Lycoming Creek Stream Bank Stabilization Project

The week of July 16th was planned by the Lycoming Creek Watershed Association as a work project to stabilize a section of eroding bank on Lycoming Creek in Pennsylvania, near the village of Bodines. Originally the project was to take place last September but a couple of uninvited visitors named Irene and Lee showed up on rather short notice. They were really bad visitors; besides not being invited, they chased away the invited guests, ate all the food, stayed too long, and left a mess when they departed.

So the project was rescheduled to start on July 16th when the water level would hopefully be low enough to permit completion of the work. In addition to the Lycoming Creek Watershed Association, the project also involved the Habitat Improvement Department of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, who engineered the project design, biology students from Lycoming College in Williamsport, and a local contractor, Darren Smith Excavating, of Trout Run. Isn’t that a great name for a little town? It is named for the stream that flows through the village.

My friend, neighbor, and sometime fishing partner Jim and I “volunteered” to help with the project. Volunteers were requested to bring gloves, work boots, waders, hammers, sledge hammers, rakes, shovels, etc. Fun stuff. I picked him up at 7:30 AM on July 16th. We were to report on site at 8:00 AM. The project location is on property owned by Sheshequin Campground. We arrived, parked the car, talked to Mike, the project coordinator, and met the contractor, who as it turned out, I already knew. Darren had installed my new septic system at my home in 2003; a replacement of a failed gravity system dating to 1979 when my wife and I built this place.

We eventually ended up on the creek bank under the bridge, watching the water. There were rising trout all over that pool, and no one was fishing. I have to say it was mighty tempting because I had all my gear in the car. We didn’t do too much except talk for well over an hour until the heavy equipment had a chance to start, and move ahead a bit to allow for the follow up grunt work.

The plan was to install 18 three-log vanes, upstream single-bank stabilization devices on the leeward side of the bank. Darren Smith’s equipment on site consisted of a Bobcat, backhoe, a large power shovel, and a dump truck. He had already placed a couple loads of large rip-rap rock and logs on site. As the shovel and backhoe began excavating along the bank for placement of the first couple log vanes, we continued watching those rising trout. They seemed to be cruising…couldn’t tell what they were taking.

Finally three logs were placed and we got our marching orders. The Fish Commission habitat guys had a large pickup truck filled with tools and equipment; re-bar, power drills and hammers, sledges, shovels, chainsaws, etc. They were a couple young fellows who, due to the physical nature of their work, and their stature; let’s just say I would want them on my side in a fight. One end of the logs would be buried in the bank, the other rested on the stream bed, pointing upstream at about a 60 to 70-degree angle, and they were placed at a slight angle above horizontal, higher on the bank side. This design effectively slows the force of the water which causes lighter sediments, gravel, and smaller rocks to settle out of the current against the bank and above the device. Primarily the devices are intended to divert the main thrust of the current away from the bank, reducing erosion. Each of the two lower logs was drilled and pinned in place by five four-foot long re-bars. Then the top log was pinned to the lower logs by six two-foot re-bars. Once this was done, then the equipment would come in, place rip-rap, and then rock fill and soil is used to top dress each device. A couple times Darren backed his dump truck to the bank and placed an entire load, which was actually half a load due to the weight limit on the bridge over the creek. Then the backhoe would come in and arrange the rock.

The volunteers from Lycoming College consisted of a co-ed group; four people, one man and three women, both days, different crews. I will say they got right into it, which made it easier for us “old guys.” Once the holes were drilled, the team worked starting the re-bar into the logs with small hammers. Then the hammer drill was brought into play. One of the girls, who happened to be a Trout Run native, was helping the habitat employee hoist and operate this beast. This thing must have weighed about 60 pounds. The two of them elevated it to the top of each re-bar, three feet above the top of the log, centering the roughly one-inch opening of the “hammer” over the 5/8″ diameter re-bar, which wasn’t exactly easy. Keith did most of the lifting and Laura centered the hammer over the re-bar. A good team effort. Each re-bar would be driven down leaving about 5 inches protruding, which was then bent over with a long pipe lever and then pounded down with a sledge to hold the logs in place. To give you an idea of the effectiveness of power tools, the hammer drill could pound down a re-bar in about five seconds, compared to a few we did by hand with an eight-pound sledge, twenty-five to thirty whacks taking a couple minutes. Not to mention the beneficial effect of the integral cardiovascular exercise. Keith mentioned that up until three years ago, all the re-bar on their projects was driven by hand. He remarked, “That really separated the men from the boys.” I can vouch for that.

