Part 1: The Early Years
In 1830, a decade before lumbering and farming created the Lake’s first settlements, Isaac A. Chapman, an early Wyoming Valley historian, described the Lake’s native fish as “trout, perch and sunfish.” While a bridle path from Luzerne to the Lake was available as early as 1800, the Lake was not readily open to early recreation until the Lake House hotel was built at Sunset in 1855. Even then stage coach travel, three to four hours from Wilkes-Barre, was not practical for sustained fishing trips. Moreover, the Lake was seemingly more popular for limitless deer hunting.
The native trout in the Lake were speckled trout but by the end of the 1800s they were wiped out by new fish species introduced into the Lake. Catfish, too, and eel were also native fish. Eel were once common in the Susquehanna River and could easily ascend Harvey’s Creek, at its mouth at West Nanticoke, and upstream to the Lake. In 1860 another local historian, Stewart Pearce, reported that “Esox” had been introduced into many area lakes, including Harvey’s Lake, destroying native trout populations. It is unclear if Pearce in referring to pickerel – a true esox (pike) species - or to the walleye (also known as the pike-perch or Susquehanna Salmon in an earlier day). The walleye is actually a perch not a pike species but would have been easily transportable in 1860 from the Susquehanna to the Lake.
In the fall of 1870 Hendrick B. Wright, local congressman, and Charles T. Barnum, local judge, applied to the state for warrants to the land underneath the Lake. Both Wright and Barnum had other property at the Lake. Land warrants to areas under rivers and lakes in the state were not uncommon, and were often purchased by coal mining companies. The Lake was surveyed on November 3, 1870, and patents to the Lake bottom were issued to Wright and Barnum on February 20, 1871.
The Lake patents drew the anger of local residents who protested to the legislature. The legislature responded with a law declaring Harvey’s Lake and Harvey’s Creek to be navigable waters. The law was actually proposed to the legislature by the Lake’s Hoffman Lumber Company, but it had popular local support, with Wright and Barnum opposing the act.
The effect of the law was not to challenge Wright and Barnum’s ownership of the land under the Lake, but to assure access to the Lake waters by adjoining property owners. In fairness to Wright and Barnum, they probably never intended to exclude public use of the Lake. Wright and Barnum planned to engage in ice-cutting on the Lake in the winter, and Lake patents arguably provided a legal basis to support the business. They built four large ice houses in the Alderson corner for their ice business. But the Hoffman Lumber Company was booming logs in several sections of the Lake creating an unsightly and sometimes dangerous nuisance. At one time, a log boom threatened to damage the Inlet bridge. By obtaining Lake patents, Wright and Barnum may have been able to limit Hoffman’s operations on the Lake and to protect the pristine integrity of the Lake for lakeside owners. Wright and Barnum did exercise a proprietary interest in the Lake by stocking it with three hundred black bass, a new game fish, in late August 1871. (Other accounts claim the State stocked the Lake with bass in 1876 but the 1871 stocking is confirmed).
In time, a number of different game fish would be stocked in the Lake. Bass were introduced in the Lake in the same year that the last reported eel were caught at the Lake for some years. Eel had found their way to the Lake from the Susquehanna River and Harvey’s Creek. The dams built in the river earlier in the century to serve the canal system had greatly impeded eel migration to Wyoming Valley, but a few eel still found their way to Harvey’s Creek and the Lake. In 1873 eel weighing 8 to 11 pounds were reported caught in the Lake. But small dams built on Harvey’s Creek for grist mill operations would finally end regular eel migration to the Lake.
In June 1876 State Representative Charles A. Miner arranged for the stocking of 5,000 landlocked salmon in the Lake. However, the salmon apparently did not thrive – and nearly a century later the State Fish Commission would try again. The principal game fish would remain bass – presumably smallmouth bass at this time. Later in June 1876 a Wilkes-Barre newspaper reported:
The bass placed in Harvey’s Lake a few years ago, have multiplied rapidly, and are attaining considerable size. Yesterday afternoon the guests of the Lake House caught nine of different sizes; one of them was seventeen inches long and weighed three and a half pounds. It was caught on a troll line by N.G. Belding and F. R. Rhodes, and is the largest, thus far taken from the lake. It was preserved alive and placed in the Colonel’s handsome acquarium, in which he has a splendid collection of bass, pickerel, trout, perch, etc.
