It Used To Be A River Town
Georgetown stands pleasantly on the south bank of the Ohio River on a plateau of high grade sand, safe from floods, and within sight of Ohio and West Virginia. It was always a great place for rivermen. For more than a century it was known to every traveler going down the river to “the West”. Travelers were greeted by a postcard-perfect sight of beautiful homes with big porches and picture windows facing the water, two churches with the prettiest commons this side of New England, tree lined streets and wrought iron fencing, hotels, and a general store. All this was within earshot of a steam whistle and the occasional calliope.
One of the oldest settlements in Beaver County, Georgetown was laid out on Jan 13, 1793 by Benoni Dawson who came from Montgomery County, MD, about 1780. Benoni Dawson had purchased two-hundred-twelve acres and forty-three perches of land from Robert D Dawson who had received it from the government of Pennsylvania for his service during the Revolutionary War. The patent number was P-15-269 and it was named “The Bone of Contention”. The deed can be found in Book E Page 244 at the Allegheny County Court House. Upon the establishment of Beaver Co, it was also recorded in the Office of Deeds for Beaver County Book A Page 162. Frances and John Finley also have an original copy of the deed for Georgetown. See endnote 1.
In 1750, both VA and PA claimed land south of the Ohio River and west of the Youghiogheny River. George Washington was sent to the area in 1753 by the Gov Dinwiddie of Virginia to investigate the strength of the French and more importantly to keep Pennsylvanians from settling in their VA commonwealth land. At that time, the French claimed the land on the north side of the Ohio River. Georgetown was the center of this contention in its early history. The government of VA financed the survey of the western boundary of PA which was completed on Aug 23, 1785. Like the Mason Dixon Line, there were two surveyors: David Rittenhouse from PA and Andrew Ellicott from VA, but the boundary has become known historically as the Ellicott Line. Not only did the two commonwealths contest the ownership of Georgetown area, six counties within the commonwealth of PA governed the area over its first fifty years. According to the PA government view in 1750, the land which would become Georgetown was in Cumberland Co; in 1771 it was in Bedford Co; in 1773 Westmorland Co; in 1781 Washington Co; in 1788 Allegheny Co; and finally in 1800 Beaver Co was established. So depending on the date, Georgetown was governed by different authorities as settlers moved west. Property deeds were registered in different counties depending on the date of transfer. Nowhere were there so many diverse patents or other title claims as in Beaver County, whose land records began in 1803.
Another little known but importance part of American history near Georgetown was the Point of Beginning. The Point of Beginning was associated with the Rittenhouse and Elliot survey marking the point of the western boundary of PA and the Northwest Territory. The point was directly across the river from Georgetown. This mark was the starting point for the survey of all US public land west including Alaska. The spot is also registered among our National Historic Landmarks.
The town name was originally written as George Town. That name can be seen on early maps of the area. The name change probably occurred officially when the village was incorporated into a borough on Apr 15, 1850 beacause around that time there was a tendency to combine or shorten city names.
There are several theories as to the origin of the name. The most likely one is that the name was bestowed in honor of George Dawson, the son of the founder Benoni Dawson. George Dawson owned of a portion of the town land at the time the borough was established. Contrapuntalist Jess R Finley in his Genealogical History of the Mackall Family in America indicated that Georgetown was named to honor George Dawson, the uncle of Benoni Dawson. Uncle George Dawson had settled in Fayette County, PA in 1770. Benoni Dawson also lived with and near his uncle in Fayette Co for seven years before migrating to Georgetown in 1782. The one remaining and least likely theory is that the town was named in honor of George Washington.
The act to incorporate Georgetown was House of Representatives File No 570 read – February 28, 1850. Frances and John Finley have an original copy of the act read before the PA House of Representatives. See End Note 2.
