From Phase I Archaeological Survey Report for the Susquehanna River Bridge Replacement Project, January 1992
Principal Investigator: Gary F. Coppock
The Early Years, 1794 – 1900:
The land on which the Borough of Susquehanna is situated was originally part of the Drinker Tract, purchased by Henry Drinker in 1794. No large settlements were established in the region during the first half of the nineteenth century. The area was the site of several large farms. It was part of Harmony Township, which was originally in Luzerne County (Blackman 1873:87-96; Stocker 1887:554, 558).
The New York and Lake Erie Railroad Company was incorporated in April of 1832. Initially, the project to construct a rail line from New York City to Dunkirk on Lake Erie progressed slowly. The line was finally opened in May of 1851. The line became the Erie Railway after reorganization in 1862. It followed the Susquehanna River through the northern part of Susquehanna County for approximately twenty-five miles, and had two stations, Susquehanna and Great Bend, within the county (Blackman 1873:106, Stocker 1887:54-56).
About 1845 the farms that included what is now Susquehanna Borough were purchased by the Erie Railway Company. A town of regular lots was laid out. The topography of the area and the location of the railroad tracks along the south bank of the Susquehanna River constricted the plan of the town. The tracks were located along the flat plain following the river, with the first rail yards erected just south of the tracks (additional yards were built between the tracks and the river between 1904 and 1922); south of the yards, the land begins to rise sharply, dictating that the town’s main street run east and west. The plan of the town was determined by these hills, the river on the north, and by Drinker Creek which runs through the middle of town.
Susquehanna, then called Susquehanna Depot, was incorporated as a borough in 1853; the name was changed to Susquehanna in 1869 (Blackman 1873:106-107; Stocker 1887:558-559). The original name of the settlement had been Harmony (Harper’s 1854:123). The earliest extant tax assessment record for the town dates to 1855 and provided a glimpse into the town during that year. Within ten years of the town’s founding, 272 residences had been constructed, including 69 “small” houses and two shanties; a few of these houses were listed as standing on “railroad land,” suggesting that the railroad may have owned the buildings but that the occupants were responsible for paying the taxes. Other types of buildings listed in the assessment for 1855 include six taverns, two saloons (including one with a bowling alley), 13 storerooms, 11 shops, two barns and a slaughter house (Susquehanna 1855). A map showing how the borough looked in 1859 is shown on next page.
Many of the 350 taxables assessed in 1855 worked for the railroad, including engineers, brakemen, a telegraph clerk, foremen, molders, boilermakers, a railroad agent and yard watchmen. Many others were involved in commerce of service occupations, including shoemakers, grocers, merchants, innkeepers, bakers, physicians, attorneys, tailors, and barbers. Only 19 of the 350 taxables were immigrants; six men were listed as English, 13 as Irish (Susquehanna 1855).
The chief mechanical headquarters for the Erie Railway were at Susquehanna and at times employed as many as 3,000 people. The rail year was constructed in 1848 on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Among the first structures in the yard was a boarding house to accommodate the workmen. The original, small frame buildings erected in 1848 and used as shops in the building and repairing of rail cars were replaced in 1865 by a more extensive rail yard. The new complex covered more than eight acres, cost $1.7 million to build, and employed nine hundred men. The main building constructed of stone with a slate roof (which stood until 1981) was 750′ long and 137′ wide. This structure contained the erecting, machinery, tool, rod, turning, planning, wheel, tin and copper, and stock departments. Adjoining the main building to the north were six brick annexes housing the boiler shop, blacksmith shop, engine room, bathhouse, paint shop, pattern storeroom, and carpentry shop. Additional structures in the rail yard included the foundry (a portion of which still stands), hammer shop, a 33 stall round house, gas works, oil works, and an office building. The yard could accommodate approximately 200 locomotives at time (Hopkins 1858; Beers 1872; Blackman 1873:108-109; Stocker 1887:588, 597-598).
