The Dessertmakers

How long does great wealth endure?
Not very long, surely, 
if through greed and ignorance the roots of wealth are cut away.

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The Desertmakers: Peter Herdic

In 1870 Peter Herdic was on top of the world. He was mayor of Williamsport, Pa., America’s most solidly based boomtown, a town whose population had tripled in ten years. Herdic owned the business responsible for its phenomenal growth. He also owned the city’s best and largest hotel and much of its real estate. For a hobby, he built churches.


Williamsport Magnate Peter Herdic

Williamsport, a quiet, isolated central Pennsylvania town tucked away by the West Branch of the Susquehanna River and surrounded by virgin forest, was, in Heridc’s heyday, rightly called the “city of millionaires.” It boasted more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world – – 18 out of 19,000 citizens, in 1880. And reputedly more millionaires resided on the town’s West Fourth Street than on any other street in the world.

Such prosperity rested on a more basic claim to fame, the town’s importance in the late 19th century as the leading lumber producer in the U.S. — indeed, as “lumber capital of the world.”

It was an unlikely place for such distinction. No deepwater harbor. No gateway to the West. No transportation center. No seat of power. To the day, 90% of the surrounding 4,000 square miles is undeveloped. Even Indians had spurned the place.

When white settlers first made their way up the Susquehanna in the late 18th century, they were looking for farmland. What they found was poor soil on steep slopes at high elevations, virtually uninhabited wilderness.

The one thing the area had was dense white pine and hemlock forests, forests with canopies so high that the trees rose more than 100 feet before bearing branches. The result was straight-grained wood virtually free of knots. In need of money, and with nearly six months to kill from the end of one growing season to the start of another, the few hardy settlers took to felling the trees.

Shipbuilders in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston depended on the white pine for clipper ships’ masts and spars. Strong, versatile and resistant to decay, it was also popular for bridges, homes and furniture. Markets for Williamsport’s white pine were found as far off as Europe, South and Central America and Africa.

But the lumberjacks couldn’t supply sawmills with enough timber to keep them running at full capacity. During the summer, only certain species could be cut. In winter, ice blocked the logs’ passage downstream. By mid-century the problem had attracted the attention of three imaginative entrepreneurs.

A 7-mile-long slack water stretch of the Susquehanna, known as the Long Reach, formed the town’s southern border. John Leighton and Major James Perkins of New Hampshire and John DuBois of Williamsport saw in it the answer to the mills’ problems. In 1846, they formed the Susquehanna Boom Co. By 1851, they had completed the boom, a 7-mile-long series of 400 linked stone and timber cribs set in this safe, slow-moving belly of the river and stretching diagonally from shore to shore.

This floating fence could hold enough timber to keep the sawmills busy long after logging season ended. Mills sprang up. Within ten years, they had outgrown the boom.

The company then was sold to three other Williamsport businessmen: Herdic, Mahlon Fisher and John Reading. They enlarged the boom until it could hold 300 million board feet of lumber. The best sawmill of the day could cut only 100,000 board feet per week. Now mills were busy day and night year-round, and people in Williamsport suddenly began to get rich.

The rough-and-tumble logging camps and lumberjacks, with their frontier ways, coexisted with the newly rich in town, with their aspirations for swank. When the latter folk made a buck, they wanted their neighbors to know it. Building, a natural interest for people in lumber in any case, inevitably became the way to announce status.

Ithaca, N.Y. architect Eber Culver created on West Fourth Street a showcase of Victorian architecture’s excesses. On this “Millionaires’ Row,” lumber magnates competed fiercely for the distinction of owning, maintaining and entertaining in the most extravagant and expensive home. More than one proud father gave a new mansion here as a wedding gift to beloved children.

Outstanding even in this neighborhood were the homes of boom barons Herdic, Reading and Fisher. Most ostentatious of the three was Fisher’s 1867 “Million Dollar Mansion,” built by stonemasons and woodcarvers imported from Europe at a time when $5 a week was a fair wage. It is a massive stone villa complete with twin towers, balustrades, surrounding statuary, fountains and gazebos.

