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Susquehanna Life

Take Me to the River: Muncy Heritage Park and Nature Trail

Mar 16, 2016 05:59PM ● By Shannon Ostrovsky

The river access overlooks the Last Raft crash site, Photo by: William Poulton

Muncy Heritage Park and Nature Trail continues to evolve, adding features and amenities to an already idyllic setting. The newest development is the River Access Trail, a soft-landing site for small watercraft on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

The Muncy Heritage Park and Nature Trail is the newest component of the West Branch Water Trail, a 228-mile paddling journey starting at Cherry Tree in Indiana County and ending at Shikellamy State Park in Sunbury. Here, one can relax and enjoy the river from the vantage point of a kayak, a canoe or even a paddle board.

Looking back
The River Access Trail also overlooks a significant historic area: the "Last Raft" crash site. The March 20, 1938, tragedy occurred when a lumber raft collided with the railroad bridge spanning the river at Muncy. Of the 45 people who plunged into the icy river, all but seven were rescued.

The story of the Last Raft began with brothers R. Dudley Tonkin of Tyrone and V. Ord Tonkin of Cherry Tree. A lumbering family, the Tonkins came to the town of Cherry Tree in the mid-1800s. Vince Tonkin, Dudley and Ord’s father, had left timber standing with the request that the two brothers occasionally cut the trees and build a raft to float as a living history lesson. The elderly Tonkin thought that the event would help to preserve the days gone by and he wanted share that experience with new generations.

Piloted by Harry Conner of Burnside, a river raft pilot for 50 years, the 112-foot long timber raft was launched March 14, 1938, in Bell Township, Clearfield County, and was to end 200 miles away in Harrisburg.

It left a mark
The event garnered worldwide publicity as newspaper journalists, photographers, and radio and newsreel crews tagged along. The raft was seen by throngs of onlookers as it floated the river, tying up at cities along the West Branch route.

School children—many of whom still recall the experience—lined up along the riverbank, waving American flags as the raft followed the current from Clearfield, to Renovo, then to Lock Haven and Williamsport. There, according to news reports of the day, Conner turned the oar over to another pilot who was familiar with the lower river.

Barely hours after the raft "ran the chute" in Williamsport, it collided with the Reading Railroad Bridge in Muncy. Thousands of people, who were standing along the river bank and on the railroad bridge, watched helplessly as The Last Raft hit the pier, jostling crew and passengers into the frigid water. It took weeks of grappling the river and shores before all of the deceased were recovered. Seven lives were lost: Montgomery’s Mayor, Dr. Charles Taylor; pilot Henry 
Connor; Universal cameraman Thomas Profitt; Harold Berringer, W.C. VanScoyoc, Malcolm McFarland and Williard Holley.

Donated land set plan in action:
The concept of a River Access Trail became part of Muncy Heritage Park’s master plan in 2008, several years after Muncy resident and philanthropist Betty Fisher donated 11 acres of undeveloped land to Muncy Historical Society. This generous act set in motion the process to turn the ecologically and culturally rich property into a desirable public park for the residents of Muncy and visitors from the region and beyond.  
Designed by landscape architect Brian Auman, the park has been completed from the river’s edge to the entrance of the park.

According to William Poulton, president of Muncy Historical Society and the park’s chief caretaker, river access was an expensive undertaking, and one that required permits and even an archaeological survey prior to development. "Before any work could be considered, funding had to be in place," Poulton said. "We secured this through our various fundraising efforts and granting partnerships." 

Examples of fundraising activities include the Muncy Golf Tournament and the annual Invitational Artists Exhibition and Sale. Proceeds from the variety of events provided matching funds for local and state grants.

Partnering with Lycoming County Commissioners and the County Planning and Community Development office, the historical society secured money through the Legacy Fund Account –a designated allocation of Act 13 funds provided to the county by the Public Utility Commission specifically for parks. "We were fortunate to receive Act 13 monies to help offset the total costs of designing, engineering and constructing the access," Poulton added.  

Hands on Heritage provided a Phase 1 Archaeological Survey of the one-third acre prior to development, enabling BSA/LA landscape architects and contractors to construct a 200-foot-long gravel trail.

Muncy Historical Society continues to develop the park, which straddles the West Branch Canal and Lock No. 21. The park features several historical exhibit areas, including part of an authentic canal boat, a bird-watching platform, a nature trail around the pond and more than a dozen interpretive panels.

"Working our way through the Master Plan, as funding permits, this year we anticipate the completion of the towpath trail from the new field bridge toward Pepper Street, approximately one-half mile," Poulton said. This proposed work will also include additional interpretive signage.

More information and directions to the park are available  

By: Robin Van Auken is a writer and professional archaeologist with Hands on Heritage.

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