Susquehanna Ramblers: Searching for the rock shelter home of the enigmatic ‘Colonel’ John Mead

Susquehanna Ramblers
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.

The Susquehanna Ramblers of Dennis Brooks, Chip Fulmer, and Jay Mackley. Image courtesy of Ad Crable.

“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.

“The 2 House Rocks, Shore Rock, a remarkable overhanging roof. It sheltered Indian fishermen and white. Obliterated by construction of C&PDRR – House Rock in the River is Opposite Shore House Rock and Named Therefrom. Through the years of River Lumber Piloting unnumbered Log and Board rafts have broken or stoved upon it.”

Interpretation of caption-There were two features named “House Rock”
1. Shore (House) Rock – a remarkable overhanging roof fishermen used. It was destroyed by the railroad.
2. River (House) Rock – It is “opposite” Shore (House) Rock and is named from the fact it is in the river and caused many raft disasters.

As Bair’s photo description is from 1907, prior to Lake Aldred, I could assume the two features are no longer viewable. The first one was dynamited away, and the second was submerged after the Holtwood Dam was built.

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.

The only known photograph of Col. John Mead. In it, Mead is entertaining six guests in his rock shelter. Mead lived here for 11 years. The photo is dated August 18, 1911. Mead moved into this rock shelter in 1900 and vacated it on March 6, 1915. Photo courtesy of York County History Center.

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.

A few of the rock shelters that we discovered and most of them were used by campers over the years. We think that the general geological hillside from top to bottom was called House Rock. The creek in the area is also called House Rock Run. Mead’s place wasn’t THE house rock, but a formation where he lived, in the overall formation named “house rock,” and it has yet to be found. What do you think?

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)

A few more shelters, but none were Mead’s. Some did look close but no cigar!

The saga continues, and a few more rambles are required. As Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know the rest of the story!”

A very early shelter. Dennis examined the burnt coal in the hearth. This had a very good overhang and would have kept you dry in the worst of storms, but too small to be Mead’s.


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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