West of the yards stood a large brick freight house, an ice house, and an enormous passenger station named the Starucca House. Prior to construction of the Starucca House, passengers were “jolted two miles over a rough road, in a rude car” to a hotel in Lanesboro (Harper’s 1854:123). The Starucca House, constructed between 1863 and 1865, has been restored and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (Beers 1872; Stockeer 1887:599; Hungerford 1946:164). During the 1890s the Starucca House served as one of the social centers of Susquehanna and was featured prominently in the town’s newspaper (Journal 1890-1900).
`With the growth of the Erie Railway yards, the town of Susquehanna developed dramatically. Privately built hotels, general stores, bakeries, and blacksmith shops all appeared on the south side of Main and Front Streets. By 1872, Susquehanna became a thriving commercial center with numerous businesses including five hotels, two banks, three newspaper houses, and a “ladies bazaar”. Americans from other states and immigrants from England, Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Poland arrived to find work in the rail yards and related industries (Harper’s 1854; Beers 1872; Blackman 1873:106-109; Stocker 1887:595-607).
Contemporary with the burgeoning commercial construction, new residences were erected throughout the town. At the western end of Main Street, large Queen Anne and Second Empire houses were constructed. On Willow Avenue, Washington Street, Jackson Street, and Church Street frame, single-family, two-and-a-half story vernacular houses were built
Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the Erie Railway was the chief industry in the Susquehanna and Oakland area. Unusual for its time, the Erie Railroad Company established a library and lecture-hall in one of the new buildings as a service for its employees. At the time, it was the only such library and lecture-hall facility connected with a rail yard in the country (Blackman 1873:108; Stocker 1887:599-600).
The early years of the Erie Railway were marked by under-capitalization and financial difficulties. However, like many northern railroads, the Erie Railway improved its financial situation by hauling munitions and soldiers during the Civil War. Following the war, Erie hauled both freight and passengers profitably. However, in the latter part of the last century, Erie was primarily known for the financial machinations of its board of directors during the period 1866-1870. Charles Francis Adams, Jr. chronicled the peculiar use and misuse of the resources of Erie for the purpose of financial gain of the board (1869; see also Gordon 1988). The misuses of Erie resources resulted in many of the modern rules for sale and purchase of stocks and bonds.
During the 1890s and early twentieth century, Susquehanna’s newspaper, the Tri-Weekly Journal, reported local gossip, the news from the rail yard, and hints for farmers. The paper promoted lectures given at the Opera House (which burned in mid twentieth century), deplored the drunken rampages of some of the railroad workers on payday, noted when the Erie shops were running on reduced hours, commented when Erie workers were temporarily suspended due to a decline in business or by threat of a strike, reported on the establishment of a “German Singing Society” in 1890, recounted that over 4,000 immigrants (mostly of Italian descent) had moved into the county between 1880 and 1904, and applauded the civic improvements of electricity in 1890 and sewers in 1904 (Journal 1890-1904).
Most striking in the newspaper accounts of the activities at the Erie yards was the insecurity and transient nature of the workers’ employment. If the management decided to close the shops or reduce hours, the workers were forced to find employment elsewhere or go without pay. In September 1904, for example, the newspaper noted that the Erie management (afraid of a strike) had “let go” the 225 boiler shop employees. A force of Erie carpenters began outfitting the second floor of the carpentry shop with bunks, medicine cabinets, and a kitchen (including a large “hotel stove”) to house up to 80 men brought in from Philadelphia and New York to replace the Susquehanna workers. The newspaper nicknamed the carpentry shop “Hotel Erie” (Journal, September 15-27, 1904). Four labor disturbances occurred at the Susquehanna yards during the first quarter of the twentieth century, the boilermakers’ lockout in 1904, a machinists’ strike in 1907, another strike in 1920, and an all-crafts strike in 1922 (Webb 1953;21).
The physical evidence of the Erie’s transient workforce was Hotel Row, located southwest of the yards, along Front Street. Only two of the hotels still stand. The hotels along front street, directly behind the Starucca House, housed many of the temporary workforce. The hotels of Hotel Row had seedy reputations; one local historian recalled that gambling and prostitution were tolerated on Hotel Row, but not in the rest of the town.