Top view of one of the first log vanes of the project. In the pool below this riffle, fish were rising until the heavy equipment put them down when the power shovel pulled out a mature oak tree in the middle of the pool along the bank. The butt end of that oak tree was cut to size and used for a bank-anchored root ball device.

Darren Smith’s power shovel excavating the bank for the installation of the butt end of the logs.

Keith, from the Habitat Dept. of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PAF&BC) prepare to life “the beast” – hammer drill into position with, Laura, one of the co-ed assistants.

Close up – Keith and Laura driving down the re-bar closest to the bank side. “Supervisor” Mike rests on his sledge hammer handle as the students pound over the re-bar.

Who was the ancient philosopher-guy who said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth?” Was that Archimedes? No matter. One of the students demonstrates the principle of the lever. The length of the pipe allows this woman of small stature to gain leverage and bend over the re-bar stubs. Impressive! I can tell you because I did a few of these myself. You had to put some “umph” into it to git ‘r’ done.

Placing a top log…nothing is drilled or pinned yet.

Watching this equipment do the work, I couldn’t help but think of the history of this valley. Near the village of Ralston there was a 2300 foot incline that was used to haul coal from the mountains.

From Wikipedia:

“The Elmira and Williamsport Railroad (originally called the Williamsport and Elmira Railroad) is a historic railroad that operated in Pennsylvania.

The W&E was organized in 1832 and ran between Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Elmira, New York. It was reorganized as the E&W in 1860, and operated its own property until 1863.

The railroad originally ran north from Williamsport along Lycoming Creek as far as the village of Ralston, and was only extended beyond it to Elmira in 1854.

In 1863 the line was leased by the Northern Central Railway, and in 1910 the line was leased by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The line continued to operate until 1972, when it was destroyed by flooding from Hurricane Agnes.”

This was along time ago. Thad S. Up De Graff in his book, Bodines, 1879, describes a place below Ralston along the creek as “the stone wall.” This was reportedly 800 feet long. The point I’m trying to make is that all this work, the mining, logging, iron ore smelting in the Lycoming Creek valley villages above Trout Run that disappeared well before 1900 was all done by teams of men working by hand along with mules and oxen. That was back when men were really men.

Thad Up De Graff and his companions rode the railway from Elmira to Ralston for their annual fishing trips.

Another top log being lowered into position. Black fabric is visible hanging above the log in the center of the image. These device-length sections of covering are four feet wide, and are placed on the upstream side. Triple-folded top edges are nailed into place on the bottom log, and then spread out full width, and covered with stones and rip rap. The bank end of the covering is buried by the fill. Eventually the current will deposit additional fill material in the area immediately upstream of the device during periods of higher water flows. Mike and one of the PAF&BC employees look on.

“The kids” working on a device. They were a great help. Energetic.

Lycoming College Students starting the re-bar. They are enrolled in classes with Mel Zimmerman, PhD., biology instructor at the college. Mr. Zimmerman and his students do many stream-monitoring projects in this area, with a focus on aquatic entomology. During the work, it was encouraging to see these students pick up rocks and say something like, “Oh look, caddis larva.” And nobody’s cell phone or pager went off during the project.

