History of Northumberland County

Northumberland County’s existence originated after the French and Indian War when settlers and soldiers began migrating along the Susquehanna River seeking land. Northumberland was the tenth county to be organized in Pennsylvania. Established in 1772, Northumberland County was created from an 8,000 square mile tract of land lying northwest of Lancaster, Cumberland, Berks, Northampton, and Bedford Counties. The land area of Northumberland County eventually increased to 15,000 square miles, covering the Susquehanna Valley, including all the land west of the Lehigh River to the Allegheny River and all of the land south of the New York State border to Juniata County. Twenty-nine counties in Pennsylvania stem from the 15,000 square miles that once constituted Northumberland County, distinguishing Northumberland County as the “Mother of Counties”.

As the rural areas of Northumberland County grew and prospered settlements and small towns sprang up. The Susquehanna River, which had originally dictated the development of the Susquehanna Valley and Northumberland County, was now dictating the County’s decline by severing towns and settlements from the county seat in Sunbury. As more settlers arrived and different portions of Northumberland County grew, new demands were placed on county government. The location of the county seat in Sunbury resulted in the demand for designation of a new county seat because of the City’s distance and settlers’ inability to ford the Susquehanna River to reach the City. The barriers, along with the jealousy emanating from the newly created towns competing among themselves for the role of county seat, which guaranteed prestige and prosperity, generated the move to create new counties from Northumberland County. From 1775 until 1813, Northumberland County’s size was reduced from 15,000 square miles to the present size of 470 square miles.

Sunbury, originally the Indian town of Shamokin, was laid out as the county seat in 1772. Because of Sunbury’s location at the forks of the Susquehanna River, by the beginning of the nineteenth century it was the hub of Northumberland County. The seven original townships in Northumberland County, also created in 1772, included Bald Eagle, Buffalo, Penn’s, Turbot, Augusta, Wyoming, and Muncy. The seven townships were divided and subdivided into new townships and counties as areas grew in population and the need for local government increased. Sunbury remains the county seat in Northumberland County. Of the seven original townships, only Turbot and Augusta were located in what is now Northumberland County. As these large sections of land began to develop and more settlers moved into the region, pressure for localized government was exerted until new communities were formed.

The settlement of Northumberland County is related to the development of the transportation system throughout the County. Many of the routes in Northumberland County were established by the original Native American inhabitants, who had an elaborate system of trade routes that connected much of Northumberland County. Generally the trade routes followed the natural contour of the land, covering natural stream beds, flat lands, and gently sloping grade levels over mountains. As the white settlers moved into Northumberland County, the Indian trails were replaced by bridle paths supporting travel on horseback. The bridle paths gave way to the roads and highways that supported travel by wagons and the movement of herds of animals. By 1885 canals and railroads had been constructed, often paralleling the Centre Turnpike (present day Route 61), thereby removing much of the heavy, bulky freight that had the potential to generate the greatest revenue for the road.

The construction of the Pennsylvania Canal was envisioned as part of the longest chain of canal navigation in the world supporting an unbroken line of internal navigation uniting the Chesapeake Bay with Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain, and the Hudson River. The idea to connect these interior waterways with the sea had been visualized by William Penn in 1690. The need for a means of transportation in order to establish an economic base for the previously separated counties, which had only primitive means of distributing their products, led to the establishment of six divisions of the Pennsylvania canal. The Susquehanna Division was formed in Northumberland County. The Susquehanna Division stretched 39 miles along the west side of the river to the end of the bridge at Northumberland. In the Susquehanna Division, two branches existed: a) the North Branch connecting Northumberland with Naticoke; and b) the West Branch connecting Northumberland with Muncy.

By 1838, only ten years after its inception, the canal system had been rendered useless. The advent of the railroads, coupled with the cost of the canal system in Pennsylvania, led to its failure. The Northern Central Railroad was building along the east shore of the Susquehanna River, reaching Sunbury in 1858. By 1858 the railroads completely swallowed the canal system in Northumberland County. For years, the railroad was the major employer in the Sunbury area. The history of the railroads in Northumberland County is bound to the history of coal. It was the demand for anthracite that was the direct cause of the construction of nearly every rail line in Northumberland County. When the demand for coal dropped off, the railroads went into a decline with the result that every rail line in Northumberland County went bankrupt. In Northumberland County there was not enough industry replacing coal to keep up the demand for rail service and what industry that did appear was generally not rail-oriented. Encouraged in the 19th Century by the need for an economical fuel located near metropolitan centers, anthracite prospered until the beginning of the 20th Century when, plagued by work strikes and environmental legislation, new energy sources appeared and anthracite began a rapid decline.

Anthracite is found in Northumberland County as well as in the surrounding counties. The ten Counties are divided into four district fields, each based on the shape and location of each coal basin. The Shamokin district located in Northumberland County covers a 50 square mile area that represents about one-tenth of the entire anthracite region. Mt. Carmel, Zerbe, and Coal Townships, with parts of East and West Cameron Townships are included in the region.

The Shamokin district is divided into three quadrangles, each based on the name of the nearest town- Trevorton, Shamokin, and Mt. Carmel. 1814 marked the year the first Shamokin coal was marketed. In the beginning of the mining industry sufficient quantities of coal could be gathered by prying coal from outcroppings and picking it up. As demand increased, the need for a more efficiently productive system increased until deep mining became the common means for coal extraction throughout the remainder of the 19th Century. By the middle of the 20th Century, however, most anthracite coal would be strip-mined. In the peak period of 1917, 8,464 employees inside the mines and 4,208 employees outside the mines supplied almost eight million tons of coal through deep mine operations.

*From the Northumberland County Comprehensive Plan Northumberland County Planning Commission 2005

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