In the heart of Pennsylvania, one hundred twenty-five miles west of the Delaware River, and thirty miles south of the New York State line, is Lycoming County, largest in area in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The territory embraced within the limits, of Lycoming County originally belonged to Berks which was created March 11, 1752. Twenty years later Northumberland was formed out of Berks and twenty-three years later, Lycoming came into existence. At that time it covered a region vast enough to constitute a State, and three-fourths of its territory was then practically an unknown wilderness. It originally contained more than 12,000 square miles, or nearly one-third of the entire State. Through gifts of its territory to new counties, Lycoming has been reduced to an area of 1,200 square miles, approximately one-tenth of its original size. From this magnificent domain the following counties have, in whole or in part, been formed: Armstrong, Bradford, Center, Clearfield, Indiana, Jefferson, McKean, Potter Sullivan, Tioga, Venango and Warren. And since their formation several subdivisions have been made, such as Forest Elk and Cameron. It is bounded on the north by Tioga and Bradford counties, on the east by Sullivan and Columbia, on the south by Montour, Northumberland and Union, and on the west by Clinton and Potter. The area is drained by the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, and its numerous tributaries, the most important of which are Muncy, Loyalsock, Lycoming, Larry's and Pine Creeks. South of Lycoming County, at Northumberland, the West Branch unites with the North Branch and follows southeastwardly course to Chesapeake Bay.
Except for a few clearings, the first white settlers found the territory which is now Lycoming County covered with the finest stand of white pine and hemlock trees to be found anywhere in the would. Its value was not immediately recognized, but this timber later provided the county with its largest industry, and transformed Williamsport from a sleepy village into the lumber capital of the continent. From 1862 to 1894 lumber made millionaires, of which Williamsport is said to have had more in proportion to its population than any other American city. But despite the flood, which broke the booms, the reckless cutting of timber was the real cause of the decline, and the county then became primarily agricultural, with a great diversity of industries to replace the by-gone lumber days.
Governor Thomas Mifflin, on April 14, 1795, the day after he had approved the bill creating the new county, invested John Kidd and Samuel Wallis with authority to administer oaths to any persons appointed or elected to office in the new county of Lycoming. The same day John Kidd, who was an attorney from Sunbury, assumed his numerous offices. The following day the Governor appointed Capt. Samuel Wallis, Col. William Hepburn, Major John Adlum and Dr. James Davison, a Revolutionary War surgeon, none of whom were lawyers, as first, second, third and fourth Associate Judges respectively, to organize the judicial machinery of the county. They met and elected William Hepburn President Judge, All were sworn in by John Kidd, except John Adlum, who must have qualified later, as he sat on December 1, 1795, but afterward, moved to Havre de Grace, Maryland, and later to Arlington, Virginia, where he had a fine vineyard. Samuel Wallis died in Philadelphia of yellow fever, October 14, 1798, so the, remaining two attended to the judicial business of the county.
The early records of the county are very meager, but it is probable that they met at the home of Thomas Caldwell or Jacob Latcha. Neither is it definitely known who owned the temporary building which was used as a jail. Afterwards a building of hewed logs, 24' x 16', was constructed, strongly lined with plank, and barred windows. According to Meginness1, it had two rooms and very likely Prothonotary Kidd opened his office in one of them. The jailer was Samuel Jordan.
Having first appointed some county officials, the Governor next turned his attention to that section of the Act creating the county (section 7) which empowered him to appoint five commissioners to select a site for the county seat. Those whom he appointed were: John Hall, Philadelphia; Francis Nichols, Montgomery, Alexander Scott, Lancaster; John Edic, York and William Elliott, Franklin. The act directed them to meet at Northumberland on the first Monday in September next and proceed to select the most eligible site for the public buildings. Their report to the Secretary of the Commonwealth had to be made by October 1st, and was to be final.
There is evidence to show that four of the five commissioners did meet and perform their duty, but no report to the Secretary of the Commonwealth can be found today. That they had a difficult task is not to be doubted. Dunnsburg2 and Jaysburg3both aspired to be the county seat. With the temporary county offices in their village, the Jaysburgers felt secure. But ex-Senator Hepburn had a finger in the pie and he was interested in having the county seat east of Lycoming Creek, where he was the owner of a fine tract of land. He had resigned from the State Senate to accept the President judgeship. Then Michael Ross, owner of 285 acres of land in what is now the central part of Williamsport, also contemplated laying out a town. He and Judge Hepburn as a team were hard to beat, but the Jaysburgers were not easily discouraged. The fight became more fierce from day to day.
