It Could Never Happen Here
Updated: Mar 20
An essay on environmental and historical desecration in Pennsylvania- by Brian Keeler-
Note- This essay was composed as a letter to the editor of the Rocket Courier. It's title, "It Could Never Happen Here" is a reference to the political novel by Sinclair Lewis of 1935. The semi-satirical political novel was titled "It Can't Happen Here" and was a warning about fascism taking route in America.
French Azilum, the historic site in northeastern Pennsylvania and the beautiful valley that is a source of pride for many in Bradford County could very will be next to fall under the exploitative designs of a fracking-related industry, as in Wyalusing, PA with the LNG plant of New Fortress Energy. The bulldozing of history, safety and beauty into oblivion that is occurring there could easily happen elsewhere. "This could never happen here" at French Azilum, is probably the response that some would say, but others would just sigh a collective ho hum, as it is just a continuation of “progress” in their minds and part of other industries finding homes along the river.
I however think that the panoramic and picturesque valley seen from the Marie Antoinette Overlook is another open target, judging by the established practices of the fracking industry in the region. This opinion is also based on what they brag about on their web sites. They tout the fact that the gas industry expansion is supposedly “unstoppable” rather than what is appropriate, needed or even respectful or considerate. We have seen again and again that the gas industry is voracious and seemingly knows no bounds, as even state forests, state game lands and state parks and scenic rivers are not protected. In short, it is greed run amok for short-sighted gains. New Fortress had no qualms about bulldozing the historic Schulze house in Browtown and they’d have no reservations about doing the same to the LaPorte House (the museum) at French Azilum.
Aside from the desecration itself that is occurring at Browntown, what is also disconcerting is how this huge project has slipped through the very state, local and federal agencies that should be there to protect us. State elected officials, historical organizations and even some environmental organizations have been mum for the most part.
The recent criticism directed to those like myself wishing to stop the exploitative invasions into this beautiful river valley has pointed out what they regard as hypocritical attitudes, such as mentioned in a recent letter to the editor in the Rocket-Courier by Bob Fuhrman. He’s not the only one, as there is a common trope from those of similar opinions. They often say that use of natural gas or propane or for petrochemical based products like kayaks used by environmentalists may represent a double standard of sorts. Well yes, there certainly is some relevance to that. However, rather than undermining our cause it actually underscores the desire of those wishing to curtail the deleterious effects of oil and gas. The pervasiveness of plastics in our world is something that is obvious- and the destructiveness in our oceans with entire regions being choked with vast flotillas of plastic refuse is one result. The damage to wildlife is another, with plastics clogging the entrails of whales, turtles and birds is part of the legacy of the petrochemical industry including the fracking industry. So the point that Fuhrman and others seem to miss in their snide sarcasm is that some are abetting and enabling this environmental debacle and others are going in the other direction. Increasing the tentacles and infrastructure of the fracking industry is wrong for a long list of reasons. If it would make critics like Fuhrman happy I would get out my wood frame and canvas-covered kayak made by Wyalusing’s barber, Bill Bendinsky in the 1960’s. I doubt if this would satisfy Fuhrman’s penchant to look for something to criticize while missing the larger picture. In a word, these comments of seeming contradictions are rather cheap shots that lack real understanding.
In Fuhrman’s further efforts to minimize the historical importance of Friedenshutten he notes the brief span of less than ten years the settlement existed. If this is the measurement of relevance of our history we could argue that the Battle of Gettysburg or Antietam, which only lasted a few days or even Pear Harbor lasting only a few hours should not be hallowed sites of respect as part of our national heritage.
Some like Fuhrman may recall the songs of the sixties and seventies to bolster their bias, I however recall that iconic TV ad from the same era known now as the crying Indian. This ad features a Native American canoeing through a litter-strewn river. It was a powerful image that highlighted the disastrous abuses to nature. The relevance and poignancy of that ad still holds true today but it is odd that being concerned with ecology and nature is now disparaged in some quarters. We need look no further than the current occupant of the Whitehouse belittling Greta Thunberg for winning Time Magazine’s Person of the Year award. There is even efforts to undermine Greta’s worthwhile work by claiming that her inspiring mission is invalidated because Time Magazine uses paper and destroys trees. Such is the scabrous and petty nature of right wing extremists.
