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The Lumber King Of Pennsylvania, Part 1

John DuBois (1809-1886)

In this two-part blog I will introduce you to a relative who was so industrious that, as a result, he had not one, but two towns named after him in Pennsylvania.

John DuBois, Jr. was born on 3 March 1809 near Oswego, Tioga County, NY, on Lake Ontario. He was the second of thirteen children. His father, John DuBois, Sr., was a man of energy and decision, a man of strong and robust physical frame and of a tall and commanding presence. He reared and trained his sons in the habits of early rising, industry and preserving enterprise and though their early years were not free from hardship and severe and constant toil. Lucy, his mother, was a daughter of Ezekiel Crocker, one of the noted and conspicuous early settlers of the Susquehanna Valley. She was a woman of decided character, of untiring energy and indomitable will, ruling her numerous family with a firm hand. She taught them the values of diligence, perseverance, forethought and economy; encouraging and developing by her own example and guiding hand in her children, the good natural gifts and powers they inherited and derived from her by nature. She lived to an old age, her husband surviving her by a few years, and dying at the age of eighty-four years.

John Jr. referred to the severe labor and discipline of his boyhood and youth as the foundation of his grand success in his life.

John, at the age of 15, embarked early in the lumber business near his home and very soon, by means of his ingenuity, made important improvements upon the crude methods of lumbering know to the early pioneers. He claimed to have built, as a youth, the first log-slide that was ever built in that region; and its perfect success was a matter of astonishment to the neighbors who witnessed its operation. Before long, the diminishing supply of pine timber caused the young lumberman to look for a new field of operations, and made a favorable purchase of lands and mill-site on Lycoming Creek in Pennsylvania. With his brothers David and Matthias, John carried on the lumber business, with yearly increasing volume, and with encouraging success for several years. As fast as their capital increased judicious investments were made in pine lands and other real estate.

A large tract, consisting of 489 acres, were purchased between 1852 and 1857 on the south side of the Susquehanna River, opposite the upper end of Williamsport, laid out in lots, streets and alleys, establishing the village known as Duboistown. The land on which Duboistown is located was first surveyed in 1769. At the time it was known as "Walnut Bottom" for the vast stands of black walnut that covered the alluvial plain on which the borough now stands. Samuel Boone, cousin of Daniel Boone, held the first warrant for land at Walnut Bottom.

John went west to Clearfield County for the first time around 1842 and met with George Shaffer. John, 33 at the time, saw the potential for the area, especially for timer, and started to buy up large tracts of the finest pine timber in Pennsylvania, totaling close to 32,000 acres. This would provide an ample supply of logs for many years to the Williamsport mills. Although these lands were then, and for many years afterward, inaccessible for successful lumbering operations, the low price of the land, and the magnificent growth of white pine timber with which they were covered were inducements which led to the investment of every dollar the brothers could raise for the purchase; notwithstanding they were well aware of the tremendous burden they were assuming, in the shape of many years of heavy taxes on property assessed at a high value, but affording no income, and incurring many and great risks from fires, wind-storms, and depredations of thieves, before any returns could be realized.

The decease of David, a younger brother and partner had occurred while they were living on Lycoming Creek. About this time they moved to Williamsport, and built a large steam gang saw-mill, on the south side of the river, in and about which hundreds of men were employed, and millions of feet of lumber were annually sawed. The death of his brother, Matthias, and the purchase of his interest in the business, lands, and other property, left John the sole owner and manager of what had now grown to be a very extensive business. A movement, contemplating the making of Williamsport the great lumber center of Pennsylvania, was soon organized by John and a few others, by securing a charter for a boom in the Susquehanna River to catch and hold logs, to be floated from the headwaters of the stream. John was one of the original charter members of the Susquehanna Boom Company, for many years its president, and owner of most of its stock. Under his vigorous administration the boom was built, and made a decided success.

