History of Cherry Springs State Park

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Cherry Springs State Park: Hidden Resource in the Dark
by Tim Morey and Maxine Harrison

This article originally appeared in State Parks magazine
Reprinted with permission of the authors

Look at a satellite image of the United States at night and there will be two dark areas in the mid-Atlantic region. One of these obvious dark areas is north-central Pennsylvania and in the middle of it -- Cherry Springs State Park. To understand why it is so dark, you should know a few things about the history of this area.

Cherry Springs is located near the glaciated boundary within the Allegheny plateau region of the Appalachian mountain chain. A cool breeze, so welcome in the summer, blows fierce through the long winter across the tops of local hills. Although forbidding, the land would be settled eventually, but not for deep veins of coal or other precious resources beneath the earth like many areas in PA. It was the virgin forest, dominated by hemlock and white pine, which played a key role twice in the park’s history.

North-central Pennsylvania was under the watchful eye of the Seneca Tribe before any European set foot here. The Seneca were one of the tribes of the mighty Iroquois League of Nations. While settlers steadily pushed deeper into most lands of the Iroquois, the Senecas allowed few men to pass through north-central Pennsylvania. The nearest settlements of the Seneca were at the present-day Lock Haven, Pennsylvania and Painted Post, New York. Temporary camps were built at Galeton, Ansonia, and Blackwell, Pennsylvania for hunting and fishing in the forests so densely-forested that light could barely penetrate the tree crowns.

Under the Seneca’s control, few pioneers tempted fate by trying to settle here until after the Iroquois signed the Cornplanter Treaty in 1784. This opened the door to settlers, but the rugged hills and thick, primeval forest were natural obstacles for the pioneers. For these reasons, Potter County would not see its first settlers until 1808.

Prior to 1800, the Ceres Land Company purchased numerous warrants of land in the area. The land company had a problem selling the land for one main reason. The only way to get into Potter County was by narrow trails. A bridle path was cut from the thick forest in 1806 and 1807. The path was widened in 1812 to accept nothing more than a small wagon on which a settler was forced to ride over 70 long, hard miles to take his grain to the closest mill, located in Jersey Shore! This journey may have taken three days each way. It is interesting to note that the present-day Pennsylvania Route 44 follows the historic path with very few exceptions.

A young man in his mid-twenties, Jonathan Edgcomb, moved into the area at the request of the land company. He was the son of a successful tavern owner in Lake George, New York. To bring land investors and future settlers to the area, the land company asked Jonathan Edgcomb to build a hotel (called a tavern in those days) at a clearing 16 miles south of Coudersport along the path to Jersey Shore. In return for the hotel and three years of operation, Edgcomb would receive 100 acres surrounding the establishment. In the spring of 1818, Edgcomb disappeared into the forest south of Coudersport. By June, having completed the hotel, he returned and took Lucretia Spafford as his wife. They opened the hotel immediately.

Mrs. Edgcomb was only 15 or 16 years old at the time of her marriage and found the remoteness of the hotel to be a great challenge to say the least. Her husband left her alone, sometimes for days at a time, as he hunted and fished for their food. While most visitors were quiet and thankful for the lodging, Mrs. Edgcomb recalled one night, when a group demanded whiskey. After proceeding to become "well-oiled," they carried wood and brush in front of the hotel and built a huge fire. When the fire became of a threatening size, the fellows staged a pageant "on the green" that lasted well into the night. Luckily the hotel did not catch fire and after the whiskey ran its course, the group disappeared into the forest.

Understandably, the Edgcombs sold the property in 1821 as soon as their three-year term was completed. The hotel and clearing would be called "Edgcomb’s Clearing" for a number of years in their honor. Under the new owner, the Jersey Shore and Coudersport Turnpike (the Pike) was constructed between 1825 and 1834. Every five miles, tollhouses charged fees until 1860. For those years, it cost a horse team and wagon traveling one way, 72 miles, a total of $1.68!