The following entry was made on the Lake House Register:
Tuesday, June 13, 1870. The Largest bass even taken from the lake, weighing 3 ½ pounds, was caught this day on troll line by N.G. Belding and F. R. Rhodes. The Colonel is busily engaged in putting his house in order, to accommodate the visitors to this favorite resort this summer.
The Colonel was former Sheriff James W. Rhodes who purchased the Lake House in 1875. It would be renamed the Rhodes Hotel. An account by Rhodes notes:
Mr. Rhoads, proprietor of the Lake Hotel, says: “I have fished in many waters, but nowhere do I find bass so gamey as in Harvey’s Lake, and what has been my experience seems to be the experience of every fisherman.”
Most of the bass are caught by casting and still fishing. The trout found in the lake are not near as gamey as those found in the small mountain streams. One old fisherman who has spent thirty-five ears on the lake says: “No trouble to ‘ketch’ trouth in the ‘ere lake! Why they just wiggle up to your hook and fasten themselves on. Of course, if ye wants easy fishin’ trout is yer game; but if ye wants genuwine sport, then yer must try and hook Harvey’s lake bass.”
Fishing at the Lake was mostly the preserve of the moneyed class who could afford the expense of travel and recreation to the distant Lake. And, at the Lake, the lawyers, judges, and businessman all wanted William “Daddy” Emmons as their fishing guide. As a July 1880 account noted:
In a shady spot, about a hundred feet from the Harvey’s Lake Hotel, stands a small cabin. It is comfortably arranged inside, and on the outside can be seen poles, lines, nets, and the varied paraphernalia of fishing. This is the home of William Emmons, familiarly known as “Dadd.” He is still hale and hearty, though beginning to show the effects of years of exposure. He came from New Jersey thirty six-years ago and settled at Harvey’s Lake.
For sixty years he has been a fisherman and we do not believe there is an older one in the State. He is now 81 years of age, but has lost non of his love for the sport. In his early life he fished in the Delaware and for about two years in Chesapeake Bay. For the past thirty six-years he has fished at Harvey’s Lake and made a fair living. He has never fished on Sunday – something that few anglers can truthfully say.
He is happy in his lonely life, but begins to feel that his days are drawing to an end. The death of Messrs. Houpt, Hancock and Miner caused him much sorrow.
An account of a fishing adventure with Daddy Emmons was written by Caleb Wright, a lawyer-novelist originally from Wilkes-Barre, but who later moved to Bucks County:
“I never see the name of this harmless and gentle spirited man, or hear it pronounced, but with reverential emotion. Many years have passed since it was first my pleasure to become associated with im in the mystic art of capturing fish – an occupation that everybody knows is, and always has been, with all men, one of the characteristics of genius.
“The first time I met this ancient fisherman was at Harvey’s Lake. There he had his summer cabin, invited to it by the genial warmth that lured also the osprey and the kingfisher, and the like them evoting himself to the one occupation.
He had his boat, his bait net, and all his tools of trade at hand; and with the morning dawn was up and abroad upon the waters.
“At our first interview I thought I discovered his merit; and then and there we grew into bonds of affinity. On the little inland sea I was constrained to acknowledge his superior sleight of hand, and often wondered where such matchless skill in capturing pickerel and catfish could have found growth. But when on the bold steam issuing from the density of the Sullivan county woods, armed with the coachman or yellow-sally, my companion laid down his arms at my feet. The most cautious and alert of untamed things, the trout, challenges a prowess not thrust promiscuously upon the sons of men. It is a special gift.
“With every yard square of the noble sheet of water, largest of Pennsylvania lakes, Daddy Emmons was familiar. The places where, at different times of the day, bait shiners could be scooped up with his net, and at what spots, at different hours, lay the largest of the fish he sought.