Although the fortune of the town was closely liked with the success and expansion of the Erie yards, it was also linked to the surrounding rural area, which prospered during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the turn of the twentieth century, Susquehanna County was the seventh largest producer of milk in Pennsylvania and by the `1930s, the county was the fourth-largest producer. Susquehanna County was also among the top 15 Pennsylvania counties in the production of eggs during the opening years of the twentieth century (Penn State 1955:81-82). The agricultural products of the county were shipped to New York via the Erie Railway, and the town of Susquehanna acted as a retail center for the surrounding farms.
Across the Susquehanna River from Susquehanna is the Borough of Oakland. The first settlers in this area were from the east, and arrived about 1785 under Connecticut’s claim to the region. Until the establishment of the Erie Railway yards at Susquehanna, Oakland had few inhabitants. Most of the early residents were employed at the grist, saw, and planing mills built along the creeks on the north side of the river. Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), lived near Oakland during the years 1825-1831, and married the daughter of a local family (Blackman 1873:103-104; Stocker 1887:554-556).
During the second half of the nineteenth century, the population of Oakland increased as railroad workers and their families settled there. Stocker (1887:568) reported that in 1864, “there were but four houses within the present limits of the borough.” By the time he wrote his history, he reported “over a thousand people” in Oakland. The village of Oakland was incorporated as a borough in 1884 (Stocker 1887:568). Local informants recalled that Oakland was the “poor side of the River,” and that permanent laborers and low-level foremen (and their families) resided there.
The first bridge connecting Susquehanna and Oakland was constructed in 1855 and was destroyed by a flood. A new toll bridge was then built from the area of the rail yards in Susquehanna to River Street in Oakland. Between 1872 and 1882, a third bridge was constructed to connect the two boroughs. This bridge was erected on the site of the existing bridge.
The Later Years, 1900-1990:
By the turn of the century, the roundhouse facilities, constructed a half-century before, had become too small for the larger, heavier locomotives. A new roundhouse complex was constructed between 1904-1911, on the floodplain of the river, north of the thirteen sets of railroad tracks. In addition to the new roundhouse, the company built between 1904 and 1924 another machine shop, a register station, a pumphouse, and offices for the roundhouse and the blower. By 1925, at the peak of its development, the Erie Railway Yards at Susquehanna consisted of three major functionally distinct complexes. The oldest of these complexes was centered on the original 1848-1858 roundhouse. Termed the Old Roundhouse Complex, this part of the Yards contained the old roundhouse, turntable, and an office. The larger New Roundhouse Complex, built between 1904-1911, consisted of the new roundhouse and turntable, and office, and ten additional buildings of various functions. The third complex in the Yards was the Shop Complex. This Complex consisted of thirteen buildings, including an office, a machine shop, a forge, a foundry, and various other shops for fabricating and repairing locomotive and rail car parts. In all, the Erie Railway Yards contained 29 individual buildings in 1925. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the workforce at the Yards fluctuated between 200 and 3000 persons.
Susquehanna and Oakland consisted of primarily residences and apartments for the workers at the railroad shop and roundhouse complex. Two older residents recalled that the service facilities of the two towns were not adequate for the population; most of the people traveled elsewhere to shop. Because most of the inhabitants were railroad employees or were members of railroad employee families, they could travel on the railroad for reduced rates, and later, for free. As a result, many people regularly shopped in Binghamton, New York, less that a half-hour away by train. Some made the three-hour trip to New York to shop, even for groceries. The reduced and free fares also operated in the reverse direction; many workers at the Susquehanna shop and roundhouse complex lived in Binghamton or Windsor, and came to work on the train.
During the last half of the nineteenth and first three decades of the twentieth centuries, the Erie Railway yards at Susquehanna bustled with activity. Locomotives and locomotive parts were forged and machined in the shops. Cars were constructed and painted there. Freight from both east and west was sorted on the sidings in front of the shops. The roundhouses functioned for both maintenance and for what were termed “rolling repairs” (local informants 1989-1992). Rolling repairs were minor repairs that could be performed within six to eight hours, without dismantling portions of the locomotives or tenders. If more extensive repairs were required, the locomotive or tender was dismantled and repaired in the shop area. Locomotives merely standing idle were occasionally stabled in the roundhouse, but would generally be pared on a siding.
