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the dressings for a hundred or more additional Orvis 19th century fly patterns, including more than two dozen as yet unpublished 19th century Orvis patterns.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.