Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Lykens: A Case Study on the After-Effects of Flooding on Pennsylvania’s Communities


In the last installment about the ongoing Disaster Planning for Historic Properties Initiative we focused on survey work in the City of Harrisburg. Since that time, the survey teams led by Commonwealth Heritage Group and ASC Group have moved on to other communities in Dauphin County.

Located at the northern end of the county, Lykens Borough is home to a large number of properties that are both over 45 years old and located in the 100-year floodplain. The survey teams spent more than a week collecting flood elevation data on 227 buildings throughout the borough. While there, we met many residents who talked about Tropical Storm Agnes and how flooding from the storm changed the community in profound and lasting ways.

Nineteenth Century Beginnings

Lykens was named for eighteenth-century settler Andrew Lycans or Lycons. The town was first laid out ca. 1830 and grew throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries alongside coal mines operated by the Lykens Valley Coal Company. The large number of jobs created by coal mining led to prosperity for the town and attracted ancillary industries such as a foundry, machine shops, and a sewing factory.

Map with black lines for streets and black dots for buildings.
1858 Map of Lykens showing the town’s development between Rattling Creek on the south and Wiconisco Creek on the north.

A Regional Center for Commerce and Recreation

By the 1930’s, the coal mines had closed, and Lykens transitioned to a regional center of commerce and recreation. Recreational community projects led by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), including a baseball field and swimming pool, were constructed during the Great Depression.

Stone wall along roadway.
View of the Memorial Park between Lykens and Wiconisco, constructed by the WPA in 1940. This park was determined eligible for the National Register in 2011 (Key No. 156535). Photo by Candice Strawley, Commonwealth Heritage Group.

The WPA pool was actually the second one in town, with the first built in 1919 in the borough’s Glen Park. Both pools were constructed by building gates within Rattling Creek and developing improvements along the creek bank. Based on the descriptions provided by residents, the pools had a beach area, diving boards, and a slide. The WPA pool, located just south of Main Street at Division Street, also had a raised sandy beach with a stone retaining wall, and historical images show a pool house.

Black and white photograph of Lykens swimming pool.
This undated photo shows the WPA-built swimming pool in West Boro Park. Photo available at the Lykens Valley: History & Genealogy blog, used with permission.
Concrete wall and stones in creek bed.
View of the remains of the swimming pool. Note the concrete deck and the stone retaining wall at left where a beach was built for the community’s enjoyment. Today, the former beach area has been converted into a playground and continues to be used by the community. Photo by Benjamin Harvey, ASC Group.

Following the construction of swimming pools and sports facilities, a dance hall was built in the borough in the 1950s. The dance hall featured many traveling acts, including nationally recognized artists like The Coronets, Duke Ellington, and musician and teen heart-throb Fabian. Today, the concrete block building appears unassuming from the exterior but  original steel awnings provide a touch of flair that hint at the excitement of past shows within.

Black and white advertisement showing an African American man.
Many nationally recognized groups played at the Lykens dance hall, with concerts lasting long into the night. Advertisement from the Lykens Register, October 7, 1955.

Tropical Storm Agnes

Tropical Storm Agnes moved across central Pennsylvania from June 21-24, 1972. Due to the path and slow speed of the storm, rainfall totals were high and caused flooding across the region.  The unique position of Lykens, with creeks on three sides, led to particularly devastating flooding in the borough. Residents were forced to evacuate, and coal waste from the surrounding mines washed through houses, creating difficulties with cleanup and disposal after the flood. Many homes and businesses were later demolished.

Lykens after the Storm

After the waters receded in Lykens, a long, slow clean-up began. The borough’s comprehensive plan from 1975 described the flooding as “the greatest single disaster” in the community’s history. The clean-up efforts included work by residents, charitable organizations, and many state and federal agencies. The flooding led to the closure of the former dance hall, which became the borough office, and destroyed the gates used to create the swimming pools.

For some in the community, the flooding that accompanied Tropical Storm Agnes was the last straw. The outmigration that began following the closure of the coal mines in 1930 accelerated. Residents and business owners left the town for nearby areas that were less susceptible to flooding, or moved to larger regional population centers like Harrisburg, Reading, or Sunbury.

In 1970, before the storm, the population of the town was approximately 2,500. Since that time, the population has shrunk to just 1,779, resulting in increased residential vacancies and a loss of tax revenue.

Despite this adversity, the residents of Lykens continue to take pride in their past as a regional recreational center. They continue traditions including free concerts in the West Boro Park, open to all throughout the summer. Lykens’ experience serves as a reminder of the importance of documenting significant community resources before they are impacted by natural disasters such as fires and floods.

One story white concrete block building in a green lawn.
The former dance hall, converted to a municipal building, was an important regional entertainment venue in the 1950s and 1960s. Photo by Benjamin Harvey, ASC Group.

In the next few months we will cross the Susquehanna to survey communities in Perry and Cumberland Counties. Please keep an eye out for us; we love hearing the stories of your boroughs and villages straight from the people who call them home.

This week’s guest author is Benjamin Harvey. Benjamin is an architectural historian working for ASC Group’s Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Office. He has a degree in history, and works throughout Pennsylvania on historic preservation projects, including compliance projects, National Register nominations, and survey projects like this one. Benjamin was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and enjoys continually learning more about the many unique and interesting communities found throughout our state.

Author: Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office occassionally asks our partners to share their news, successes, challenges, and perspectives on historic preservation matters in Pennsylvania.


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