Doctor William Hooker Smith came to Wilkes-Barre in 1772. The surgeon who served in the Revolutionary War was said to possess a keen, scientific mind. He was among the very first to realize the great value of the vast mineral deposits throughout the valley. For that very reason, he began to purchase coal land in Pittston, Exeter, Providence and Wilkes-Barre. Many regarded Smith as a visionary, but very little attention was paid to his operations.
In 1789, he and James Sutton built a forge for the purpose of converting ore into iron. It stood miles above the mouth of the Lackawanna River and many referred to it as the "Old Forge," for which the borough would later be named. The Smith-Sutton's forge was the first of its kind in the valley.
Jesse G. Fell, an associate of Smith's, was quoted as saying, "From 1812 to 1815 my father rented and occupied the hotel, farm, and sawmill on the north side of the river. At the time the forge was in full operation. It was situated below the road bridge on the south bank of the river, so that the ore and coal were unloaded from the road into the forge. The water power for running the forge was taken from the river by a race dug through the rock just above the bridge. The forge was a cheap building, and the ore was picked up on top of the ground over the hills and valleys and hauled in carts by oxen. Charcoal was burned on the mountains for the forge. The business was owned by three of the most enterprising and prominent men of the day, Doctor William Hooker Smith, and his two sons-in-law, James Sutton and N. Hurlbut. The forge stopped operations in 1816 or 1817."
Doctor Smith was one of the original justices of Luzerne County; his commission was signed by Benjamin Franklin. Eventually, he relocated to Tunkhannock where he passed away in 1815 at the age of 91.
Another early settler was Dr. Joseph Sprague, who came from Hartford and plotted the land between Pittstown (Pittston) and Slocum Hollow. He and his family made their home on Main Street until he and his Yankee neighbors were driven away by the "Pennamites." Sprague returned to Connecticut in 1774 and died the same year. His wife, best known as "Granny Sprague" came back to Old Forge, where she made a good living as the only accoucheuse (mid-wife) between there and Wilkes-Barre.
In 1808, the Charles Drake family from New York came to the lower end of the borough. Upon their arrival they opened a general store, built a tannery and kept a place of entertainment for "horse and man." Drake purchased large tracts of coal land which he later sold off to various coal mining corporations.
Edmund B. Babb built an iron foundry in 1820 and made farm utensils. The Babb family was succeeded by William Howard, who, in turn, was followed by brothers George M. and Steven H. Miller.
By 1870, Old Forge had four schools, employing one teacher each and 180 students in attendance. During this period of time, Old Forge was unsurpassed in its geographical beauty. Semi-colonial mansions owned by the Drakes, Stewarts, and Smiths lined the thoroughfare. The highway was flanked on each side by fragrant locust and maple trees. The farms were well maintained, pastures were filled with cattle and fields with corn, wheat and rye. Churches, Sunday school and aid societies satisfied the residents' spiritual needs and they found entertainment in skating, sleighing, and the annual barn dance.
After the Civil War, the first coal operation was erected. The Chittenden Breaker was located along the D.L. & W. Railroad not far from Moosic Road. Within a decades time, two shafts were sunk, company houses and a large company store was built. Other mines were opened by the Jermyn Coal Company, as well as the Pennsylvania Coal Company. Three silk mills gave employment to hundreds of girls for many years, but coal mining would remain Old Forge's chief industry well into the 20th century.
By the end of the 19th century, the population had doubled in size. Company houses were now being purchased by their occupants, farms were plotted into lots, sold and occupied, sidewalks were laid and Main Street was pre-empted by electric cars running to Scranton and Wilkes-Barre.
Old Forge became a township in 1871 and a borough in 1899. The first election was held on May 13, 1899 and Andrew Kennedy won the title of Old Forge's first Burgess. The borough's estimated population in 1928 was 389, making it the second most populous borough in the county. As of the 2010 census, the population of Old Forge is 8,313.
Pieces of History focuses on the history of West Scranton, Old Forge, Taylor and Moosic. Find it monthly in Go Lackawanna.