The Jaysburgers asserted that their land was higher and dryer and in every way better fitted for the county seat, whereas they said most of the land embraced in the proposed new town of the Hepburn-Ross faction was swampy and subject to flooding. They dispatched a messenger to Northumberland to obtain an affidavit from a man there who was reported at one time to have brought a barrel of whiskey in a canoe to Williamsport, and tied up at a point which is now East Third and State Streets, for at one time an arm or "gut" of the river extended there. The affidavit was obtained, and when the messenger stopped at the Russell Inn with this proof for the commissioners that floods extended as far up as Market Square, terror struck in the hearts of the Hepburn-Ross party and they took immediate steps to circumvent this evidence. For they realized that if such proof was laid before the commissioners, Jaysburg would probably be the victor. Accordingly that night, they visited the messenger, got him intoxicated and stole his saddle bags including the damaging affidavit, and destroyed or concealed the paper. At least that is the supposition, for the next morning the saddle bags, cut open, were found but not the paper!
By this time the commissioners were weary of this factional strife, and it seemed likely that Dunnsburg where lots for public buildings had been offered, would be selected. Hence Hepburn who was without money, but had plenty of land, persuaded Ross to tender the commissioners lots for public buildings, pointing cut to him that it would greatly enhance the sale of Ross's other lots. So Ross tendered four lots, two for the Court House, and two for the jail, which the commissioners accepted, and the contest was brought to a close.
Although the Hepburn-Ross faction had won out, Jaysburg continued to function is the county seat until October 15, 1799. Money to erect public buildings could not be secured in a day and all the records remained at Jaysburg. The court, after holding two sessions there, became peripatetic, and for several years, appeared to have moved over to the Williamsport territory. It was quite evidently waiting for a permanent habitation.
Complaints were made to the Governor about the failure of the sheriff, commissioners and Kidd to remove from Jaysburg which was plainly in defiance of the law. The Governor, although at one time seriously contemplating an order for removal, appears to have favored Williamsport. A. J. Dallas, the Secretary of the Commonwealth, referred the matter to Chief Justice Thomas McKean. The Governor and McKean conferred together at the Falls of the Schuylkill, and McKean wrote Kidd, on February 10, 1798, that he was certain be could keep the office at Jaysburg for an other year or more. Finally Kidd, uncertain as to the outcome, at the close of the century, officially established his offices at the county seat.
As we have said at least two sessions of Court were held in Jaysburg and at the second session business was transacted in the Quarter Sessions. The first case in the Quarter Sessions appears to have been a case of assault and battery in which one Richard Martin, son of Robert Martin (who built a mill at Newberry as early as 1798) was charged with beating up, wounding and maltreating Michael Ross. Since the Martins were residents of Jaysburg, and Ross was the founder of Williamsport, it looked very much as though this case of assault and battery grew out of the bad blood existing between the two factions regarding the location of the county seat. A true bill was found, but the prosecution was dropped on payment of costs and a small fine.
After the court emigrated to the east side of Lycoming Creek it met in temporary quarters at the public house of Eleanor Winter which Meginness locates at the corner of Fourth and Rose Streets (page 274), and Fourth and Cemetery Streets (page327). I believe the former to be correct. Here the Quarter Sessions for 1796 were held. Among the first indictments before this court was one charging Hannah Hallett with having, on November 8, 1795, stolen from William Hepburn, Esq., "one muslin handkerchief of the value of ten shillings, one shift of the value of ten shillings, and one skein of woolen yarn of the value of one shilling.” What happened to the culprit does not appear, but the interesting thing was that the articles were stolen from the President Judge of the Court and the principal witness was his wife.
Probably not more than three terms of court were held at the Winter's tavern, according to entry in the Commissioners Minute Book for September 11, 1797.
While court was being held at the Winter tavern, some amusing incidents occurred which illustrate the crudity of the times. On one occasion, a witness became impertinent and made a remark reflecting on the integrity of the President judge, William Hepburn. This was just too much, the judge immediately forgot his dignity, left the bench, and came down to the floor to physically punish the offending witness. It showed the bitterness of feeling still existing at that time between the Williamsport and Jaysburg factions. Judge Hepburn was accused of using questionable methods to secure the location of the county seat at Williamsport, and if the person making the offensive remarks was a Jaysburger, the cause of the unseemly disturbance in court is easily understood.
