Towanda Historic District
The Towanda Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2007, The Gombach Group.
The Towanda Historic District is located on a hilly tract next to the North Branch of the Susquehanna River. The streets form an irregular grid which is oriented to the river bank; the district's shape is similarly irregular. The predominant architectural styles are Greek Revival and Queen Anne, with Gothic Revival, Second Empire and Italianate styles also represented. Buildings in the downtown range in scale from the dominant bulk of the Bradford County Courthouse down to two and three story commercial buildings on narrow plots; residential scale runs from small cottage-like houses up to rambling Queen Anne mansions on large lots. The structures are either brick or frame construction, as stone buildings are few. While some buildings date from the early years of the 19th and 20th centuries, the vast majority date from Towanda's economic heyday, which spanned the years 1830-1900. Though most of the downtown business district is included, the district is predominantly residential.
The Towanda Historic District contains the commercial and primary residential neighborhoods of Towanda, which is the County seat of Bradford County. The town was the most important commercial center in the county throughout the 19th Century, and contains the longtime homes of nationally significant political figures David Wilmot and Ulysses Mercur. Towanda's collection of buildings represents the broadest selection of building types and styles within the County: the earliest date from the second decade of the 19th Century, and the resources run through the era of the Great Depression. Towanda's architecture reflects the towns status as a center of government and manufacturing.
Founded by William Means, who settled on the site around 1786, Towanda was located on the wagon road which ran north to Tioga (later Athens) and on the North Branch of the Susquehanna River, which provided access to markets both downstream and upstream. Means himself was a boatman by trade; he soon added a distillery, tavern and ferry to his little empire. When Bradford County was organized in 1812, Means was influential in locating the County seat in Meansville, as the town was then known; court was held in his tavern until the courthouse was finished in 1816. By that year, five taverns were licensed in the village, several merchants were trading there, a tannery had been built, and a number of grist mills and sawmills were operating in the vicinity. By 1825, the population was 225, and in 1828, the Borough of Towanda was incorporated.
In 1832, Towanda possessed 63 houses and more than 30 tradesmen. Two doctors and seven lawyers served the needs of the town, which had become the primary market and service center for the surrounding farms. A bridge across the river was completed that year, and the Towanda Academy at 314 State Street was founded in 1835. Among its teachers were Henry Hoyt, later Pennsylvania Governor, and O.H. Piatt, who was elected to the U.S. Senate from Connecticut. Stephen Foster, the beloved songwriter, studied at the Academy in the winter and spring terms of 1840.
The extension of the North Branch of the Pennsylvania Canal to the New York line was begun in 1836. Lack of funds caused suspension of work in the mid-1840's, but the channel was finally completed in 1854, connecting Towanda with the New York State canal system and improving access to markets for Towanda goods. Commercial and industrial growth mushroomed; from a population of approximately 300 in 1830, the town had grown to 912 in 1840, and increased slightly to 1,175 in 1850. In 1847, a disastrous fire consumed the Courthouse and two business blocks, but the lost buildings were quickly replaced. The construction of the 17 mile Barclay Railroad in 1854 supplied the town with unlimited coal, and the pace of industrial development quickened. In 1658, local interests purchased the canal from the state and began work on the Pennsylvania and New York Railroad. Population had increased by about a third in 1860, reaching 1,622.
The Pennsylvania and New York track reached Waverly, New York, in November 1867, and completed the connection with Wilkes Barre in September 1869. Manufacturing operations were expanded or founded to utilize this easy access to distant markets. By 1870, population increased by half to 2,696. The Sullivan and Erie Railroad which served the Sullivan County coal fields, was partially opened in 1871, and heavy manufacturing and iron working operations added to the town's industrial strength. Population leapt again to 3,814 in 1880. Coal gave way to lumbering in the vicinity, but new factories were still springing up, increasing population to 4,169 in 1890. In 1900, Towanda's population peaked at 4,663; by 1910, it had fallen to 4,281, then held steady through the onset of the Great Depression. Manufacturing was in a gradual decline as well. Elmira and Binghamton to the north, with better east-west transportation links, became the economic magnets within the region. Sayre, with its railroad shops, had some 600 more Inhabitants than Towanda by 1900 and by 1920 almost doubled Towanda's population. By 1920, Athens had also surpassed it.
Founder William Means was responsible for setting his village off on a commercial course. Means had connections with Wilkes Barre merchants from his boating enterprises, particularly with Matthias Hollenback. The fine Federal house at 110 Bridge Street which was built in 1816 by Peter Egner of Northumberland (builder of the first courthouse) is representative of Means' success and status. Henry Spalding was one of the merchants who settled in the village's early days; Spalding operated a store and tavern in the building still standing at 1 York Avenue, which was built in 1812. Joseph Montanye, who became the dean of Towanda merchants, was in business on his own by 1826. His general merchandise store building still standing at 317 Main was one of the first brick buildings in Towanda, replacing a structure burned in the 1847 fire. Montanye's house stands at 20 Main Street. C.S. Russell, was in business by 1826, selling hardware, and was later a partner in the large Codding and Russell firm. Russell's house stands at 512 Third Street.