The hotel saw several owners and even more managers over the years as settlers used its conveniences along the Pike. In 1873, a post office was created at "Edgcomb’s Clearing" but that was not the chosen name for the office. Locals wanted to call it "Cherryville" on account of a native stand of Black Cherry trees nearby. Unfortunately, Cherryville was already a town name in Pennsylvania, so they settled with "Cherry Spring." The "s" was added years later for unknown reasons. A large, elaborate, and new hotel was built across the road from the original in 1874. Additional land was cleared for agriculture and grazing for dairy animals, livestock, and raising chickens.

The late 1880’s marked the end of the first golden period for Cherry Springs. During this era, Cherry Springs became the favorite summer retreat for the Coudersport elite. Eventually, the hotel became a popular gathering place for woodsmen due to bountiful game and fish. About the same time, Potter County became a hotspot for the logging industry. Some of the tallest, straightest timber left standing in the eastern United States grew throughout the region. The virgin forest, which had made settlement more difficult in this area nearly a century before, inversely caused a population boom in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Removing the trees allowed silt to enter and choke the streams. Forest fires burned hot, fueled by the discarded treetops littering the area. Unregulated hunting and fishing also played a role in wildlife declines. The sportsmen’s paradise was gone, at least for a while.

The first chapter of Cherry Springs’ history ended when the hotel burned in 1897 and was abandoned. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania purchased the land in 1932, at which time Cherry Springs was not much more than a brushy clearing. In the mid-1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a replica of the original hotel which still stands today near the airfield. The CCC also built a large pavilion, other shelters and picnic tables, a rifle range, trails with identification tags on the trees, cleared 38 acres of land, and planted trees and shrubs. If you look today, you can still see some of the apple orchard, Norway spruce, and White Pine trees. Camp Elliot was located at Cherry Springs, but was separate from the CCC. Camp Elliot was comprised mostly of college boys and transients in need of a job. They built a 40-acre emergency landing field, which is still in operation as a small airport. Primitive by today’s standards, the runway is simply a mowed field.

Throughout the 1900’s Cherry Springs has reclaimed its title as a sportsmen’s paradise. Many animals once hunted and trapped to near extirpation slowly began to repopulate through natural means and reintroduction programs. Highlighted successes that can be seen in the area include bald eagles, osprey, otters, fishers, white-tailed deer, and elk.

In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, logging was coming back into its own after WWII. Regeneration of the original forests allowed second harvests in many areas. To show-off new inventions and gather to celebrate the industry, the Penn-York Lumbermen’s Club held the first "Woodsmen’s Carnival" at Cherry Springs in August 1952. Competitions included crosscut sawing, chainsaw competitions, log rolling, log chopping, and horse pulling. A Woodsmen’s Ball was held Saturday night at the local country club. The Woodsmen’s Carnival has been an annual success, attracting 4,000 spectators the first year and as many as 14,000 in recent years. Since 1990, when the Galeton Rotary Club took over sponsorship, the event has changed its name to the "Woodsmen’s Show." Today, the tradition continues the first weekend in August each year and includes vendors, demonstrations, interpretive programs, and live music.

The most recent change in the park has been its visitors. Previously, primitive camping and a rural setting combined to make Cherry Springs an excellent retreat from the pressures of everyday life. This is still true, but in the early 1990’s a handful of amateur astronomers began to discover the exceptional viewing conditions of Cherry Springs’ skies and the word began to spread. Star gazers who had previously traveled as far as Arizona and New Mexico in order to view planets and nebulae without atmospheric disturbance where discovering that they had some of the best dark skies right in their own back yard. Today Cherry Springs is considered one of the most outstanding star gazing areas in the East.

Realizing that dark skies could now be considered and managed as a natural resource, the Bureau of State Parks in May of 2000, designated Cherry Springs officially as a Dark Sky Park. Park Managers now consider dark skies to be as valuable a resource as air, water, and wildlife. Not too many years ago, dark skies were as close as your back porch. But, due to urban development and light pollution, many people don’t have the opportunity to see a perfectly dark sky. Less than 10% of the United States’ population can see the night sky in its natural state. Only a few dozen stars can be seen from some urban areas. While residents of small communities may see 3000 stars, the skies above Cherry Springs can sometimes boast an amazing 10,000 stars!

