American novelist Theodore Dreiser called the bridge "one of the true wonders of the world," but it certainly is not what I am expecting to see as I begin my two-day, 50-mile trip through the Endless Mountains on Route 6. Spanning the horizon from end to end like a giant prehistoric creature, the viaduct is both awe-inspiring and unsettling. I wonder if it is an indicator of the landscape to come, perhaps filled with concrete and steel remnants from an earlier era, like hundred-year-old rail stations in disrepair and abandoned factories with shattered glass windows.
I shouldn't have worried.
In this part of Pennsylvania, Route 6 shadows the Susquehanna River's northern bank, passing dairy farms where black-and-white Holsteins graze on green, rolling pasture land and the mountain ranges-soft, undulating carpets of green, red, gold and orange-really do seem to duplicate themselves in an endless pattern, one range after another. Each time the road turns, the countryside opens up to new vistas, scenes so visually perfect I have to blink a few times to make sure they're real.
The town of Tunkhannock is where I spend the first night, having dinner at Twigs, a restaurant that, like most businesses in town, is on the lower level of a restored 19th-cenutry building. The town was founded in 1775 as Putnam, named after General Isreal Putnam, but was changed in 1786 to Tunkhannock, an Indian word which means "when two small streams merge into one."
The railroad helped the town grown and some residents became rich from the tanning and lumber industries. Many of the Victorian homes of these 19th-century industrial barons have been restored and are part of the town's lovely historic district. The Dietrich Theater, built in 1936, is probably one of the newest buildings on East Tioga Street to undergo a beautiful restoration.
The road also follows the footprints of General John Sullivan and his early American soldiers, who came through this area in August 1779 to confront the New York band of Iroquois. The Iroquois were attacking frontier settlements in the region and Sullivan's men wiped out more than 40 Indian villages, decimating a good portion of the area's Indians by Sullivan and others, along with the end of the Revolutionary War, that helped open up Pennsylvania's central mountains to European settlement in the late 1700s.
My journey through this river valley is not quite as dramatic. I stop at Apple Wagon Antiques, in Mehoopany, another early settlement whose name means "places of wild potatoes." No potatoes grow here anymore, but plenty of antiques do...furniture, toys, photos, jewelry. After poking around the large store I continue driving westward, through Black Walnut, once known as Black Walnut Bottom, famous for the large quantity of black walnuts that covered the bottom of a creek in the nearby town of Meshoppen.
In the village of Laceyville I stop at a site called "The Oldest House," built in 1781 by Eliha Hall, the area's first carpenter, for the James Smith family. It's regarded as one of the oldest frame houses in northeast Pennsylvania, and has been wonderfully preserved by former owners and the "The Oldest House" Historical Society.
I pull into Wyalusing (pronounced why-oh-LOO-sing), a river town burned to the ground in 1778 by Indians sympathetic to the British, but resettled after the Revolutionary War by Europeans coming to farm the fertile ground. Today, most of the action along the one-block main street centers around the Wyalusing Hotel, built in 1875 by town bon vivant J. Morgan Brown, who called his business the Brown Hotel. Its gingerbread design and fancy brick front have remained mostly original, as have most of the buildings in town. The Main Street Farmer's Market is open Fridays until late fall.
After a great sandwich and iced tea in the hotel's back bar, I break away from Route 6 to take a parallel road, Route 187, which leads past Wyalusing High School and the Wyalusing Valley History Museum, crosses the Susquehanna and follows the south bank of the river towards the French Azilum Historic Site.
Along the way I stop at Glenora River Farm and talk with Colleen Potter, a high-school senior whose family has owned their dairy farm for generations. While we talk about life in Wyalusing she walks me through the barn where 160 Holsteins are milked twice a day, and we stop to feed a two-week-old calf.
Fifteen minutes up the road is the French Azilum (asylum), site of 1793 community planned as a refuge for French loyalists escaping the dangerous conditions of the French Revolution. Other residents included French slaveholders from Haiti, who needed to escape the mulatto and slave uprisings that occurred at the same time. It is rumored that even Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and her two children were poised to escape France for this Pennsylvania site before she was capture and beheaded.
By the late 1790s, however, many of the French refugees moved to southern cities or back to France, but a few families remained, including the LaPortes, whose son, John LaPorte, born at Azilum in 1798, became a U.S. congreeman. His house, built in 1836, is the only surviving strucute on the site and has been delicately restored as a reminder of this unusual piece of American history. The site is open mid-Oct.
Towanda is where American composer Stephen Foster once lived, and composed his Tioga Waltz here in 1840. David Wilmot, another Towanda resident, became known for his Wilmot Proviso of 1846, which forbid slavery in any new territory acquired during the Mexican War. And bandleader John Philip Sousa gave several performaces during the early 1900s in the town's historic 1886 Keystone Theatre. The Towanda Oktoberfest is held at the restored Washington Street Station, next to the river, and highlights the region's many microbreweries. The Towanda Farmer's Market runs on Tues. and Fri. until late fall at the same location.
The "newest" historic site in Towanda is the Red Rose Diner, a restored 1927 P.J. Tierney & Sons barrel-roof diner that Gordon Tindall moved from its original location in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania to its new site on Main Street, across from the Keystone Theatre.
Tindall, who opened the diner in July 2005, says he hopes people will respect and enjoy its historic ambience, down to the working 1920s telephone. "I think old diners and restored buildings really add something to a town's character," he says as we stand outside the little white diner with the stained glass windows. "These towns have so much history, it would be a shame not to preserve some of it for the kids."
Several miles west of Towanda I stop at the Knapp Covered Bridge near Luthers Mills. It is easy to picture a horse and wagon moving across the bridge when it opened, in 1955, hauling vegetables or wood or hides to nearby towns. And it is easy to imagine the towns as well, for this stretch of Route 6 is a preservationist's dream, where the main streets of today are beginning to look like they did a century ago.