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The Northern Tier and the Poconos

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From Frontier to Vacation Land

With the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the Shawanese and Monsey tribes turned much of what is now the Northern Tier over to the province's proprietors, leading first to Quaker and Scots-Irish settlements along the Susquehanna River's West Branch and then in 1771 to what Pennsylvanians called the Connecticut “invasion.” Pennsylvania governor Richard Penn and Connecticut leader Zebulon Pike decreed the area to belong to Pennsylvania and Connecticut, respectively, and then issued proclamations asking their people to ignore the other's proclamations. Pennsylvanians drove the Connecticut settlers away with considerable violence in the early 1770s, but they, too, fled during the Revolutionary War in the 1778 exodus known as “the Great Runaway.” They returned after General John Sullivan's troops defeated the British and Iroquois at the battle of Newtown near Elmira, New York, more than a year later.

The early and separate history of the New England invasion that gives the Northern Tier its particular flavor is treated in Patricia Likos Ricci's introductory essay to the region beyond Blue Mountain. The cluster of northeastern counties above Blue Mountain and generally east of I-380 now forms the region that is generically referred to as “the Poconos.” Geographers would place them within the folded landscape of the Appalachian foothills, while cultural historians find traces of the New England invasion of the late eighteenth century. In The Nine Nations of North America (1981), journalist Joel Garreau makes the point that had the Americas been settled from the western coast, the northeastern portions of the continent would have been regarded as too harsh for settlement with upper New England and Canada's Maritime provinces being developed as “vacationland.” Even within the relative density of the eastern megalopolis, northeastern Pennsylvania is a playground. Because of its location a short drive from the great cities of the east from Philadelphia to New York, these counties are now among the fastest growing in the state and have far outstripped Northern Tier counties to the west in their growth and urbanity.

In Better in the Poconos, Lawrence Squeri (2002) describes the evolution of the regional identity. “The Pocono region contains two distinct mountain chains: the Blue (Kittatinny) Mountains and the Pocono Mountains proper. The Pocono Mountains are located inland from the Delaware River. They are, in fact, a hilly plateau, an eroded remnant of mountains formed in the Cambrian Period, before the dinosaurs. This plateau has definite boundaries. It covers the north and west of Monroe County and adjacent chunks of Pike, Wayne, Carbon, Luzerne, and Lackawanna Counties.” In the nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth century, residents used precise language when referring to local geography. The term “Pocono” referred only to the plateau. The thirty-five miles along the Delaware River from Milford to Delaware Water Gap were called the Upper Delaware Valley or the Minisink, its Indian name. The mountains around Stroudsburg and Delaware Water Gap were called by their correct names of the Blue or Kittatinny Mountains, while the entire region was marketed to vacationing New Yorkers as the “Pennsylvania Mountains.” But after World War I, the area adjacent to the plateau, and even the Blue Mountains themselves, gradually became known as “the Poconos.” Local purists resisted the change, but the term “Pocono,” with its Indian origin, is unique. Branding the region “the Poconos” was a stroke of genius. As the twenty-first century began, Squeri found real estate developers expanding the Poconos rubric to include portions of Carbon, Luzerne, and Lackawanna counties. The old coal-centered culture has been replaced by leisure. As leisure and lifestyle shape contemporary housing choices, it seems likely that the Poconos will continue its transformation.

Well into the eighteenth century, the lack of roads caused the Poconos to remain an untrammeled forest that was entered with relative freedom only along the great waterways, the Delaware River, the west branch of the Delaware (now renamed the Lehigh River), and the Lackawaxen River. Because its valleys were bisected by numerous secondary streams, water-powered industry could process grain and timber. A few notable early mills remain including the Sciota Mill ( MN10), a rare survivor from the end of the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century, the forests were being clear-cut to build the booming metropolises of the lower Delaware, leading to the denuded landscape captured with such poignancy by Winslow Homer in his paintings of the Adirondacks.

Even before the hillsides were stripped of their timber, the discovery of coal in adjacent counties sparked a tidal wave of development. Its promise of vast reserves of low-cost energy spurred efforts to link the coal mines to the cities of the coast. By the 1820s, the upper Lehigh River had been improved as a one-way navigation to float barges containing coal, wood, and flour from the upper Susquehanna Valley to the markets of Philadelphia; shortly thereafter the Delaware and Hudson Canal linked the coal lands to New York City via the Lackawaxen River, Delaware River, and a channel cut across northern New Jersey to the Hudson River. Within a generation, these canals were supplanted by the more reliable railroads that made northeastern Pennsylvania a part of the New York economic and cultural sphere and overwhelmed the traces of earlier settlement patterns.

To the informed eye the houses and villages of the outlying districts of the Pocono region describe the early settlers and their values. Initially they were drawn from the education-valuing New Englanders of the Connecticut invasion, who brought Congregational and Baptist churches and centered their villages on academies that promoted classical learning. Damascus and Bethany in Wayne County, Milford in Pike County, and Snydersville and Dutotsburg (later Delaware Water Gap) in Monroe County are emblematic of their settlements. David Hackett Fischer's analysis of the building types of the colonial regions as sketched in Albion's Seed (1989) holds true here, as well as with wood-framed houses characterized by centered chimneys and fields demarcated by New England's stone walls. Along the New York border, Dutch Reformed congregations mixed with New England Congregationalists into the middle of the nineteenth century, while the southern German migration crested along the southern border of Monroe County in the rich farmland that forms the extension of the Kittatinny Valley to the southeast. Here can be found farmsteads whose forms are familiar below Blue Mountain all the way to Franklin County.

