For Aidan Kissner, the little stream behind his house in Biglerville, Pennsylvania, was a playground on summer evenings, and a quiet, calming spot for a hyper kid growing up.
Now a senior in high school, Kissner has repaid the small watery respite, by naming it “Kitty Payne Creek” so that it can get the respect, attention, and protection it deserves.
“It’s not been treated the best,” the 18-year-old says of the stream that flows 2.8 miles, through Biglerville High School property and into the Conewago Creek north of Gettysburg. “It’s mowed down to the banks and has erosion problems. Nobody really thinks about it.”
Kissner thinks about when he and his mother looked for fish and crayfish, wading, and learning about water quality throughout his childhood.
I played in the creek when I was younger, and now I’m not sure I could....If we don’t take a stand now, we will see those things disappear.
In 9th grade, Kissner joined CBF’s Student Leadership Program in Pennsylvania, at the urging of fellow student Hanna Ryon. She also went to Biglerville schools, was an outstanding CBF Student Leader, and now attends Messiah University.
This same student leadership program spearheaded a successful three-year campaign to pass legislation to have the Eastern hellbender designated as Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian. The bill was signed by Governor Tom Wolf on April 23, 2019.
In 10th grade, Kissner enjoyed his first CBF Student Leadership summer experience on the Bay. When thinking about a Student Leadership Action Plan for water quality following the trip, his little backyard stream and a former slave immediately sprung to Kissner’s mind.
“Typically, a lot of local history ends up being swallowed up by the Civil War, as we are so close to Gettysburg,” Kissner says. “I wanted to try to bring to life this piece of local history that doesn’t have to do with the war or the battle. Kitty Payne is such an interesting and inspirational story.”
Catherine “Kitty” Payne was born in Rappahannock County, Virginia, and enslaved until Mary Maddox, widow of the plantation owner where Kitty lived, emancipated Kitty and her family in 1843. They eventually moved to Menallen Township near Biglerville.
In 1845, after losing a court battle and feeling entitled to the freed slaves as his inheritance, the nephew of the deceased plantation owner had Kitty Payne and family kidnapped in the middle of the night and returned to Virginia.
According to the National Park Service website, “Local Quakers in Menallen Township rushed to Payne’s defense when they learned of her plight.” Payne filed complaints for illegal detainment, and after more prolonged court battles she persevered. In 1846, she and her family traveled north again, this time to Gettysburg. Just a few years later, in 1850, Kitty died at the age of 33 or 34.
Kissner considered doing a tree planting as part of his Student Leadership project but says he decided on “something to have more of a social affect and change the behaviors and hopefully get more people to do more best management practices.”
In January of 2021, when Kissner was still in 10th grade, he contacted the U.S. Board of Geographic Names and found that the stream did not officially have a name.
For two months, Kissner gathered the stream’s GPS coordinates, background on Kitty Payne, and completed a 21-field application.
The Board of Geographic Names said that demonstrating community support for the naming project was important, and Kissner got it from the Adams County Historical Society. He also contacted the county commissioners and borough council for their support.
Kissner says Biglerville’s council and others took neutral positions, as townsfolk had referred to the stream by unofficial names. “At that point I kind of lost faith in the project,” Kissner remembers.
Two years later, in early 2023, Kissner got a letter from the Board of Geographic Names, saying that the previously unnamed creek was now named Kitty Payne Creek. Kissner would like to have a sign, perhaps on school grounds, proclaiming the creek’s name.
Meanwhile, he continues to run cross country and track, and he participates on student council and the Technology Student Association. He plans to attend York College next year and major in civil engineering. He wants to become an environmental engineer and design and plan wetland restoration projects.
“Local clean water is very important,” Kissner says. “I played in the creek when I was younger, and now I’m not sure I could. We are going to see a lot of things that we’ve known in childhood be gone by the time we reach middle age and older. If we don’t take a stand now, we will see those things disappear."