The Susquehanna Ramblers, comprising of Dennis Brooks, Chip Fulmer, and Jay Mackley, search the Susquehanna River for forgotten places along its ancient banks. Here is one of their recent rambles—exploring the River Hills for the lost rock shelter home of the enigmatic “Colonel” John Mead, the “Gentleman Bum” of House Rock.
“Colonel” John Mead was called the “Gentleman Hermit.” In today’s world, we would have called him a survivalist.
Mead lived in various rock shelters for over 25 years. From early newspaper articles, Mead was well educated and was quite a linguist, and had people skills and excellent communication skills. He had many visitors, some even prominent. They would hike down from Pequea or cross the river from York County by boat to pay him a visit.
According to Uncharted Lancaster, his first rock shelter home was located one mile east of the Martic Forge at a place Mead called “Middle Rock.” However, the building of the Enola Low Grade in 1903 forced him to relocate. Col. Mead moved into his second rock shelter at House Rock and left it when the Columbia & Port Deposit Railroad (C&PD) was widened and elevated in 1907, which destroyed the shelter (Uncharted Lancaster, March 17, 2020)
This is where the Ramblers (Chip, Dennis & Jay) step into the story. One of the ramblers (Dennis), while doing research, discovered an actual photo of Mead entertaining guests in his rock shelter at House Rock dated Aug. 18, 1911, four years after the Port Road (C&PD) was widened and elevated.
According to newspaper articles from that time, the ramblers discovered Mead moved on March 6, 1915, to Observation Rock. He was burnt out of that shelter when 40 acres of woodland surrounding the shelter caught fire. This woodland was owned by Paul Heine of Lancaster, who also built and owned the Hotel Brunswick.
Mead lived at Observation Rock for 18 months. He became ill, was admitted to the hospital with cancer on Aug. 27, 1916, and passed away on January 13, 1917.
The confusion of the timeline. House Rock extended out into the river and had a very good shad fishery. There was a rock shelter with a remarkable overhanging roof on the shore that the fishermen sheltered in; to weather a storm or foul weather. From the 1800s up to 1907, that shelter was a tourist attraction. People would hike down to visit and explore. When the railroad widened and elevated the track, the fishermen’s shelter was destroyed.
The ramblers have made three trips searching for the elusive Mead’s shelter with no success. It is well hidden in decades of vegetative growth, but we did discover the hillside was dotted with other rock shelters that have been used over the years, and one of those shelters is a very early one with burnt coal still in the hearth.
We recently gave up the search because of the freshly grown spring brambles and in fear of the sun bringing the copperheads out of their dens. Colonel John Mead’s shelter wasn’t the formation that was dynamited by the railroad; his rock shelter is somewhere on House Rock hill, and has yet to be found. (See R.C. Bair photo comment)
The saga continues, and a few more rambles are required. As Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know the rest of the story!”
Photos courtesy of York County History Center, Chip Fulmer, and Dennis Brooks.
Information courtesy of – Jay Mackley, Chip Fulmer, Dennis Brooks, Uncharted Lancaster
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1864 Map of Martic Township, Lancaster County, PA$22.99 – $24.99
‘Colonel’ John Mead: the enigmatic ‘Gentleman Bum’ of the River Hills
Discover the mysterious life of “Colonel” John Mead, a man who spent the last 25 years of his life living in caves of the Susquehanna’s River Hills region. Click here to read more.