Goldsboro: A Vacation Destination?

Goldsboro has always been a small town. And although it has never been a famous tourist destination, for a time in the late 1800s into the early 1900s, it was a nice getaway for city dwellers in Harrisburg and York to come vacation in. 

View of Goldsboro and Susquehanna River islands, ca1915

The primary attraction has been, and always will be, the Susquehanna River and the many river islands. From the larger Hill, Shelley’s and Three Mile Islands, to the smaller Goodling, Goosehorn and Beech Islands, there are lots of fishing holes and picnic spots that have been enjoyed by many throughout the history of Goldsboro.

The picnic grounds

During the Victorian Era, in the mid to late 1800s, people really enjoyed a good picnic. And what’s better than a picnic in a park? A picnic on an island, of course. 

Aerial view of Goldsboro and Susquehanna Islands - 1937

As early as 1736, there was a ferry crossing just north of Goldsboro belonging to Nathan Hussey. It was an important crossing for early English settlers to the area. Later this ferry was operated by Henry Etter, who owned a tavern that was on the stagecoach turnpike route that went from York to Harrisburg along the river. This ferry became more well known as the Middletown Ferry

By 1850, the stagecoach route became the same basic route for the Northern Central Railroad, and the water stop for the steam locomotives now became the newly formed town of Goldsborough, named after John McDowell Goldsborough, the civil engineer of the railroad.

Now with the train, and the ferry, it was very easy to come down from Harrisburg and cross the river at Middletown, or to take a quick trip up from York. Local businessmen, like the Shelley families, were looking to make some money off of their prime leisure space. 

The York Daily - June 21, 1887

The ferry became more sophisticated over time. Early on it was just a simple barge that could haul carriages and a few people. By 1900 or so, it became more passenger friendly with benches and a roof.

The "Sylvan Dell" Middletown Ferry boat, ca1900

The river in between Goldsboro and Hill Island is actually very shallow, especially at the north end of the island. It was even lower back in the day before dams further downstream raised the water level. Island dwellers would frequently ride their horse or drive their wagons across this northern section. At one time there was even a foot bridge that was erected for more easy access for visitors, but it was destroyed a couple of times in storms or ice floods. 

View of Hill Island from near the Middletown Ferry
The York Dispatch - Aug 29, 1887

For larger events and excursions, there was a bandstand and a dance hall on Hill Island. There are stories of late night dances that could be heard from the Goldsboro shore. One of these bands that was doubtlessly used for celebrations would be the Goldsboro Cornet Band

Harrisburg Evening News - Mar 26, 1936

For those that didn’t feel like camping on the island, they could always stay in one of the accommodations in Goldsboro. There was the Eagle Hotel along the railroad tracks, and the National Hotel in the town square. Both were tavern style hotels that included a place to eat.

The National Hotel Goldsboro, ca1910

And if the guests didn’t feel like eating at one of these taverns, they could always eat at one of the other restaurants, like a Slim Wilson’s down closer to the river.

Slim Wilson's Restaurant, ca1925

As Goldsboro grew, there was some new construction that happened that allowed even more accommodations for visitors. 

The cottages

Postcard of new riverfront cottages, 1910

Around 1909, construction on some new riverfront lodges and cottages began. These were owned by wealthier people that lived in York or Harrisburg, and would rent them out to guests.

The York Gazette - July 23, 1910

There were at least half a dozen or more lodges and cottages. Four of them were right in a row along the river: Avon Lodge, Edgewater Cottage, Isla Vista and Buena Vista cottages. 

Postcard from Avon Lodge

Summers were the busier season for these bungalows. Many groups would book them for their meetings, while individuals or families would lodge there for a few days. 

The Harrisburg Evening News - July 2, 1923

The fact that there are so many postcard series that exist from Goldsboro, especially of the riverfront cottages, speaks to the fact that there was a steady flow of visitors that stayed in Goldsboro, and wanted to tell their family back home about their vacation adventures. 

Postcard of cottages along the river, ca1915

I wonder how well known Goldsboro was to the greater Susquehanna Valley. It still is a bit surprising to me that people came to visit. But I also have to keep in mind that it was a different town back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with a lot more going on. 

I guess over time, people would become aware, and if they had a good time then it would become their spot for future recreation. Maybe they would catch a lot of big fish, or just enjoyed the scenery. Either way, the word did seem to get out, and people came. 

The Ralph Zeigler Family

Here is the back of one of those postcards of the cottages. As you can tell, Ruth seems to be having a fine time. 

“We arrived O.K. Having a fine time. Here are some of the cottages. There names are Rio Vista, Hiawatha, Buena Vista and Locust. We go down to the river every day. With love, Ruth”

Lynetta Gross visiting a cottage

Summer fun was definitely the main attraction, but Goldsboro was also well known for some of it’s winter events. 

The Ice Carnivals

The Harrisburg Evening News - Feb 24, 1936

In the late 1920s and up until 1940, there was another attraction that brought people to the Susquehanna near Goldsboro: Ice Carnivals.

Crowd on the ice in Goldsboro, 1940

About once every four years, Goldsboro held and Ice Carnival when it got cold enough for the Susquehanna River to completely freeze over. These carnivals included car races, motorcycle races, speed time trials, and even airplane rides – all on the frozen river. 

Harrisburg Telegraph - Feb 17, 1934

The ice track cleared had started by Hill Island and went down two miles to near Cly. For the speed trials it was just a straight shot, but for the races it was a loop that was around 5 miles. There were multiple events in different categories. 

