The area where Catawissa now is was originally owned by William Henry in 1769. Catawissa was laid out in 1787. At this time it was referred to as Hughesburg or Catawissey. The lots of the town were distributed out by lottery. When boats began to commonly travel along the Susquehanna River, Catawissa became locally important. Talk of a school in Catawissa began in 1796, and a school was built there in 1800. The Catawissa Fire Company was founded in 1827. The Catawissa Deposit Bank was incorporated in 1871. The Catawissa Water Company was formed in 1882. A number of Masonic establishments were built in Catawissa in the mid to late 1800s. The Catawissa Friends Meetinghouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Catawissa Township was formed from Augusta in 1785, and originally included all of Weaver, Conyngham, Franklin, Locust, Main, Mifflin, Mayberry of Montour County, and part of Union Township in Schuylkill County, it was reduced in size by the formation of Roaringcreek Township in 1832, Franklin in 1843, and Main in 1844. It is the oldest subdivision of the county and contains the oldest settlements.
Authorities differ as to the meaning of the Indian name “Catawese.” Redmond Conyngham, after whom the township of that name was called, stated that the Piscatawese had a settlement here. Stewart Pierce stated that the Shawanese had a town here in 1697. The word “Catawese” occurs in several of the Indian dialects, and means “pure water.” The greater part of the eastern portion of the township is occupied by the majestic Catawissa mountain, the brow of which overshadows the town. In the summer many parties are made up to visit this eminence, from all parts of the county. It was a favorite resort of the Indians. Within a short distance of the summit is a fine, ever-flowing spring. Beside this stood for many years an immense gum tree, the only one for miles around, which was looked upon with reverence by the savages. The tree was overturned by a high wind some years ago and has rotted away, but younger descendants of the forest monarch are springing up to take its place.
The first European to visit Catawissa was James LeTort, a French trader, who bore messages of amity to the Delaware chieftains and the celebrated Madame Montour in 1728, presenting each a “strowd match coat,” as a token of friendship. After the visit of this French trader no mention is made of the place until 1754, when Conrad Weiser, the noted Moravian missionary to the Indians, writes from Shamokin, mentioning in the letter the Indian village of “Oskohary,” which was identical with the Catawissa of the present. At that time the chief of the village was the famous Lapackpitton, a Delaware. Soon after this date the place seems to have been abandoned by the savages as a place of residence.
The first settlers in the Catawissa Valley were a number of English Quakers, from Maidencreek and Exeter in Berks County, who came by way of the valley of the “North Branch.” They arrived between 1774 and 1778. Before their arrival a number of persons had obtained patents from the Penns, among them being William Collins, William Hughes, James Watson, John Lore, John Mears, Isaiah Willits and John Lloyd. Other settlers arrived at different periods, most of them following the trails over the Broad, Blue, Locust and Little mountains on horseback. The first house in the vicinity of Catawissa was built by Moses Roberts in 1774.
Among those who reached Catawissa in 1782 were Michael Geiger, Joseph McIntyre, John Furry, Thomas Wilkinson, George Huntzinger and Conrad Wamphole. Soon after their arrival a party of Indians came and occupied the old site of their town. Their fishing operations were interfered with by Wilkinson, who was made to swim the river to escape their arrows. He tried to explain to his friends that he was only gauging the depth of the water, and thus earned the nickname of “Tom Gauger.” In the same year a party of Indians made a raid on the settlement, scalping and killing John Furry, his wife and two daughters. Three sons, John, Jonas and Lawrence, were absent at the gristmill at Sunbury and thus escaped, while another son, Henry, was taken captive. Years later the three brothers met Henry in Montreal, Canada, where he had developed into a prosperous trader after his imprisonment there by the French had ended.
This was the era of the “great retreat,” during which most of the settlers of the valley fled from their homes in fear of Indian raids. The Quakers, owing to their confidence in the Indians’ promises to the Penns, remained. This confidence was never betrayed.
In 1787 William Hughes laid out the town of “Hughesburg, in the County of Northumberland, State of Pennsylvania, North America, on the banks of the northeast tract of the Susquehanna River, near the mouth of Catawessey Creek, about twenty miles above Sunbury and about one hundred and six miles above Philadelphia.” William Gray and John Sene were the surveyors. According to the custom of the day the lots were disposed of by lottery. William Henry was the original owner of the tract in 1769, the patentees were later Edward and Joseph Shippen, and from them the title was transferred to William Hughes. In 1789 John Mears, a physician and justice of the peace, secured title to sixty-five lots. In 1796 the Roberts addition was laid out by James Watson.
Although the original town plot was large it was but thinly settled. The first industry established was the tannery of Isaiah Willits, in 1780, at the corner of Third and South Streets. The ferry was then run by Knappenberger & Willits. The first merchant was Isaiah Hughes, who opened a store at an early date on the river bank near the foot of South Street. Joseph Heister followed with a store on Water Street, near Main. He sold out to John Clark, who kept it for some years.
