Susquehanna Log Boom
Can you imagine what a seven-mile-long chain of floating logs and rocky islands would look like, stretching upriver and across the West Branch of the Susquehanna River? That is the sight many would see in the mid to late 1800s as they gazed across the mighty river. It was known as the Susquehanna Boom, and was created to corral timber that floated down river to be processed at one of the 60-some sawmills along the river between Lycoming and Loyalsock creeks in Lycoming County, PA.
The boom consisted of 352 cribs, or man-made islands of stone and sunken timbers, that were 22 feet high. The booms were connected to each other by chains of floating logs. At the upper end of the boom was the 1,000-foot-long “sheer boom,” which could be opened and closed. It gathered the logs into the main boom, which could hold up to 300 million board feet of logs. At the lower end, men and boys as young as 12, known as “boom rats,” would sort the logs by the sawmill brand that was burned into each log. Each sawmill had its own holding pond along the river bank where their branded logs would go.
The construction of the boom in 1851 was made possible by two things: transportation and steam engines. The completion of the West Branch Susquehanna Branch of the Pennsylvania Canal to Williamsport in 1834 and the opening of the first railroad in 1839 allowed finished wood products to go to market year-round. The gradual use of steam engines to power sawmills allowed for larger mills that could operate without the use of water power.
Because of this ingenious log boom, and its location near abundant old-growth forests, Williamsport became one of the most prosperous cities both in Pennsylvania and the nation. At one point it boasted more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States. During the height of the region’s lumber industry (1861 to 1891), the many mills produced 5.5 billion board feet of timber. Yet the boom would not last forever. Floods, railroads, and the overharvesting of timber combined to kill the boom’s profitability. It was dismantled in 1908, although you can still see remnants of the boom cribs on the river today.