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December 14, 2013

Oneonta name found in Northeast Pennsylvania lake borough

The Daily Star

---- — Harvey’s Lake, Pa., is small enough so you can’t miss a street sign that reads, “Oneonta Hill.” Whether you’re new to that area, or you’re from this part of the upper Susquehanna Valley, a bit of curiosity might tug at your mind regarding the name of the hill and how it got there. 

There are many places across the United States that have the name Oneonta, and in all of those places, from Kentucky, Kansas, Alabama, California or Oregon, there is something in common in how the place got its name. It had something to do with our city’s railroad heritage or an individual who may have lived or worked here on the railroad and moved on.

The name reference in Harvey’s Lake isn’t so obvious, however. The lake community is about 22 miles northwest of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and my visit earlier this year to conduct some research at the Luzerne County Historical Society wasn’t successful in pinpointing the exact origin.

A large and luxurious hotel was built in 1897 on the “sunset” side of Harvey’s Lake. One of the principal stockholders, John Graham, became the hotel’s namesake at first when the owners gave the hotel a formal inspection in April 1898.

However, according to files at the Historical Society, the hotel was renamed Oneonta in June, “an Indian name meaning a ‘place of rest.’ Within a week the landscapers at the hotel found an Indian canoe buried on the grounds. It was carefully removed and cleaned for exhibition. On July 7, 1898 the Hotel Oneonta was opened for guests.”

The Oneonta was built by the Harvey’s Lake Hotel and Land Co., to take advantage of increasing tourist traffic in that part of Northeast Pennsylvania. The investment was made possible by a trolley line linking the lake to the cities in the valley below, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. The Delaware & Hudson Railroad, to which our city has its historic ties, had a terminal in Wilkes-Barre, which could be a factor in the Harvey’s Lake hotel being named Oneonta. Wilkes-Barre was the southern end of the line, where connections with other railroad lines were made at that time.

The construction of the Hotel Oneonta began what was considered the “Golden Era” of Harvey’s Lake. The Oneonta was the best resort hotel of the area, open from late May to September. Independence Day was said to be the highpoint of the year.

“Crowds would assemble on Wilkes-Barre’s Public Square to catch the trolleys that ran to the Lake from 4:00 A.M. until 11:00 P.M.” The Fourth at Harvey’s Lake was the annual “basket picnic.”

“Tumbling out of the trolley at the Oneonta station with brigades of swinging baskets, they strolled down Oneonta Hill in awe of the huge hotel overlooking the Lake.” The hotel was found between the shoreline and Oneonta Hill. Most recently, a former general store and post office occupied the site.

“Seventy rooms filled the second and third floors with two sets of public baths on each floor. Many of the rooms were suites with private baths and fireplaces. The eclectic exterior featured gables and towers in English half-timber with a distinctive veranda and balcony. The porch was sixteen feet wide and 343 feet long.”

“A line of sailboats was available for guests. A twenty foot flag was raised in front of the hotel and red shale paths were laid around the hotel grounds. The trolley brought crowds to the Oneonta for Saturday night dances, and the hotel guests enjoyed concerts during luncheon and dinner hours. In 1899 a large boathouse was built for the Oneonta, and its landing became the principal stop for the steamboats.”

The golden era of Harvey’s Lake was approaching its end, as on Sunday, Feb. 2, 1919, the Oneonta had a destructive fire. Farmers in the area responded, as holes were cut in the lake ice and a bucket brigade was formed to save what they could.

It was a losing battle, as within three hours the only remains of the Oneonta was a brick chimney, fireplace, vault and foundation. For some time the Oneonta company had been in default on the mortgage to the hotel. In August 1919, the bank that held the mortgage foreclosed on the estate and sold it to three area investors, who laid out the area in building lots.

On Monday: A Scranton native who settled in Bainbridge brought a holiday season railroad tradition with him, enjoyed by many.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at