Along the Way: Isaac Benson’s Bed Goes to Harrisburg

Benson Monument with Isaac’s grave in foreground

Over the years I have passed Eulalia Cemetery, located on the western edge of Coudersport, so many times I stopped counting. I often wondered about the stories waiting to be discovered among the memorials that clung to the hillside, but unfortunately, most of the time I was headed somewhere else and never planned time in my journey across northern Pennsylvania to stop.

On a recent trip exploring Route 6, I made the time to stop at the cemetery to examine the older graves and massive monuments that clung to the sacred hillside. Eulalia Cemetery was founded in 1854, when several smaller cemeteries in the area were combined at this site.

As I wandered about the cemetery, I was drawn to the larger monuments of area residents and one of those memorials was for the Benson family. Beneath the towering obelisk are the simple markers for the family members buried on this sacred piece of land. One of those plot markers belongs to Isaac Benson, a lawyer who practiced in Coudersport and helped the early collection of buildings to become the community it is today.

Benson was born June 8, 1817 and attended the academy in his hometown of Waterford and then the academy in Warren. In 1844, Benson was admitted to the bar and the following year he moved to Coudersport. Here, Benson became involved in many different projects that would shape the community into a thriving town. Benson was liked by the residents of the community and in 1856, he was elected as a member of the Pennsylvania legislature and in 1859 he was elected a Pennsylvania senator.

It was during his first term in the state legislature that Isaac Benson would make one of the oddest trips to Harrisburg in history.

In 1856, the year Benson was elected to the state legislature, an important vote was about to happen in Harrisburg. Simon Cameron, who had joined the newly formed Republican Party, was vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Although Cameron had the backing of the Republican members of the state, he still needed the backing of three others. Isaac Benson was among those other votes that Cameron was depending upon.

As 1857 dawned, Benson found himself extremely ill – possibly suffering from typhoid fever –and was advised by his doctor not to travel to Harrisburg, but instead to stay in bed. Knowing his vote was important, and forbade to get out of bed, Benson was about to make the journey – without getting out of bed.

His bed, with Benson still in it and wrapped up to stay warm, was carried from his home and placed on a sleigh owned by Henry J. Olmsted. Accompanied by Dr. Ellison, who was Benson’s doctor, Olmsted drove his sleigh to Wellsville, New York. Wellsville was thirty miles away, but was the nearest town at the time with a railroad depot. The bed, with Benson still in it, was placed on a train and headed towards Harrisburg.

Note: It is known that Benson was taken, while still in bed, to Wellsville, but from here his journey is murky as local histories do not record how he got to Harrisburg. I have found two different possible journeys. One version has him going to Erie, Pittsburgh then to Harrisburg. The other version has him going to New York City, then to Harrisburg. Either way, it had to be a long journey for the ill man.

When the train arrived in Harrisburg, Benson was placed on a cot and carried to his hotel room, where he stayed until it was time to vote. He was then carried by cot, with his doctor at his side, into the state legislature, where he cast his vote.

The trip to Harrisburg greatly weakened the gravely ill Benson. While at his seat, the two men who carried him in had to support him so he would not fall over. When Benson cast his vote, he was so weak he could barely be heard by those around him and was definitely not heard by the presiding officer. Benson’s vote had to be repeated by another member of the legislature so his vote could be heard. On January 6, 1857, Simon Cameron was elected by one vote.

When he died March 11, 1894, Coudersport was at a loss. The man who helped shape the town was no more. The man who gave so willingly of himself to help his neighbors would take one more ride to rest on the hillside overlooking the western edge of town.

I finished paying my respects before I began to carefully cross the hillside to look at a couple more memorials before heading back to the vehicle so I could continue my own journey.

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