In her Victorian villa down the street from Fisher, Anne Weightman Walker Penfield, styled by the town “the wealthiest woman in the world,” dressed always in the latest Parisian fashion, entertained the likes of Diamond Jim Brady and his friend Lillian Russell.

Five railroads served Williamsport by 1890, connecting it to all major cities in the East. It was a town of 27,000 by this time, and among the draws for travelers were three opera houses, several theaters and six luxury hotels that together provided rooms for more that 1,000 guests.

The leading citizen, lumber baron, inventor, politician, developer and philanthropist on the scene was Peter Herdic, first among the three entrepreneurs. At one time or another he owned, at least in part, nearly every major business in town, including several sawmills, a newspaper, the gasworks, the waterworks, several banks and the Herdic House hotel.

When planning the Herdic House on West Fourth Street, he charged the architect to collect the finest materials from around the world, and hang the expense. In fact, Herdic forbade the architect to tell him the cost, fearing that if he know, he would object. The result, a rambling four-story brick monstrosity, thought of as pretentious even in Williamsport, opened in 1865 and cost $225,000. With rooms for entertaining 700 guests, it featured a large deer park in front and, in the rear, a private Pennsylvania Railroad siding.

In boomtown style, Peter Herdic made and lost money quickly. It’s said that in the first year he owned the Susquehanna Boom Co. he made $2 million. But whimsies and philanthropic gestures like the donation of 800 houses to Williamsport’s working class left Herdic short some $2 million when the panic of 1878 hit, he lost everything. Before his death, in 1888, he would be both wealthy and bankrupt again.

Williamsport’s prosperity peaked in the 1880s. Its 30 sawmills had turned nearly 32 million logs into more than 5.5 billion board feet of lumber by then, but 32 million more logs were not to be had. Trees were getting scarce, and no one was replanting. There was no money in that first the white pine was gone. The lumberjacks turned then to the hemlock and to hardwoods like cherry, maple and oak for furniture and home interiors. These trees dwindled, too. Fifty years of lumbering had reduced Williamsport’s surrounding wilderness to a mountainous desert. Lumbering debris-stumps, branches and chips-fueled forest fires that destroyed all the white pine and hemlock seedlings before they could even take root. The ecosystem collapsed.

In the valley, the Susquehanna flooded chronically. Stripping the trees from the steep, narrow valley had made the river treacherous. Nearly every flood destroyed the boom and the sawmills.

One particular flood marked a turning point. The boom was full when the Susquehanna rose disastrously in 1889, washing away 300 million feet of lumber. In the process, every sawmill in the valley was wiped out. In the time it took to rebuild, the market shifted to Wisconsin and Michigan. Williamsport was never again “lumber capital of the world.”

Among those who moved on were future lumber barons Frederick Weyerhaeuser, William E. Dodge and Harry McCormick. Others stayed on, but little of the wealth endured. Most of the descendants of those who had hit it rich were poor again within two generations.

In 1894, there was another major flood. The hotel business died with the turn of the century. The Susquehanna Boom Co. was dissolved in 1907, and, in 1919, the last of Williamsport’s sawmills closed. The town’s population continued to fall until 1940.

The “Million Dollar Mansion” was razed in 1927 to make way for a YWCA. Most of the remaining West Fourth Street mansions new serve as apartments or provide office space. Herdic’s own home, though, has been meticulously restored by [then-owner], Richard Lundy Jr., president of Lundy Construction Co. and a modern-day echo, faint but with infinitely surer taste of Peter Herdic. The restored Herdic House is home to Williamsport’s best restaurant.

Even the Susquehanna is gone from view, its course hidden by a levee built in the 1950s to end the flooding. The Hiawatha, a 1982 reproduction of a 19th-century paddle wheeler that ferried fashionable excursionists in the boom days, will take the curious for rides up the river’s quiet west branch. The green, wooded banks are clear of any clue to the industry that flourished there a century ago. To the south, several stone piles break the water at intervals, all that survives of the boom.

In lieu of human care, the forests have finally reseeded themselves. Though the white pine and hemlock are gone forever, there is in their stead one of the world’s largest stands of red and white oak and furniture-grade cherry.

Source: Article by Laurie Root Harrington, Forbes Magazine