“The Homeliest of Villages” – Lykens, Pennsylvania in the 1850s

On Friday evening, December 22, 1876, a 26-year-old graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School stood before the Lykens Harmonic and Literary Association and delivered a nostalgic presentation.

“Lykens, Twenty Years Ago” described Charles H. Miller’s childhood in the upstart mining community on the banks of the Wiconisco Creek. His pen gives undoubtedly the best description of pre-Civil War life in this Northern Dauphin County community. Miller’s father, Joseph, was a prominent surveyor and land speculator with holdings across the county.

Miller fancied himself a writer, and he betrays some pretty elaborate verse in this colorful little sketch of Lykens. Over the next months, you will see occasional excerpts from Miller’s piece, a pamphlet published in 1876 by the Lykens Register‘s press.



… The homeliest of villages, Lykens twenty years ago! Mountains on either side, well-timbered yet, and preserving much of their ancient grandeur and sublimity. The creeks were lost in the mazes of an almost impenetrable forest, and the very business portion of the village closely surrounded by the unconquerable wilderness. Where now are erected some of the stateliest of mansions, were ridges of stone of unfathomable depths, whose pointed backs, moss-covered and time-riven, were the greatest of obstacles to progress.

The very railway was but a few years old, and the steam-engine yet an object of curiosity. Streets that are now closely built up with fashionable residences, adorned with neat pavements and grateful shade trees; streets now the life and beauty of the town, were then entirely unknown, save on the town plot—unclaimed from the wilderness, or but roughly hewn into shape. Especially was this the case in regard to North and South Second streets, and those now bordering upon each creek. Main street extended no further eastward than the railway-crossing, and its most western limits were in the immediate neighborhood of the present post-office. Market street, beyond the stone bridge, was but newly opened, the loose, yellow soil of which sank deep under the horses’ hoof, and the prostrate forms of the oak and pine lay thick upon either side.

Many of the house were yet of logs, boarded upon the outside, a story-and-a-half high,– the pioneers of civilization, in fact, hastily reconstructed. Those newly erected were frequently not of the most substantial kind,– mere shanties of a larger space. Exception there were, of course, but these few and far between; the new house remaining unpainted for years, and the old were already beyond that stage when paint could materially benefit or improve them. The solitary brick house of the period, the home of the Savages, on North Market street, then bore the honors and dignity of the village.

Nor is it at all to be understood that the very heart of the village was closely built upon. Unoccupied sections, lots or half-lots, existed at almost regular intervals, from one end of Main street to the other; some enclosed with fences and others not, as the desires or circumstances of the proprietors dictated; Market street being in nowise exempt from this general condition of affairs.

Odd Fellows’ Hall had not been erected as yet, and the tract upon which it is now located was then open to the railway; Wolcott’s building, adjoining, had just issued from the hands of the carpenters, every nail and board of which glistened with freshness; from the property now in possession of J. Slotterback to that of James C. Durbin, Esq., was in vacancy considerable in extent, free to the intrusions of man or beast, and offering a wide range of vision to the residents opposite.

The house now owned and occupied by Rev. George Harvey was upon the extreme outskirts of the village, flanked by an undergrowth of forest on the side toward the railway, and by an open section, on the West side, to the residence of Nathaniel Woland.

Unoccupied spaces, at various intervals, also existed from thence to Garman’s Drug Store, though not so frequent here as elsewhere throughout the entire length of the street. The half-square, from market street to the residence of Elias Kocher, upon which are now located the Register office, the Boot and Shoe Store of J. L. Shaud, the Dry Good House of George Koser, the Hardware Store of Brubaker & Brother, the Flour and Feed Store of William Wallace, the Furniture Establishment of Abel Wise & Co., as well as the private residence of G. B. Brubaker, was then a complete vacancy, traversed by a well-worn foot-path leading to the log school-house, and to the stone church of the Methodists, on North Second street.

