Lycoming County was still in its infancy when the county commissioners knew that the newly formed county would need buildings to do business, execute justice and keep the peace.
According to the “History of Lycoming County” that was edited by John Meginness, “beginning with October, 1799, it appears ‘that steps were taken early that year to build a jail in Williamsport.” It was explained that “Before the jail was completed steps had been taken to build a courthouse. This was a necessity.”
Before that court was held at the Russell Inn, an old hotel and tavern. In the Meginness book, it said, “at the Russell Inn, which stood on the corner of what is now East Third and Mulberry streets.” The structure was described as a “a double log house, and accommodations for the court were probably secured in one end of the building. Several terms of court were held here.”
According to records kept by the commissioners, one entry cited, on Sept. 7, 1797, that “commissioners issued an order (payment) in favor of James Russell for … his bill for the court sitting in his house.”
Almost five months later, another entry stated that “an order on the treasurer in favor of James Russell…for the court sitting in his house, December term, 1797, and January term, 1798 and for wood and candles, etc.”
Early judicial hearings
In contrast to the stuffy atmosphere of a courtroom in the present era, a number of “amusing incidents” passed before the judge during the county’s early judicial system, according to Meginness.
“On one occasion a witness became impertinent and made a remark which reflected on the integrity of Judge (William) Hepburn, the presiding officer,” the article stated. It added, “This was too much. The court immediately forgot its dignity.”
Hepburn then got up from his seat “to physically punish the offending witness.”
Another incident that was shared in the book was about how “ Someone attending the court brought several hounds one day, coupled together with a light chain.”
The owner, Mrs. Winter, had prepared dinner and used a “costly set of china dishes, which had been a wedding gift from her mother, and considerable style was being observed for those primitive days.”
However, when dinner was announced, the hounds got loose and “scenting the (food), rushed in and dashing under the table over- turned it and broke every piece of china but two plates, and caused general consternation!”
It can be speculated that the need for a building to conduct law became a necessity.
A deed for the new building
In another historical tome entitled “The History of Lycoming County Illustrated” which was published by D.J. Stewart of Philadelphia in 1876, records showed that in “1798 James Crawford, William Wilson and Henry Donnell (the county commissioners), received a deed from Michael and Anna Ross for the lots upon which are…located the courthouse and jail.” It also stated that “the grounds were donated for that purpose.”
Michael Ross is considered the father of Williamsport, according to the Thomas Taber Museum’s website.
The town commissioners began to prepare the way for the courthouse as on “Dec. 5, 1800, the commissioners agreed to pay Matthew Adams and John Turk each $5 to procure a “plan of Harrisburg courthouse and a draught(draft).”
Soon the “the Harrisburg building was adopted” and the “first payment for material was for $16 to Thomas Harris, February 6, 1801, ‘on account of lime for court house and offices.’ And on the 7th of the same month William Hepburn was paid $134 ‘ on account of brick for the public buildings.”
The 1876 book recorded that “bricks were made in the immediate vicinity” at a brickyard where “bricks for the courthouse and, as well as for other early structures” in Williamsport.
Other payments listed in the Meginness book showed:
“April 30, 1801, Gabriel Morrison, boating stone for courthouse and offices, $117.50.
May 14, John Turk, on contract for the court house, $50.
June 1, Ezekiel Slack and Levi Eder, digging the foundation and cellar, $45.
November 13, William Hepburn, on account of brick for court house and offices, $267.
October 80, Joseph Dumm, in full for 10,500 bricks for courthouse and offices, $56.”
By 1802, the building was finished and there was a celebration. Meginness recorded, “Jacob Grafius, for nine gallons of whiskey at raising the courthouse and offices, $6!”
“The ‘raising’ of the temple of justice was evidently a great event in Williamsport, and the occasion was duly celebrated by a feast,” the Meginness book said.
The jailer Robert McElrath was paid $20 for the meat and cooking it at the party.
A bell of the right size
However, the building was missing one thing.
“After the court house was erected the most important matter seems to have been the purchase of a bell and image to adorn the cupola and steeple,” Meginness’s book said.
A bell was purchased and it was not well received. It was explained that the “first bell was entirely too small and failed to give satisfaction. It was returned.” However, a second bell was purchased. It was made by George Hedderly in Philadelphia in 1804. It was 2 feet 4 inches across the open end and two feet high and weighed between 500 and 600 pounds.
Commissioner and former Revolutionary War hero, John Burrows, hauled the bell from Philadelphia in a wagon.
That bell had been “in constant use since 1804.” It was stated that it “was rung so vigorously in 1815, on the reception of the news of peace at the close of the war of 1812, that it was heard a distance of eleven miles.”
A connection to the future
In the decades to follow, due to the structural issues, as was said in Meginness’s book, the first building was replaced with a second, which was again eventually replaced with the current building on the corner of West Third and Pine streets.
Connections of this “temple of justice” can be felt today. Greg Thomas, a member of the Blooming Grove Historical Society, told On the PULSE that his “great-great-great-great-grandfather” helped build the original.
“His name was John Thomas, or as he is called ‘Iron John,’ ” Thomas said. ‘He was from Jersey Shore.”
In Meginness’s book, it details that on “September 34, 1802, John Thomas, on account of iron work for (the) court house and offices, $167.67.”
When asked about it, Thomas said he was proud of his family and heritage.
“Oh it’s wonderful! To know that my family roots run so deep in this community is a great feeling,” Thomas said.