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Susquehanna Life

Nostalgic Journeys - Susquehanna Boom

Aug 30, 2015 09:11PM ● By Erica Shames

Born in New Hampshire in 1803, James Perkins operated a successful calico factory in Philadelphia before moving to Williamsport in the 1840s with business partner John Leighton to start a lumber mill. The site was chosen because of the abundant forests and because the Big Water Mill they purchased was the only local mill in operation at the time. 

Leighton had previously lived in Maine, where log booms were already utilized. His vision and Perkins’ financial backing made for a potent and successful partnership.

Lumber capital of the world

The Susquehanna Boom, which was placed near present-day Susquehanna State Park, consisted of hundreds of cribs (small constructed islands) and chained logs in a bend of the western branch of the Susquehanna River that acted as a natural corral. It held felled timber—when full it could hold enough wood to build over 500,000 houses—until it could be processed by one of the many mills that came to operate along the shore, stretching for miles in Lycoming County. Over 7 billion feet of timber were processed through Perkins’ 6-mile-long innovation.

Advances in transportation sparked the boom, as the Pennsylvania Canal was completed in 1834 and railroads appeared shortly thereafter, making processed timber more easily transportable than the old method of floating it down waterways.

The Susquehanna Boom Co. was incorporated in March 1846; Perkins was a major stock shareholder and Leighton served as president. Construction began in 1849, and despite occasional setbacks was completed in 1851. 

After the Boom opened, Williamsport and Duboistown mills did such brisk business that they had their own brands displayed on their processed logs, helping their communities prosper in the process. At its high point, Williamsport boasted 30 sawmills alone and was known as the “lumber capital of the world.”

Downhill slope

Around 150 “boom rats,” men and boys, some as young as pre-teens, worked the boom, directing each log to its destination with long hooks.

The boom ran for about eight months every year and was annually removed from the river before the ice came—an onerous task completed by workers and tugboats.

Damaging floods, the clear cutting of timber and improved shipping capabilities of railroads contributed to the demise of the boom by 1909. However, during its life it made Perkins a wealthy benefactor. He helped found one of Williamsport’s first banks and the Williamsport Hospital, and was prominent in local politics, including serving as the town’s mayor from 1870 to 1872. He passed away in 1893 at the age of 90, after playing a vital role in the explosive success of Williamsport and Lycoming County.

The Susquehanna Boom may not have lasted but its impact was deep and far reaching. Thanks to Perkins and his contributions to the logging industry, a significant part of Pennsylvania underwent a transformation and flowered into vibrant communities that last to this day. 

Written by Andrew H. Martin, who writes about history for a variety of Web sites and publications. 

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