The first half of the 19th century witnessed an enormous nationwide boom in both population and geographical expansion.
Railroads were chugging along newly laid rails up and down the east coast. Competing canals with their packet boats flowed alongside most major rivers and industry was leap frogging ahead of every nation in the world. By the end of the Civil War, with the increased demand for building materials and finished products to reconstruct the devastated South, the industrial revolution was in full swing. Much of the lumber to feed that demand came from an area in north central Pennsylvania, specifically around the city of Williamsport, Pa.
Today we know Williamsport as the birthplace and home of Little League Baseball. A century and a half ago, however, the mountains and valleys around Williamsport supplied tens of millions of logs for processing into lumber for much of the mid-Atlantic. Statistics in the book, Williamsport: Frontier Village to Regional Center, composed and edited by Robert Larson, Richard Morris, and John Piper, bear this out. According to the book, in Williamsport alone, between 1862 and 1891 over 31 million “logs were processed by the Williamsport mills into 5 and one half billion board feed of lumber.” Still, there was more lumber than the local mills could process. As a result, many more millions of logs were corralled into what were called “booms” in the West Branch of the Susquehanna River which then, as now, provides the city’s southern border. The book states that “at that point (1865), it (the boom) could hold 300 million feet of lumber at one time.” All that lumber was destined, not for the Williamsport saw mills, but points south. Which brings us to the Cecil County connection.
All of that corralled lumber was moved in great raft like structures east and south of Williamsport down the Susquehanna River. It passed villages and cities that lined the river in Pennsylvania until it crossed the Mason-Dixon line and ended up along the shores of Cecil County’s own Port Deposit.
An article in the Cecil Democrat from March 22, 1851, titled “Lumber at Port Deposit” noted that “about fifty rafts of lumber had descended the Susquehanna to Port Deposit up to Wednesday last and many others were on their way. We learn from gentlemen of the town that an active spring trade is anticipated.”
According to Milt Diggins’ book Images of America: Cecil County, Port Deposit was strategically located to move goods from “out of the Susquehanna Valley and initially on to Baltimore.” But Philadelphia businessmen wanted a piece of the lumber action too, so they “supported building the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal” which created economic expansion in Port Deposit. Again, according to Diggins, “by the mid 19th century, Port Deposit was second only to Baltimore as Maryland’s most active port.”
Alice Miller’s book, Cecil County, Maryland: A Study in Local History published by the Port Deposit Heritage Corporation, sheds some light on the numbers resulting from the lumber industry at Port Deposit before the Civil War. Miller writes that “fifteen hundred arks arrived in Port Deposit in 1826. Between February 28 and June 23, 1827, 1631 rafts and 1370 arks passed Harrisburg. It is supposed,” Miller continues, “that the rafts contained on average of 25,000 feet of lumber, which would amount to 40,775,000 feet.” But wait … there’s more. By the 1840s, Miller writes that rafts carried a quarter billion feet of lumber into Port Deposit.
Miller was able to speak with some residents who remembered the post-Civil War lumber boom and they “say that over fifty vessels often anchored in the river waiting for a chance to load at the wharves. Rafts reached from Port Deposit to below Mt. Ararat. Some of the ring-bolts,” the older residents said, “to which these were tied are still visible along the shore.”
By this time, schooners were sailing up the Susquehanna, loading lumber and other goods for trips to Washington, Baltimore, and Georgetown. Miller quotes from a lumber inspector report which said that schooners were transporting over 100,000 feet of white pine per trip.
Even today, as anyone who has seen the lower Susquehanna River knows, maneuvering rafts or schooners could not have been an easy task in the late 19th century. Then as now, the Susquehanna was full of dangerous “rocks and projections.” According to Miller, river pilots named the rocks “Spinning Wheel,” “Sour Beers Eddy,” “Blue Rock,” “Turkey Hill,” “Horse Brother,” “Hangman’s Rock,” “Ram’s Horn,” “Slow and Easy,” and “Hollow Rock Sisters.”
Finally, at the end of the rafting season, Miller writes that parties were thrown to celebrate a successful year “and distinguished guests, including Governors of States, would float down the river amid beautiful scenery.”
Rafting lumber and other goods down the Susquehanna from such exotic places as Williamsport, came to a screeching halt, as Miller notes, in 1910 when “the dam at McCall’s Ferry (now Holtwood),” was completed. However, that wasn’t the only reason the trade ended. The greedy lumber barons up north had clear cut the mountains of north central Pennsylvania and there was no more lumber, at least not until new trees were planted and the old growth forests were replaced. But by then it was too late, and the nation had found other sources of lumber and new building materials to replace the wood that came from the Williamsport area.
And so another chapter closed in the continuing saga of economic boom and bust in Cecil County and the Susquehanna Valley.