History of Salt Springs State Park
During the 1790s, when the first American settlers arrived at what would become Salt Springs State Park, the area was an unbroken forest of old growth trees, dominated by eastern hemlock. The immediate concern was to clear the land. For decades the trees were cut, piled up, and burned. The better logs were used to build the first homes.
Sawmills were soon built along Silver Creek and other nearby streams, and local tanneries began consuming hemlock bark at increasing rates. The hemlocks lining Fall Brook Gorge were probably spared because even by the early 1800s this area was a popular recreational destination.
During 1858, a mill and woolen manufactory were built below the first waterfall on Fall Brook, the remains of which can still be seen behind the Wheaton House. A flume channeled water from the first waterfall down the west side of the gorge and over a 16-foot overshot wheel. The building also had a lath machine, likely producing much of the lath used in the area’s first farmhouses.
The salt spring on the south side of Fall Brook is one of the salt springs for which the park is named. The first people to extract salt from the spring water were American Indians who traveled through the area during hunting expeditions. They attempted to keep the location of the spring secret from the settlers, but eventually and with a large enough sum of money, it was revealed.
Numerous attempts were made by different entrepreneurs to develop the spring for commercial gain between 1795 and 1870. The brine obtained produced a high-quality salt, but not enough could be coaxed out of the ground to yield a profit. The water was noted to be more sulphureous than salty. Bubbles would rise to the surface and when touched with fire would flash like black powder.
Efforts to strike oil at or near Salt Springs were also pursued, but with no success. During 1902, the North Penn Oil and Gas Company sunk a new test well just behind the Wheaton House, but plugged it after several months and left without explanation. When methane gas continued to seep up through the plug, a simple container was built at the top of the well to gather the escaping gas, which was then piped into the Wheaton home where it was used for cooking and lighting. These pipes still run through the house.
Historic Wheaton Farm
On November 9, 1813, a circuit rider wrote in his diary that he had “dined with four gentlemen from Philadelphia on a visit...They had stayed the night before at the Salt Springs where they had been for amusement, they dealt in extraordinaries about it, as though they had been on a voyage around the world.”
This is the earliest recorded documentation of the impact of the area’s natural beauty on human visitors. From this time to the present, the 400-plus acres locally known as “Salt Springs” have been continuously visited by people searching for, and finding, not just amusement but also “extraordinaries.”
The Salt Springs area was a dairy farm privately owned and operated by succeeding generations of one family, the Wheatons, from their settlement around 1840 until 1973, when it was acquired by DCNR’s Bureau of State Parks. During their stewardship, the Wheatons welcomed hundreds of visitors and travelers on visits to the legendary land of waterfalls and other natural wonders.
At the northeast entrance of the park is the historic homestead of the Wheaton family. Four buildings of the original homestead remain, as well as the foundation of the mill and woolen manufactory.
The original home, built during the early 1840s by Nathan Philip Wheaton, is now the Wheaton House. This post and beam structure is timber framed with eastern hemlock. The hand-hewn beams are 40 feet long and the posts are two stories high. These timbers originated from trees similar to the impressive stand of old growth hemlock that line both sides of Fall Brook Gorge.
The sister home, built around 1870 by Nathan’s eldest son James, is of balloon frame construction and features a Georgian style roof. This home is a private residence, generating rental income for park maintenance.
Adjacent to the Wheaton House, the carriage barn, circa 1865, is also made entirely of hemlock. The building is timber framed with hand-hewn beams and sawed posts. The foundation is of native stone laid without mortar.
Inside the dairy barn is an old 30- by 40-foot timber framed structure that may have originally been a threshing barn. Moved and altered over the years, this barn reflects the changes in agriculture and building from the past 160 years. When renovated, the barn will provide space for classrooms, meeting areas, and programs.