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Potter County

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Potter County, surveyed in the 1790s, was owned largely by Philadelphian William Bingham, the Ceres Land Company, and the Holland Land Company at the time of its incorporation in 1804. The county was named for Irish-born Revolutionary War officer Major General James Potter, who ran unsuccessfully for president of the commonwealth in 1782 under the banner of the Radical Party.

The headwaters of three major river systems—the Genesee, the Allegheny, and the West Branch Susquehanna—are located in this county. Near Brookland, water flows in three directions: north via the Genesee River to the Saint Lawrence Seaway, south to the Susquehanna and the Atlantic, and southwest to the Allegheny-Ohio-Mississippi River system and the Gulf of Mexico. The topography is typical of the Allegheny High Plateau, with rolling hills dotted with farms in the north and mountainous ridges in the south. Susquehannock State Forest in the south is named after an indigenous Native American tribe. Covering 262,000 acres, the forest is dominated by second-growth northern hardwoods, including beech, maple, and black cherry. The forest has eighty-nine miles of foot trails, as well as three natural gas storage fields, including the Leidy gas field, one of the largest and deepest subterranean pools of natural gas in the world.

The Jersey Shore Turnpike, an early pack trail and wagon road that roughly follows the route of PA 44, was built in 1834 and was one of the first major roads in the county. It joined the town of Jersey Shore on the Susquehanna River to Coudersport and then to Olean, New York.

Remote forested areas like Potter County were subjected to grand colonization schemes during the nineteenth century. In the early 1800s, the Ceres Land Company sent settlers to the area, where they surveyed Coudersport for the county seat. Later, in 1852, Norwegian violinist Ole Bornemann Bull purchased 11,144 acres of land in Potter County after touring the United States. He hoped to establish Norwegian settlements and laid out four villages, but ambiguously worded land titles and the severe hardships of life caused all four to fail. Stone remnants of Bull's cabin remain in Ole Bull State Park. Germania, located northeast of the park, was founded in 1855 by Germans fleeing the European revolutions of 1848. Their settlements expanded to Roulette and Dutch Hill in the 1880s.

Potter County's principal industry was lumbering and wood processing, followed by farming and the raising of livestock. With rail access, these industries brought the population to a peak of 30,621 in 1900. The Pennsylvania Lumber Museum ( PO7) has re-created a logging camp and teaches tourists about the ways lumber was harvested and processed. The museum is located midway between what were two of the largest sawmills in the nation, at Galeton and Austin near the eastern and western borders of the county.

Austin Dam, built in 1909 by the Bayless Pulp and Paper Company, pooled Freeman Run north of Austin. From the beginning, the dam was plagued with cracks and structural problems. It burst on September 30, 1911, killing seventy-eight people in the downstream towns of Austin and Costello. After the flood, the commonwealth passed legislation to monitor the engineering of dams. The dam's concrete ruins north of Austin are listed on the National Register and, taking a page from Johnstown's flood museums ( CA14), signs nearby proclaim Austin as the “best town by a dam site.” Floods and fires also did enormous damage to Galeton on the east side of the county. First known as Pike Mills, it was incorporated in 1896. Its tannery, sawmills, and railroads swelled the village of 281 people to 4,000. By 1889, most of the virgin timber was cut, and, as at Austin, Galeton became a commuter town and now serves outdoor recreationists.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Lu Donnelly et al.

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