Great opposition to the driving of saw-logs was manifested by the communities living on the headwaters of the stream. They alleged that the floating of loose saw-logs seriously interfered with the running of rafts; and when no effective remedy could be found in the courts to prohibit the driving of logs, some of them clandestinely resorted to what was then called spiking logs. Spikes, old files, and iron of almost every shape that could be found, were driven into the ends and sides of the best logs at night, and so effectually concealed that it required careful search by experts to find the iron. Tons of iron were extracted at the mills, and, even with the greatest care, it was impossible to get the spikes and old iron all out; and the stoppage of the mills for broken saws was of almost daily occurrence.

With all this opposition and loss, John never faltered, but went on putting in and driving his logs every year, meeting those in the courts who disputed his rights to drive logs on legal grounds. By fair and honorable treatment of those he had reason to believe were privately injuring him, the opposition gradually died out and entirely so, after it was made known that John was taking measures for the discovery of the perpetrators of the injury, with a view of bringing them to justice. Had he been governed by a spirit of revenge or retaliation for the very serious injuries and losses inflicted upon his business, no doubt many would have soon found themselves behind prison bars; but when the injury ceased, he was content to let the matter drop. In the meantime, though the boom had become a perfect success and many mills had been built at Williamsport, a strong and unreasonable opposition through envy, jealousy or misunderstanding, had arisen against the management of the boom on the part of many of his brother lumbermen. Though reaping the benefits of the boom by having their logs caught, cared for, rafted out and delivered to them without any of the burdens, annoyances, risks or responsibilities, other than the payment of a very moderate charge for booming and rafting, it was considered a sufficient cause for hostility against John since he owned and managed the boom.

Becoming weary of the captious opposition of his neighbors and continual irritation and annoyance from those who should have been his friends and the grand scheme for which he had labored so many years being now fully assured of success, he proposed to several of the principal lumbermen to take a portion of his boom stock at par. This proposal was accepted; a controlling interest in the stock was sold to them and John retired permanently from the management of its affairs, though still retaining nearly one-half of the original stock. Very soon, however, the opposition came to a realizing sense that, though rid of John, they had fallen into the hands of a corporation without a soul and whose prime object was to make the utmost possible out of the boom and its franchises. An advance, nearly or quite doubling the boomage tolls, was secured from the Legislature on one and another pretext, and the real grievances the lumbermen were now compelled to endure at the hands of the monopoly caused many of them to regret their former opposition to John, and to remember him as a public benefactor, instead of an extortionist. Meanwhile John still held his stock, but was totally excluded by the new management from all voice in the control, as well as from any participation in the earnings and profits of the boom. No dividends were ever declared in which he was allowed to share. He finally disposed of his boom stock with his large gang-mill to Ten Eyck, Emery & Co., and immediately set about building another large stone mill, which he operated for several years until his removal to Clearfield County.

During all those years of absorbing business, his active brain found time to consider and perfect many inventions; for some of which he secured patents and many more were used by him about his mills and in his business, as labor and expense saving devices and were left free to be adopted or imitated by any that desired their benefits. In a single instance, however, he was forced into a long and severe litigation with a powerful railroad corporation, in defense of his right to a patent he had obtained for sinking piers in deep water. The vindication of his integrity, which he considered had been wantonly attacked, would stand or fall in the estimation of the public, with his success or defeat in the contest. After repeated partial defeats in the lower courts and all the delays and obstructions that the best legal talent and ingenuity could devise, the battle continued for nearly ten years. When almost every friend had despaired of his success, his claims to the ownership of the patent and his integrity, were fully and finally established and vindicated, by the decision of the United States Supreme Court. A verdict for over thirty thousand dollars was awarded him for the infringement of his patent. His success in this suit was mainly due to his personal conduct and direction during the various steps in the case; and on the witness stand he showed himself fully a match for the renowned lawyers who were engaged in the case against him, knowing as he did the justice of his cause and fully conscious of the rectitude of his purpose.

Having nearly exhausted the supply of pine timber that could be floated to Williamsport, John began in 1871 to make preparations for lumbering on his lands on Sandy Creek, on the western slope of the Alleghenies in Clearfield County. He would start his second act there, continuing his legacy as the lumber king of Pennsylvania.


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