From the proceedings of the burgess and town council under the act of assembly incorporating Georgetown, the first election of officers was held on May 17, 1850. The officers were:
Thomas Fry Burgess
George Nash Constable
Andrew Poe Town Council
Henry Kinsey Town Council
John Lake Town Council
Joseph Nash Town Council
SM Prudens Justice of the Peace
Directly across the river is the borough of Glasgow and the village of Smith’s Ferry where now covered by water are historic Indian Rocks. These rocks have Indian petroglyphs last seen in the 1960s during the winter when the water level was low. In the 1860’s wooden hull steamboats rounding to land found sites like Smith’s Ferry dangerous because of the boulders. Settlement of the north side of the Ohio River also had continuous conflict with the Indians until the military victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. With its sandy beaches and safe location, suitable timber, and good iron works nearby, Georgetown developed a thriving boating industry before any settlements were established the Northwest Territory .
The boating history of Georgetown can be divided into three distinct parts: flatboats, keelboats, and steam boats. A flatboat, generally speaking, was anything that could float ― from a primitive raft to a mammoth barge. In the early 1800′s, flatboating was limited to the rainy season or October to May. During the winter season, the Ohio was often closed because of ice. The Belle Riviere was once described as frozen up half the year and dried up the other half. The flatboatmen were rugged men. They were hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-fighting men that most river towns dreaded to see stop. An anonymous verse that described their manner:
The boatman is a lucky man
No one can do as a boatman can
The boatmen dance and the boatmen sing
The boatman is up to everything.
Georgetown was in many respects a typical river town. The hundreds of rough men who handled the stearing oars on these rafts and keelboats spent their money in the taverns which lined the river front. Tavern-keepers reaped fortunes. Drinking and gambling were universal. Fighting was a pastime. Keelboatmen looked upon flatboatmen as natural enemies, and meetings between them were usually preludes to battles royale. Mississippi diarrhea, cholera, jaundice, consumption, injury, and drowning were constant companions. After taking their cargo downriver, the return trip home was often more difficult and dangerous than the trials of the river voyage. In his book of river experiences, Capt Adam Poe recounts the story of working with his father Thomas Poe Sr rafting logs to Steubenville, OH and hoop poles to Moundsville, VA (now WV).
Although there was considerable overlap in time, keelboats essentially replaced the floatboat. Entries in the Certificates of Enrollment for the Port of Pittsburgh indicates that keelboats of greater than 20 tons capacity were built in Georgetown in the 1861 for work during low water in the summer. The advantage of keelboats was their ability to make a return trip, often pulled by steamboats. Adam Poe in his book, wrote about keelboating and that local farmers had the strength to make good polers.
The keelboat went the way of the flatboat when the technologically superior steamboat was developed. Capt Adam Poe wrote that his first steamboat job was on the str Beaver which carried freight and passengers from Beaver Falls and Pittsburgh between the years 1832-1837. Capt Jacob Poe first took command of the str Beaver in 1837. Georgetown men were active in the steamboat trades through the early 1900′s – the marvelously skilled pilots who, in the darkest hours of the night, knew within a few feet of where their boats were; the engineers who, with courage, experience, and skill reponded to bells from the pilot standing by a roaring furnace of fire; the men who designed and built the hulls and the machinery that worked so well on the Western rivers. Seventy years of steamboat history rests in the homes, churches, and cemetery in Georgetown.
Georgetowners, young and old, knew every steamboat on the river and could identify them by their distinguishing characteristics. Was the boat a sidewheel or sternwheel? Large or small? What were the trimmings on the stacks and pilot house? A “Texas” or no “Texas”? Last and most important, what was the sound of the bell or whistle? All these data points taken in were part of the general education in a river town.
A careful examination of the photos of Georgetown will reveal that the town has little changed in 150 years. The three large homes overlooking the river were built around 1850 by three of the far famed steamboat captains: Thomas Stevenson Calhoon, Thomas Washington Poe, and Jackman Taylor Stockdale.
