Museum guests hear of 'gateway' Juniata River

February 11, 2005|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - About 30 members and guests of the Allison-Antrim Museum heard a Pennsylvania author tell of his historic boat ride down the Juniata River, a snake-like stream that runs for 100 miles through the middle of Pennsylvania.

Dennis P. McIlnay, 56, a professor in the business department at St. Francis University and an amateur historian, described his 15-day trip down the winding Juniata in a self-published book titled, "Juniata, River of Sorrows."

He gave a condensed version of the book in a slide presentation Thursday at the museum's February meeting at the Evangelical Lutheran Church on North Washington Street.


McIlnay said he spent four years researching background for his book, which he said is in its third printing. So far, he said, more than 3,000 copies have been sold.

It covers the history of the river from 1608 to 1750, a period of violent struggles as colonists began the westward movement through central Pennsylvania pushing out the American Indians as they went.

He said between 1,000 and 3,000 colonists were tortured and murdered in the Juniata River Valley during the expansion. The number of Indians killed during the period is unknown, he said.

"The Juniata was the gateway to the frontier in Pennsylvania," he said. "Before the colonists, there were the missionaries and the explorers."

The river begins just east of Huntingdon, Pa., and twists its way west through mountains, valleys, farms and towns to the Susquehanna River above Harrisburg, Pa. McIlnay describes its path as "two capital Ms joined together." The river's midpoint is Lewistown, Pa.

McIlnay's legwork took him to dozens of towns along the river, to township office buildings, borough halls, historical and genealogy societies and courthouse records. He took to the Internet to hook up with the Library of Congress, the Penn State Library, the state's archives and other resources.

It took him four years to complete the research and write the book.

"I read thousands of documents on the Juniata Valley," he said. "I read everything I could find."

His hands-on research began in the summer of 2001 when he launched his 14-foot, aluminum flat-bottom boat at the source of the river near Huntingdon, Pa., and headed east for the next 15 days. He chose a stable boat over a canoe, "because I can't swim," he said.

His devotion to the river began when he first saw it age 13 on the day his grandfather took him fishing. Ever since, the Juniata's watery gravity had been pulling him back until he decided it was time to do a book.

"The Juniata is a river that is enjoyed by some, ignored by many," he said. "I wrote it for the people of the valley."

Joan Applegate of Chambersburg, Pa., a Huntingdon native, came to McIlnay's presentation because she canoed the Juniata several times over the years.

"It's a beautiful river. This (presentation) has intense interest for me," she said.

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