Strange History: The Hermit of Blue Hill

When residents of Sunbury or Northumberland cast their eyes westward across the Susquehanna River, they see a large hill, upon which sits the Shikellamy State Park scenic overlook. However, locals would have seen a much different sight 150 years ago.
That's because the top of this promontory, formally known as Blue Hill, was the home of one of the most unusual and eccentric men in the history of Pennsylvania, a man by the name of John Mason. In 1839, Mason designed and built a strange octagonal-shaped tower on the top of Blue Hill. The tower, which was two stories tall, projected at an odd and precarious angle over the rocky ledge of the hill's summit, causing many locals to refer to the bizarre structure as the "Leaning Tower of Pennsylvania".

Mason, who became known as the "Hermit of Blue Hill" for his eccentric behavior, was enamored with astronomy. It is believed that he constructed the tower as his own personal observatory. The structure stood until 1864, sixteen years after the hermit's death, when it was destroyed by a handful of railroad employees in an act of mischief. The vandals loosened the tower's moorings, causing the enormous structure to topple into the Susquehanna River below. Sadly, the tower was said to contain hundreds of rare and priceless Olde English books and illuminated manuscripts, which as a result were forever lost.

John Mason's eccentricities were as well-known as the tower which he had built. Born in Philadelphia to Quaker parents on December 7, 1768, the hermit relocated to the town of Northumberland and opened a general store, which he operated for a few years before relocating his business across the river, along the banks of Turtle Creek, near present-day Lewisburg. Mason, who never expressed an interest in women, would be what society would have called a "confirmed bachelor" in those days.

Mason was known to walk all over the area, as far as Williamsport, carrying an umbrella, even on the sunniest of days. Accounts say that he was the fidgety sort who always had to be in motion, and he was considered to be a fine athlete in his youth. Even in his older years, he was well-known for ice skating down the frozen Susquehanna in the winter, and it has been said that Mason often skated to Harrisburg (almost fifty miles away) and back in a single day.

On April 25, 1849, John Mason, "The Hermit of Blue Hill", died on a farm owned by Colonel Meens outside of Williamsport, in present-day Newberry. His friends brought home his body, and the eccentric Mason was buried atop Blue Hill on the 90-acre farm which he owned, in sight of the Leaning Tower. Unfortunately, his tombstone was vandalized in the years following his death and to this day the Hermit of Blue Hill lies in an unmarked grave somewhere on the mountain overlooking the Susquehanna.

(Sources: "Pennsylvania Profiles" by Patrick M. Reynolds, "Guide to Treasure in Pennsylvania" by Michael Paul Henson, and various newspaper articles which can be found at the Sunbury Historical Library, Sunbury, Pennsylvania)

EDITOR'S NOTE:  A close personal friend of John Mason was Pennsylvania author Juliet Lewis Campbell, who published in 1857 a novel entitled "Eros and Anteros" under the pen name Judith Canute.  The novel makes several references to the strange tower and John Mason.  On January 1, 2012, a portrait of Juliet Lewis Campbell was donated to the Lycoming County Historical Society, along with a rare copy of "Eros and Anteros".  The newspaper article can be read here.
Written by JOTB contributor Marlin Bressi