A stroll along the James P. Bressler Heritage Trail on Canfield Island is invigorating and educational. It’s also tranquil, this quiet spot along the Susquehanna River’s West Branch.
The trail is part of Loyalsock Township’s Riverfront Park and is dedicated to James P. Bressler. A scholar and educator beloved in his community, Bressler carved a niche for himself in the region’s prehistory and history books with his archaeological investigations.
Located on Canfield Island in Loyalsock Township, the park contains a significant prehistoric Indian village. Bressler and members of Northcentral Chapter 8 of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology excavated prehistoric sites in the area for many decades and Bressler is responsible for having the island listed with the National Register of Historic Places
“That is, in my estimation, one of the best-kept secrets in the county,” Bressler said about the trail in a previous interview. “This is a unique attempt to integrate a number of different things. First of all, local history is really not being taught in our schools because there are too many competing things to teach. I understand that. But this is a unique way to combine a pleasant walk, a history lesson, and nature study. It’s just a pleasure to walk around there.”
Excavating Native American sites for the past four decades, Bressler led several digs on and near Canfield Island, a small spit of land turned into a manufactured island by 19th-century lumber mill owners. Publishing his findings in a series of monographs, Bressler and volunteers from Northcentral Chapter No. 8, Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology, have added immensely to the area’s knowledge of Native American culture as far back as 5000 B.P. (Before Present).
With this tribute to Bressler, the township acknowledged his expertise and the significance of his archaeological research. “Seldom ever, in my life, has a dream come about as this one has. This whole thing is an answer to a dream,” he said.
The park has more to offer than just scenery. When designed, park plans included a tree identification area, a butterfly habitat, and eagle nesting towers and owl boxes. In addition to the James Bressler Interpretive Trail, Riverfront Park features a pavilion, a boat dock, several fishing access points, a large multipurpose field, and a bike path.
“It’s very important for everybody. In the first place, the Susquehanna River, in my estimation, is one of the greatest assets Pennsylvania has. Fresh water flowing by your doorstep. But if you have no access to it, you’re limited in how much you can enjoy it,” he said. “This park is part of a much larger, long-range plan.”
In his honor, Loyalsock Township developed a one-half-mile walking trail. Interpretive signs stretch along the trail, describing prehistoric life along the river, as well as events from modern times.
A “Welcome” sign acknowledges trail underwriters and orients the visitor.
The signs use photos, maps, illustrations, and text to help visitors learn about three archaeological sites, The West Branch of the Susquehanna River (Otzinachson), the Sheshequin Trail, the Canfield and Colton Sawmill, the death of Capt. James Brady, the Revolutionary War “Cannon Hole.”
“It’s all a part of what we call heritage. This is what everybody inherits. But few people know about it. What good is an excavation, for instance, if we don’t issue a report and say, ‘Here is what we found. Here is what it means.’ Unless you say that, what have you done? Nothing but vandalism. Destroyed an irreplaceable resource,” Bressler said, adding, “So if you undertake to do a dig, you also undertake the responsibility of doing it in detail and making it part of the permanent record. That’s not a sermon; that’s a doggone fact. That’s why I’m doing it.”
It is primarily because of Bressler’s research that Canfield Island was named to National Register. His research and excavations were, Bressler said, the Alpha; the trail is the Omega.
“By itself (archaeological research), it is incomplete. It has no means of expressing itself. It’s manifested in the trail. There, you’re touching the past. And if you want to know a great deal more, you come up here (Lycoming County Historical Society) and flesh out your interest. It’s all part of a larger effort.”
The James P. Bressler Heritage Trail is open to the public. Directions to the park: From I-180/US-220, take exit 23B toward Montoursville/Warrensville Road. Merge onto East Third Street/Old Montoursville Road. Turn right at Canfield Lane (0.4 miles) then turn right at Greevey Road. The park entrance is 0.3 miles on the left.