On another occasion, some one attending court had brought several hounds, one day, coupled with a light chain. Mrs. Winter had prepared an unusually fine dinner, the bible was covered with a costly set of china dishes, a wedding gift from her mother, and considerable style was being displayed for those primitive days. When dinner was announced the dogs, scenting the viands, rushed in and dashing under the table, overturned it and broke every piece of china but two plates, causing the greatest consternation. As Samuel Wallis, one of the judges, is believed to have been the first person to introduce English hounds into our valley it seems probable that the pack followed him to court and caused the crash in Mrs. Winter's dining room.
From the Winter place, the court moved eastward over a mile to the Russell Inn, which stood at the corner of what is new East Third and Mulberry Streets. This was a double log house, built 1796, and the accommodations for the court were likely in one end of the building. According to the Minutes of the Commissioners several terms of court were held here.
At the 1798 Sessions election frauds were investigated, and among those indicted for keeping "tippling houses" were James Russell (the proprietor of the Russell Inn), and Eleanor Winter, at whose tavern the court had formerly met. The presence of those who administered the law did not appear to have a salutary effect on the owners of these inns.
The court next moved to the house of Thomas Huston, on East Third Street. This was also an inn, known as the Rising Sun. It afterwards became the property of "Paragon" Pickles and he put up the Sign of the Lion.
From the Rising Sun, the court then moved to a small log building which had been erected on the southwest corner of the present court house square. This was about the time of the third or fourth sessions of 1799. Here the court remained until the new court house, begun in 1801, but a few yards away, was completed and ready for occupancy in 1804.
The commissioners, on December 5, 1800, paid one Matthew Adams and John Turk each $5.00 for procuring plans of the Harrisburg Court House. That the plans of the Harrisburg Court House were adopted seems to be conclusive. Among the numerous items which appear in the Commissioner's Books is one final item: "Paid April 11, 1803, to Jacob Grafius (great-grandfather of John Grafius Candor), for three gallons of whiskey for court house and offices, $2.00."
According to Associate judge Charles D. Eldred, in 1850, the Court House was reputed to be the best in the State outside of Philadelphia. The yard and space in front had either been graded nor paved, and both were decidedly uneven. The court room was on the first floor, with the Prothonotary's and Register's offices on the left side, and the Commissioner's, and Treasurer's on the right, doors opening from the street to each. The first bell was purchased through John Burrows and Stephen Bell, who hauled it from Harrisburg as well, the image of Justice, were paid $20.00. The second bell was made by George Hedderly of Philadelphia and the image was made by Samuel Hill. John Turk and Edward Gobi, the contractors, with Stacy Throp and Jacob Hyman assistants. Matthew Adam, had charge of the carpenter work. The bricks were manufactured by Joseph Dunn in the brickyard of Judge Hepburn, on the Deer Park farm, a mile west of the building; the cut stone work was done by Samuel Biss, the stone being brought from Sinnemahoning on rafts or floats. When the building was completed it was regarded by all local admirers as a model of architectural beauty, but judging from the contemporary photograph from Sherman Day's Historical Collections, it would be looked upon as a curiosity. The first bell had proved to be entirely too small and was replaced by the one made by Hedderly. This bell has been in constant use since 1804. In 1815 it was rung so vigorously on receipt of the news of peace at the close of the War of 1812, that it was heard at a distance of eleven miles. The total cost of the building and offices was $20,417.80.
In comparison with today, the cost of holding our courts was small. The Traverse jury for the May Sessions of 1807 was $40. Moses Tool was paid $24 in fall "for ringing the bell and crying court for one year ending May 9, 1807." The Grand jury for February Term, 1809, cost $38, and the Traverse jury $98. For the August Term, 1808, the Grand jury received $48 and the Traverse jury $108. Jonathan Walker, for serving as Deputy Attorney General (District Attorney) from 1798 to February, 1800, was paid $57,60.
The total amount of the county assessment for 1810 reached $6,197.20. But of course this included the townships of Athem, Ulster and Burlington in what is now Bradford County, and Pine, Unstable, Wayne, Nippenose, and Bald Eagle, Clinton County. In 1813 the total assessments reached $8,307.35, but two more townships had been added to the Bradford County territory. The total number of townships at that time was nineteen, twelve of which were without the present limits of the county.
For years the court house was duly admired by the citizens and pointed out with great pride. But when population and business increased, the younger element began to demand a larger and more modern building. But the older men did not agree, for they said it was built when men did their work honestly. Thus for a time sufficient public opinion could not be aroused in favor of its demolition. But it soon became apparent that because of the county's growth, the quaint old structure, with its curiously arranged court room and offices must inevitably give way to the spirit of public improvement. After all it had stood for sixty years, but it could no longer adequately fulfill its purpose.