Group effort – Keith from the PAF&BC and a student run the hammer drill (that thing was loud – note their ear plugs), while a couple of the girls share a laugh, demonstrating that this was actually fun! Partially hidden at top of image are Russ Cowles, President of the Lycoming Creek Watershed Association, conferring with an unidentified Association member taking photos.

Upstream view of the project area. The flow during the project was about 25 cfs. We ended up installing 16 three-log vanes and two root-ball devices. A root ball device is where a tree butt with root ball attached is buried and anchored within the bank, taking advantage of debris in the stream bed. One large, mature oak tree had fallen over last fall and was lying in the pool that starts just at the foreground of this photo. The butt of this was used for the first root ball. Its trunk diameter was almost three feet. The uphill slope of each log vane can be seen in this photo. My friend Jim, is in the background, half-way up the stretch of water, with the white t-shirt, preparing for the installation of the sediment covering.

This project was estimated to take four or five days. We completed it in two, except for the remaining rip-rap and fill work that needed to be performed by the heavy equipment. I imagine Darren and his employee remained later that day and into the evening to finish the work.

While working on this project, Mike mentioned that the village of Ralston, a few miles upstream, had just celebrated their 125th Anniversary. His remark made me think of the Ralston area and its native daughter, Elizabeth S. Benjamin, commercial fly tier from Ralston, born in 1829, who according to additional research I discovered started selling trout flies at age the age of 16. That was in 1845. Some of Elizabeth’s flies are displayed in the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont. She was quite possibly the first woman commercial fly tier in the country, since Sara McBride, who currently has that distinction as currently listed in several sources, born in 1844, would have accordingly still been in diapers when Elizabeth sold her first flies. Sara became more famous as an author and was also mentioned frequently in Mary Orvis Marbury’s book, Favorite Flies and their Histories, 1892.

And also, looking at the beauty of several beautiful surrounding mountains, with the Pleasant Stream valley to the east, my mind wandered to the thoughts of Thad S. Up De Graff and his book; Bodines; Or Camping on the Lycoming, written in 1879. What was it like back then? He wrote an account of a day spent where he and a companion walked ten miles up Pleasant Stream, their intent being to fish downstream part way, secure overnight lodging at a family log cabin and fish to the mouth the next day. At that time, Lycoming Creek was a brook trout stream. His book speaks of brook trout that averaged a pound, pound-and-a-half, with occasional larger ones being caught. His book is excellent reading, recounting ten years after the Civil War, of month-long annual trips in June spent camping and fishing on the banks of Lycoming Creek. Sometimes the good old days exert a significant pull and influence on our thoughts.

Elizabeth Stairing Benjamin – Lycoming Creek 19th Century Fly Tier

Lycoming Creek is my home stream. Even as a young man before I was old enough to drive, I was honing my fly fishing skills on chubs, smallmouth bass, and rock bass in its waters within the Williamsport, Pennsylvania, city limits. On rare occasions we would catch a trout, but this was the lower end of the creek, not two miles from the Susquehanna River. The creek was right over the concrete dike wall from where I lived during the years 1965 to 1971. Much water has passed under the bridge since those years.

A couple months ago I remember someone I had a conversation with speaking about a woman in the upper Lycoming Creek area of Pennsylvania, in the village of Ralston, to be specific, who tied flies in the mid-1800’s. This person did not know her name, and I was completely unaware of this woman. That changed on Wednesday, June 13th, upon my visit to the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont. While returning home after a visit to the Wantastiquet Lake Trout Club near Weston, Vermont, I stopped at the museum to photograph the original fly plates from Mary Orvis Marbury’s 1892 book, Favorite Flies and Their Histories, for the purpose of my current book project, The Favorite Flies of Mary Orvis Marbury. That part of my visit was successful, as well as being a great privilege to hold, view, and study these antique flies. My book will include replicated fly patterns, along with the recipes for all 291 flies in Marbury’s book, plus the dressings for a hundred or more additional Orvis 19th century fly patterns, including more than two dozen as yet unpublished 19th century Orvis patterns.