“A man may be good on water without much knowledge of woodcraft. This was once demonstrated when the old fisherman undertook to guide George Lear, of the Bucks county bar, and myself from the north shore of the lake to Beaver Run. We wished to reach the run at the foot of the great meadow. It was once a meadow, but of late years an inextricable confusion of alders, through which the stream found its way, a mile or so in extent. Instead of reaching it below the jungle, our conductor brought us in above. Our Bucks county friend started it first. A short distance brought him to the alders. We found his track, where he had penetrated the tangled undergrowth, but that was all.
The future Attorney General of the Commonwealth was lost. In hunting for him, having wound up our lines, we got lost too. I don’t know how many hours we wandered in the dismal slough, chiefly in circles, but Squire Kocher, hunting his cattle, found and rescued us. Mr. Lear, getting out upon a log road, followed it to the lake, and a lad of Judge Barnum’s rowed him across to the hotel.
“There was a pleasing simplicity and honest candor in This old navigator of the lake that commended him to the regard of men far above him in social rank. Judge Paxson of our Supreme Bench, for many years a summer resident of the celebrated resort, spent his days in company of Daddy Emmons.
Their communion was a pleasant thing to behold, and the distinguished jurist, in common with many others, will ever bear a kindly remembrance of this old piscatorial veteran, deploring the sad catastrophe that hastened his descent to the tomb.”
The death of Daddy Emmons in September 1888 was widely noted:
Almost a Centenarian Fisherman.
The venerable “Daddy” Emmons, the famous fisherman of Harvey’s Lake is dead, his demise having occurred at Dallas on Sept. 14, at the home of a daughter, Mrs. Davis.
A fortnight ago while walking on the streets of Dallas he was knocked down by a passing team, sustaining the facture of a hip. At the advanced age of 92 such an injury could not be recovered from and he passed quickly away. As the Leader says, he went to Harvey’s Lake from New Jersey about thirty-five years ago and ever since has been a prominent character at that favorite resort. Up to about two years ago he lived in a hut in a copse of woods on the banks of the lake, and was looked upon as the ideal fisherman of the neighborhood. He knew just where the finny tribe was most numerous, and seldom failed to make a catch when a proper effort was put forth. He taught many of the prominent men of his day the art of angling, among his pupils being the late Judge Paxson, of Philadelphia. Since leaving the lake he has resided with his daughter.
A July 1901 report by Charles J. Randall, a Columbia County newspaper editor, gave tips on bass fishing at Harvey’s Lake, including insight to Lake fishing guides “Uncle Sank” and “Dutch Thomas.:”
The outfit – you want a 10 to 12 foot rod weight 10 ½ To 12 ounces: lance wood preferred but split bamboo will do. The rod should be flexible, but not so much as a fly rod. Fifty yards of good waterproof braided line, size “F,” or medium: an 80-yard multiplying click and drag casting reel, bass size, some Heavy 8-yard leaders, best quality; some 3-0 and 4-0 Carlisle hooks tied on the best heavy gut, and some No. 6 box swivels. For bait use minnows; the silver shiner is best; they should be from two to three inches in length. Of course, you can get them at the lake if you engage them ahead, but if you can procure them at your home it is better to take them with you, then you will be sure of a supply for your first day’s fishing. Take about a hundred in a minnow bucket. You can keep them very nicely by carrying with you a pocket bicycle pump and occasionally pumping some air into the water.
We’ll suppose that you have your outfit packed and your bucket minnows (and have previously written to Charles E. Rhoades, Lake House, Shawanese, Luzerne Co., PA., and engaged accommodations) and are ready to start. Hunt up “Uncle Sank” and tell him you want to go fishing. He will know whether “Dutch Thomas” is seasick or not, and if he is not you are all right, for between his spells of seasickness the old man is one of the best guides on the lake. If Thomas is seasick “Uncle Sank” will procure you another guide, provide you with a boat, give you the necessary instructions and start you out.
If it’s “Dutch Thomas” don’t give him over one good drink after you get started, but promise him a couple after you get back, besides his regular fee. That one will be enough to start him talking, and between Thomas and the bass, if they are biting, you will have a circus. He will keep the boat from 50 to 100 feet from shore, as the depth of the water varies, and taking your station in the stern of the boat you make your cast. The minnow is hooked by passing the hook through the mouth, out through the gills, and then pressing the point of the hook through the side of the fish until it projects upon the other side.