The nineteenth-century exploitation of regional resources brought the allencompassing forces of the industrial age. Dorflinger's glassworks ( WA3) and gigantic silkworks ( WA1) outside of Hawley marked the rise of an urban specialization of labor in which men worked on the canal while women worked in mills. Villages along the route of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, notably Honesdale and Hawley, attained nearly urban status with diverse populations that are still represented by a classically American array of churches, those of the old elites, Episcopalian, Congregational turned Presbyterian, and Baptist; those of the new working populations of English-stock Methodists and German-stock Lutherans; as well as eastern and southern European Roman Catholics and here and there a synagogue. Tellingly, there are no significant Quaker meetinghouses. These places of worship were paralleled by the specialized architecture of banks, department stores, and office buildings, as well as the necessary county courthouses. As usual, more sophisticated architecture is concentrated in the county seats. Like much of the Northern Tier and the coal region, ease of communication to the east drew architects from New York and northern New Jersey with correspondingly few commissions to Philadelphia architects. The principal exception is in the vacation zones around the great Pocono hotels such as Buck Hill Falls ( MN14) and Skytop ( MN15) where architects and developers associated with Atlantic City's resort hotels were active, and after World War II in the Lake Paupac colony ( PI12) that drew on Philadelphia architects exploring Euro-modernism.

Once the forests had been cut and the economic value of the land reduced, the rising leisure class of the Civil War era was lured to the region by hotels at rail depots near the scenic wonders—the great geological landmark of Delaware Water Gap and the delicate skeins of aerated water of the various falls that enraptured Victorian writers. These assets and the cooler temperatures of the higher elevations were celebrated in post–Civil War magazines, tour books such as The Northern Tourist (1879), and the vast compilation Picturesque America (1872–1874). The region had already attracted a few pioneering outdoors explorers who rediscovered the streams and woodlands of the state as a recreational amenity. While deer and wild turkey had been largely exterminated by 1800, trout and black bass (smallmouths) were still numerous enough in the region's rivers and streams to draw the first anglers, among them Philadelphian Thaddeus Norris, whose landmark text on American fly-fishing, American Angler's Book: The Natural History of Sporting Fish and the Art of Taking Them (1864), cites the fishing of the region. Even then Norris mourned the habitat loss as, “The clearing of the forests, exposing the surface of the ground to the sun, which has dried up the sylvan brooks, or increased their temperature … rendering them less suitable for Trout… The saw-mill with its high dam obstructing the passage of fish, and its sawdust filling the pools below; the tannery with its leached bark, and the discharge of lime mixed with impure animal matter extracted from hides, flowing in and poisoning the Trout, have done more to depopulate our waters in a few years than whole generations of anglers.” When the region's timber was extracted, many of these industries departed and trees and fish returned. In the twentieth century, writers such as Zane Grey and Ernest Schweibert have once again made the Poconos a center of American angling literature.

It seems likely that the Civil War was the catalyst that triggered the rise of hunting and fishing as socially acceptable activities for sophisticated urbanites. After the war, men who had grown used to the company of other men in bivouac and battle relished the outdoors if only as a respite from the offices of the new downtowns. Small woodland inns near recreational amenities drew a steady flow of guests; a few still remain including the Stites Mountain House ( MN12). With the advent of the automobile in the twentieth century, the hunting cabin became a common building, again as an element of the masculine culture of the region. One amusing subculture of domestic architecture can be found in the remnants of the hippy invasion of the woodlands in the counterculture 1960s and 1970s. Here and there a sharp eye spots a Buckminster Fuller–derived geodesic dome interspersed among the A-frames and other houses of the woodland edge.

The railroad and later the automobile made possible the spread of great resorts that made the Poconos a family vacation zone. These were typically centered on immense hotels of the sort that lined the beaches of New Jersey, but were differentiated by their relative isolation. No boardwalk linked the inland resorts of Buck Hill Falls ( MN14) and Skytop ( MN15), the riverfront Shawnee Inn ( MN6), or the village of Eagles Mere in Sullivan County; instead each was reached by cars, and each soon spawned a progeny of cottages that created recreation-centered villages sharing the sailing, swimming, golf, hiking, and other outdoor recreations. Aimed at elite audiences they are a far cry from modern mass resorts such as Fernwood in Bushkill and the ubiquitous Caesars Casino group scattered through the region. The new resorts have combined skiing and outdoor recreation with the Las Vegas entertainment circuit, garish heart-shaped Jacuzzis, and outdoor recreation while awaiting the legalization of gambling, which initially spurred their development a generation ago. Ironically, few received the slot permits when gambling was legalized here in 2004.

In the twenty-first century, forests once again cloak the mountainous landscape. Though foresters can read new-growth woodlands in the tree types and sizes, most see the Poconos as “natural.” This in turn has led to late-twentieth-century attempts to preserve the region in a great eastern forest now branded with a name, “the Highlands.” Stretching from Blue Mountain across northern New Jersey, through the northern corner of Connecticut, and into the woodlands of upper New England, it is a vast territory that rivals the great forests of the west. If this zone were to be transformed into a lifestyle amenity rather than simply preserved, it might attract sophisticated audiences whose activities would span the cities and the country, continuing the transformation of the Poconos.

Writing Credits

George E. Thomas

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