Here during the golden age of steamboats incredible steamboat stories were told and told again. The tale of an incredible $50,000 exchanging with a shake of hands on the back porch of a steamboat captain’s home was a beggar’s delight. Today that hand shake would be valued at $1 million. Another story detailed the tribute paid a retired river boat captain by boats passing his home. As the captains passed the home, they would salute with a long blow of their whistles at Mile 38.9 from Pittsburgh. The contibute continued for years after the captain’s death. A story that unnerved me was that of the body. A steamboat captain who died in St Louis was kept on ice by the Masons until another Georgetown captain could run to St Louis and retrieve the body. As a boy, I heard these tales, but the town folks lives were no longer centered on the river. The town had lost its connection when the ferry ceased operation in 1950.
As railroad service expanded with terrific speed after the Civil War, steamboat traffic declined . Georgetown rivermen were forced to diversify. Oil had oozed out of the Ohio River for years before the first commercial wells were drilled. It was called Seneca Oil, collected in cloths, and used as a cure-all. It was a half-accepted, half fabled remedy for bruises, burns, sprains, and rheumatism. In 1808 Zadok Cramer described the oil in his travel book “The Navigator”. Oil, as we know it, was not discovered until Edwin Drake drilled the first well in Titusville in 1859 – some 51 years later. In Georgetown, “oil fever” began in the 1860s. Speculators began drilling in every direction. By 1864, the local region was producing 35,000 barrels per year. Wells drilled in Smith’s Ferry produced oil for more than 25 years before they were exhausted. Capt Thomas S Calhoon turned to the oil business when a well drilled on his farm near Georgetown produced 40 barrels per day. Famed steamboat man Jackman Ttaylor Stockdale in the 1870 Census Report listed his occupation as “Oil Merchant”. Today untapped natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Formation once again makes Georgetown an attractive target for energy exploitation.
In the 1870’s, Georgetown was poised for development. It had resources in abundance to make it one of the most flourishing towns on the Ohio River. In addition to the river business, oil wells had been drilled obtaining oil in paying quantities. For some cause they were abandoned. Either the low price of oil or the difficulty of getting it to market may have been the problem. Coal of good quality was found only 80 feet below the surface. The vein was eight feet which could have been mined at moderate cost. It was not mined. Clay used in pottery and fire brick was available in sufficient abundance to justify a factory. No potteries were built. The high level bottom land, some three miles long, presented a beautiful site for a city. Three stores, one public house, a post office, a smith shop, two churches, and a school indicated a place of good character. For want of a little capital and business energy, and perhaps a railroad, Georgetown failed to develop.
Although seemingly a quiet, idyllic village, in Jan 1900 trouble was brewing in Georgetown. A number of young men had organized a club with the intention of conducting a dance each week. Unfortunately the social function conflicted with the mid-week prayer service of the Methodist Episcopal Church. A number of younger church members were conspicuous by their absence. Rev Hodge, not slow to voice his disapproval, condemned the practice on moral grounds: “Dancing is a seductive amusement instituted by the devil and perpetuated in this town by his agents.” After the service, young men gathered at the door and threats against the pastor were heard. Rev Hodge continued his remarks in his next sermon, in stronger terms than the week before, denouncing both dancer and dancing. He injected a “veritable bombshell” and the entire congregation suddenly seized with an attack of coughing, sneezing and other expressions of amusement. The bombshell was not explained, but it brings to minds the Mark Twain hoodoo. Mark Twain said you should never have a preacher and a white horse on the same boat. You had to throw one or the other overboard, and he preferred the preacher.
According to the 2000 census, the population of Georgetown was 182. In 1900, its population was 270. In 1870 the population was 297. Never large the borough population has steadily declined since its peak during the golden age of steamboats. The perception that Georgetown has been in decline was voiced much earlier in its history. In 1807 a traveler F Cummings wrote in his journal of Georgetown, “Though it is a post town, and a considerable thoroughfare of travellers, it is nevertheless on the decline…”. On Sep 4, 1803 Meriweather Lewis stopped in Georgetown as he was beginning his expedition to explore the Louisiana Territory. Lewis unfavorably described Georgetown as a town “consisting of about a dozen log cabins, one-fourth of which are taverns…”. Lewis bought a replacement pirogue (canoe) in Georgetown to ferry supplies for the expedition. The cost to Lewis was eleven dollars. The pirogue leaked badly; supplies got wet; guns rusted. He felt cheated. The canoe sunk approximately 20 miles downstream. On 9 Sep 1803, Lewis purchased another pirogue in Wheeling.