So in 1856, the Commissioners employed William Fink to prepare drawings for an addition to the old court house; but when they came to remove the roof and examine the walls, they were found to be so poorly constructed that they could not be utilized, and it then became evident that a new building would have to be erected. Samuel Sloan, a Philadelphia architect, was engaged, and on April 26, 1860, his plans were accepted. 1n the meantime a contract was let with former Sheriff Riddell. He pursued the work with such vigor that the building was ready for occupancy at the March Term 1861. Meanwhile court was held in Doebler's and Youngman's halls, the former located on Pine Street and he latter on East Third Street.
The dimensions of the 1861 court house were one hundred sixteen feet eleven inches in length by sixty feet in width. It had projecting cornices of three feet each way, making the entire length one hundred twenty-one feet eleven inches and the width sixty-six feet. The first story was twelve feet six inches from floor to ceiling, and it contained a11 the county offices, besides a chamber for the president judge. The second story contained the main court room, with a high ornamental ceiling, a jury room, and a room which was used by the United States and Circuit Courts until other accommodations were provided for them in the new post office building in 1891. 0n the third floor were jury rooms, and rooms for the meetings of the institutes held by the city teachers. The building cost originally $41,030 but it has undergone so many changes and improvements that in 1892 Meginness concluded it had cost the county nearly $100,000.
The first court held in the new building was the March Sessions of 1861, and in the opening of his charge to the grand jury, Judge Jordan said:
"I congratulate you, the members of the bar, the officers of this court, and all who have business to transact in court, in the pleasant change from a small, inconvenient, unhealthy court room, to a permanent (sic), beautiful and convenient building; a building alike creditable to the citizens of Lycoming County, to the gentlemen who projected it, to the architect who planned it, the commissioners who contracted for it, and the mechanics who faithfully labored in its construction and completion."
The same, bell that was placed in the belfry of the original court house is in the present one; and the same image of Justice ornaments the present one. It is a representation of a female figure balancing the scales of Justice, but she is not blindfolded as was the custom of the ancients.
In April 1854, the commissioners authorized the purchase of a clock for the tower for $200.00, after recommendation of Dr. Samuel Pollock, foreman of the grand jury. The sum was found to be insufficient, the deficiency was made up by private subscription. The clock was made in Cazenovia, New York and cost $440.00. The original dials were made of wood, but they were soon replaced with glass, and the belfry lighted at night by gas.
Since the erection of the second court house, as said above, many changes and improvements have been made, from time to time both before and after 1892, that it is difficult to determine just when and to flat extent sonic of them were made. This is especially true because the minute books of the county commissioners prior to August 1904, as well as many of the older court files, rare been lost. Some were thrown away after the various floods, and others stored in the basement and subjected to periodical clean-ups.
According to the Gazette & Bulletin for December 19, 1882, page 4, the cannon controversy began as follows:
“Arrival of Howitzers
“Yesterday afternoon there arrived in the city from Governors Island, four twenty-four pounder flash defense howitzers, weighing about fourteen hundred pounds each, consigned to James N. Kline4 Secretary of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument Association of Lycoming County. They were deposited on the court house yard and later in the day transferred to the sidewalk in front of the west side of the court house, by members of the Grand Army of the Republic, Reno Post No. 64. These howitzers are to become a part of the Soldiers and Sailors monument to be erected in this city. They were procured through Congressman R. J. C. Walker.”
We next hear of the howitzers in the Gazette & Bulletin of November 5, 1905, page 3.
“And they brought them back again.
“Cannon will once more adorn the Court House Lawn.
“These cannon that erstwhile adorned the corners of the Court house lawn have been brought back again from Grand View Cemetery where they have reposed for several years.
“Ten or a dozen years ago [actually it was in 1882 – editor] Hon. R. J. C. Walker secured four condemned government cannon and donated them to the city. They were planted on the four corners of the court house lawn, and remained there until there was talk of erecting a soldiers monument in Grand View. When the Board of County Commissioners then in office allowed them to be moved to the cemetery, where they were proposed to be placed about the prospective monument, while the fourth remained at the northeast corner of the lawn.
“Time went on, and the monument failed to materialize, so yesterday the County Commissioners had them hauled back again. The four are now placed in carriages at the corners, where they were intended to be.”