It takes a little time to catch the knack of casting, but a fisherman can get an idea of it from watching some expert, and after a little practice will be able to make a fairly good break at it. You use from 25 to 60 feet of line as the occasion requires, and when you hook your first bass the fun gets fast and furious. Thomas will hustle the boat out into deep water and you fight with your bass. It’s all kinds of trout fishing rolled into one, and after you begin to wonder when the blasted fish is going to quit tearing around and give up, and make up your mind that if he doesn’t quit pretty soon that you will. Thomas comes to your rescue with a long-handled landing net and after making a few remarks about things in general he skillfully lands the fish in the boat and transfers him to the jive-box. Then he lights his pipe, which has gone out in the struggle; and makes some more comments. You sit down in the boat, wipe the perspiration from your face, forget yourself in your elation and pass the bottle to Thomas, then take one yourself, and after you get over your excitement (the old fishermen call it the bass fever) you’re up and at ‘em again.
And so it goes until you are tired out or have landed all you want. A dozen bass from one to three pounds is considered a fair trip, but there have been catches of over a hundred to two men. This however, is an unusual catch, but there are plenty of catches on record of from 20 to 50. The sport may be common to all lakes where black bass abound, but nowhere are the conditions so perfect as at Harveys Lake, or nowhere else will you find such genial surroundings and good accommodations. The editor was one of a party of fishermen at the lake from June 15 to 18, and though we can generally make a pretty fair stab at almost every kind of fishing, casting for bass was a revelation to us.
Almost the entire history of Sunset to this time was witnessed with bemusement by a unique Sunset institution, the Oxford educated Ed Swan, who had rented rowboats at the Inlet for nearly half a century. Swan immigrated to the United States from England as a young man. He was originally associated with W. W. Finch, who had rented rowboats on the Susquehanna at Wilkes-Barre since 1881.
During the 1880s Swan began a rowboat rental service at the Lake. Originally, his boats were located on the Lake shore near the Rhoads Hotel, but the Lake waves damaged his boat line. Swan then relocated his service to the Inlet basin.
Swan’s shack along the Inlet shore was filled with a tumbling collection of junk, but it was a special place for friends to idle away time and to watch the seasons turn, until Ed Swan’s time also passed in 1933.
The Nanticoke canal dam which impeded eel migration on the Susquehanna was largely destroyed in 1902 and 1904 floods. A renewed eel population seemingly reappeared at the Lake (perhaps illegally introduced since a substantial dam along the Lake’s outlet stream would remain a substantial barrier to eel migration). In any event an August 1939 account notes eels in the Lake:
James J. Murray, local realtor, long-time summer resident of Harvey’s Lake and perhaps the best known disciple in the Back Mountain territory of the Coolidge type of worm fishermen, has long contended that the peculiar species of the eel family that inhabits the waters of the Valley’s most popular resort is a “walking eel.”
After threshing the waters of the lake for thirty-five years Realtor Murray is at last in position to prove his contention – and what is more has a witness in Dr. P.A. McLaughlin, who is willing to make affidavit to the Murray statement that “walking eels” do live in Harvey’s Lake.
While occupied with his favorite sport of worn fishing, seated as he always is in a comfortable easy chair, one evening the early part of the week Mr. Murray saw his cork disappear. Grabbing his bamboo pole he felt unusual resistance. But being an expert in landing game fish, a deft pull at the right second sent skyward a wiggling eel.
On examination it did not look any different than any of the hundreds of eels that James has pulled out of the lake. Not wishing to take the trouble to dress his catch for the morning meal, he called to his little granddaughter to bring a bucket filled with fresh water. This done, he deposited the eel in the bucket and placed bucked and eel on his front porch for the night.What was his surprise the next morning on reaching the porch to find the eel missing. He scanned the area and soon detected tracks of the thing to the ten feet of steps that ascend the way down to the edge of the water, where his eelship was found dead, with an over-sized frog in his mouth.
“Ah,ha,” said James to himself. “My repeated assertions Of ‘walking eels’ in Harvey’s Lake has at last been proved.” Incidentally, it is well to state that James is a teetotaler.
Copyright 2006-2008 F. Charles Petrillo