Tag Archives: susquehanna river

When Ice and Water Overflowed the Susquehanna River, the Media Descended on Port Deposit

There are floods and there are cold snaps in Cecil County.  But in Port Deposit there were “ice gorges” and there were floods.  So frequent before the building of the Conowingo Dam, the ice jams periodically brought destruction to the old river town and other communities on the lower Susquehanna River.  They occurred when a spring thaw began breaking up ice in the middle and upper reaches of the river..

Towns people knew when to start bracing for it.  And just like today, when the Susquehanna River threatens to go on a rampage, reporters and photographers rushed to the paralyzed town, hoping to be able to supply the city editors with headline grabbing copy and pictures.

From the time the first publications appeared in the county, stories occupied the columns of the local papers when the “ice king” threatened Port Deposit.  Shenandoah (the pen name used the Cecil Democrat’s local correspondent) concluded his report this way in 1857: “But I can write no more.  I am at this moment where I used to live, but I am only staying here a few moments just now.  The house is surrounded with ice and water, and I am here, without fire, at 10 o’clock at night and alone, my feet sticking to the ice and frozen, my fingers almost frozen, and my candle almost gone! . . . Though almost frost bitten, I am yours, SHENANDOAH.”. 

A group of enthusiastic city correspondents covered the ice jam of 1876 and the Cecil Whig’s editor had something to say about this bunch: “These Bohemians generally love their todd and are excellent patrons of the drinking salons.  Every fresh drink they take they see the ice move and the water commence to rise in the streets and they go forth with flash news to their papers . . . and about every other morning the town suffers a submerge and the people, especially the women and children, fly to the hill side and narrowly escape a water grave in the city papers.”

When the ice king had a solid grip on the Susquehanna in 1893, residents of Roberts Island were completely surrounded by the gorge.  Perhaps passing too many idle moments in the taprooms, The Baltimore Sun and News American reporters conceived the idea of crossing the ice to the Island.  They got a resident, Lawrence Paxton, to guide them and armed with ice hooks and ropes they started.  With Paxton taking the lead, the two representatives “faint hearted and timidly picked their way, but anxious to immortalize themselves, gained courage as they followed in the wake of Paxton,” the Perryville Record reported.

On nearing the island, the Sun man was determined to be the first to arrive.  And as soon as he reached the land, “he proclaimed that in the name of the Baltimore Sun he took possession of Roberts’ Island.”  There they talked to Roberts whose home and farm occupied the tiny piece of land in the middle of the river, and tried to persuade the family to go back with them.  But the safety of his livestock troubled him so having their story they headed back to the comfort of Port’s saloons.

In time newspaper photographs added to the capabilities of daily newspapers to cover the story and when the city was in ruins photojournalists descended, documenting the scene of suffering, smashed buildings and huge icebergs on Main Street.  By the top of the 20th century picture postcards were available and these images were extremely popular. 

So media has always rushed to the lower Susquehanna whenever the area was threatened.  Of course, our methods for providing the news has changed since the time when ice jams were an all too frequent image.  Nonetheless, the general scene is familiar to residents of Port Deposit in the 21st century.  On a slow news day in the summer when a persistent thunderstorm gives the Susquehanna River drainage area a good soaking, satellite trucks are likely to descend on the narrow Main Street in Port Deposit to wait for the coming flood.  Beaming signals back to the Baltimore television stations, the broadcast journalists search for interesting footage and people to interview. 

When Ice Jammed the Susquehanna River and Threatened Port Deposit Photographers Were Quick to Respond.

Port Deposit, Havre de Grace, and other communities on the lower Susquehanna River have a long record of damaging ice floes and floods. When the towns were paralyzed by the ice jams, photographers rushed to the area to capture the scene. And when picture postcards arrived at the top of the 20th century, these regular disasters became some of the best selling cards.

Here are a few pictures from the late 19th and early 20th century. Some of these are from a private collection, but the historical society’s online archives has a long collection of images, which they have shared online.

Click here to see a collection of pictures of the ice gorges.

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.