While at the museum I came across a small feature in the present exhibit titled, A Graceful Rise, a tribute to women in fly tying and fly fishing. Near the 1893 Orvis display I was studying, I discovered a small display with the name of Elizabeth Benjamin, with a few of her flies included as well. The location listed with Elizabeth’s name: Lycoming Creek, PA. This instantly piqued my interest, and sparked a memory recall from a conversation with someone about a woman fly tier from Ralston. Ralston is only about fifteen miles from my home, and it is the first “big town” above the village of Trout Run as you travel upstream, or north, along Lycoming Creek on PA Rt. 14. A brief internet search turned up a Federation of Flyfishers 2011 photograph of a fly plate that contained more flies tied by Elizabeth and some additional information about this unknown 19th century commercial fly tier.

I love this fly tying and fishing history stuff, and I thought on the heels of my recent post on Lycoming Creek that I would share the photos I took at the museum, and the information I wrote from the display notes, as well as the photo of the FFF fly plate. Here they are:

Elizabeth Staring Benjamin was born in 1829 and according to the FFF fly plate, she died in 1903. However a friend in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, has been researching her genealogy and has determined she passed away in 1907. Here are the notes from the museum display card:

“Little is known about the mid-nineteenth century woman who created some of the most popular fishing flies ever seen in Ralston, Pennsylvania. Angling historian and researcher Austin S. Hogan of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was the first curator of the American Museum of Fly Fishing 1970 – 1978, found a letter written by her son Joseph in the 1930’s. Benjamin describes how his mother watched a successful Ralston angler and conducted her own informal studies to create a fly for the local waters:”

“My mother got so interested in Mr. Conley’s success she waded out into the creek unnoticed by Conley, and observed that the largest trout would always jump for certain kinds of flys…believing she could imitate the kinds of flys the trout were taking, she mentioned it to my father and they worked nights making nets and would wade out in the creek and catch the flys…”

“In order to make the imitation flys resemble the genuine ones, it was my job to procure certain kinds of feathers obtained from roosters, chickens, ducks, pigeons, and bird nests, the feathers were shaped by my mother; fastened by hand to fishhooks with different colored silk thread;…when they learned of the success of others who had purchased my mother’s hand made flys, they paid her fabulous prices for all she could make.”

An edit, June 15th, added after additional research:

Fly tier Sara McBride, daughter of John McBride, both of Monroe County, New York, has been credited as being the first female commercial fly tier in the United States. However, since Sara McBride was born circa 1844, this makes her fifteen years younger than Elizabeth S. Benjamin. Considering the documentation that Elizabeth Benjamin was tying and selling flies as early as 1853 when Sara was only nine years old, it is almost a certainty that Elizabeth Benjamin was “in business” prior to Sara McBride. Sara’s accomplishments, however, have given her a higher profile than Elizabeth. Sara created the famous brook trout fly, the Tomah Jo, first recorded in Fishing With the Fly, authored by Charles F. Orvis and A. Nelson Cheney in 1883. Mary Orvis Marbury’s Favorite Flies and Their Histories, 1892, presented more historical information on the Tomah Jo. According to Ed Van Put and his book, Trout Fishing in the Catskills, Sara was the one of the first women to write about fly fishing entomology. Quoting from Mr. Van Put’s book: “In the spring of 1876, she wrote a series of articles in Forest and Stream titled, ‘Metaphysics of Fly Fishing.’ The following spring she published another article, ‘Entomology for Fly Fishers’ in the Rod and Gun and American Sportsman.” Sara also operated a fly fishing shop in New York City, which she opened in 1878. But a year later, Sara returned to Mumford, New York.

The information from the letter by Joseph Benjamin would seem to indicate that Elizabeth began tying flies while she was young, still living at home as evidenced by her working with her father and her brother; a family affair in fly tying. It is plausible from this information to assume that Elizabeth did the actual fly tying, while her father helped capture insects and her brother procured feathers. Elizabeth’s flies dated on the museum display were tied when Sara McBride was only nine years of age.

