WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. - An undisturbed four-acre lot in Lycoming County may feel the cut of a bulldozer's blade if its new owner proceeds with plans to build 400 self-storage units.
The land, once property of William Penn, was site of five Indian graves which were unearthed nearly 70 years ago. More ancestors are assumed to be in the ground as residents gain momentum to prevent its destruction.
"We're trying to do everything we can to save the site," said Alden "Denny" Seitzer, a retired city firefighter and resident of Williamsport.
On Sept. 4, the city council proposed an historical overlay ordinance that can be applied to all areas of the city. It effectively interrupted plans to build the facility on South Reach Road by invoking the state's 2000 municipality planning code that provides for protection of historic sites and resources. When it introduced the ordinance, the Council enacted a 90-day moratorium on any approvals of development. The ordinance is currently under review by the Lycoming County Commission for 30 days.
Property owner Bernard Rell of Jersey Shore, Pa, has not yet submitted land use plans. He could not be reached for comment.
On Aug. 7, two weeks after Rell purchased the property, Seitzer attended a city council meeting to bring attention to the undesirability of trucks on the narrow South Reach Road and to protest the rape of the trees, many of which were 200 years old.
The next day, the tree cutters showed up and began cutting down trees and sawing off the tops of whatever trees they could not cut down so that they'd die, Seitzer said.
Two days later, Seitzer and Dr. Kenneth Cooper, 80, head of the town's Shade Tree Commission, went to look at the property.
"We were standing on the edge of the property when Rell shows up," said Seitzer. "He begins yelling at us to get off his property and saying 'what are you people looking at.'"
The next morning, a police officer issued citations to Seitzer and Cooper for trespassing.
"An hour later the police asked for the citations back," said Seitzer. "We were un-arrested. Can you imagine, arresting Dr. Cooper, an employee of the city, for doing his job?"
Nestled between mountains at a high point along the Susquehanna River, the property is home to about 80 trees of all kinds. Undisturbed since the 1790s, its once plush and leafy trees now stand like skeletal remains.
Looking at the site now, Seitzer said it is no different than a person who has been injured and scarred.
"It looks different, but it's the same," he said. "Its lineage is the same. Its history is the same even if it's been scarred.
In 1789 the Updegraff family, descendants of Herman Op den Graeff who was persecuted for rebelling against the Roman Catholic Church in Europe and whose sister-in-law, Alex, was the grandmother of William Penn, canoed here from Lancaster and built a log home and a grain mill that still stands. In 1792 they built the big house across the road, west of the mill. Later it became the Thomas Lightfoot Inn, named after an Indian surveyor. The Updegraffs, a Quaker family, were staunch abolitionists. The underground railway tunnels they built are still a part of the property. Called the Long Reach Plantation, named after the stretch of river the Indians called the long reach, it also had its own school.
In the 1930s, skeletons were found in wooden caskets during a construction project. James Bressler, a local archaeologist at the Lycoming County Museum in Williamsport, said the remains were classified as Shawnee.
"No one knows what became of the skeletons after they were dug up," he said.
Having explored the area for decades, Bressler, who currently is digging on Canfield Island on the river, said there are undoubtedly more graves in the area.
"There are many Indian sites here, known and unknown," he said. "One of them is across the street from the site, behind the flood protection dyke."
With few laws to shelter the property and no recognized tribes in Pennsylvania for the state to consult, Seitzer began working the phones and email non-stop to alert anyone he thinks would be inclined to help. Environmentalists, county commissioners, local American Indians and historians have all gotten on board with the desire to preserve the site. State Senator Roger A. Madigan's office said they'd "look into it." Seitzer is also trying to touch the governor's office and continues to hope the place can be protected under historic preservation.
"How much of a slap is this to Native Americans and black Americans if the site's allowed to be destroyed," asked Seitzer. Seitzer is also looking into state laws that prohibit disturbing burial sites. He's been reading the Department of Environment's code book looking into how the water that passes through the acreage might stumble Rel's plans.
If the plans need approval to lay pipes for storm water run-off and a retention pond, supporters are hoping the state Historic Commission will set its concerns in motion with the DEP's process.
In 1989 there was an effort to get the site onto the national register of historic sites but it was turned down because of a new addition.
In 2000, two Greek gentlemen bought the site and tried unsuccessfully to operate a restaurant. In 2002, a fire burned down the building.
The property stood unoccupied until Rell purchased the property for about $150,000. Rell hasn't invested money in the plans to build the facility and many of the residents are hoping he will consider selling the property so the burials, tunnels and river view setting can be preserved as a historic site forever.
Although the area is zoned for commercial use, Seitzer said, "Plans to dig the earth and build a facility there are "spiritually wrong, morally wrong, ethically wrong. It doesn't matter who's buried there. Souls are in that ground."
"Past owners and residents who grew up in the area tell me the place is 'haunted,' he said. "There was an Indian fort here that was said to have an incredibly calming effect on those who entered it. There have been reports of seeing a man appear upstairs at the Inn. There's hundreds of years of history here."
The hope is to create a historic site that would draw visitors traveling along nearby Interstate 99, as the last exit before the road turns north to New York state. The plan is to present a clear vision to politicians before Rell's proposal is reviewed.
Ideas include partnering with local universities; local American Indian tribes could use it for festivals or education events; a river boat, "Hiawatha," now docked at a state park could be incorporated into tourist use; jobs would be generated; folks would come downtown and give the city an economic boost.
The county is readying to spend $7 million on a Susquehanna Greenway project that Seitzer hopes will include the South Reach Road property.