Isolation. Separation. Lack of political influence.
In 2017, these factors still rankle the people of Northern Dauphin County and those on extreme western edge of Schuylkill County at the southern tip of Pennsylvania’s once prosperous anthracite coal fields.
Most often in modern times, this comes in the guise of jokes about how far you have to drive to make it to the nearest shopping district or Sheetz gas station.
However, the geography of the so-called “Upper End” also creates a dangerous situation as the increasingly aging population sees its health deteriorate. In April 2014, the Harrisburg-based Patriot-News asked, “Is a northern Dauphin address a potential health time bomb?”
Residents of northern Dauphin County have plenty of choices when they need a hospital. Hospitals are within driving distance in Harrisburg, Camp Hill, Hershey, Danville, Pottsville and Sunbury.
But it’s a long drive no matter which direction they choose. For many northern Dauphin residents, reaching the closest hospital takes 40-45 minutes — longer if they get behind a truck or encounter bad weather along the mostly two-lane highways serving the area.
Some argue the situation can prove fatal for a stroke or heart attack patient.
The long distances and threat to public health posed by the challenging geography were answered through an attempt by a local lawmaker to place an emergency care center in the northern part of the county. As with many of the best laid plans in this part of the country, nothing came of this proposal.
“I think the reaction then, and still, is there is not enough people up there to support a full service hospital. That’s what I said at the hearing and I wasn’t very popular for it,” remarked a local healthcare provider to the Patriot-News for the story.
This has long been a complaint from the residents of the Upper End. Isolated by a string of Appalachian hilltops with few crossings, the history of this region differs significantly from nearly every other community which surrounds it.
The Lykens Valley region was settled in the late-18th century by farmers who began working this wide, fertile piece of land between the Susquehanna River and Broad Mountain on the east. In 1826, an outcropping of anthracite coal was discovered on the northern end of the narrow Williams Valley. It forever changed the economic outlook for this entire region. By 1860, new towns were appearing based upon the success of the coal field, a railroad had been laid, and new financial vibrancy had appeared.
The culture of this place differed sharply from those on the south side of the mountains, on the largely agriculturally based economy of southern Dauphin County. The power brokers in Harrisburg did not always see eye-to-eye with their constituents in the north, despite receiving the lion-share of their warmth in winter from the valuable “Lykens Valley Anthracite” that burned in their coal stoves.
Amid the dramatic national events of April 1861, a newspaper editor in Lykens discussed the thought of the Upper End “seceding” from Dauphin County to form a new county government centered in the southern coal regions. Written as South Carolina militiamen prepared to bombard Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the editors at the Patriot & Union in Harrisburg took offense.
DISPOSED TO SECEDE. – The editor of the Lykens Journal is out this week in an article urging the residents of the “upper end” to secede. The editor seems to think that because they have a lawyer in each of the villages in that end of the county, they can with safety make the move for secession… We would recommend to him a dose of Wister’s balsam; it might have the effect to purge him of his irritable complaint.
While the Patriot editors seemed to point to the Upper End’s demands relating to a new county courthouse, there were other issues at hand. The stark differences in the economies of the two regions county led to conflict. Condescension from those in Harrisburg and surrounding areas often dripped from their pens when discussing their neighbors from over the mountains.
Northern Dauphin residents were not going to keep quiet about this idea. As the region grew in economic strength in the wake of the American Civil War, their claims gained more clout. Political pressure was going to be applied. The next major attempt came in 1879, when Upper End politicians began to make noise about forming a new county once more.
From the Lykens Register we learn that a large and enthusiastic meeting was held in that place on Thursday [March 20, 1879] to take measures looking to the formation of a new county out of parts of Dauphin, Northumberland, and Schuylkill counties. Col. E.G. Savage was made president of the meeting, with a number of vice presidents and secretaries.
J.C. Durbin, Esq., made a speech in which he maintained that the proposed new county would result in a cutting down of taxes, and that the citizens of the upper end of this county alone could erect the necessary public buildings from the savings of a single year.
The geographic boundaries of the prospective county were described as:
The base of Peter’s Mountain forms the line in this county, extending from the river at a point just below Halifax Borough. At that part of Schuylkill to and including Pine Grove township, thence north along the east side of Broad Mountain to the Northumberland line…
An executive committee was to be formed including representatives from all the communities within the proposed territory. In the span of a few weeks, their proposal went nowhere, whether due to outside political heat or internal dissension is not known.
A similar proposal appeared once more in 1895, with Lykens again at the center thanks to their desire to be the county seat of the potential new jurisdiction.
With the coming of the 20th century, the region continued to develop, growing into the county’s economic engine. It built new hotels, railroads, trolleys, baseball leagues, and other signs of a prosperous community. Local leaders poured money into civic development.
When the coal industry collapsed in the 1930s, all hope for a separation died. The bitter pill of economic depression continues to cause these communities to struggle, especially in the former industrial towns of Lykens, Williamstown, and Tower City. With a shrinking, aging population, political influence continues to wane. But the issues at heart remain the same.
The Upper End wants to be recognized for its remarkable past and desires a chance to have a future. Though admittedly, no one is entirely sure what that will look like.