Flies tied by Elizabeth Benjamin in 1853. From a display at the American Museum of Fly Fishing, Manchester, Vermont.

Brad Gates, a friend, fly fishing historian, and researcher for the Pennsylvania Fly Fishing Museum, and I were discussing Elizabeth Benjamin last Saturday at the 10th Annual Heritage Day Event for the PFFM. He remarked that the leader snells on Elizabeth’s flies seemed quite heavy. I replied to him that in the mid-1800’s, the Lycoming Creek brook trout were probably not leader shy.

Elizabeth Benjamin fly, 1853, bearing a strong resemblance to the Queen of the Waters. Perhaps that is what this pattern is.

A small dark pattern, tied in 1853 by Ralston, Pennsylvania, fly tier, Elizabeth Benjamin. From exhibit at the American Museum of Fly Fishing, Manchester, Vermont. The body appears to be a claret color. A few stray hackle barbs remain.

This fly appears to be a Coachman. My apologies for the poor quality image, but I felt it is important to show the pattern. Peacock herl body and a white wing; perhaps the hackle was eaten by bugs, or was entirely lacking in the first place. This and the other flies shown here are almost 160 years old; tied nearly forty years prior to the 1892 publication date of Mary Orvis Marbury’s book. Note the trimmed ends on the wing feathers.

Elizabeth Staring Benjamin Fly Plate, flies tied between 1858 – 1860. Photograph from Federation of Flyfishers flickr website.

Handwritten notebook caption: “My mother Elizabeth Benjamin made these flys by hand in Ralston, Pennsylvania, in the year of 1860.” — J Benjamin – 1919

Snelled wet flies made by Elizabeth Benjamin, courtesy of FFF fly plate.

When I get the chance I want to read through my copy of Bodines, Or Camping on the Lycoming, 1879, by Thad S. Up De Graff, of Elmira, New York, to see if Elizabeth was mentioned at all in the text by Elmira, New York resident and author, Thaddeus Updegraff. This is fascinating stuff!

I did check the text of Bodines, there is no mention of Elizabeth Benjamin in its pages.

Elizabeth Benjamin wet fly, tied in 1853. Photo from website of American Museum of Fly Fishing. (My image of this fly was too blurry to publish). Born in 1829, Elizabeth was fifteen years older than Sara McBride, originator of the Tomah Jo, who is credited with being the first female commercial fly tier in the United States. While not famous like Sara McBride, it is almost a certainty that seniority in years gives the distinction of the first commercial female fly tier to Ralston, Pennsylvania resident, Elizabeth S. Benjamin. This fly was tied by Elizabeth Benjamin at age 24, when Sara McBride was only 9 years old.

On June 20th, I located additional references to Elizabeth Benjamin from these two sources:

According to an article by North American Travel Journalists Association writer Judy Florman, written in September 2002, Lyla Foggia wrote in WomensFishingOnline.com (which web address did not presently exist), “In 1858, just prior to the Civil War, Elizabeth Benjamin, of Ralston, Pennsylvania, became a legend in the area by ingeniously creating a series of wildly successful fly patterns that caught the fancy of wealthy city anglers…”

In the 2000 book, Fly Fishing for Sharks – An Angler’s Journey Across America, written by Richard Louv, this passage is written: “Pennsylvania’s Elizabeth Benjamin was famous for her inventive and realistic flies, made from feathers from roosters, chickens, duck, pigeons, and bird nests.”

In conversations with Pennsylvania Fly Fishing Museum Association (PFFMA) members and Directors, Elizabeth Benjamin is unknown in her home state fly fishing museum. I am encouraging the PFFMA to embrace the heritage of its native daughter, and earliest-known woman commercial fly tier in the United States, Elizabeth S. Benjamin. I hope others will do the same. Anyone having information of any type on Elizabeth S. Benjamin is encouraged to please contact me.