What Once Was
by Van Wagner

Photo by Peterson Studio

Join Van Wagner for a program about Pennsylvania's virgin wildlife and ecosystems.  Rolling hills filled with Elk, Moose, Mountain Lion, and Wolves.  Streams filled with migrating Eel and Shad with occasional Bison grazing on the flood plains.  Forests diversified by small flowers and towering White Pine.  Pennsylvania still has many special natural areas, however the history of what once was may surprise you.

This program consists of first hand examples of specimens, photos / paintings, and oral histories about the land we know as Pennsylvania.  Music, science, history all in one program.

What Once Was
Van Wagner
Karl Shellenberger
November 2005

The forests and streams of Montour County have changed immensely over the last few centuries.  The diversity of wildlife and vegetation that was found in virgin Pennsylvania may surprise you.

The Susquehanna River once teemed with American shad each spring.  This anadromous fish migrated from the Atlantic Ocean to the freshwaters streams of the Pennsylvania interior for spawning.  These fish swam up the Susquehanna by the hundreds of millions providing a valuable food source for people as well as wildlife predators.  Shad continued to migrate up the Susquehanna until the early 20th century when hydroelectric dams on the lower part of the river blocked their passage.  Although an occasional shad makes its way through Montour County, it is a far cry from the original numbers.

In the fall, this same river would once again teem with life as millions of American eels migrated down the Susquehanna and eventually to a part of the Atlantic Ocean called the Sargasso Sea to spawn.  By the late 1800s, these catadromous fish were caught on an industrial scale and were served as a delicacy in the finest restaurants.  Evidence of  “Eel Dams” or “Eel Weirs” can still be seen in several points on the Susquehanna including just below the Route 54 bridge in Danville.  As the eels migrated downstream, they would be channeled to the point of the downstream pointing “V” of the dam where a small opening was left for a net or platform.  The lower Susquehanna dams brought the same fate to the American eel as they did to the shad, and eels rarely make a local appearance.

An occasional moose, sometimes called the black moose, could be found wading in the shallows of the river.  It is difficult to get an accurate count of moose numbers in Pennsylvania; however it is certain they were here.  The last known Pennsylvania moose was killed around 1790 near the Juniata River.   Farther back from the River, on the flats where many local towns now exists, occasional woodland bison (or buffalo) may have be found.  These bison were a close relative to plains bison however they were separate species.  Unfortunately, these animals are now extirpated.  Some researchers claim that these bison once migrated from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to a wintering ground near Lock Haven, Clinton County, with the main route of migration following the Susquehanna to Snyder County then northwest.  There is a legend that the last Pennsylvania bison was killed in 1801 by Colonel John Kelly near Buffalo Crossroads, Union County.  New research suggests that this legend may not be true.  Regardless, most biologists do agree that occasional bison were found in south western parts Pennsylvania before the 1800’s.

The elk was one of the most important animals of the Appalachian Mountain ecosystem.  It is now extirpated from Montour County.  Also called the Canadian or Pennsylvania stag, these animals were quite numerous throughout the ridge tops of the area.  By the 1870’s, these animals were completely extirpated from Pennsylvania, although they have since been reintroduced into western parts of the state.

One of the main predators of elk was the panther.  Also known as the mountain lion and catamount, these amazing hunters were quite common throughout the Commonwealth.  Although occasional sightings are still reported, these animals were officially considered extirpated from Pennsylvania by the late 1800s.  One of the last Pennsylvania mountain lions is mounted and is on display in the Pattee Library of Penn State University.

Another predator in Penn’s Woods was the “black” wolf.  They were probably the same species as the timber wolf.  Wolves were essentially extirpated from Pennsylvania by the late 1800s, although a lone pack was reported to survive in the Seven Mountains region of central Pennsylvania until 1909.  Their niche has since been reoccupied by the coyote which was surprisingly scarce at the time when wolves dominated the area.

Some additional animals once found in Montour County: otter, marten, lynx, fishers, badgers, and wolverines.

Even the forests themselves have changed.  The virgin forests of Montour County were thick with white pine stands.  These white pine trees were often over 200 feet high and could range up to 8 to 10 feet in diameter.  White pine of this size is rarely seen in this area today, mainly due to the unsustainable logging of the 1800s.  In addition to the giant pine, vast groves of American chestnut were found.  A Penn State researcher has found evidence that locally there were 5 American chestnut trees for every oak tree.  A study in 1911 found that 22% of Montour County was covered with American chestnut trees.  Today, very few American chestnut trees grow more than a few feet tall before being killed by a fungus known as chestnut blight which came from Europe in 1904 .

Additional surprise is found when looking into the current “residents” of our area streams and forests.  It is nearly impossible to find a field, stream or forest without dozens of examples of invasive and exotic species.  Some examples of species not originally found in Montour County include carp, dandelions, tree-of-heaven (Chinese sumac), pheasants, all trout except brook trout, and smallmouth bass.  Those in bold are not originally from North America.

We will never get to see what our virgin land looked like.  It is also important to realize that environmental degradation is a slippery slope and changes are still occurring.  As more and more of Montour County’s rural areas become developed, the loss of more species and natural rhythms is possible.  It is our responsibility that future generations will not look upon the black bear, timber rattlesnake, brook trout, and eastern hemlock the same way that we look upon the woodland bison, elk, and American chestnut.


Anadromous fish-  A fish that lives in salt water and migrates upstream into fresh water to spawn.

Catadromous fish-  A fish that lives in freshwater and migrates downstream to salt water to spawn.

Extirpated- extinct from a portion from its range.

Invasive and Exotic Species - any species that is not native to that ecosystem; and whose introduction can cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health (adapted from invasive.org)


Extinct Pennsylvania Animals, by Henry Shoemaker

A Pennsylvania Bison Hunt, by Henry Shoemaker

American Chestnut Foundation  [www.acf.org]

Invasive and Exotic Insects, Diseases, and Weeds: Information and Images. [www.invasive.org]

“What Might Have Been” by Brian Halbleib.  March 2005 PA Game News

Photos by Peterson Studio