The Borough's first bank was established in 1834, located at 209-11 Main Street. Joseph Kingsbury, bookseller, was established in 1837; his house is at 24 Main Street. Colonel John Means, grandson of the founder, lived in the Means' house and was the Jacob Astof of Towanda, having inherited much of the land in the downtown. He was also contractor for the North Branch Canal and later the Williamsport and Elmira Railroad. Means was a partner in the Means Rockwell & Co. Foundry, director of Eureka Mower, and manager and president of the Towanda Iron nail works. He also was a builder/developer of downtown property; in 1885, he moved the Means' house to its present location at 100 Bridge Street. Another notable commercial figure of the 1840's was Eleazar Fox, grandson of Rudolph Fox, Bradford County's first settler. Fox formed a partnership first with Joseph Montanye, then with Mahlon Mercur; by 1876, he was president of the Citizens National Bank. Fox's house is at 15 York Avenue.
Mahlon Mercur was a key figure in Towanda's commercial development. Born in the town, he attended the Academy and built the first planing mill. Mercur masterminded the Pennsylvania and New York Railroad, which laid its track on the towpath of the canal. The railroad was responsible for the continued commercial growth of the town, succeeding the canal in connecting Towanda with national markets. Mercur was also a developer of downtown real estate and ran his own bank. Mahlon Mercur built one of the significant houses in the district at 217 Chestnut around 1857. Later, Mercur was president of the Sullivan and Erie Railroad.
Lawyer Edward Overton, who founded the Barclay Railroad and owned the coal deposits which the railroad exploited, was another key figure in commercial growth. His house is at 19 Main Street; the house next door, which was built around 1858 for son-in-law James Macfarlane (21 Main St) is one of the district's notable houses. Macfarlane was a lawyer who was also trained as an engineer. He managed the Barclay mines and wrote a book Coal Fields of America, published in 1873, that was a standard text on the subject; Macfarlane was also a coal mining consultant who worked throughout the east. Attorney David Cash was also involved in the Barclay coal lands; his mansion at 302 Third St. (1845) is one of the district's architectural jewels.
J.O. Frost (10 N. Main St.) started his furniture store in 1865; by 1870 it had grown into a furniture factory which soon became one of the town's biggest employers. Humphrey Bros. and Tracy, shoe and boot manufacturers, began operations in 1871. James Humphrey's house is at 302 Second St., Charles Tracy's at 101 York Avenue. The business district boasted a number of hotels. Only the American at 1 Bridge St. (c.1865), currently an apartment house, is extant. Prominent merchants connected to surviving buildings included R.M. Welles, dealer in agricultural implements (house, 227 Poplar) druggist H.C. Porter (house 361 York Avenue, store 323 Main ) and butcher George Neal (house 105 York Ave.) Elijah Parsons (house 22 William St.) and his son E. Ashmun (house 304 York Avenue) owned and edited the Bradford Araus newspaper, while O.O. Goodenough (house 1 Mix St.) edited the Towanda Business Item. The major new industry begun in the 1880's was the James H. Hawes toy factory, located just north of the district in a neighborhood called Toytown. The Hawes firm became one of the country's largest; William Hawes, James' son and successor, lived in the house at 363 York Ave. A new bank, the Citizens National (founded 1876) built a new building at 428 Main Street in 1886 designed by the architects Pierce and Dockstader of Elmira. The Hale Opera House of 1886 (601 Main St.), the Episcopal Church at 1 Main Street (c. 1889) and the charming town library of 1897 (106 Main St.) expressed the civic pride of the town, which reached its peak population in 1900.
Carl V.S. Patterson, who invented the fluorescent X-ray screen, provided a late burst of industrial development with his Patterson Screen Co. Patterson lived in the house at 9 Huston St., and his partner Frederic Reuter lived at 309 York Ave. Patterson Screen was the forerunner of the large DuPont and GTE factories, which account for much of the town's current employment.
A large number of significant political figures are associated with the Towanda District. John LaPorte, son of an Azilum Frenchman, was elected to the US Congress in 1833, and was also a substantial business figure (LaPorte and Mason Bank, 209-211 Main St). David Wilmot, Senator and Congressman, moved to Towanda in 1834 and lived there until his death in 1868. Serving in the House from 1845-1851, he was the author of the Wilmot Proviso, which was intended to limit the expansion of slavery. A foe of James Buchanan and a famous orator, Wilmot was a founder of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and a major figure in its national councils. He was Judge of the 13th District and was defeated by William Packer in a bid for governor in 1857. Elected to the Senate in 1861, he resigned in 1863 due to ill health; Wilmot served as Judge of the US Court of Claims until his death. He lived at 227 Poplar from 1850 until 1867, when he moved to 207 York Avenue.