In 1805, there were four tavern keepers and two mercantile stores in Georgetown. The Red Lyon tavern operated by John Cameron was favored by rivermen. The first postmaster, Thomas Foster, was appointed on Apr 1, 1802. Thomas Foster also licensed the first hotel. In 2009, Georgetown still retained its US Post Office and churches, but it had no stores, no inns, no taverns, no tea room, no photographer’s studio, no doctor, and no ferry.
When the ferry ceased operation in 1950 after more than 150 years of service, Georgetown became more and more isolated. The river, the natural highway to the west, had brought life to the town. Today the only remaining access is the winding road from Hookstown. Local pranksters, sensing the future, modified a road sign some years ago to greet puzzled motorists – “World Ends, Four Miles”. “It used to be a river town.” said Lillian Poe Wagner sadly in an interview as she looked along the deserted streets of the once busy village. “Almost everyone was connected with the river in some way.” 
By 1900, historic Georgetown was almost forgotten by the river. Georgetown declined as Aliquippa, Midland, East Liverpool, and other nearby towns with manufacturing plants prospered. The old family names are well gone and dispersed. Many of the old homes are in decline. The town is tired, or dying. Younger people almost have to leave to find proper work. That is an indictment of our national, and global, economic policy. Once Georgetown was a beautiful place where life was dominated by the steamboat. It used to be a river town.
 I held this document in my own hands thanks to the courtesy of Frances Finley.
 I held this journal of the business affaires of the Georgetown council from 1850 to 1867 in my hands thanks again to the courtesy of Frances Finley.
 Charles Dana Gibson and E Kay Gibson, Dictionary of Transports and Combatant Vessels Steam and Sail Employed by the Union Army 1861 – 1868, (Ensign Press, Cambridge, MA 1995), p 152.
 Capt Frederick Way, Jr., History in Houses, (S&D Reflector (Dec 1969)).
 Capt Frederick Way, Jr., The Steamboating Poe Family, (S&D Reflector) (Dec 1965)).
 Arthur B Fox, Pittsburgh during the Civil War, 1860-1865, p. 31-32.
 Internet Complete History of the 46th Illinois Veteran
 New York Times Aug 15, 1864.
 Frederick Way, Jr.,Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1994, (Ohio University Press, Athens 1994), p. 99.
 Capt Frederick Way, Jr., The Steamboating Poe Family, (S&D Reflector (Dec 1965)).
 John Newton, A Century and a Half of Pittsburg and Her People, (Lewis Pub Co 1908), pg 312.
 Frederick Way, Jr.,Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1994, (Ohio University Press, Athens 1994), p. 318.
  Charles Dana Gibson and E Kay Gibson, Dictionary of Transports and Combatant Vessels Steam and Sail Employed by the Uniion Army 1861 – 1868, (Ensign Press, Cambridge, MA 1995), p 223.
 J Dillon and Son, M. E. Church in Georgetown, (The Georgetown Chronicle, (Nov 1877)), pp 4.
 Alexander C McIntosh, Georgetown – Its Early Settlers and Their River Boat Experiences, Presentation to the Beaver County Genealogical Society, 5 Apr 1983.
 J Dillon and Son, M. E. Church in Georgetown, (The Georgetown Chronicle, (Nov 1877)), pp 7.
 Trouble Brewing in Georgetown, Western Advertiser – Beaver, PA, Vol 2 No 24, 20-26 Sep 1973.
 Rev Joseph Bousan, AM, History of Beaver County Pennsylvania, (The Knickerbocker Press, New York 1904).
 George Swetman, Life and Death of a River Town, The Pittsburgh Press, Sunday, Apr 27,1969.
Copyright © 2009 Francis W Nash
All Rights Reserved
No part of this website may be reproduced without permission in writing from the author.