Erie remained barely profitable in the early twentieth century. In 1927, new management took over in the personae of the Van Sweringen brothers and their manager, John J. Bernet. Bernet reorganized Erie, recognizing its potentially profitable route, which was the most direct, efficient and fastest between New York City and the Great Lakes above Niagara Falls. Bernet ordered 105 larger, heavier locomotives (steam-powered) called Berkshires, to move the freight and passengers along the variety of grades of the Erie route (Young 1970). Rather than rebuilding the great stone shops of Susquehanna to handle the new, heavier machinery, Bernet ordered new shops built at Hornell, New York. The shops at Susquehanna were converted for the construction of railroad cars. The old roundhouse was razed in 1928. The new roundhouse and portions of the shop area continued to be used for the maintenance and repair of smaller locomotives until 1952.
In 1952, the Erie Railway closed the Susquehanna roundhouse, and constructed a new facility near the town of Great Bend, several miles down river. The turntable of the Susquehanna roundhouse was removed, but the rest of the structure remained. The closing of the Susquehanna roundhouse coincided with the last year that steam locomotives were used on the main lines by the Erie Railway. The facilities of the Susquehanna roundhouse had been built to service steam locomotives; the new facilities were built for diesel locomotives.
In 1957-1960, Erie further consolidated its maintenance facilities. The steam locomotives of the earlier era required frequent service. However, diesel locomotives needed to be serviced less often, and maintenance shops did not need to be as close together. The Susquehanna shops were closed; much of the machinery and many of the employees were moved to Meadville, Pennsylvania, where new shops were constructed. Many of the houses in Susquehanna and Oakland became vacant. The workforce had declined from about 200 in 1950 to about 200 in 1959. Following the closing of the Susquehanna shops, the workforce consisted only of ten electricians.
Following the relocation of all Erie shops to Meadville (1957-1960), the buildings of the Susquehanna shops passed from the ownership of Erie. Some were used as storage facilities, others stood vacant. The roundhouse, after standing vacant for a decade, became a staging area for a quarrying operation. The stones were cut and dressed in the roundhouse building. However, by 1977, the quarrying operation had moved elsewhere and many portions of the stone and timber shops were in ruins.
With the reduction in the Erie workforce from 2,000 employees in 1950 to ten in 1960, the commercial establishments on Main Street lost business. Many buildings deteriorated or were abandoned while some merchants remodeled their storefronts to attract customers. A strip mall, housing a bank, a restaurant, a drugstore, an automobile parts store, a gasoline station, and a super market were erected on the site of the former rail yard. Residential buildings on Washington Street, the west end of Main Street, Jackson Avenue, and Church Street suffered less than the stores and businesses on Main Street; although some are vacant or have deteriorated, the majority are well maintained.
Little remains of the Erie Railway Yards. Of the 29 structures that were therein 1925, only six are extant. Because of the use of heavy equipment in the razing process, few remains could be identified. Of the tracks themselves, which consisted of thirteen parallel sets with several sidings, only two remain. The Old Roundhouse Complex was razed in 1928. The Shop Complex was razed in 1980-81, with the exception of one building and a portion of a wall left as a monument. Much of the New Roundhouse Complex was razed about 1965; the five buildings that are still standing are in poor condition or in ruins. No trains stop regularly at Susquehanna.
The New Roundhouse Complex (1904-1911) continues to deteriorate. Following the quarrying operation, it became an automobile and heavy equipment junkyard from 1985 until the present. The roundhouse had largely collapsed by 1990; the turntable well was filled with debris. The remaining portions of the roundhouse were demolished in December 1991. The roundhouse office, register station, pump house, and blower house remain extant, although doors and windows stand open or are missing (Dinsmore et al 1992). Arsonists burned the roundhouse office on July 3, 1991, badly damaging it.
83 Erie Blvd., Suite A
Susquehanna, PA 18847