Apparently this aroused resentment among our G.A.R. veterans for the Gazette & Bulletin of November 10, 1903, page 5, contained the following:
COUNTY DOES NOT OWN THE CANNON
PROPERTY OF THE BOARD OF MANAGERS OF RENO POST
“Although the County Commissioners acted in good faith, the old Civil War cannon belonged to the G.A.R. On April 29, 1880, an application for a charter was made for the Soldiers and Sailors Monument Association. Not until 1890 was the design for the monument adopted. The cannon were to be placed at the four corners of the monument to protect it from anyone driving against it.”
They changed the proposed location of the monument from Market Square to Brandon Park, the Court House and various other places. In 1892, the association ordered the monument for the west side of the Court House, but the County Commissioners failed to act, and they then decided on Ross Park. Ross Park consists of four lots which Michael Ross et ux., by deed dated March 8, 1808 (Deed Book 41, page 223), deeded to the City of Williamsport. Prior to the erection of the present City Hall, it had been a cemetery. In 1867, the monuments and bodies of the dead were removed to other cemeteries.
In 1881, by ordinance, Ross Park Commission was created6 and in 1892, the Ross Park Commissioners were directed to procure plans for a City Hall. In 1893, the City gave permission to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument Association to erect their monument in front of City Hall in Ross Park, and $307.50 was appropriated from the general fund for the purpose of a monument and payment of bills for removing the dead from Ross Park to Grand View Cemetery.
Then about 1895, Grand View Cemetery offered Reno Post a plot of ground, if the Post would do certain things deemed fitting for the burial of the soldier dead. The G.A.R. never did their part. The monument was completed and dedicated but the cannons were not used.
The County Commissioners admitted that the title to the cannon was in Reno Post. In 1904, the County Commissioners employed surveyors to lay out lines for spots on the Court House lawn on which the four cannon were to be mounted after concrete foundations had been poured.7 And finally, the matter came to an end in 1905, when brass plates or tablets were affixed to the cannon telling their history.8
Another matter which caused comment from time to time was the lighting of the court house clock at night. It appears that while electricity was introduced into the court house in 1885, the clock was still illuminated by gas in 1905. We are indebted to the Gazette & Bulletin of July 13, 1905 for the following tid-bit:
WHAT’S THE TIME?
WHY THIS EGYPTIAN DARKNESS IN THE REGION OF
THE COURT HOUSE CLOCK FOR TWO WHOLE NIGHTS?
The gas is out. Some one should start up the light plant again, for a great many people depend upon the Court House clock for the time of night as they pass by . . .”
And then in the July 14th issue of the same newspaper, we are glad to learn:
“The illuminant in the Court House clock was doing duty again last night at the old stand and much to the delight of every one.”
The fountain was reactivated in 1893, and I can recall it as a boy about 1907. When it was finally removed I cannot discover. In 1911, there were ornamental lamp posts at the four corners of the court house lawn. It seems to me that I can remember seeing them some years ago. The Gazette & Bulletin of that period seems to have a particular fondness for delectable little items which aroused their readers interest and which we enjoy today for the information given that otherwise might have been lost. In the December 12, 1905 issue, page 7, appeared this morsel:
WEATHER VANE ON A SLANT
COUNTY COMMISSIONERS MAY MAKE REPAIRS TO
COURT HOUSE TOWER.
“The wooden pedestal extending into the air from the dome of the Court House tower, and which furnishes a base for the big weather vane of the figure of Justice is decidedly out of plumb. Its present slant is due to the strong wind that prevailed last Sunday. This has been called to the attention of the County Commissioners [no doubt by an enterprising reporter, a predecessor of Paul Bussom] and they may today order the necessary repairs to the tower. If proper attention is not given at once the metal lady may tumble to the sidewalk in front of the temple of Justice.
“It was over thirty years ago that the late Morris G. Repasz gave the figure of Justice a covering of gold leaf at his shop on Court Street, and then stood on the top of the tower suspended by a trunk strap around his waist, and gilded the large gold ball under the figure.”
Presumably this is the same figure of Justice which still turns whimsically today with every change in the direction of the wind. This continual change of direction would seem to make her a somewhat fickle lady!
Col. Thomas Lloyd states in his history of Lycoming County9 that there was an addition to the court house erected in 1867, but to date I fail to find any other mention of it. He however fails to note the 1903 addition which was substantial.
The 1903 addition to the court house was begun in May 1903. The contract was awarded to W. H. C. Huffman and Son, at their bid of $39,500. The architect was the late Truman P. Rimier whose profile drawings, together with a copy of the specifications, arc still in the hands of Jack Hoffman. The work was to be finished by December 1st. and was completed shortly after that date. The June 1903 grand jury had found the basement of the court house in a deplorable condition, filled with old empty boxes, crates, paint kegs, ashes in great abundance, old doors, old iron, book cases, etc. It recommended that the county records be placed in the surveyor's office until a fireproof vault could be secured for them. The grand jury also approved the manner in which the work was being done in the court house annex10. The annex widened the building toward the east and west extending toward the north, a fact which can best be visualized from an exterior inspection of the present building.
