again into the current. This must be done by men often wading to their armpits in the water, so cold that their clothing freezes as soon as they step upon the land, and yet, with all of this immersion in icy waters, from morning until night, for days together, very few are made sick by it. In some instances rheumatism may follow or the legs may become sore, but that is usually the extent of the injury done by this severe exposure. An "ark," as it is called, a large flat- boat covered with a shanty, follows the "drive," as a hotel for the, "crew." Here the meals are prepared, and here the men sleep at night, often in their wet clothing. It often happens that the flood goes down before the "drive" reaches its destination. In this case the work ceases and the "drive hangs up," which simply means that the logs will not float. If you inquire of a log- driver upon his return at such a time: "How far did you go?" he will reply, "We hung up," or "the drive hung up" at such a place. One of the greatest dangers to the log- driver, during the flood, is the log jam, or briefly, "the jam." A log catches upon a rock or bar in such a manner as to obstruct the channel, other logs rapidly collecting about it, until the entire stream, perhaps, is choked with a seemingly inextricable tangle of logs. They are fixed in this jam in every conceivable position, from horizontal and criss- cross to perpendicular. To the uninitiated it would seem impossible to extricate the logs from their tangle with the fierce current of the raging stream locking them together as in a vice; but now comes as cool a piece of pluck and skill as ever was seen in the life of the soldier upon the battlefield-  the professional "jam- breaker," there always being one or more of these experts accompanying the drive (frequently those who have learned their trade upon the turbulent Aroostook and other logging streams of Maine). One of these men, divested of all unnecessary clothing, but with his feet securely spiked, jumps upon the "jam." He carries his pike lever with him, and upon this instrument alone he is to win the victory over the maddened stream. He holds his life in his hand; a single false move often means his death, but he is cool and determined. It is known to veteran jam- breakers that there is usually one log in the mass which, if detached, will loosen the entire jam so that it will break with a rush; this is called the "key- log." The first duty of the jam- breaker is to find the "key- log;" this found he goes straight to work to loosen it. Other men may have to be called upon the jam to assist him; but when the last hitch of the cant hook is to be given which will free the key- log (if the business is not precipitated by some unforeseen event), all of the men, save the jam- breaker, run for the shore. With a final twist of his lever the log springs from the mass of writhing logs and shoots out upon the current, but not so quick but that it bears a living freight. The jam- breaker, with the agility of a cat, strikes the spikes of his boots into its slippery side, and is leading a crashing, tearing mass of logs and water which chase madly in his wake. By long practice he easily balances upon the rolling, pitching log, which he gradually works to the shallow water and springs ashore, after, perhaps, having ridden a mile or more upon his unstable craft. This is the modus operandi of breaking a jam where everything works to the wish; but often the jam breaks at an inopportune moment, and the men are hurled here and there into the seething flood animate with rushing logs. If all come out of the peril with their lives they are indeed fortunate, even if they have fractured limbs and contusions. Woe to the man who sinks beneath the logs-  they close above him, and he is crushed to death or drowned. There is deadly danger lurking at every step, from the falling of the tree in its native wilds until the logs are secured in the boom, where the Potter county boy leaves them. To be sure the danger goes on with the milling of the lumber, and in the mills of Potter county lives have been lost. It is but a few years since Isaac Baker was sawn asunder by a circular saw in a mill belonging to Dr. O.T. Ellison, in Coudersport. Aside from the danger attending logging, the life of the lumberman is an. agreeable one to him.

On March 21, 1834, came a hurricane or cyclone which swept down much timber and destroyed Lymansville. Its track lay through Roulette, crossing the intervening country, and making huge windfalls on the mountain sides. It seemed to strike with redoubled force at Lymansville, and logs which were embedded in the roads were torn out. All of the water was blown out of the mill pond, and saw- logs scattered over the flats. Houses and fences were utterly demolished, boards were found in West Union, Steuben Co., N.Y., and in Harrison township that had been carried by the tempest from Lymansville, a distance of no less than thirty miles. At Roulette the blow did not do as much damage as at Lymansville. According to the statement of Joel Fessenden, hail- stones fell as large as hens' eggs, and marks of where they struck upon the side of Burrel Lyman's barn were visible for twenty years after. This barn, which was built in 1818 is still standing. After the storm passed the boys threw these monster hail-stones at a mark. No storm since has equaled this in severity, until the cyclone came which annihilated Shongo a few years ago.

In September, 1856, a wind storm swept over the county from Coudersport to Wellsville. Fire destroyed twenty- three buildings, and the wind many more. In June, 1888, a wind storm destroyed an orchard and other property.

During the last thirty years several severe storms have been chronicled, but none of them took the form of the terrible cyclone of 1834, at least in this county, as the high hills present a barrier which breaks up the storm king.

James Bassett of Coudersport, who is looked upon as the veteran stage- driver of the section, tells some romantic tales of the days when he handled the ribbons over the route from Coudersport to Oleona. Upon one occasion while driving along, just at dusk at Indian run, not far from where Hub Starkweather had his "Whetstone Factory," about half way from New Bergen to Oleona, at a point on the mountain side where a thin vein of coal had been discovered, Bassett saw what he supposed was running fire in the woods. The flames appeared to be feeding upon the dry leaves, and was creeping along in a zigzag fashion with dancing flames which now and then would embrace the undergrowth, and leap several feet above the ground. Hastening on to Oleona, he alarmed the inhabitants, who turned out en masse to fight the fire, but when they arrived upon the ground no fire was to be found. Bassett went over the ground the next day, but could not find even a leaf scorched. He looks upon this as a mystery past any solution he can give. Similar phenomena were witnessed in the Indian Ocean some years ago, and near the Faro Islands in May, 1889.

Among the curiosities along Bassett's route, he tells of two beech trees that grew upon the Patterson place west of Cherry Springs that stood about ten feet apart, but were united by a branch which grew at right angles into the two trees. A hunter from Dansville, N.Y., robbed Potter of this freak of nature. To the east of Cherry Springs stood a tree known to many as the "Indian tree," having the profile of an Indian's face carved upon its trunk., This curiosity was destroyed by some vandal who built a fire against the tree. Two beeches which were united as the above, but not distant more than three feet from each other, used to stand about a mile from Sunderlinville, near the farm of Samuel Decker, and many natural curiosities of this kind have been noted by hunters and woodsmen from time to time.

* 1 C. Lyman, the census assistant marshal of Potter county In 1840, reported a population of 3,400, including six children of one mother born within five years, where ten years before there were only 1,265 inhabitants.

*2 In 1888 Potter county yielded 150,000 cords of bark, and McKean 225,000 cords, with millions of feet of lumber. One hemlock on Pine creek yielded thirty rings of bark, showing the tree to be peeled for 150 feet.

Source: Page(s) 980-988, History of Counties of McKean, Elk and Forest, Pennsylvania. Chicago, J.H. Beers & Co., 1890.
Transcribed March 2006 by Mary Bryant, Published 2006 by PA-Roots