In regards to the history being lost and desecrated in Wyalusing, Fuhrman’s comments are equally dismissive, derogatory and inaccurate about Friedenshutten. If this historic site is not known to many it is not because of its lack of importance but only because of it slipping through the priorities. According to Fuhrman the entire settlement can be dismissed because of the brevity of its existence being under ten years. Fuhrman has done some research but only enough to garble the facts and more importantly to denigrate and belittle the lessons and value of history to a community. Playing the irony game, as he does can be a two way street, as Fuhrman likes to point an accusatory finger- by seeming to support public safety and clean water. This is seriously debunked by his support of a president with the most horrendous environmental record in history. Protections and regulations to ensure the survival of fragile and beautiful lands have fallen almost on a daily basis under the current administration. So there is more than a touch of irony and disingenuousness in his claims.
We are not opportunistic interlopers as he would assert or those just trying to highlight this historic site to fit our interest in safety or beauty. There has been interest in the site going back decades, including some of recent years by the Wyalusing Community Corporation. The WCC has featured several speakers addressing this history. The WCC also initiated the historic plaque at the site. For myself, I was commissioned by the late David Dibble, a local history enthusiast to illustrate the settlement. That project goes back to 1982 and was done in conjunction with the Wyalusing Valley Museum.
There is also the common mention of the economic value of the gas industry but this justification misses the destructiveness both in process and results. Worse yet, now natural gas is not being used for energy independence of America, the purpose is to ship LNG overseas, which is the entire reason for LNG. Even worse still is that natural gas is now being used for the production of plastics in ethane “cracker” plants. Another attempt to further entrench us in even more infrastructure of a “dirty energy” source. We’ve overcome other economies in the nation’s history, which were based on morally reprehensible infrastructures, such as slavery and cotton, child labor in sweatshops, or the tobacco industry. All of these industries were justified on the economic benefits. Pope Francis has even weighed in as a scientist and as spiritual leader to claim fracking as a moral crime and environmental sin.
The Rocket-Courier had a related article about a local archeological enthusiast, Roland Smith whose hobby has been to study the land, history and artifacts of Friedenshutten. It was encouraging to read of his interest in local lore of Native Americans and the inhabitants of the Moravian Mission at Freidenshutten. It was also encouraging to read that he did not want a dispute with activist over the location of the settlement, which is good, as it seems we really have common cause. However, what was dismaying was that he was not more concerned with protecting the source for historical artifacts. Some of those fields that he has scoured for arrowheads and artifacts are now irrevocably lost and under twenty feet or so of bulldozed earth and pavement. There will be no chance now for further research, discoveries or learning.
During the symposium I organized in November in Wyalusing Dr. Katherine Faull, a Bucknell University professor and historian presented several talks at the historic site and at the WCC Building. She has spent a good part of her entire academic career studying and publishing essays on the Friedenshutten. At the conference, Dr. Faull presented maps of the 1760’s with overlays of the current industry expansion, which showed that the site of the former Friedenshutten cemetery is now obliterated. Her research here and in Germany has revealed the diary entries and records of those early Wyalusing residents and what fascinating accounts they represent. Regardless of the exact location of this former settlement, the point is that the LNG is still a monstrous intrusion and desecration of our history.
Dr. Faull also lets us know that the site is world famous in some ways, contrary to what Fuhrman claims, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet composed a poem about the Susquehanna at this location, even though he’d never been here. This area was dubbed the “Jewel of the Susquehanna” and as Dr. Faull asserts, our history has been sold and the jewel has been cut through and buried.
Here is a quote from Dr. Faull that underscores the importance of our history. “History matters. An important part of what makes us human is our ability to learn from the stories of the past, to read and listen to the memories of others, to think about the lives that they led, perhaps to better understand our own. And when those people are no longer here to tell us these stories themselves, our communities need to curate and incorporate them into an understanding of where we are from. If we erase those places and their narratives, we are in danger of not only flattening the land around us but also diminishing our understanding of ourselves.”
The safety aspect is another huge alarm bell that should be alerting everyone’s concern. This LNG facility could easily be the next Knox mining disaster that occurred near Pittston, PA in 1959. The shipping of LNG in antiquated rail tankers has been described by some as virtual “train bombs” with as many as one hundred tankers. What could go wrong? There was a devastating rail accident in Quebec in 2013 when a train carrying crude oil destroyed a good portion of the town of Lac-Megantic. LNG is reportedly even more explosive and dangerous than crude oil.
In closing I will mention another Pennsylvania town that could serve as a rude awakening to those who wish to promote the petrochemical industry in the Susquehanna Valley. I am referring to Warren, PA, which I visited for the first time earlier this year. One comes into Warren after traveling through Adirondack-like wilderness along US Route 6. Then, one enters Warren, which is completely dominated by a vast oil refinery along the Allegheny River. There are many parallels between Wyalusing and Warren and differences too. The relevance here is as a cautionary tale- would any town really seek to emulate Warren, PA as a desirable vision for their own community?