Tag Archives: conowingo dam

A 1927 Accident Takes Life of Harford County Fire Chief

When Maryland Public Television started working on the Conowingo Dam documentary a research question came up about workers killed on the project. Since this matter hadn’t been investigated previously, a registry was compiled containing information I was able locate through archival records.

On Labor Day 2015, I wrote a blog post identifying twelve fallen workers, though I noted that the Darlington Coroner, William S. Selse, told the Baltimore Sun that more than twenty men had lost their lives at the hydroelectric plant. The other day Harford County Genealogist Chris Smithson added to this registry, providing the name of another lost workman. Here is the story.

The first shovel of earth for construction on the Cecil County side was turned March 8, 1926, newspapers reported. Soon some three to five thousand men flocked to the rural area of northeastern Maryland seeking to earn good pay. In addition to those on the Stone and Webster and the Arundel Corporation payrolls at the hydroelectric, there were laborers on the railroad, contractors on roadways, and crews erecting transmission lines stretching to Philadelphia.

To accommodate the incursion of this massive population in the rural, remote area of northeastern Maryland, the two construction companies established large work camps. Since houses and barracks were going up in the boom town, public safety had to also be provided. There was a hospital capable of accommodating about two dozen patients. It had a resident doctor and a staff of nurses, as well as operating and sterilizing rooms.

Conowingo Dam Fire Truck

The fire truck for the Conowingo Dam. source: Conowingo Visitor’s Center

Col. Claude B. Sweezy, the former warden of the Maryland Penitentiary, was the director of public safety. He supervised fire protection, a police force, roads and other things. Under his command, a police force of nine members was headed by Chief Robert Whitney, a former motor traffic officer at the Bel Air Station.

The Conowingo Fire Department, equipped with an engine, protected the works camps and the construction site. Chief George R. Chapman commanded firefighting operations. On April 25, 1927 at 6:05 p.m., he was riding in the command seat on the pumper as it traveled on the state highway in Harford County. The machine suddenly crashed into a roadside bank, overturning and pinning him under the truck. He was dead when taken from under the vehicle, newspapers reported. The Chief, 53, was from Baltimore and he was buried at Loudon Park Cemetery. the death certificate recorded.

Acknowledgement — Chris Smithson, a Maryland Genealogist, brought this loss to my attention and he provided the research. Thanks Chris for helping to remember the worker and first responder who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Here’s a link to the article on other worker deaths. https://cecilcounty.wordpress.com/2…

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–On Labor Day: Remembering Those Who Died While Building the Conowingo Dam

Workers at the Conowingo Dam. source: Conowingo Visitors Center

Workers at the Conowingo Dam.
source: Conowingo Visitor’s Center

On this Labor Day, a holiday that honors American Workers and remembers the struggle to acquire better employment conditions, it’s a good time to share some research I have been doing on men who paid a high price erecting the Conowingo Dam.  An untold number were killed, injured or disabled while toiling away at the dangerous construction job in the late 1920s.

Some 5,000 people flocked to the rural northeastern Maryland area, seeking to earn good pay as the construction got underway.  About 3,500 personnel erected the hydroelectric plant for Stone & Webster and the Arundel Corporation, and the project generated associated employment opportunities.  There were laborers relocating tracks and building new stations for the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad, contractors paving new highways, and crews erecting 1,000 steel towers to stretch mighty transmission lines toward Philadelphia for Day & Zimmerman.

It was nearly fifty years before Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which guaranteed the right to a safe job.   Regulations adopted in the early 1970s, made safety practices, such as fall protection, machine guarding, and personal protective equipment a standard part of the job.  But this engineering feat took place long before there was much concern for occupational safety.

While these men struggled to earn a living wage to support the family, many of them suffered disabling injuries handing high voltage electric lines, tumbling from high elevations, managing explosives, and much more.  A number died while performing their duties.  Construction work is a dangerous business today, but in that era workplace safety wasn’t a high priority and broken bones, fractured skulls, amputations and other trauma was common.

While people often talk about worker fatalities at the Dam, a census or registry has never been compiled to give us some idea of the magnitude of the risk and to remember those who fell on the job.  So I have done some data-mining, making  an initial survey to identify those who lost their lives at Conowingo.  It was a dangerous work, and newspaper accounts of men in the hard-driving industry suffering serious occupational mishaps are frequent, once work on the project starts.

The first shovelful of earth was turned on the Cecil County side of the Susquehanna River and the first nail driven on the Harford County side on March 8, 1926, newspapers observed.  “Twenty carloads of lumber passed Port Deposit on the way to Conowingo, and carpenters and mechanis were rushed on the job on Monday by the early train.”  The clearing of dense woodland had already began, and steam shovels were starting to operate.

Sometimes a man unsecured by a safety harness or net fell into swirling flood waters or rocks a distance or there was an automobile accident.  For example, thirty workmen suffered trauma when a bus operated by the United Railroads between Baltimore and Conowingo skidded on an icy hill at the Dam and was upset.  The injured were rushed to the company hospital.