Ulysses Mercur, David Wilmot's law partner and brother of Mahlon Mercur, was Towanda's other nationally significant political figure. Born in Towanda in 1818, he read law with Edward Overton. Where Wilmot was known for his native oratorical skill and expansive personality, Mercur was noted for his diligent study of technical matters within the law and a rigidly conservative personality. Like Wilmot, he was a founding Republican; elected to the US House in 1864, he served three terms. His primary contribution in Washington was sponsorship of the tariff law exempting coffee and tea, making both more affordable for the working class. Mercur joined the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1872 and became its Chief Justice in 1883. As a justice, he was considered rigid and old fashioned, unwilling to alter the precepts which he learned in his youth. Ulysses Mercur lived at 203 Third St. from 1851 until his death in 1887.
Other significant politicians include William Elwell, who arrived in 1833, was a State Representative in 1641-1642 and lived at 106 River St. from 1854 to 1863. He became President Judge of the Columbia District in 1863 and moved then to Bloomsburg. Paul Dudley Morrow whose house is at 512 Third St., was a Judge in the Court of Claims and in 1874 President Judge of the Bradford District. Edward Overton Jr. was elected to Congress in 1877; his house is at 305 York Ave. Joseph Powell was elected to the Congress in 1874, and lived at 215 York Ave. William T. Davies was first a State Senator, then Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor from 1887-1891; his house is at 201 Second St. James Codding (house at 213 Pine St.) was elected to Congress in 1897. Finally, George Kipp (302 Third St) was elected to the House of Representatives in 1907 and in 1911, dying in office during his second term.
The collection of architecture in the Towanda District is by far the largest and most varied in Bradford County. In the area of Greek Revival, it is rivaled only by Athens in quality, although Athens has many fewer examples. The Gothic Revival buildings constitute one of the best collections in north-central Pennsylvania. In the styles of the Victorian era. Troy and, to a lesser extent, Canton have examples of similar quality, but fall short in quantity. The Towanda business district contains an unparalleled collection of post Civil War buildings in the County. Again, Canton and Troy possess valuable small collections of such buildings; such large examples as the Hale Opera House and the Courthouse are without peer in the County.
A number of builders and architects are associated with buildings located in the district. Peter Egner built the first courthouse and the still extant Means house in 1816. James K. Vaughn was the architect of 304 York Avenue, and James Fausey built 308 York Avenue, both in the late 1860's. The architectural firm of Fleming & Hollon moved their office from Philadelphia to Towanda at about that time. They designed a school and a bank in Towanda, both since razed, and a mansion for H.E. Packer at Jim Thorpe. J.E. Fleming lived at 516 Second Street.
H.L Lamoreaux designed the house at 201 Second Street in the 1870's while S.W. Little built 311 York and William Kingsley built 305 Second during that decade. The architects Pierce and Dockstader of Elmira designed the Citizens National Bank in 1888 and a number of houses on York Avenue; Contractor J.H. Webb was associated with the Pierce building projects in the 1890's. The local builders Codding and Hale erected the Hale Opera House (1886.) George Decker built his own house at 118 York (c 1897, and others, while both Thomas Bradley and N.W. King built several extent houses in the north end of the district in the 1890's. Well-known Cleveland, Ohio, architects Israel Lehman and Theodore Schmitt designed the County Courthouse in 1896, while W.B. Camp designed several extant houses in the 1890s. The firm of Dannonds, Ashmead and Bickley designed the Patterson House in 1918, and Patrick Frawiey and a Mr. Vargeson were builders of the early twentieth century whose houses are extant.
In the area of Politics/Government, Towanda produced a large group of significant men which many small cities couldn't match. Senator and Congressman David Wilmot is a figure of national importance as is Ulysses Mercur as Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice and Congressman. Figures of state significance are James H. Codding, John LaPorte, Edward Overton, Jr., Joseph Powell, and George Kipp, all members of Congress, and William T, Davies, Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania. More subtly, some of these men figured in the foundation of the national and state Republican Party, which dominated state and national politics for fifty years after the Civil War.
Towanda was the commercial hub of Bradford County for most of the 19th century, dominating the manufacturing realms and organizing the railroads which connected Bradford County with the outside world. Athens, though older than Towanda, took a peripheral economic role until the last years of the century. Its large cast-iron bridgeworks and smaller furniture factory provided most of its jobs. Athens' first bank wasn't organized until 1865, and its economic growth was dependent on the Pennsylvania and New York Railroad. Sayre was laid out in 1871, at the junction of the Pennsylvania and New York, the southern Central Railroad and the Geneva and Sayre Railroad. It was a pure railroad town, named after Robert Sayre, the railroad's president. A roundhouse (1873) and large railroad repair shop (1880) put the town on the map. It was incorporated in 1891, and was the largest town in the County by 1900. It rapidly eclipsed Towanda in economic growth although the courthouse and the established manufacturing sector kept Towanda thriving through the onset of the depression.