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Williamsport and Vicinity

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The origin of Williamsport's name is open to dispute. Claims have been made for Judge William Hepburn, Joseph Williams (the town's surveyor), and Michael Ross, who owned 285 acres on the future city's site and who perhaps named it for his son William. In any event, Williamsport was given a grid plan with a public square in the middle of its original 111 acres. Incorporated as a borough in 1806, it grew slowly until 1850, when it expanded its boundaries ten times over the next quarter century. Many people contributed to this growth, but two upstate New Yorkers, working in tandem, had the greatest impact. These were Peter Herdic (1824–1888), a ruthless entrepreneur who arrived in 1853, and his favorite builder-architect, Eber Culver, who followed two years later. Herdic was involved in a jumble of enterprises, including real estate and timber. His most critical venture was the Susquehanna Boom Company, which took advantage of escalating lumber prices in the 1860s and held the lumber hostage in vast structures, setting the market for wood. Desperate lumbermen sought relief from the state legislature but Herdic's influence and wealth proved greater than their pleas. The log boom made Herdic very rich but he poured some of his wealth back into the city, particularly into churches, perhaps from a sense of guilt, as his enemies contended. He paid for the construction of Trinity Episcopal Church ( LY20), contributed to the erection of Temple Beth Ha Sholom at 425 Center Street, and gave building lots to four Protestant congregations and the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation ( LY17). Herdic went bankrupt in 1878 and died in 1888 after a fall while inspecting construction of a waterworks, his last venture. John Meginness, Herdic's contemporary, concludes in his county history, “Whatever may be said of the character of Mr. Herdic, and the methods he sometimes employed in business, it must be admitted by all that he started Williamsport on the highway of prosperity.”

Eber Culver built much of that “highway of prosperity.” He garnered commissions within months after his 1855 arrival in Williamsport, but his most productive years were between 1883 and 1894. Not a professional architect, he was a skilled designer and builder, and pursued wealth in concert with Peter Herdic. Between 1863 and 1874 a firm owned by Herdic, Culver, and two other partners erected the city's most prominent buildings, operated a planing mill and a sash and door factory, and traded in lumber. In 1874, Culver became the architect for Herdic's many projects. After Herdic's bankruptcy Culver followed his partner to Philadelphia in a failed effort to gain adoption of Herdic's patented streetcar.

Many of Culver's designs are on W. 4th Street, long known as Millionaire's Row. Between Campbell and Susquehanna streets and on adjoining side streets stands the greatest array of late-nineteenth-century mansions and churches in the Northern Tier. The styles range from Italianate to Romanesque Revival, but Queen Anne examples predominate. West 3rd Street, though less opulent, has some fine houses. Many of the residents of these streets chose Wildwood Cemetery (on Wildwood Boulevard) as their final resting place, often in mausoleums as grand as the lives they lived. Vallamont, a planned trolley development, was begun in the mid-1890s and is on the city's north side, north of Rural Street and west of Market Street. The city's most elite addresses today are farther north, along Grampian Boulevard.

Williamsport's single greatest expansion came in 1867. By doctoring a petition to misrepresent citizens’ wishes, Herdic persuaded the legislature and governor to allow Williamsport to annex the villages of Jaysburg, Newberry, and farmland on the west side of Lycoming Creek. Two years later Herdic was elected mayor of the enlarged city. By this time, Williamsport was fast becoming the “Lumber Capital of the World” by exploiting the vast forests of pine, hemlock, and hardwoods to its north and its location on the Susquehanna's West Branch, where a turn in the river formed a seven-mile-long stretch of slack water. There, a series of cribs built of long logs chained end to end and attached to piers in the river grew into a six-mile-long log boom. Small steamboats, called boom tugs, ferried the jammed-up logs to lumber mills that lined the river above and below the city and ran year-round.

All this ended with the flood of June 1, 1889, one day after the great Johnstown flood. In Williamsport alone the Susquehanna swept away 3,400 houses and a year's supply of logs and lumber as well as the entire log boom. The city never fully recovered. The west branch of the Pennsylvania Canal was destroyed and never again entered Williamsport. Local lumber barons suffered great losses, which loosened their grip on eastern markets, and by 1919 the last sawmill closed. A worse flood swept over the city in 1936, and it was not until 1940 that civic leaders convinced voters to approve a bond issue that would fund dikes along the river, which were completed in 1955. Although twentieth-century Williamsport had many small factories, none equaled the prosperity of the lumber industry. Today civic leaders battle forces that beleaguer all former industrial centers, but the city has still lost population in the early twenty-first century. Preservationists and civic leaders, however, are working with state, federal, and local government agencies in promoting the city's history and saving and reinventing their old buildings.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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