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Outdoor enthusiast builds a cabin with plans to live 'off the grid'

Apr 22, 2023Apr 22, 2023

May 15—HARMONY TWP. — In the woods of Susquehanna County, Dana Rockwell chops, saws and hammers away at building a cabin where he hopes to eventually live "off the grid."

The 50-year-old outdoors enthusiast from Susquehanna Depot last year bought in nearby Harmony Twp. 5 acres of land tucked between an active rail line and a dirt road overlooking Cascade Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River.

A borough councilman in Susquehanna Depot who grew up along the river, Rockwell for a few years had his eye on the secluded property about 1,500 feet from the New York border. His great-grandparents lived on neighboring land over a century ago and he always felt a connection there.

Rockwell, a father of four who works as a registered nurse, and his family members and friends started building the rustic, two-story cabin last summer— from scratch.

They sawmilled the lumber from trees felled on the property and other logs he acquired. They crafted the timber beams, floorboards, joists, studs, wall planks and shakes of the cabin, to be built on a stone foundation that dates to at least 1872. The wood includes oak, spruce, white pine, red oak, cherry and maple.

"I'd say 95% of the material in this entire house we made ourselves from logs," Rockwell said. "It's quite a project to make all this lumber. I've built a lot of stuff but I've never cut my own lumber (before). It gives you an appreciation for just how much work goes into all the lumber."

Though unfinished, the building looks more like a small house.

"It's going to be a recreational cabin, but eventually I want to live up here full-time," he said.

But could he live off the grid, unconnected to utility systems such as those that provide electricity or piped water?

"I'd have to because there is no grid here," Rockwell said, noting the closest electrical power line is about half a mile away. But that's okay because, "I want to be off the grid, anyway."

A prior owner of the property installed a septic system in 1999 but never followed through with a dwelling. Rockwell also will need to drill a well for water and plans to collect rainwater and grow a garden.

For electricity for lights and power tools, Rockwell uses a generator and two small solar panels erected on a pole and wired to a bank of batteries in the basement.

A wood stove in the basement will provide the primary heat for the cabin, which also will have a fireplace on the first floor. The upstairs will have two bedrooms and a bathroom, while the first floor will have an open landscape, kitchen and a half-bathroom.

While few people could take on such a task, resourcefulness is in Rockwell's genes.

His father and uncles helped each other build their own homes decades ago, and he started learning carpentry as a boy from them. He later moved to Montana and worked in home construction. He returned to Pennsylvania in the early 2000s.

His great-great-great-grandfather also had the Rockwell Quarry that cut the bluestone for the 1847-48 construction of the stone-arched Starrucca Viaduct rail bridge over Starrucca Creek in Lanesboro. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Starrucca Viaduct was the world's largest stone railway viaduct and was thought to be the most expensive rail bridge. It is the oldest stone railroad bridge in use in Pennsylvania.

In 2017, Rockwell and a friend, Peck Milbauer of Lanesboro, built 19-foot kayaks and paddled the entire waterway — 444 miles over 16 days, from Cooperstown, New York, to Havre de Grace, Maryland, at the mouth of the Chesapeake

Bay. A nurse for 18 years, Rockwell works at UHS Wilson Medical Center in Johnson City, New York.

Building the cabin, which is a stone's throw from the colossal stone viaduct, has been an all-hands affair with family and friends. They include his parents, Terry and Wanda Rockwell, Milbauer, and another friend, Jon Burdick, to name a few.

First, they had to clear thick brush and honeysuckle to make room to maneuver. They constructed a small band-saw mill and tool shed for cutting logs, and built a solar kiln shed to speed up drying the freshly cut lumber.

The work has been hard but the crew enjoys seeing the cabin's progress and relishes their camaraderie.

"Dana and I were friends from a few years ago and both enjoyed a lot of hiking together, so I just got involved in this (cabin project) real quick here," Burdick said. "These guys really know what they're doing and it's a joy just watching this all come together. I've learned a lot."

A home last stood on the old stone foundation probably over half a century ago, Rockwell said. Census records from 1872 showed a home there with eight residents. The original foundation was 16 1/2 -by-22 feet and Rockwell added a 12-by-12-foot addition.

The cabin already is Rockwell's getaway.

"I deal with people on a daily basis at the hospital," Rockwell said. "Susquehanna County is remote, but this is even more remote up here. I don't have any neighbors. I'm not listening to lawn mowers or barking dogs. It's just very relaxing. It's always been a dream to build some sort of cabin."

"My goal is to just be as self-sufficient and bill-free as possible," Rockwell added. "It's definitely a labor of love."

Contact the writer: [email protected]; 570-348-9100 x5185; @jlockwoodTT on Twitter.