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Winters makes historic mark

May 24, 2005|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

The name of Joseph R. Winters is not well-known, but anyone who ever has been rescued by a hook-and-ladder truck from a burning building owes a debt of gratitude to the 19th-century black inventor.

A Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker honoring the Chambersburg man was unveiled Monday afternoon in front of the Chambersburg Fire Department Headquarters at 130 N. Second St.

An old newspaper photograph at the firehouse shows Winters demonstrating the device on North Main Street at the former Montgomery House, a four-story hotel. The scissors-like contraption mounted on a horse-drawn wagon was able to convey firefighters and hoses to upper floors and was similar in operation, if different in purpose, to JLG manlifts now manufactured in McConnellsburg, Pa., Assistant Chief William Dubbs told a group of schoolchildren.

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Winters was born in Leesburg, Va., sometime about 1812, and is a bit a historical cypher, according to James Wolfson of Great Valley Historical Scholars, a group interested in the history of the region from Virginia to Pennsylvania. Winters died in 1916, probably around the age of 104, although that is uncertain, Wolfson said.

What is certain is that he was issued a United States patent for his hook-and-ladder device on May 7, 1878.

"The value of this invention cannot be underestimated, given the damage and the number of deaths caused by fires in the 19th century," Wolfson said.

Winters was granted five patents in the United States and Great Britain for the original invention and subsequent improvements, Wolfson told a group of students from after-school programs at U.L. Gordy and Thaddeus Stevens elementary schools and Chambersburg Area Middle School.

The program for the unveiling described Winters as an inventor, entrepreneur and poet, but Wolfson said he might have been best known in the Chambersburg area for his unsuccessful oil prospecting. Wolfson said a number of local businessmen were involved in the venture, but the wells hit only water.

During his long life, Winters perhaps was involved in a number of other historic events in the area, claiming to be a friend of abolitionist John Brown and helping to arrange a meeting between Brown and Frederick Douglass in Chambersburg before the 1858 Harpers Ferry, W.Va., raid.

In his autobiography, Douglass credited local barber and Underground Railroad conductor Henry Watson with setting up the meeting.

Even the inventor's name is in some dispute. While his tombstone in Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Chambersburg reads "Winters," Wolfson told the students that the name on a replica cover of his autobiography spells his name "Winter."

Wolfson said this is the fifth historical marker approved by the commission in the past five years in Chambersburg. In addition to the marker, there is a display of Winters memorabilia in the headquarters station, he said.

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