July 1993

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The Williamson Road


A. G. Hilbert

Part I, Part II, Part III

Part I

Presuming you watch television from time to time, I am sure you will be familiar with the oft-repeated plot of a traveler on a lonely deserted road seeking shelter at an inn who meets a series of weird characters and happenings. Let me tell you such a story.

The tavern was owned and run by a man called Anthony, a half French and half Dutch renegade, former soldier of the French Revolution, a man with neither morals nor scruples and whose boast was that he had broken every one of the Ten Commandments, not once but many times, and who amused his guests with the boasting of his villainy. He had no intentions of providing tavern comforts. Whiskey was the staple commodity of his house, often serving both as meat and drink. The guests had to care for themselves but had to pay handsomely for the use of any facilities and the privilege of sleeping on the floor before his fire. The travelers were mainly families moving with complete household goods plus farm cattle to new homes far up the road.

Near the tavern was a wide area of forest flattened by a tornado or hurricane. Our host had managed to cut a passage into an open space, making a hidden pen. Strangely, while the travelers were sleeping, their cattle were apt to stray into this pen and in the day or days following, these emigrants guided by our host somehow never happened to locate this pen in the windfall.

After several days of fruitless search, meanwhile paying roundly for their lodging, the travelers would journey on, leaving a forwarding address, promising a reward if the cattle were found. Of course these cattle were never found but Anthony's smoke house was always well supplied with "elk meat." It is also strongly suspected that some lone travelers who stopped at this tavern never reached their intended destinations.

This is not a television or paper-back book plot. It is a true story happening in 1793. According to Sherman Day, in his book, Historical Collections, the tavern was located at what is now Liberty, Pennsylvania, about forty miles south of Elmira on the Williamson Road. The Williamson Road was the road built by Charles Williamson from the present site of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, north and westward to Williamsburg on the Genesee River to provide a 280 mile carriage road from Philadelphia to open up the Genesee Country.

The Genesee Country was Seneca country first, then, after the settlement of the numerous conflicting charter grants, became the pre-emptive property of Massachusetts and finally, after sale to Phelps and Gorham, then to Robert Morris, it became part of the Pulteney interests. These men were all land speculators with little interest in the territory, beyond the pursuit of money.

Land cannot be sold profitably unless it is accessible, so means had to be found to open up this territory to the settlers. Civilization begins only when transportation is available. Here in western New York was land which could be sold with a clear title. The available lands in the Carolinas and Georgia were considered too damp and hot. Virginia was a seething mess of legal battles over faulty, careless surveying. Ohio was distant and dangerous with Indian threats. Pennsylvania was experiencing actual bloodshed over the rival claims of Pennsylvania and Connecticut, but here in New York was guaranteed land of virgin timber, clear lakes and good bottomlands in a temperate climate that attracted those who considered the coastal areas as already overcrowded.

To the land hungry of the eastern seaboard, this new undeveloped area was accessible by two waterway routes only: up the Hudson, then the Mohawk across the level northern plains to Geneva and Canandaigua, or up the Susquehanna, the Chemung, the Conhocton or Canisteo and westward into the Genesee Country. But either way was through rugged undeveloped country. A pioneer reported, "There is not a road within 100 miles of the Genesee that will admit a conveyance other than a horse or a sled when the ground is covered with snow." It was a twofold dream of the Philadelphia and Baltimore area merchants to establish a link with Canada and tap the resources of both northern Pennsylvania and western New York. The building of a road over the mountains from Pennsylvania would shorten the route by 100 miles. Williamson planned to double his price per acre to pay for it.

Based on the sketchy information available, the planned route was up the Susquehanna to Sunbury, up the west branch to Lycoming Creek (Williamsport), northward along this stream, over two mountains to the headwaters of the Tioga (Blossburg), down the Tioga to the Cowanesque, up the Cowanesque to Troups Creek near Milestone 109, then northward to the proposed town of Williamsburg on the Genesee. If we follow this route today, it would be route 15 to Lawrenceville, route 49 to Knoxville, route 36 to Dansville, route 63 to the Genesee River. From here the water transportation facilities of the Genesee River and Lake Ontario opened the region then known as Upper Canada.

The Pulteney interests, being British subjects, were not allowed the personal title to American lands, but found an able agent in the person of Charles Williamson, a former British officer and prisoner of war, but now an American citizen. They bought the land from Robert Morris for about 26 cents per acre. Williamson was engaging, charming, and a masterful promoter. As there already existed a road of sorts as far as present day Williamsport, he planned to extend the road northward to the Genesee River at its junction with the Canaseraga. Here, he planned the settlement of Williamsburg.

With four companions, including a surveyor named Bailey plus Ben and Robert Patterson, it took him eight days to blaze a trail for the proposed road from Williamsport to the present town of Tioga through a wilderness which, "black with mosquitoes, abounded with bear, wolves, panthers, and rattlesnakes plus two steep and densely forested mountain barriers (Laurel Hill and Briar Mountain-Blossburg)." A surveying party of eight men followed. This small party, "fortified with some staples and eight gallons of whiskey," surveyed the trail as far as Tioga in three weeks.