The few farmers remained near the town, for better protection from the Indians, the most prominent ones in those days being the Watsons, Jacksons, Lounts, Lloyds and Hayhursts. The first justices of the peace were George Hughes and William Mears. The first mill in the county was built on Catawissa Creek in 1774 by a member of the Society of Friends whose name cannot be ascertained. It was so crude in construction as to be frequently out of repair, in which event the farmers had to go to Sunbury to get their grist ground. In 1799 Christian Brobst rebuilt this mill. It was later operated by Hollingshead & Scott, and last by T. M. Fields, who received it from his father. It was burned in 1912. The fall of water was slight, so the wheel was one of the widest and smallest in diameter of any in the county. In 1797 a mill was erected on the north side of the creek, by Jonathan Shoemaker, and at once received the cream of the patronage of that section of the town. In 1709 Christian Brobst built a mill about a quarter of a mile above the former mill, on the same side of the creek. The Shoemaker mill was purchased by John Clark and Benjamin Sharpless in 1809 and the machinery removed to the stone mill (McKelvey mill) across the creek, which they had just built. In 1811 Mr. Sharpless established a paper mill in the old Shoemaker mill, which was later enlarged, and then torn down when the owners rebuilt on the present site, a group of four large brick buildings on the north side of the creek. At the time of the rebuilding of the Brobst mill there was a regular line of boats on the Susquehanna and the proprietor became the chief man of the town of Catawissa, operating the mill, a store and other enterprises.
Other merchants of the days of the town’s early growth were Thomas Ellis, Stephen and Christopher Baldy, Daniel Cleaver, Jacob Dyer and Samuel Brobst. There was little money then in circulation, trading being conducted by the interchange of products and goods. The shad fisheries ranked among the principal sources of income, fish being exchanged for salt, at the rate of six cents each.
From an old magazine in the possession of the Columbia County Historical Society the fact is gleaned that in August, 1801, there were but forty-five houses in “Catawissy,” one of which was stone and the rest mostly log. At that time an old Indian burying ground near the river had washed out and some of the skeletons were exposed to view.
One of the first buildings in the town was a market house, built soon after the village was laid out in lots. There appears to have been but little need for this public building and it soon became a home for the stray cows and hogs of the place. An old resident said that it was a noted resort for the elusive flea and was declared a public nuisance. It was decided in 1820 to demolish it, and a short time thereafter a loud explosion in the night sounded the knell of the building. Slight effort was made to discover the perpetrators of the deed, and the building was not replaced. In 1831 a proposition was made to build a town hall and market house on the site, but the proposal brought on an acrimonious discussion which defeated the project and caused the dissolution of the only fire company in the town.
From an old history, published at Philadelphia in 1847, the information is had that in 1840 Catawissa had a population of 800, exceeding that of Bloomsburg by 150. The town then contained three churches, several stores and taverns and upwards of two hundred dwellings. There were a foundry, a paper mill and several tanneries in and near the town. The Germans predominated in the population then.
The building of the Catawissa railroad was a blessing to the town and caused a rapid increase of population. Six months after the opening of the road the headquarters were established in Catawissa and extensive repair shops built in 1864. Thus the town became the home of many operatives, and as the other roads came in became quite a railroad center. These operatives brought their families, established homes and became important factors in the growth of Catawissa for a number of years, until the extension of the Reading road from Shamokin to Milton caused a removal of much traffic from the Catawissa division and reduced the number of employees in the repair shops. There are still a number of employees of the Reading and Pennsylvania roads in the town, but few compared with the past.
The rapid increase of population and the demand for homes was the cause that led to the organization of the Catawissa Land and Building Company and the Catawissa Mutual Building Fund Association, in 1865 and 1870, respectively. The result of their formation was a period of building activity, extending from 1869 to 1873, during which many persons who otherwise could not have obtained money were enabled to own homes. The demand for homes and lots caused F. L. Shuman to purchase the Zarr farm and lay out the Shuman addition in 1882.
One of the prominent citizens of Catawissa was Clark F. Harder, who built the planing mill in 1866. He made it one of the chief industries of the town, and in 1885, during the building boom, put up seventeen houses, furnishing his own materials from the mill. Most of the better class of residences of that date were built by him.
David Cleaver, a pioneer merchant of the town, built the “Susquehanna House” in 1868, and leased it to several parties.
According to the United States census figures the population of Catawissa Township in 1820 was 2,520; in 1830, 3,130; in 1840, 2,060; in 1850, 1,143; in 1860, 1,176; in 1870, 1,627; in 1880, 2,003; in 1890, 2,348; in 1900, 560; in 1910, 503.
1.Historical and Biographical Annals of Columbia and Montour Counties Pennsylvania, Vol. 1, J. H. Beers & Co., 1915.
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