Historical Markers
Williamsport Historical Marker
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Marker Location:
US 220 E at Williamsport

Dedication Date:
May 1947

Behind the Marker

Here, logs are corralled by the Susquehanna Log Boom near Williamsport, Pennsylvania, waiting for rafting season in the spring.
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Susquehanna Log Boom, Williamsport, PA, 1898.
The Susquehanna River drains a watershed 157 miles long and 161 miles wide. When European settlers first arrived, the West Branch of the Susquehanna flowed through some of the most remote parts of the state, a vast isolated area of pine and hemlock forests. Towering over 150 feet above the forest floor, the majestic white pines were some of the most valuable trees in North America, for they were straight-grained, tough and resistant to warp and rot. In the age of sail, they were worth their weight in gold, for they made the main masts of the great men-of-war and clipper ships that gave nations naval supremacy upon the high seas.

In the early nineteenth century, the only way to get the trees out was to float them down the Sinnemahoning, the Loyalsock, the Clearfield and other tributaries to sawmills on the Susquehanna River. After the opening of the West Branch Canal in 1834 linked Williamsport to the rest of Pennsylvania, a group of Philadelphia investors opened the first sawmill in Williamsport, and the great timber boom began in 1838.

The enormous Susquehanna Boom extended for miles along the west branch of the Susquehanna River, near Williamsport, Pennsylvania. It was capable of holding close to a million logs at a time.
The Susquehanna Log Boom, Williamsport, PA, 1890.
Each spring, when melting snows turned the Susquehanna's shallow and lazy waters into swollen highways, the great log drives would begin. In many ways they were like the cattle drives that began a few decades later in the American West. While Texas cowboys drove their steers up the Abilene and Chisholm trails to the slaughterhouses along the rail lines that passed through Kansas, Pennsylvania's tough and agile lumberjacks and raftsmen rode their millions of logs down the tributaries and main stream of the mighty Susquehanna. Like the western longhorns, each log had its brand, burned into both ends. When the logs arrived at the Lock Haven, Williamsport or the other sawmill towns along the river, they could be sorted and directed to their rightful owners.

The big problem was how to hold the lumber safely until it could be cut. Logs regularly broke loose and continued to float down the river. A spring flood could send tens of thousands of logs speeding away. In the late 1840s, two Maine timbermen, Major Perkins and John Leighton, figured out a solution. A bend in the river above Williamsport drew the logs to the south side of the river, where they could be contained. They needed to construct a holding pen of sunken cribs filled with rocks that could hold the logs until they could be sorted and floated to the owner's sawmill. They completed the Susquehanna Boom in 1851. At its peak, the Boom's six miles of walls could hold close to a million logs in a 450-acre enclosure.
Train  pulling workers and logs.
Clear-cutting forests for lumber.

After the Civil War broke out, the nation needed more lumber than ever. The Susquehanna Boom helped make Williamsport the Lumber Capital of World. Between 1868 and 1906, its mills sawed more than eight billion feet of white pine. By the late 1870s, the pine was largely gone, so the loggers turned their saws on the largest stands of hemlock in North America.

The forests of the Susquehanna Basin made the entrepreneurs of Williamsport rich. At one point, Williamsport boasted more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States. After the opening of planing mills to finish the cut lumber, Williamsport manufacturers made furniture, toys, packing boxes and whole houses ready to be shipped by rail for assembly.

The good times lasted close to seventy years, until the timber boom was followed by a timber bust. By the 1880s the timber barons were building railroads into Pennsylvania's northern woods and using portable sawmills to cut wood on site that could then be hauled directly to market. No longer dependent upon streams and rivers to float the logs to towns with mills, the railroads made logging a year-round operation. The more intensive logging accelerated the cutting of trees, and soon little remained of the great woods of northern Pennsylvania.

By the late 1880s, it was cheaper to bring logs to Williamsport by rail than river. When the great flood of 1894 broke the Boom and washed close to two million board feet of lumber down the river, the party was over. In May 1908, the Susquehanna Boom Company disbanded. The following year, the boom was dismantled, and the water era of sawmilling was over.

By 1908, little remained of the great woods of Pennsylvania. By then American timber barons were clear-cutting their way through Minnesota, Wisconsin and other states farther to the west. In Pennsylvania, the challenge was no longer how to cut the trees and get them to market, but how to protect what little remained and how to rejuvenate the millions of acres stripped of their riches and then abandoned.
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