But two or three houses then stood on the East side of Market street, below Main, among which were the brick mansion of the Savages, already alluded to, the beer-saloon of Sebastian Dreger, now that of Werner, and the residence of Israel Ream, Esq., upon the corner of the alley, directly opposite the furniture rooms of Wise & Co. The West side was unoccupied where the Episcopal church now stands, as well as the intermediate section between this edifice and the building opposite of S.H. Barrett, Esq., and at certain points further down toward the creek.

The entire square now occupied by the buildings of Judge Young in part, was also free and open as yet, a few lofty oaks and pines standing as guarding sentinels, it seemed, of the rapidly receding wilderness. Main street, from thence down, however, was comparatively well built upon, to the fact of which the old houses in that section can yet testify.

“Lykinstown” from the 1858 map of Dauphin County. (Library of Congress)

Lykens twenty years ago was without a passenger depot of any kind. The travelers to this region were few in number in those days, and were well satisfied to be left off anywhere in the neighborhood of Main street. The only passenger-car upon the road was what was termed the “monkey-box;” such as is attached to the rear of freight trains for the comfort and convenience of the men engaged thereon.

The plentitude and cheapness of wood, everywhere along the route, necessitated its employment as fuel, and every train coming or going was simply a long winding monster of cinders and smoke. Piles of the best saplings of the forest, some sawn to the required length for engine use and others just thrown from the wagons, frequently extended, on both sides of the railway, four and five feet in height and three and four rows in depth, from above the present site of Odd Fellows’ Hall to some distance below Market street; and every working-day in the week fully a score or two of men and boys found employment here in bringing this mass into proper shape.

Where now stands the elegant mansion of the Company’s Superintendent, was an enormous excavation, many feet in depth, designed as a storage for the water-tank and locomotive, and which communicated with the main road by a side track.

Upon the steep banks of this excavation stood two or three cherry trees, whose tempting freedom of approach and daring attitude were continual objects of solicitude to the boys of the period, during the whole of their bearing season. Many a plank was dragged from various distances to scale these wonderful trees. The cherries in all the region round about were not so sweet as these! Many an urchin, whose trousers were mended day after day, returned time and again for still a few more patches. Coats with as many colors as Joseph’s were of the most common occurrence, and yet the trees were hard to climb and the cherries just as sweet. What mattered it that the grass was green and the shadows deep upon the bank; what mattered it that the sky was blue and the sunshine flooded heaven and earth; the cherries upon the highest boughs still danced merrily in the breeze, above the reach of hands at all!

The stores of the village were few in number, and contained everything that could readily be sold, or for which there was any demand. Lewis Heilner was then the principal merchant, however, in respect to extend of trade and merchandise, and around him shone the lesser lights of Blum, Garman, Matter and Stewart. All of these are yet among us, with the exception of Lewis Heilner, whose long career of benevolence and whole-souled charity closed calmly, sweetly, many years ago

The others, now rapidly entering upon the evening of life, have since grown into wealth and position. Blum’s store was then where it yet remains, now materially enlarged and greatly improved. Stewart held forth at the old stand of to-day, and Matter in a shanty of a story or two in height upon the present site of the large building. The store of Garman was a drug, hardware, periodical and notion combined, containing the post-office was well, where the many inducements for lunging were advantageously applied and the village news discussed. Heilner’s was an imposing structure in those days, yet standing and in use…

You can read the full article HERE.

When young Dr. Miller stood before the Harmonic and Literary Society, he could have had little notion of the impending disaster.  A week later, on January 1, 1877, a fire began deep inside the Short Mountain Colliery in Bear Gap above Lykens. The Miller family lost everything in the ensuing economic crisis that swept over the region.

The sad twist in Dr. Miller’s life took him to Kansas and then back to Pennsylvania, where he died on board a railroad car under mysterious circumstances in May 1889. You can read that story HERE.

Died of Starvation
New York Times

His is a true “series of unfortunate events.”

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