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Senator Samuel Richard Peale


Peek at the Past

Forgotten Dead: The story of Senator Samuel Richard Peale


POSTED: March 14, 2008

The Peale residence as it appeared in the early days.

He once built a railroad, but the railroad is no more.

He once had an entire town named after him, but the town is gone.

He once entertained lavishly in a showplace home with rolling, meticulously landscaped lawns. But a dormitory now stands on the spot where that spectacular house once stood.

His name was Senator Samuel Richard Peale, and except for a few local historians, archivists and scattered descendants, the man is largely forgotten today. In his time, however, he was one of Central Pennsylvania’s most famous and accomplished individuals.

Luckily, those few archivists and historians have done a great job of preserving what is left of Sen. S.R. Peale’s legacy. At the Heisey Museum, there are three boxes of materials relating to Peale and his extended family in the museum’s cramped second-story archive. At Ross Library, a collection of photos and clippings fill a similar trio of boxes.

Interestingly, despite his wide acclaim during his lifetime, Peale was apparently uncomfortable with attention by the media. One suspects he may be turning over in his grave at this moment, at the mere idea of a front-page column devoted to his memory.

“I do not enjoy excessive mention in the newspaper,” he wrote to a “Mrs. Barrows,” in 1907, in a letter on file in one of those three boxes at the Heisey Museum. Barrows was apparently an Express reporter requesting information for an article and a photo for publication. Her later article appeared without a byline, but whole sections of Peale’s letter were lifted directly, without attribution, for publication.

“(I) have never allowed my picture to be printed and shall not now,” he wrote to Barrows. “But it is only fair to my children and others who hold me in esteem that I give data for present use at this golden sunset.”

This “golden sunset” was occurring during Peale’s vigorous 77th year, when he was celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary. It was an event that — despite his misgivings — would be widely covered in the local papers of the day.

Between 75 and 100 locals would crowd into “Hillside,” Peale’s grand home at 262 North Fairview Street, to honor Peale and his wife, Harriet, on the happy occasion.

Senator Samuel Richard Peale was born September 20, 1830 in Hughesville. He graduated from Dickinson College in 1850 and after studying law for a few years was admitted to the Northumberland County bar. In 1856 he moved to Lock Haven and the next year he married his Philadelphia sweetheart, the former Harriet Frances Alter.

Soon he was making a name for himself in legal circles and developing an expertise in real estate and business law. In 1876 he was elected to the state senate from the Clinton-Centre-Clearfield district, where he served one term, refusing nomination for a second term.

“As a senator I am conscious of having served my constituency with fidelity and having brought back my honor unstained,” wrote Peale in the Barrows letter.

His greatest accomplishment, he believed, was the development of the Beech Creek Railroad and the opening of the Clearfield bituminous coal fields.

“My principal achievement for the public good,” Peale wrote Barrows, “was the conception and execution... for building the Beech Creek Railroad, and the introduction of the NYC RRR (New York Central Railroad) into the soft coal region of Central Pennsylvania. Great results have followed, and now (railroad) cars marked NYCRR may be seen west of the Allegheny Mountains, bearing coal to the Eastern seaboard.

“Towns have sprung up,” he continued, “thousands of working men have found employment, and hundreds of thousands of idle acres have become sources of prosperity.”

The Beech Creek-New York Central Railroad is now a distant memory, of course. But thankfully, two of its last surviving symbols — the old Mill Hall and Castanea train stations — have been saved by a coalition of private citizens, industry and government.

In the early 1880s, thanks Peale’s efforts to bring the railroad to Clearfield County and its coal fields, industrious little villages began popping up along the rail lines. One of them was named “Peale” in honor of the former senator himself.

The editor of the Renovo Record decided to take a trip to the town of Peale in 1884, and his account of the journey down the rails makes for colorful reading even today.

“A few minutes past 8 o’clock (a.m.) the train arrived in Castanea with a number of passengers on board,” wrote the Record editor. “The train carries both passengers and freight. Several freight cars were loaded with heavy iron bridge materials for the road. As there are no depots established along the route, the business of receiving monies from passengers and for freight is made part of Conductor (Willis) Taylor’s duties...”

After several adventures, including a thrilling passage through narrow valleys with high, imposing mountains and a battle-to-the-death with what the editor described as a seven-foot, six-inch black snake, the train arrived in Peale, a town that then included 280 homes, an opera house, several hotels, and myriad stores and other businesses. The Record editor estimated the town’s population at 1,200.

According to “Pennsylvania Ghost Towns,” a 2007 book by Williamsport resident Susan Hutchinson Tassin, the town of Peale reached a population of 2,500 at it’s height, almost all of whom were employed by the Clearfield Bituminous Coal Company or the Beech Creek Railroad.

In 1912, however, the coal company ceased operations in Peale, and most of the residents moved on and found work elsewhere (Hutchinson Tassin reports that a few “hardy residents” stuck around through the 1940s).

By the the time coal dried up in Peale, the former senator himself had passed away. In the summer of 1910, the still-lively 79-year-old was out horseback riding on Sugar Run Road when his horse reared up and threw him, then fell on top of him.

Peale was found along the roadside by a passing bicyclist, who ran to a nearby farm for assistance. The senator was then rushed to Lock Haven Hospital in an early “touring” automobile.

His injuries — four fractured ribs and various crushed internal organs — were, the Express reported at the time, “too much for a man of his advanced years to overcome.” He died that evening, just before 7 p.m.

His wife, Harriet, continued to live at Hillside for nearly twenty years after Peale’s death, finally dying of old age in 1929, aged 95.

The house and grounds — meticulously maintained by a full-time gardener — remained a showplace for decades to come, as various local Peale family members (Samuel and Harriet had six children and at least 11 grandchildren) resided in the home after their parents’ deaths.

But eventually elegant Hillside — with its acres of ornamental lawns and brilliant foliage — passed out of family ownership. In 1961 it was purchased by the state, and a year later it was torn down by the then-Lock Haven State College to make way for the construction of the Woolridge Hall dormitory.

Today Hillside is long gone. The Beech Creek Railroad is gone. The town of Peale is gone. And for the most part, the legacy of Sen. Samuel Richard Peale’s memory has faded into oblivion.

But every once in a while, a Peale descendant reaches out Clinton County Historical Society Curator Lou Bernard to ask for information about the old senator and his family.

And every once in a while an anonymous ’net surfer will stumble upon the website a few surviving former residents of Peale, PA have put together to celebrate their old hometown.

And every once in a while a bleary-eyed researcher comes across the Peale name as part of some project involving the railroad or coal industries in Central Pennsylvania.

And in those few, brief moments, former Senator Samuel Richard Peale suddenly springs vividly to life.

The Express

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Lock Haven, PA 17745

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