The degradation of the night sky in many areas of our world is caused by light pollution. Light pollution is the product of misdirected lighting that escapes upwards into the atmosphere where it reflects off moisture and blocks our view of the night sky. This light pollution causes a sky glow miles away from cities and other sources.

Cherry Springs has no sky glow in any direction and sits on top of a hill over 2100 feet above sea level and claims some of the darkest skies in the east. Astronomers commonly travel up to seven hours to reach the park and view the night skies. On any dark-of-the-moon weekend, it is common to find 40 to 50 observers on the field with telescopes, observing and photographing both near and deep space objects.

There are two different ways to be introduced to the night skies at Cherry Springs. The Central Pennsylvania Observers, from the State College area, sponsor the Black Forest Star Party in early to mid-September each year. The event is open to the public and, besides the observation of the night skies, includes guest speakers, vendors of astronomy equipment, and public programs. In 2001, over 400 people attended the event under velvet black skies. In April of 2001, Cherry Springs was chosen as the pilot for the Stars-n-Parks program, sponsored by the National Public Observatory (NPO). Stars-n-Parks is an excellent way to learn more about this resource and hopes to foster public awareness of light pollution and the preservation of the night skies. Join Thom Bemus, NPO Stars-n-Parks Director, any dark-of-the-moon weekend in April through October to learn more about our precious resource and see a little of what’s out there. More information is posted on the Internet at the address below.

Meteor showers that take place several times each year offer a spectacular show at the park. On the morning of November 18, 2001, about 100 spectators were treated with a spectacular performance of close to 4000 shooting stars during the peak viewing time of 4:30 a.m until 5:30 a.m. at the last Leonid meteor shower. These ‘showers’ occur when the Earth, on its orbit around the sun, passes through a portion of space with significant amounts of debris left behind by a comet. The name of each shower comes from the constellation in the sky nearest the radiant of the meteors. These showers drew visitors from both near and far. If the November weather is too chilly, perhaps the Perseid meteor shower around August 12 is more for you.

Protecting this increasingly valuable resource is a priority for Park Operations Manager, Chip Harrison. Through a dark sky partnership, the sales of Stars-n-Parks T-shirts by Thom Bemus help to purchase Hubble skycaps. These skycaps are the simplest method to shield the largest source of light pollution in the area; dusk-to-dawn lights. A local electric company, Tri-County Rural Electric, has volunteered to install the skycaps at no cost to local homeowners. In addition to these partnerships, the park is fortunate to have large fields, to be situated on top of a hill where fog usually doesn’t form, and to be surrounded by thousands of acres of State Forest lands. Additionally, light from local towns is trapped behind the steep hillsides that characterize the region. The state’s General Assembly has also gotten involved in the issue. Rep. Bruce Smith has sponsored a bill that aims to reduce light pollution throughout Pennsylvania and encourage more parks to be like Cherry Springs. All of these things are helping to preserve Cherry Spring State Park as one of the best dark sky observing locations in Pennsylvania and the north central United States.

So if you are in search of dark skies, look no further than Cherry Springs! Head to north-central Pennsylvania for a truly relaxing weekend, stay at the 30-site rustic campground at Cherry Springs, and explore the 38-acre park located alongside scenic Pennsylvania Route 44. For a day visit, you might picnic at one of the many tables or at the historic CCC pavilion. Lyman Run State Park (814) 435-5010 is the location of the office for Cherry Springs ( a satellite park). Email lymanrun@state.pa.us. For other information contact the Potter County Visitor’s Association (888) POTTER2. A calendar of events is posted on the State Parks section of www.dcnr.state.pa.us. For more information about astronomy at the park or astrophotography images, visit http://www.upstateastro.org/stars/cssp.html.

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