SUNBURY — The historic Northumberland County Courthouse on Market Street — which has been described as an “architectural masterpiece” — remains a hub of activity more than 150 years after being constructed.
Although the blocklong building has experienced many changes over the years and requires renovations, it remains the focal point of much of the county’s history. It buzzes with activity on a daily basis as trials, hearings, weddings, adoptions, deed transfers, custody battles, swearing-in ceremonies, gun permits and a host of other transactions occur in the three-story edifice that hovers over Cameron Park.
Although multiple county offices were relocated from the courthouse many years ago, about 55 employees still work there. It is home to three judges, secretaries, law clerks, court reporters, administration workers, security personnel and employees from the sheriff, district attorney, register and recorder, prothonotary and custody offices.
The courthouse, which was erected in 1865-66 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Jan. 20, 1974, houses three courtrooms, two jury rooms, a law library, two detaining cells for inmates, a working clock and bell tower, a large basement used for storing records and maintenance supplies, and an attic area above the third floor.
“The courthouse is the main focus of county government,” said Northumberland County Court Administrator Kevin O’Hearn, who has worked in the office for 10 years. “It’s an old building that has great historical value, but certainly needs some renovations. The courtrooms on the second floor are a work of art. It’s a prestigious building, and most people who come here are respectful of the surroundings and laws of the commonwealth.”
The three sitting judges are President Judge Charles H. Saylor, Paige Rosini and Hugh A. Jones. Offices that have moved out of the courthouse include those for the county commissioners, controller, treasurer and coroner.
“At one time, everything was housed here,” said Judge Jones, a local and county historian whose courtroom is on the first floor. “A population surge in the county, caused by the development of the coal industry, was the stimulus for building a new courthouse.”
Jones, a Mount Carmel native, has presented many historical programs about the county to civic clubs and other organizations over the years.
Jones said ground for the courthouse was broken in the spring of 1865, when Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States and the Civil War was nearing its end after four bloody years.
He said it was amazing that such a major building project would take place during the war.
The courthouse was designed by Samuel Sloan, a well-known architect from Philadelphia. It was built in an Italianate style, which was popular at that time.
Jones said Sloan also designed the Clinton County Courthouse in Lock Haven and the former Lycoming County Courthouse in Williamsport.
Jones said D.S. Rissel, of Williamsport, was awarded a $97,000 contract to build the Northumberland County Courthouse, which included gas and heat fixtures. Rissel was the sheriff of Lycoming County, which had just built a similar courthouse.
The courthouse originally contained one courtroom on the second floor with a balcony in the back.
The building replaced the former courthouse at the west end of Cameron Park. That structure was built in 1794 and consisted only of a courtroom and jury room.
A second courtroom on the second floor and the east wing that now houses the prothonotary’s office were added in 1912-13.
The first term of court using Courtroom 1 occurred Aug. 6, 1866.
Not a dungeon
Jones pointed out that Courtroom 1 hosted political conventions and many other public events over the years, while serving as one of the largest assembly halls in the county.
The judge said six capital murder trials that resulted in hangings occurred at the courthouse. Five of the hangings took place in the historic county prison built in 1876 while the other execution occurred along the banks of the Susquehanna River in Sunbury.
Many other memorable criminal and civil cases have taken place at the courthouse featuring unique, entertaining, colorful and distinctive defendants, victims, judges and lawyers.
Jones dispelled a myth that has circulated for years about the basement of the courthouse serving as a dungeon with jail cells.
“That simply is not true,” he said. “The basement primarily has been used to store county records through the years, although it resembles a dungeon in some respects.”
Stone and brickwork were used for the foundation of the courthouse that contained vaults in the basement to preserve county records, he said.
Some records have been digitized, but many of them still remain in the basement after more than 150 years.
Although the courthouse has weathered floods, snowstorms and other disasters, it could use extensive renovations.
But, funding is scarce in a county with a shrinking tax base.
In 1977, Jones said federal money from the Public Works Administration was available to conduct courthouse renovations, but he said the commissioners chose to use the funding for a 120-bed addition at Mountain View Manor.
The two upstairs courtrooms were renovated about 10 years ago and some minor repairs have been made to other sections of the structure.
Jones pointed out that since the courthouse has been declared a historic building, only certain cosmetic changes can be made to the structure.
“Eventually, the building will have to undergo extensive renovations or a new courthouse will have to be built,” Jones said. “I think the county commissioners over the years have taken a reactive approach rather than a proactive approach when it comes to dealing with older county-owned buildings. The former prison is a classic example of that. It took a fire to get a new prison.”
The former archaic prison, a block away from the courthouse at 39 N. Second St., was heavily damaged by fire in January 2015, forcing the commissioners to construct a new jail in Coal Township that received its first prisoners in October.
The former prison was purchased by local entrepreneur Mark Walberg, who continues to renovate it but hasn’t announced what it will be used for in the future.
Jones, who spoke at a program to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the courthouse, said the courthouse bell that still rings today on the hour was donated by Simon Cameron, of Milton, in 1869, in memory of his brother, Col. James Cameron, who was the first soldier from Northumberland County killed in the Civil War at the First Battle of Bull Run. Cameron Park is named after the colonel and a monument in his honor was erected there.
Simon Cameron was a U.S. senator and served as secretary of war under President Lincoln.
Jones said the bell, which cost $510.80 at the time, weighs 1,024 pounds.
The bell tower remained without a clock until 1872, due to a dispute between the county and City of Sunbury over allocation of the costs.
Jones made his own historical contribution to the courthouse when he purchased an eagle in 2011, from a restaurant in Warren, Rhode Island, that was a replica of the one that hung for many years in Courtroom 1 before it mysteriously disappeared.
Jones donated the eagle to the court in memory of the Northumberland County Bar and Judiciary and it was installed behind the judge’s bench, where the former one was located.
The courthouse with its ornate architecture, tile floors, glamorous courtrooms, clock and bell tower, unique nooks and crannies and wealth of history remains the most prominent building in the county and, hopefully, will continue to be for many more years.