A metal tablet on which appear the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was presented by the Citizens of Williamsport, on July 4, 1914, and is affixed to the southern wall of the Court House near the entrance.
On July 23, 1914, the Commissioners, entered into a contract with F. W. Burleigh and Mary Burleigh to straighten the ball on the top of the Court House so that the same is in a perpendicular line with the center of the tower of the Court House from the top of the metal figure of the lady and down to the roof of the Court House, to coat all metal, except tin, with gold bronze, and then over same with white shellac after bronze is dry, to repair wood and tin work of said tower where same is needed for the sum of $150.00, as will be seen more fully by the contract on file in the Commissioners office under the above date.
Sometime after Judges G. B. M. Metzger and Don M. Larrabee had taken office the third floor of the court house was again remodeled, toilets installed, additional rooms provided for juries, the Administrator of Veterans Affairs, rooms for cutting stencils, etc. and an elevator installed to the second floor. I can well recall taking the judges up to the third floor on a voyage of discovery, and showing them its possibilities. For this floor was then occupied only by a small office for the County Superintendent of Schools, and a very dark room for the Children's Aid. The rest was an open attic filled with old baby carriages, broken chairs and desks, benches, and other ephemera. All this debris has now disappeared but the court house is bulging at the seams.
On March 10, 1939, the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted Articles of Incorporation to The Lycoming County Authority.
The persons appointed to membership on this Authority were and still are: George L. Stearns, II, George R. Lamade, Thomas J, Rider, Harold A.. Brown and Henry Heyman.
At a meeting held on March 31, 1939, Mr. Steams was elected President, Mr. Brown, Secretary and Treasurer, and Clyde E. Williamson, solicitor.
In 1939, Simon & Simon, Philadelphia architects, had plans to construct a new court house at a cost of $982,015.00, of which Public Works Administration was prepared to grant $441,907 00. The balance of $540,108.00 was to be paid by a bond issue The bonds were to be liquidated from store rentals on the first floor. The entire first floor had been rented for 10 years.
The Court refused to approve this plan and the Public Works Administration grant was lost.
On January 25, 1956, the Federal Government granted to the Lycoming County Commissioners the sum of $41,668.00 for plan and specifications for a new court house.
This sum was paid to Laurie & Green, Harrisburg architects, who prepared the plans and specifications.
Since that time there have been many conferences which have attempted to ascertain how to meet the current court house needs. So far no solution has been found.
Repeatedly grant juries have recommended various solutions to the space problem in the Court House. Previously they have either recommended an all new building or an addition to the present building. Just recently at a joint meeting of the Lycoming County Authority, the county court and the county commissioners, a new third approach was announced. This latest possibility is to construct a new building to surround the present Court House, giving a "new" appearance as well as considerable extra space. Studies of all three possibilities are now being made by the Authority.
The actual opening of the West Branch Valley area was inspired by officers of Bouquet’s army, veterans of the Pontiac War. Meeting at Fort Bedford, in western Pennsylvania, the officers of the first and second battalions of the Pennsylvania Militia decided to apply for lands along the West Branch. Led by Col. Turbutt Francis, they petitioned the heirs of William Penn for 40,000 acres. Thomas and William Penn, proprietors of the colony, approved this petition and named commissioners to negotiate with the Indians. They met at Fort Stanwix (now Rome, N. Y.), on Nov. 5, 1768, and offered to purchase land from the Six Nations. The Indians agreed to sell “another slice of their territory on the Susquehanna” to the Penns for $10,000. The tract was known as the “New Purchase.” It was opened for settlement in April 1769, and out of this land the Penns reserved 24,000 acres for the militia officers, 300 acres to each family.
Some idea of the excitement caused by the opening of the New Purchase may be gained from the fact that 2,782 applications for patents were filed in the land office the first day it was opened. Between April 3, 1769 and August 31, more than 4,000 applications were filed.
Trouble arose with the Indians as to the location of the western boundary, which in the treaty was given as Tiadaghton Creek. The Indians identified it as Lycoming Creek, while the white settlers claimed that Pine Creek was meant. As a result the land between these two creeks was disputed territory. Early surveys, which have since come to light, seem to bear out the contention of the Indians. Because of these differing views, this area became a sort of no man’s land from 1768 to 1784. This was the scope of the jurisdiction of the “Fair Play” code. The Fair Play territory was that part of present Lycoming County now embraced in the townships of Old Lycoming, Woodward, Piatt, Porter and a portion of Watson.
