“Lock Haven can never be confused for a big city, but it does have that block-party atmosphere,” says Steve Getz, director of the Lock Haven JAMS Festival. The annual event draws music aficionados, artists, shoppers, diners, and outdoor adventurers to this north-central Pennsylvania city of just under 10,000 residents on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.
Nestled under the curving south bank of the river just east of where it meets Bald Eagle Creek, Lock Haven is a little less than an hour’s drive northwest of State College. Founded in the 1830s, it was named for its canal lock and its status as a “haven” for loggers and river-workers. Clinton County timber floated on the Susquehanna all the way down to the Chesapeake Bay and on to Baltimore shipyards.
Today, Lock Haven leaders are moving to make their small city a destination for road-trippers from Erie to Philadelphia, building a recreation and cultural scene with an eye towards boosting local businesses.
“I can’t explain to you how or why the excitement we felt going through this,” says Marie Vilello, manager of Downtown Lock Haven Inc. Last summer, her organization worked with the municipality to quickly create a “pedestrian mall” — two Main Street blocks were closed to car traffic on Friday and Saturday nights. Restaurants and merchants moved their businesses outside, where patrons could mask up and gather safely.
“Yes, people were hurting, but we were also thriving,” recalls Vilello. Some merchants began online sales, but community members also rallied to support their local favorites. “We had this magical energy, and it’s still happening.”
Lock Haven native Hanna Stover can speak both to the challenges and the opportunities of the moment. She lost her job at a local jewelry boutique after more than nine years due to pandemic shutdowns. She suddenly had time to focus on her own business, which she had launched as an online store in 2018.
“I decided to take a leap of faith with my husband,” she says of opening her brick-and-mortar women’s boutique Momoyo Otsu in a historic Main Street building after a six-month renovation. “We were told multiple times that we were crazy to do that in the middle of the pandemic.”
Stover decided to focus on the future, seeing Lock Haven as an excellent place to invest, and touting the crucial — and free — support she received via the Penn State Small Business Development Center.
Momoyo Otsu is named for Stover’s late, beloved Japanese grandmother, and its ceiling is painted gold to honor the matriarch’s “heart of gold.”
“She made everyone feel like family,” says Stover. Today, she describes the Momoyo Otsu mission as “making people feel beautiful in their own skin no matter what size they are.”
The store opened on November 13, 2020, and has since expanded to offer accessories as well as apparel, joining a small boom of women-focused clothing stores in Lock Haven.
It’s not just the business district that’s growing. Between arts happenings at Lock Haven University and the Station Gallery (a contemporary arts hub in a repurposed train station that draws professional artists and makers from around the country), cultural leaders had a lot to build on when the Clinton County Arts Council (CCAC) launched the Lock Haven Jams and Art on Main Street (JAMS) Festival in 2016.
Organizers of the free, volunteer-powered event always had a multi-pronged mission: bolster the existing visual and performing arts scene, and bring economic stimulus to downtown.
“We didn’t take it to some green space outside the city limits,” explains Getz. “The first year, we were pleasantly surprised. There were hundreds of people,” most of them locals.
By 2019, that crowd had grown to include many out-of-towners — people who had been coming to the fest for years mixing with tourists and folks who time their family visits to the event.
Originally a jazz spotlight, the lineup has evolved, especially last year, as organizers relied more on local artists who didn’t need to travel.
Yes, people were hurting, but we were also thriving. We had this magical energy, and it’s still happening.Marie Vilello, manager of Downtown Lock Haven Inc.
“Part of the mission is to create an atmosphere of diversity, bringing not only different kinds of music but different kinds of people to the community,” says CCAC president Carol Cillo.
“The music is exceptional,” adds Getz, and not what you might expect in small rural city. Past headliners include Philly-born saxophone star Larry McKenna. 2021 performers include the Philly-based Motown tribute band York Street Hustle, The Billy Price Band, Latin jazz group Café y Petróleo, and many more.
2020 brought a change in format: Instead of a stage in Lock Haven’s Triangle Park and performances inside restaurants, organizers mounted two outdoor stages on the newly walkable Main Street. This year will be similar. Outdoor vendors will be spaced out so shopping isn’t too congested, there will be sanitation stations, and restaurants will be seating outside.
Getz calls this year’s musical lineup “one of the most amazing we’ve had,” and has high hopes of drawing audiences from Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and beyond.
Part of the mission is to create an atmosphere of diversity, bringing not only different kinds of music but different kinds of people to the community.Carol Cillo, CCAC
Music lovers should also set aside time to stretch their legs. The nearby Pine Creek Rail Trail (PCRT), a famous 62-mile stretch of Appalachian hiking, winds north from Jersey Shore (in neighboring Lycoming County, on the river between Lock Haven and Williamsport to the east) to Tioga County’s Wellsboro Junction. It’s a year-round destination for hikers, bikers, equestrians, and cross-country skiers, and it will soon connect directly to Lock Haven.
The in-progress Bald Eagle Valley Trail (BEVT) has been underway since 2010, when a study first examined the feasibility of a trail connecting the town with the southern trailhead of the PCRT. With five-and-a-half miles of its 11.6-mile route complete and open to the public, the trail promises an exciting boost for the town.
“It’s a huge project, but it’s really well worth the effort,” says Clinton County Planning Director Katherine de Silva, who estimates that all phases of the BEVT will be completed by 2025, with a trailhead half a mile from downtown Lock Haven. Following the old rail bed and winding past the region’s scenic farmland, it’s not steep or rugged, but designed for easy walking and biking. Clinton County Commissioners is at the helm, with help from the adjacent Castanea, Wayne, and Pine Creek townships, and other partners.
De Silva notes that the trail is unique because “it’s one of the few municipally owned rail trails in the state.” Unlike most other PA rail trails, which are managed through the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Clinton County owns and operates BEVT, with beautification and cleanup support from the Friends of the Bald Eagle Valley Trail volunteers.
The latest phase of the project involves converting an 860-foot-long steel railroad bridge over the Susquehanna (between Avis and McElhattan) into a bike/pedestrian bridge. The $3.2 million project (funded by PennDOT, DCNR, and Clinton County) broke ground last March, and de Silva estimates it will be completed this fall.
“It’s going to be spectacular,” she says. “Just the bridge itself will be an attraction,” along with historic railroad stations rehabbed at each end of the new trail.
Locals are now using the finished portions of the route (which doesn’t yet have its own website), and de Silva predicts that it will be a big draw for travelers in future.
“It’s another reason to come here, and another way to get here,” she adds.
All of this action adds up to an eventful summer in Lock Haven. From June 22 through 26, the Sentimental Journey to Cub Haven Fly-in will draw pilots (by plane and by car) from around the world to honor the region’s aviation history (captured at Lock Haven’s Piper Aviation Museum). On June 26, the city celebrates its Best of Clinton County Festival, a fundraiser featuring a parade, vendors, and a giant game of Bingo. The JAMS fest hits August 13 and 14, and in the meantime, Vilello at Downtown Lock Haven promises a slate of concerts, shopping, and dining most Friday and Saturday nights on Main Street (closed to vehicle traffic between Vesper and Jay Streets). The city is also gearing up for its 50th annual Labor Day Regatta (billed as the largest power-boat race in the country), which will feature a street festival and fireworks.
“We’re relaxed and exciting at the same time, which is a hard thing to pull off,” says Cillo. “People coming from New York and Philly think it’s going to be so podunk, and it’s not!”
ALAINA JOHNS is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and the Editor-in-Chief of BroadStreetReview.com, Philly’s hub for arts, culture and commentary.