Famous in the 19th century for its lumber products, Williamsport, Pennsylvania is a small mountainous town. Situated on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, its residents enjoyed easy access to virgin forests of hemlock and white pine. It once boasted more millionaires per capita than any American city. Its legacy is Millionaires Row, Victorian-era mansions that line the city’s old residential neighborhood.

Hands on Heritage: Market Square, Williamsport

Hands-on Heritage: Market Square, Williamsport

Michael Ross founded Williamsport, naming the river city after his son. Born July 12, 1759, of Scottish origin, He and his mother were indentured servants of Muncy land speculator Samuel Wallis. A surveyor’s assistant, at the conclusion of his servitude in 1779, Ross received 109 acres of land from an appreciative Wallis. As a successful surveyor, he added 285 acres of land bought from William Winter to his holdings. Soon, he owned plots on both sides of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

In 1795, Ross hired surveyors William Ellis and Joseph Williams to lay out the town of Williamsport. According to historian John F. Meginness (“History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania,” 1892), the original plot was a rectangular figure containing 111 acres and divided into 302 lots. Streets and alleys crossed each other at right angles and a public square, according to English custom, occupied the center of town. The first sale of lots, which took place on July 4, 1796, was a festive event with the public enjoying an ox roast. The first house in Williamsport was a log structure erected by James Russell on March 1796. It stood on the corner of Third and Mulberry streets. Williamsport was incorporated as a borough in 1806 and as a city in 1866.

Williamsport lumber barons provided more than one and one-half million logs annually. Inevitably, zealous timbering denuded the mountainsides. A disastrous flood in 1894 toppled the remaining lumbering companies.

Its heyday over, some Williamsporters turned to agriculture. A great deal more, however, was obliged to move from the area to seek employment. Business and industry were at a standstill. Hoping to avert financial collapse, local executives formed a trade association to attract new companies and revitalize the region. The effort worked. Williamsport once again boomed, this time with manufacturing companies. Throughout it all, “Grit” photographer D. Vincent Smith was a familiar sight lugging his box camera on the back of his heavy-duty bicycle. He left behind a priceless photographic heritage.

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Grit Bits: December 16, 1882
Streets in Poor Shape

Williamsport streets are in good condition, thanks to Providence, which gives us weather which freezes and thereby solidifies things; but when spring comes and the weather gets warm, then look out for the disappearance of all things mundane or otherwise that is so unfortunate as to get into the streets.

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