By the Treaty of 1784, through which additional land was purchased from the Indians, the disputed land was included, thus making the matter of location of Tiadaghton Creek purely academic, even though by this time, the Indians were ready to concede. But for 16 years the territory lying between these two creeks was for all intents and purposes Indian land, and indeed was so recognized by the provincial government. Settlers were warned to stay out, under penalty of a heavy fine and imprisonment. Thus denied the protection of the laws of the proprietary government, these squatters, mostly hardy Scotch-Irish from the lower counties and New Jersey, set up their own government. They evolved their own system of law, levied taxes when needed, and organized a simple form of government, which they called the Fair Play system. This system functioned through three commissioners elected by ballot in March of each year. It was their duty to see that every person received “Fair Play”, and to mete out punishment to all offenders. Then when the occasion arose, a summons would issue and the place of meeting was announced. No one could join the settlement without permission of the commissioners, and any one who absented himself from his land longer than six weeks at a time lost all claim to it, except in cases of military service.
The decisions of the Fair Play men were final and were never disputed. Anyone disregarding their verdict was simply placed in a canoe, taken down to the river at the mouth of Lycoming Creek, and set adrift with orders not to return. Owing to the high character and sense of honor of the commissioners, their rulings were never questioned. No written record of their transactions remains, perhaps because they were afraid that anything in writing might be used against them by the proprietary government.
By a strange coincidence, they met on July 4, 1776, wrote and signed their own Declaration of Independence, totally unaware that at approximately the same hour, the better known declaration was signed at Philadelphia. The place of signing, according to tradition, was beneath a stately elm, reputedly now more than 300 years old, since then known as the Tiadaghton Elm.
It is known that the commissioners for 1776 were Bratton Caldwell, John Walker and James Brandon. The latter lived not far from Lycoming Creek, Caldwell lived in Pine Run and Walker on Pine Creek. The names of other commissioners are unknown to us.
Charles Smith11 a Sunbury attorney, who compiled that in valuable work known as Smith’s Laws gives us a clear insight into the causes operating to develop the Fair Play system, together with a resume of the land laws of Pennsylvania (Vol. II, 195), as it is related to the code adopted by the settlers:
“A set of hardy adventurers seated themselves in this doubtful territory, and formed a very considerable population. They formed a mutual compact among themselves, and eventually elected a tribunal in rotation of three settlers, who were to decide all controversies and settle disputed boundaries. From their decision there was no appeal, and there could be no resistance. The decree was enforced by the whole body, who started up in mass, at the mandate of the court, and the execution and eviction were as sudden and irresistible as the judgment. Every newcomer was obliged to apply to this powerful tribunal, and upon his solemn engagement to submit in all respects to the law of this land, was permitted to take possession of some vacant spot. Their decrees were, however, just and when their settlements were recognized by law, and fair play ceased, their decisions were received in evidence and confirmed by the judgments of the court.”
The names of many of the Fair Play men are given in a memorial to the General Assembly, dated from the endorsement on the back: “Read one time, March 17, 1784.” These petitioners were fearful that Samuel Wallis and others would attempt to acquire their lands, and indeed such proved to be the case. Much litigation followed, and a number of depositions were later found among the papers of Hon. Charles Huston, the eminent land lawyer12 which have since been published.
Prior to the formation of the Federal constitution, the administration of justice was in the hands of the proprietary courts and a famous law suit in ejectment was tried at Reading, Berks County, which involved Samuel Wallis, the land king and surveyor13.
Whenever the Penns made a treaty with the Indians and acquired a new purchase, it was their custom to set aside one tenth of the land, and reserve it for themselves and their heirs, calling them manors, similar to the old English manors, which were self-contained and self-governed. One such manor was Muncy Manor, and another was Orme's Kirk, the latter located within the present day bounds of Williamsport. The above mentioned ejectment suit was with reference of Muncy Manor, parts of which Wallis had sold to settlers, and which were therefore claimed by the Penns.
The Constitution of 1776 provided for courts of sessions, common pleas and orphans court, the organization and functions of which were substantially the same as under the provincial regime. By this constitution, the judicial power of the Commonwealth was vested in a Supreme Court, in a court of oyer and terminer and general gaol delivery, common pleas, quarter sessions of the peace, orphans court and register's court for each county, and in justices of the peace.
