A Susquehanna River Village That Vanished — Conowingo

conowingo 241as

In current-day Conowingo, the visitor finds 20th century roadside businesses.

If you are the type who likes to find lost villages, we have a little journey you might enjoy.  To start ask someone for directions to old Conowingo.  But be watchful for that accommodating person might send you to a stretch of highway near U.S. 1 and Route 222.  That commercial area is lined with a collection of roadside shops, gas stations, restaurants, and taverns, businesses that rose up in the 20th century after the demise of the earlier town.  The location you are seeking was nestled nearby in a hillside at river’s edge.  It was once a thriving town that met a watery death in the name of progress.

At least you are in the neighborhood so journey down Mt. Zoar Road to a cove where the Conowingo Creek meets the Susquehanna.  That is as far as you can go to reach your destination for you are shortly looking across a broad lake at the gentle, rolling hills of Harford County.   Not too far from this idyllic setting, near the arched railroad bridge, rests the lost hamlet beneath the impounded water.

The story of the demise of this once bustling place, a spot where generations lived and died, ended one winter day in 1928 as waters of the dam slowly climbed over the buildings, erasing all traces of the community.

Although memories of the church, school, general store, garage, and inn have largely faded, the written record contains the story.  Back in 1993, Ralph Reed, who was born in a house next to the river, recalled that the place “was dear to us and we thought it was going to last forever.”  However, it survived only until Jan 18, 1928, when the dam’s final eight floodgates closed and the Susquehanna slowly backed up into town.

Farmers and villagers uprooted by the construction of the large hydroelectric dam gathered on the hillside to watch as the village met its watery doom.  As the sun went down behind the western Hills of Harford County, old Conowingo slowly vanished beneath the water.

Port Deposit’s Curtis Poist recalled that final day in a 1975 piece in the Baltimore Sun.  “Many of the people who had lived in Conowingo were on hand to watch.  Many of them insisted on lingering around their old homes sites, retreating only as the water backed up and drove them away . . . All day long they watched from a distance as the backwater inched its way over the bluffs and up the gullies until at sundown only the tree tops and the roofs of an occasional house and barn remained above water to identify the place which had once been home.”

The Conowingo Dam opened in 1928.

The Conowingo Dam opened in 1928.

The 4,648-foot dam with 53 gates regulated 105 billion gallons of water impounded behind the structure and generated electricity for the growing industrial nation.  The building of this massive public works project drastically changed the rural area as work crews began arriving.  It required some 4,000 workmen and the creation of a temporary village to house the families.  “Any able bodied boy or man who wanted a job could get one at the dam site at 35 cents an hour for common labor, 60 cents” for skilled laborers Poist noted.

In 1989 David Healey interviewed Curtis Ragan, 84, whose father was the town doctor.  “It was a busy place, always something happening here.  The town had a post office, hotel, restaurant, train station and several businesses.”  The spot where people gathered in town was the hotel, he told Healey.  “I never hung out in the hotel myself.  I was too young for that.”

The Maryland State Gazetteer for 1902-03 provides a little more information.   In the decade before a utility harnessed the power of the river, it had a population of 350 people.  Two doctors, Samuel T. Roman and D. M. Ragan, cared for the sick.  Lodging was available from John T. Adams and E. P. Bostick, while Thos. Coonie baked bread and cakes for townspeople.  Merchants included Chas A. Andrew, Geo. Brewinger, Wm. Gross, E. B. McDowell, and W. W. McGuigan.  There were tradesmen such as John C. Smith, blacksmiths; Jas. Ritchey, shoemaker; and Robt. McCullough, Harnessmaker;  W. R. Love was the postmaster.  Mills were:  Allen & Wilson, flint mill; Jas C. Bell, saw and flour mill; and the Susquehanna Paper Co.  A daily stage provided transportation to Rowlandsville, Berkley, Darlington, Delta and other places.

Regan’s wife, Hazel, taught school in the town’s two-room schoolhouse.  Since she was the only teacher, she taught all seven grades in one room.  She also had to sweep the floors, carry water, and cut firewood for the schoolhouse, he recalled in the Healey interview.

But once the Philadelphia Electric Company became interested in harnessing the power of the flowing water as a source to power turbines, it meant the end of the town.  After the one-mile-wide and fourteen-mile long lake was created by the dam, water covered 9,000 acres of habitable land, obliterating the old landmarks and farms, the Sun reported.  Gone were the “historic Conowingo Pike, the old Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad, the ancient bridge, the old canal, towpaths and the toll house.”  In their place was a new Conowingo Bridge across the crest of the dam with a great lake on one side and a one-hundred foot waterfall on the other.

The project, which had started in 1926, had been a tremendous undertaking.  In addition to building the massive dam and power house, it had been necessary to relocate 16 miles of the Pennsylvania Railroad, to evacuate and demolish an entire village, reroute historic Baltimore Pike over the dam, and build a 58-mile electric transmission line to connect with the Philadelphia Electric system.

Today at this serene spot, it’s hard to believe that such a lively community thrived here near a cove just north of the large dam, for the backwaters of the dam have erased the physical evidence and an uninterrupted tide of time has eroded away most living recollections.   But it hasn’t been forgotten for its stories survive in aging newspaper clippings, history books, and the stories of  subsequent generations.  And it is the source of frequent inquires by curious types.

For a collection of photos from the old Conowingo village click here.

On Dec. 21, 2013, the longest night of the year, winter twilight descends on the Conowingo Dam.

On Dec. 21, 2013, the longest night of the year, winter twilight descends on the Conowingo Dam.

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14 responses to “A Susquehanna River Village That Vanished — Conowingo

  1. Nice blog Mike Thanks, Bill Mc —-

  2. Hi Mike,

    The link to the old photos doesn’t work??

    I am dying to see them.

    Thanks, Rima​

  3. The link to the photos doesn’t work? I am very curious about this. Thanks for sharing, I enjoy all your posts!

  4. Are there any pictures of the town actually flooding? Please advise!

    • Eric, I don’t have any, but perhaps the newspapers published them. The Whig and Democrat did not, But let me check some other sources. If I find something, I’ll post it. Surely some newspaper saw that as worthy of coverage.

  5. I worked for Henkle and mc coy at the dam for a short while . My uncle Arthur ray Barker worked at the dam for Philadelphia electric for many years.

  6. My grandmother told me the ice gorge in the town of port deposit

  7. Jon Daniel Pascuzzi

    Wow thanks for this article I have lived in Colora just outside of Port and Conowingo all my life and was always fascinated with the Dam and its history but never really knew the stories and history of Old Conowingo. I would love to know more. I wish I could see more pictures of it, or photos of the water rising in 1928.

  8. Conowingo is in Cecil County not in Harford County. I was born and raised there (the new Conowingo). If you get a chance go inside the Dam it is incredible. They no longer do tours but you can get special permission to enter.

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