Racers came from all over the state, Bethlehem, Chambersburg, York and Baltimore, MD. 

At the 1934 speed trials, the winner was Howard Mitzell on his bike without a sidecar, reaching 108 miles per hour. 

Charles "Boots" Eyler - driver of Boeckel's Special, from York PA

It’s hard to imagine the ice thickness needed to support thousands of people, plus cars and airplanes. And not only that, but how long it would take with daily below freezing temperatures to achieve the super thick ice.

The York Dispatch - Feb 11, 1936

In between race events, there were food vendors and fires to warm up by on the banks of the river.

At least one of these carnivals was sponsored by the Goldsboro Fire Company. Their earnings went to help purchase a new fire apparatus (eventually purchased in 1939) and also to help pay off the newly constructed brick firehouse (built in 1929).

Crowds and cars at the 1940 Ice Carnival

Thousands of spectators from Harrisburg, York and all over would come to these carnivals. They made for very memorable events, as some people today still remember going to them, and were a highlight of their childhood.

Can you imaging thousands of people, all standing on the frozen river, in the freezing temperatures, all watching car races? What about going for an airplane ride landing on the ice?

Alice Conley in front of the airplane giving rides at the 1936 carnival

Unfortunately, these ice carnivals aren’t able to happen anymore. The gradual raising of dams in the river, has raised the water level creating what is now called Lake Frederic in the area from York Haven up to Goldsboro. As a result, the river doesn’t freeze as fast as it would when the water level was lower. So the air temperature would need below freezing for weeks in order for the river to freeze solid now, and we just don’t get that cold here for that long for that to happen.

Fishing and boating

Aerial view of Goldsboro and marina, 1980

Goldsboro no longer has any taverns or hotels to stay in, and the cottages are now all privately owned residences. But people still come on weekends and holidays, and the main reason is still because of the river. 

Mark Moody walking on the marina, 1987

A marina gave locals an easy way to park their boats, for an easy day outing to the islands or for some fishing. 

The York Daily Record - April 26, 1986

Boating on the river is so popular, that on the weekends the streets would be full of trucks with trailers taking up any available spot, upsetting local residents who then couldn’t park in front of their own house. 

As a result, some new parking lots with river access were eventually paved, allowing even more to park without choking up the streets and upsetting the Goldsborians. 

On any given summer weekend, you’ll find a lot of river traffic. And on a holiday weekend like the Fourth of July or Labor Day, these parking lots can get pretty full. The same goes for some of these smaller islands. 

Boats full of visitors to Goosehorn Island

Today many of the small islands and boat launches are managed by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Maps can be found at the boat launches in Goldsboro, naming all the islands and showing where the picnic spots are.

Map of the river islands in the Susquehanna, 2022

Shad, bass and catfish are some of the species that are frequently caught in the area. 

Catfish caught by levihess12 in Lake Frederic - fishbrain.com

The small islands are well maintained and are still excellent for picnics. They have picnic tables, charcoal grills, and small boat docks for easy access. 

There may not be any more Victorian picnics or late night dancing by the gazebos, but these islands still get plenty of activity. And on a summer night, the skies are often lit up with fireworks being shot off the islands or by boaters.

I was able to visit a few of these islands recently, and was pleasantly surprised by how nice they are.

Picnic grounds on Goodling Island, 2022

If you’d like to experience an old time ferry ride, like what they would have used at the Middletown Ferry, you should check out the Millersburg Ferry still in operation today up in Millersburg PA. You can even take your car across on if you’d like.

Millersburg Ferry - Millersburg, PA

In the end, tourism in Goldsboro is much like it was 150 years ago, great for picnicking and fishing. The businesses in town have faded, and there is no longer a train stop or a ferry, or even a hotel to stay in, but people keep coming, and new memories are still being made every summer.

6 thoughts on “Goldsboro: A Vacation Destination?”

  1. Very nice presentation. I’ve lived in Etters since 1974. I had an older friend who told me on several occasions about car races on the frozen Susquehanna. I found that hard to believe. Your photos prove he was telling the truth. He also told me a shad and eel migrations on the river and he would catch a ton. The dams shut that down.
    I recognize Mark Moody in one of the photos. I knew his brother Steve.

  2. I enjoyed this page very much. You do a wonderful job putting together the history of Goldsboro. The pictures were spectacular. I lived in Goldsboro from 1970 to 1976. Before that I was in Cly and York Haven. I now live in California,
    but miss PA terribly. Will be coming home in next couple of months to visit my family and friends. Would love to meet you.

    1. If if works out timing-wise, you can visit one of our monthly history get togethers. We meet on the 2nd Wednesday of the month at the Church of God on Broadway. We keep those events posted on the Facebook group so you can always check for when they are scheduled.

  3. Great article. Our family has a cottage on Hill Island since 1991. We’ve heard story’s of the dance hall and large crowds coming to Hill Island but this article and photos give a great perspective to the actual events and activities that took place. As we boat along the shore of Goldsboro these days I will recognize those beautiful private cottages still there as past tourist destinations with all those well dressed ladies and gentlemen enjoying the river just as we do today. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Goldsboro is a beautiful town and also my home town. I moved about 2 miles down the road when I got married. My grandfather Samuel Keister mowed lawns at the bungalows and did odd jobs for the residents. I remember the car races on the river. We would sled down Butcher Alley and Broadway , not much traffic back in those days. So many memories and still my home town.

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