Ninety-eight people signed the petition.
It would have probably looked better with a flat one hundred, but ninety-eight signatures would have to do. It was October 1911, and ninety-eight people—almost 7 percent of borough residents—had had enough. For more than a year, they’d been stewing over what they saw as a blight at the heart of their town. Their criticisms were varied, focusing on practicalities, public safety, and charges of hubris. But they shared a sense of urgency: someone had to do something about a menace that plagued Selinsgrove.
That menace, of course, was a six-foot-wide water fountain sitting in the middle of Market Street.
The fountain had been placed centrally at the intersection of Market and Pine in June 1910, a gift from the Selinsgrove Water Works to local people, horses, and dogs. A public fountain seemed like a great idea to many, a testament to both the hustle and bustle of this small market town and its recently improved water service. But now, just a year later, ninety-eight people had joined to try to get the fountain removed from the intersection. What, exactly, had transformed something as innocent as a water fountain into a lightning rod of town controversy in the space of sixteen months?
To answer that question, we have to go back a decade, to the autumn of 1901. That’s when Harold McClure, the president judge of Pennsylvania’s 17th judicial district, purchased the Selinsgrove Water Works at a sheriff’s sale. McClure was a Bucknell graduate and a Lewisburg resident, and he bought the water works through a proxy. By using his lawyer to bid on the property, McClure hoped to keep his participation in the transaction hidden as low-key as possible. McClure, you see, was in the middle of a heated re-election bid.
Local newspapers were connected to political parties at this time, and with sets of rival papers in both Selinsgrove and Lewisburg, plenty of mud had already been slung at the Republican McClure. It was politically prudent to buy the water works quietly, giving his opponents fewer reasons to portray him as wheeling, dealing, and money-grabbing.
Though McClure won the Republican primary quite easily in February 1901, residents of Selinsgrove voted 4-to-1 against him. But local opinion changed in the following years, as even the Democratic Selinsgrove Times praised McClure for such actions as adding a new sewer line to High Street and installing additional pumps in the borough water works.
Then came the fountain in 1910.
The Republican Snyder County Tribune took a cautious, appreciative approach to the new fixture. In the first edition of the paper following the installation, the Tribune editor Joseph Lumbard simply asked readers, “Have you seen the Fountain?” (Lumbard had actually broken the news almost two years earlier that the judge planned to build a “public drinking fountain for man and beast” in the borough. At that time, October 1908, Lumbard suggested that the best location would be the intersection of Market and Pine Streets.)
The Times, on the other hand, might as well have declared that the sky had fallen. Editor Marion Schoch led the charge against the addition to Center Square, saying that the majority of borough residents were against the location (but not the idea of a fountain). It was heavy enough, Schoch noted, “to stop the most frisky horse or speedy automobile.” In what he likely thought was a reasonable fix, Schoch suggested that the fountain be moved west along Pine Street, to the curb outside the public school. But the fountain wasn’t going anywhere—at least not yet.
In the weeks that followed, fountain supporters read friendly words published in the Tribune. Lumbard noted that drivers had plenty of room on all sides of the intersection. Avoiding the fountain wasn’t hard, he wrote, even if its six-foot diameter made it a sizable obstacle. It still left 29 feet of clearance for northbound traffic, 24 feet for southbound traffic, and 18 feet to anyone heading east or west. The Tribune called McClure “a friend to the poor over-driven animals.”
The ratcheting-up of the fountain issue continued over the winter of 1911, when the Times wondered when a promised signal light would be installed to warn nighttime motorists of the huge structure in the middle of the road. When the borough turned the water back on, in May 1911, the light wasn’t in yet.
The borough paved Market Street that summer, leaving less driving space than before. The Times noted that only 17 feet per side remained, and it was only a matter of time before the borough was sued for damages by a motorist who ran into the “big bowl.” A letter to the editor published by the Times disagreed, reminding everyone that the borough council had accepted the gift—and the location—without reservations. Also, the writer noted, there had been “no costly casualties” since the fountain appeared, even if people around town kept worrying that there would be.
The fountain stayed where it was.
The borough council was not swayed by the petition, and the town seemed to move on. Years went by, during which McClure pleased many residents by extending sewage and water service to new areas of the expanding borough. Talk of “hair-breadth escapes” at the fountain continued, but the feared traffic disasters never materialized. Some even argued that the fountain tended to slow drivers down, not a bad result for residents coming to grips with vehicles that could travel in excess of 20 mph. In 1916, the fountain served as the base for the community Christmas tree. During the first World War, the borough hung flags from the bowl and made it the collection point for a Red Cross scrap rubber drive.
Santa soon began appearing at the fountain each December.
In the early 1920s, the state highway department helped fund a thorough repaving of Market Street, which was seen as an improvement over the existing paving stones. This began a new round of debate—did the fountain belong in a new and improved intersection? In 1923, the Times complained that 99 out of 100 motorists turning left at the intersection cut the corner, instead of going around the fountain in a wide counter-clockwise sweep (as was deemed safest).
After the Susquehanna Trail was completed that year, linking Harrisburg to Williamsport with a modern, concrete highway, traffic through town increased dramatically. Pedestrian safety was now a pressing issue, and popular will emerged to place a $500, three-color traffic light in the place occupied by what the Times called “the almost useless fountain.” As motor traffic had increased steadily over the past five years, it became very dangerous for anyone to use the fountain to water their horses.
In their December 1925 meeting, the borough council passed an ordinance to remove the fountain and replace it with the signal. The swap occurred in January 1926. By mid-February, residents had moved on with their lives, debating instead about whether they could make a right turn on red.
It would be another twelve years before the old fountain’s concrete base was removed from the intersection. By the mid-1930s, motorists were crashing into the traffic light frequently, giving it what the Daily Item called “its weekly scuffing.” A fertilizer truck with a driver who had just dozed off destroyed the traffic signal in June 1937. Although the driver agreed to sell the truck to pay for a replacement light, borough council balked. A few days later, a truck full of bathroom fixtures clipped the base, leaving the vehicle stranded at the “jinx corner” for five hours.
The end was in sight.
Council president Russell told reporters, “there is doubt in some [council members’] minds whether a light is needed at all at this intersection.” Another crash a few days later scattered enough of the base that it became cheaper to install a modern, hanging traffic light than to repair the old one. In a “dramatic session” at 10:30 PM at the intersection of Pine and Market, borough council voted to get rid of what remained of the base. After six car accidents in five weeks, they had reached their limit. The next morning, July 16, 1937, workers clawed, drilled, and chiseled the base down to nothing. After twenty-seven years and a month, Harold McClure’s gift that kept on giving stopped giving.