Other accounts involved single casualties.  Irvin McDowell was confined to his home near Calvert in serious condition, the results of running a nail in his foot, the Baltimore Sun reported March 25, 1927.  Alvan Prather, 25, of Inwood WV. was crushed while firing the engine drawing cars on the Stone & Webster Company’s railroad, running from Havre de Grace to Shure’s Landing.  In critical condition, he was rushed to the company hospital where physicians determined he had a double fracture of the left leg.  The right one was smashed so it was amputated, the Havre de Grace Republican wrote on October 15, 1927.

For this article, I focused on identifying occupational fatalites.  Here is the registry as it stands on Labor Day, 2015.  I will add names to it as others are identified.

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March 20, 1926  — Alphonso Fortier, 21, Philadelphia; killed at Port Deposit three-hours after accepting employment with contractor building the hydroelectric plant;  helping to unload a derrick and other machinery from freight car; a heavy piece struck him, causing an internal hemorrhage from which he died an hour later.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, March 21, 1926.

August 8, 1926 — John G. Shelor, 21, Calvert, Cecil County; tractor used in pulling stumps turned over backwards; broken neck at the dam; Remains shipped to Christiansburg, VA for burial.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, Aug. 12, 1926.

August 11, 1926 – George D. Whiteside, 22, pipefitter’s helper; run over by a train at the plant; remains shipped to his home in Champlain, NY.  He was a college student employed at the dam for the summer.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, Aug 12, 1926

August 3, 1926 (date is estimated).  An unidentified African-American laborer was bitten by a copperhead snake while clearing ground for the new dam.  Source:  Cecil Whig, August 7, 1926

December 21, 1926 — William J. Elliott, 46; killed at Conowingo Dam when he fell from a stone conveyor.  Funeral was held at Havre de Grace and services were in charge of Harford Klan.  Source:  Cecil Democrat, December 25, 1926

February 18  1927 —  Soon after reporting to work, George Graybeal, 35, became sick and went to the office of Dr. Mohr, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s physician at Conowingo.  where he died.  He and his father and a brother came from North Carolina to Cecil County to work on the project.

March 8, 1927 — Adam Gelensky, 42, an employee of the Arundel Corporation was found on the Octoraro Creek Railroad Bridge with both legs severed after begun run over by a train.  He died about four hours later in Richards’ Hospital.  The body was turned over to undertaker Patterson of Aikin.  An effort was being made to locate relatives at Brockville, PA.

April 18, 1927 — William Tuance was instantly killed while work for Stone and Webster at the Dam, when he was struck by a heavy piece of timeber.  His remains were taken to the undertaking establishment of Pennington & Son at Havre de Grace.  Internment was made at Angel Hill Cemetery.

April 25, 1927.  Chief George R. Chapman of the Conowingo Fire Department was killed when the fire engine overturned near the Dam in Harford County.  He was buried at Loudon Park Cemetery.

June 29, 1927 — Frank McCann, 27, sustained injured by falling a distance of nearly a hundred feet while at work on the Dam died.  He was from Detroit, MI and his body was shipped home.

July 18, 1927 — Stephen Collins, 28, Baltimore; killed instantly when he fell from the crest of the dam to rocks beneath.  Source:  Baltimore Sun, July 18, 1927

July 18, 1927 — O. P. Shelton, 32, Florida; killed instantly when he fell 140-feet from the crest of the dam to rocks below.  Source:  Baltimore Sun:  July 18, 1927

November 14, 1926 — Joseph Damfamete; employed by the Arundel Corporation; died of a fracture skull at Havre de Grace Hospital; struck on head by falling plank.  Source:  Cecil Whig, November 20, 1926

November 21, 1927 — Hunter H. Bettis, 17, son of Lonnie Bettis, Havre de Grace; employed by Stone & Webster; drowned while walking along the edge of coffer dam, carrying a heavy bay of rivets.  He lost his balance and fell into thirty-five feet of water.  Source:  Nov. 26, 1927, Cecil Democrat

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This is the census I have developed thus far.  However, Corner William B. Selse of Darlington, commented that more than twenty men had lost their lives on the project, while investigating the death of Hunter H. Bettis.  He added, “the number is low considering the fact that on average of 3,500 employees have been employed there for nearly two years,” he informed the Baltimore Sun.

Curtis S. Poist of Port Deposit once wrote a Baltimore Sun article called “Helping Build Conowingo Dam.”  “There was no way telling how many men were killed on the job,” he wrote.  “Often the word would go around that a man had been killed, but I never saw a fatal accident.”   The workmen spoke so many languages, came from so many parts of the world, nobody knew much about anybody else.  Usually a man was known only by the number on his badge.   So if he fell into an excavation along with several tons of wet concrete who was to miss him let along mourn his passing?”

The registry probably represents a significant undercount as the primary sources for this preliminary registry are newspapers.  I’m planning a visit to the Maryland Archives soon for another investigation and will pull death certificates for these men and others I am able to locate.

Still on this Labor Day it is appropriate to remember the fallen workers thus far identified.  I will update this registry as more workers are identified.

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.