The contract for the building of the road was let to a William Berczy—the men to be paid $2 per week for a seven-day week. For workers, Berczy was sent to Germany for experienced farmers and industrious women. These were later to be settled on 25-acre farms along the edge of the Genesee Country where each, with his gun, would help protect against possible Indian attacks. The German farmers refused to come, so Berczy scoured the slums of Hamburg, Germany, securing seventy families, "Dock idlers, gamblers, the dregs of the City," who were otherwise slated for debtor's jail or to be sold as bond-servants, and who chose this as the lesser of two evils. Two shiploads left Germany for America. One was delayed and the first landed in Philadelphia. The Germans were then transported up the Susquehanna to present day Williamsport.

In two days, starting August 26, 1792, these men succeeded in widening and clearing of fallen trees a four mile horse path from Williamsport as far as Powys, but spent the remainder of three weeks building an additional four miles of road beyond to Trout Run. Here, on the slopes of Laurel Mountain (Steam Valley), it became apparent that to these city men the nine-pound axe, the spade, and hoe were mystery tools. Some were familiar only with saws. Every rustle in the woods spelled danger to them, and it was only by physical threats and extravagant promises that they were kept going. Having their families with them prevented them from deserting, but they spent more time arguing with the surveyors about routing and digging conditions than in working so that in the next six weeks they had advanced only five miles.

Snow came early in September that year. The route originally surveyed may have been a good foot trail but it presented problems as a road. Berczy and Patterson climbed Laurel Mountain and from the top, picked a lower and easier route. Thus encouraged, the Germans tried again.

At this point, Williamson, who had been at Newtown (Elmira) recovering from an attack of malaria, or Genesee Fever, arrived to try to solve the problems. Berczy resented his interference and the two men from there on cordially disliked each other.

Williamson, however, hired thirty good colonial axemen and two overseers, Robert and Ben Patterson, and set them at work clearing timber before the road builders. By November 1st, hampered by increased rains, they had crossed Laurel Mountain and reached a point now known as Liberty, Pennsylvania.

A log blockhouse, 20' x 40', was built for a supply headquarters and storehouse, with a huge brick oven in front of it. (This blockhouse later became the tavern run by our friend Mr. Anthony.) From here, they tackled Briar Mountain (now Blossburg Mountain) and in spite of weather and supply difficulties, by mid November reached Peter's Camp, the present site of Blossburg. Peter was the name of their baker. It is here that tradition said Ben Patterson first found signs of coal. And here, because of the approaching winter and rough country ahead, they built another blockhouse, intending to make it the main camp. Now, however, the weather turned foul, game became scarce, and the supplies were diminishing fast. These conditions plus the rock-bottom morale of his Germans made Berczy realize he had to get his people out of there.

Choosing fifteen of his strongest Germans as axemen, with Ben Patterson as supervisor, he sent them ahead to clear a pack horse trail northward to the Tioga River. All provisions were brought up from the blockhouse at Pine Creek (Liberty) and everybody was prepared for a hurried escape north to Painted Post where he had been promised adequate provisions.

Pushing on alone, Berczy came to the junction of Crooked Creek and the Tioga River (present day Tioga) and here, almost fifty miles north of his starting point, found the first habitation, a millwright named Peter Roberts. He now got a severe shock as he was informed that at Painted Post there were no provisions for him except some beef cattle. After buying all the flour and meat that Roberts could supply, he pushed on and two miles north of the Pennsylvania border came to the settlement of Col. Eleazer Lindley who confirmed Roberts' information. In a towering rage, he returned to Roberts' settlement at Tioga. This time he was informed that a Henry Starrett at Newtown (Elmira) had 1000 bushels of threshed grain ready for shipment by barge down the Susquehanna to Harrisburg. He dispatched one of his overseers, Patterson, by canoe to buy some grain and ship it to the Painted Post area. He then headed back for his main camp to start the exodus. Near a place now known as Canoe Camp, they met Patterson returning with the good news that he had gotten to Starrett just in time to send two tons of flour to Painted Post. Back at camp, the American axemen had built six large dugout canoes and prepared to evacuate. The Germans, unfamiliar with such transportation, balked, retreating to their tents, resigned to die by starvation. To get them out, Patterson chopped down all the tent poles and herded the women and children to the water's edge. They, however, were terrified by the frail craft and had to be forcibly loaded into canoes while all provisions and supplies were loaded on horses, with the men stumbling and grumbling along the river bank on foot, for a forced march northward. Berczy himself set out by horseback to reach Painted Post but because of high water and deep snow had to abandon his horse near Lindley and finish the trip by canoe. Here he hired every available canoe and sent them up the Tioga to successfully bring in his party, December 5, 1792.

Some of the provisions from Elmira reached the party at Apple Island a few miles south of Painted Post. The Germans were so delighted to see some kind of civilization and food at the cabins at Painted Post that they held a celebration and a parade led by their lone milk cow bedecked with ribbons.

© 1978, A. G. Hilbert
Part I, Part II, Part III
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