The judges of the Supreme Court were ex officio justices of oyer and terminer and general gaol delivery in the several counties. Provision was made for the division of the state into judicial districts; the Governor was authorized to appoint a president of the courts for each circuit, and not less than three nor more than four judges for each county, for whom a life tenure was established, subject to the good behavior of the incumbent, who was removable by the Governor upon the address of two thirds of each branch of the legislature. The president and the other judges, any two of whom constituted a quorum, were to compose the court of common pleas. They were likewise justices of oyer and terminer and general gaol delivery, but no session of this court was to be held in any county when the Supreme Court was sitting therein. The court of quarter sessions and the orphans court were similarly composed and the judges of common pleas, with the register of wills, composed the register's court. The latter was abolished by the Constitution of 1873, which is still our constitution today.
The Constitution of 1776 had never been satisfactory, and accordingly a new constitution was adopted in 1790. This constitution divided the commonwealth into five judicial districts, or circuits, the third circuit to consist of the counties of Berks, Northampton, Northumberland and Luzerne. In each of the said districts or circuits, a person of knowledge and integrity, skilled in the laws, was to he appointed by the Governor, as president and judge of the court of common pleas, within the district, after the thirty-first day of August next.
So at the time Lycoming County was created, it became a part of the third judicial district, in which district it remained until the passage of the Act of February 24, 1806 (4 Smith's Laws, 270), section 2 of which divided the Supreme Court into two districts, eastern and western. The middle district was created by the Act of April 10, 1807 (4 Smith's Laws, 488). Section 12 of the 1806 Act further divided the state into new judicial districts, and Northumberland, Luzerne and Lycoming counties comprised the eighth district. Lycoming County was erected a separate judicial district, known as the twenty-ninth district, by the Act of February 28, 1868, P. L. 610.
But under the Constitution of 1873, Art. V, Section 5, whenever a county attained forty thousand inhabitants it constituted a separate judicial district. The proper time for the creation of a separate judicial district is at the next succeeding session of the legislature after each decennial census, under section 14 of the schedule attached to the constitution. This created a peculiar situation when the question arose concerning Judge Benjamin S. Bentley's accepting a judge's commission in Lackawanna County, as to whether, when the county attained that population, it automatically became a separate judicial district, or had to wait the action of the legislature. In Comm. v. Harding, 87 Pa. 343 (1878), the Supreme Court decided against Judge Bentley.
1History of Lycoming County by John F. Meginness, Chicago, 1892, p. 222.
2Dunnsburgh or Dunnstown was laid out by William Dunn, in 1785, long before Jaysburg, Williamsport or Jersey Shore were thought of. It is located opposite the head of the Great Island on the main land, now in Clinton County. See Historical Journal, by John F. Meginness, Vol. II, No. 1 (1894), for more complete account.
3 Jaysburg lay west of Lycoming Creek.
4James N. Kline (1846-1925), a well known figure of his day, was a Civil War veteran and President of Kline & Company, a hardware store then located at the northeast corner of Market Square, 15 East Third Street.
5Grand View Cemetery is now a part of East Wildwood Cemetery. According to Townsend Van Glahn, the Civil War soldiers were brought from Ross Park and buried in a common grave, where a monument was then erected, not however the monument referred to above.
6City Digest of Laws and Ordinances in force August 19,
1900, Richards and Crocker, Soney & Sage (1900). Part II. 193-5.
7Gazette & Bulletin, May 5, 1903, page 2.
8Gazette & Bulletin, Dec. 30, 1905, page 2.
9Vol. I, p. 120.
10Williamsport Sun, June 6, 1891, n. 1
11Charles Smith was the son of Provost William Smith, M.D. for biographical notices of him, see Penna Mag., vol. IV, 380, and Vol. VII, p. 203. He was admitted to the Northumberland County bar on examination in 1786, settled in Sunbury, and rose rapidly to eminence at the bar. He was attorney for the plaintiff in lease of Greer v. Tharp, May Sessions, Nisi Prius, 1799, Northumberland County, before McKean and Shippen. See also John Hughes v. Henry Dougherty, 2 Smith’s Laws, 196; Huff v. Latcha, Circuit Court, Lycoming County, 1801.
12 See Indian Lands and Fair Play Settlers, by John B. Linn, Penna Mag. VII, p. 420, and see also, Meginness, History, ibid, p. 200.
13See Now and Then, vol. IV. P. 29ff. Among the jurors was Abraham Lincoln, the Uncle Abraham for whom his grandfather was christened, and from whom President Abraham Lincoln derived his name.