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West Branch Susquehanna History

Canoe and Kayak into the History of  Pennsylvania Wild and Scenic WB Susquehanna River



Laurentide glaciers extended into north central Pennsylvania repeatedly during at least the last 2 million years. Early Pleistocene glaciation extended farther south into central Pennsylvania than any subsequent glaciation, reaching the West Branch Susquehanna River valley. 

Geologic evidence indicates glacial ice dammed the northeast-flowing West Branch Susquehanna River at Williamsport, near Bald Eagle Mountain, forming Glacial Lake Lesley, a 62 mile-long proglacial lake that may have existed for as long as 4000years.

The lake extended for over 62 miles  from Jersey Shore, PA, downstream past Williamsport, PA, and was as deep as 329 feet.

The precise location of the ice dam is not known, but geologic evidence shows, the dam was likely near Bald Eagle Ridge where the West Branch begins to flow north to south near the confluence with Muncy Creek.

It is also likely that as the climate warmed, glacial outburst floods (or jÜkulhlaups) from Lake Lesley occurred in the West Branch and its tributaries. As the glacial dams melted and began to fail, catastrophic releases of enormous quantities of sediment-laden water would have been transported down the river valley.

The West Branch Susquehanna Water Trail covers 228 miles and drains almost 7,000 square miles from Cherry Tree, PA, to the confluence of the West and North branches of the Susquehanna at Northumberland. 

Up through the early 19th century the West Branch of the river provided the principal canoe route across the Alleghenies connecting the Susquehanna and Ohio valleys, with a portage at Cherry Tree to Blacklick Creek, a tributary of the Conemaugh River.  In the late 18th century, Cherry Tree marked the frontier between the Pennsylvania Colony and the Shawnee and Lenape lands to the west.


 The first recorded inhabitants of the West Branch Susquehanna River valley were the Iroquoian speaking Susquehannocks.Their name meant ‘people of the muddy river’, from the Lenape name of the Susquehanna River, Siskuwihane (<sisku ‘mud’, hane ‘river’).

By the early 18th century their numbers were decimated by disease and many died, moved away, or were assimilated  into other tribes. The lands of the West Branch Susquehanna River Valley  became  occupied by the Munsee of the Lenape (or Delaware) and were under the  control of the Five (later Six) Nations of the Iroquois nations.


In 1768, the British purchased land from the Iroquois in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix which opened up what is now Lycoming County to settlement.

In the American Revolutionary War,  settlements throughout the Susquehanna valley were attacked by British  Loyalists and Native Americans allied with the British. After the  Wyoming Valley battle and massacre in the summer of 1778 (near what is now Wilkes Barre)  and smaller local attacks, most settlers fled fearing repriasal attacks by the British and their allies. Many resettled in the area after the war had ended.


Susquehanna Valley Logging History

In the 1800’s the West Branch  was witness to the largest river log drives  in Pennsylvania.  The deep snows on the river’s basin enabled moving logs down slopes to streambeds relatively easy during the winter months. In Spring when the snow melted and rains came, the swollen waterways provided a means to float logs hundreds of miles downstreamčsometimes as far as the Chesapeake Bay. The logs were tied together in huge rafts which would be disassembled and sold at their destination. Sometimes, thousands of the crude rafts jammed the river in the spring.

By 1796, rafts from both the North and West branches of the Susquehanna were making the trip downstream, some traveling as far as Norfolk,Va. The industry quickly escalated over the next decades until the river became a super-highway of rafts. In 1833 it was certified that from the 18th to the 23rd day of May, there floated down the North Branch of the Susquehanna, 2688 arks and 3480 rafts. That averages out to over 1000 rafts and arks per day or between 1 and 2 rafts every minute of the day.


In the mid 1900’s. the building of logging rafts became obsolete when a pair of investors. James Perkins and John Leighton, started  building a giant boom across the West Branch at Williamsport. To catch the logs, booms were built. They ran diagonally across the river, funneling the logs to the sawmills. They were anchored by a chain of rock-filled log cribs, the remains of which can still be seen as a chain of rocky islets spread across the river near Linden.

As a result of the logging boom, Williamsport eventually boasted 30 sawmills and was considered the Lumber Capital of the World. In one year those 30 mills cut 318 million board feet, enough timber to build 596,000 homes. The river was the highway to move the logs down to that site.

Williamsport at one point had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States. Each had their financial roots in the West Branch forests.

Photo courtesy of Lycoming County Historical Society

The Pennsylvania Elk Herd

Elk once freely roamed all over Pennsylvania but the rapid settlement and exploitation by early immigrants threatened the herds. By 1867 there were no more elk in Pennsylvania. Unregulated hunting and habitat loss were the biggest factors of their demise.

In 1913 the Pennsylvania Game Commission began reintroducing elk in Pennsylvania. The elk that roam around now are actually descendants of Rocky Mountain elk that the PA Game Commission brought in between 1913 - 1926. Some even coming from Yellowstone National Park.

The herd now numbers more than 900+.


The elk herd’s range is currently believed to extend into parts of Elk, Cameron, McKean, Potter, Clinton, Centre & Clearfield counties╩with the central point of the herd being located in Elk and more specifically Benezette. Their range now encompasses an 800 square mile area. 

Elk in Pa, although by reputation quite docile, are still wild and completely unpredictable. Who knows, except them, how close is too close or what will trigger a negative response. Their massive size and surprising burst of speed make them an immediate risk to our safety should they decide to become aggressive.

Free roaming elk at the Benezette, PA visiting center

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