The Duncannon Stack

The following article from  March of 1972 originally appeared in the Perry County Times and Duncannon Record and is reprinted with their permission.


“The Duncannon Smokestack”

The Duncannon Stack - a remnant of an old mill near Duncannon BoroughThe large brick stack with a base of mountain stone, that once did service for the boilers of a saw mill operation, probably the largest single operation on any timber tract in Perry County, which stands on the site once known as the Gorgas place, about six miles southwest of Duncannon, was erected in the year 1857.

During the summer of that year, Captain Jacob Coulter, and a man by the name of Palmer, began the erection of the stack and the felling of virgin trees on a sixteen hundred acre tract densely covered by virgin growth, a watershed that now supplies the majority portion of the pure, sparkling water for the Trout Run Water Company reservoir. (*Duncannon Borough is currently supplied with well water from this area.)

Soon after the buildings had been erected and the plant placed in operation, the Civil War broke out and put an end to the activities on the huge tract. Very little life was in evidence until after the cessation of hostilities between the North and South. At this period a boom in the lumber business gave many men employment. It was necessary at this time to operate a store, because of the inconvenience of travel, which was done by the company. A large general store supplied the families connected with the mill, with most everything necessary for the homes. Bales of cloth were kept in stock and the bulk of the everyday clothing was made by the housewives, including the shirts and overalls for the men. However wages were small, usually seventy-five cents for day labor, most of which remained with the company through the store.

The principal market for products seems to have been Carlisle and many six-horse teams transported lumber, railroad ties and peeled bark, to the Cumberland County town, over roads that were nothing short of abominable. The teamsters were on the way around 4:30 or 5 o’clock each morning with loaded wagons and would return between 8 and 9 o’clock at night, feed themselves and their weary steeds and retire to sleep a dreamless sleep until it was time to begin all over again. The timber used in the construction of the old brick schoolhouse on North High Street (*The schoolhouse between the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches was razed in 1965), and the Pennsylvania Railroad freight-station at Duncannon came from this mill. Of course there are probably other buildings in the county erected from timbers secured from the old Gorgas Swamp sawmill.

During its existence the mill and its vast acreage, said to be about 1600, changed ownership several times. In 1872 the plant was acquired by Robinson & F ink, who operated it until 1878 when the place was taken over by a man named Hathaway who transferred the place the same year to Sheaffer & Jones, who were more or less successful in the conduct of the mill until 1883 when they relinquished ownership to the Gorgas family, who sold the entire tract to James Bell, Rye Township lumberman, whose Timber tract holdings extended from the Susquehanna river to beyond the Pine Hill and Sterrett’s Gap regions to the southwest. In 1927 the property was acquired by the Trout Run Water Company, principally for the water rights and is today owned by the borough of Duncannon.

“Take A Cup…”

Empty red cup on a blue tableClear, cold mountain water percolating through a mosaic of white sand set amid a forest floor bedecked with green and brown vegetation…springtime bursting in beauty about the base of the smokestack standing like a memorial to a bygone age…once this was the pristine destination for a walk to Gorgas.

An untold number of visitors made the pilgrimage through the decades, hiking or riding on horseback, following the old wagon trail, or coming by forest path, basking in honeyed sunlight dripping through interlacing tree branches of hardwood and fir. The stones and bricks are crumbling around the edges of the structure, located in Rye Township, Perry County, PA. There is but slight additional evidence attesting to the industry that began over one hundred and fifty years ago. Lumber, bark for tanning, barrels, caskets and furniture, were said to emerge from a livelihood initiated at Coulter’s Sawmill.

The magnetism of “the Stack” was not only to gaze at the fifty foot high chimney, but also to take in the nearby “Whispering Sands” of Gorgas Spring. The site, known a very long time ago as Allen’s Swamp, is a natural geological curiosity. Water seems to boil on the surface of the forest floor, though the temperature remains relatively the same throughout the year, and the water has never been known to freeze. The rock here is sandstone, and erosion from the constant surge of water has ground it into a porous state. Recent lumbering practices have somewhat subdued the characteristic bubbling sound which inspired “The Whispering Sands” connotation of earlier years.

“We’re walking back to the Smokestack… take a cup to drink from the spring!”

So went the familiar cry in days when no objection arose to drop any chore or obligation to amble along, talking or in silence… family and friends spending an afternoon in nature.

“…and a Smidgeon of Local History”

Duncannon's history written on an old scrollCove Mountain, rising on the west side of the Susquehanna River, just south of the town of Duncannon, runs six miles back to where it makes a u-turn and curves about to emerge once more at the river, between the hamlet of Perdix and the neighboring town of Marysville. Pine Hill Road snakes up over the back side of Cove Mountain, beginning at the Dellville Covered Bridge and ending at Route 850, known also as The Valley Road. As late as the l960’s, to travel over Pine Hill was to navigate through a challenging mass of protruding rocks set firmly in a narrow, red dirt road.

Hawk Rock, famous for its view of the juncture of the Juniata and Susquehanna Rivers, punctuates the top of Cove Mountain at Duncannon, and below the path to Hawk Rock, Sherman’s Creek flows to empty into the Susquehanna. There is a trail going back the south side of the creek, that leads to a long favorite picnic and swimming area called The Goose Pond. The old Duncannon Reservoir, originally built in 1894, is situated beyond the pond, and the terrain rises through Dark Hollow, eventually meeting up with and overtaking the Smokestack.

In times long lost to memory, this trail was a public road, named The Duncannon to Carlisle Road, also referred to as “The Swamp Road”.


If you would like to learn more about The Duncannon Stack or the Whispering Sands, please contact Deb Takach of the Duncannon Outdoor Club for future hike information.

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