The river dates back to the Paleozoic Era and is a geologist’s dream. It acted as a transportation corridor, and has provided the backdrop for countless historic events.
The Susquehanna River begins at Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York. It winds its way south into Pennsylvania and ends at Havre de Grace, Maryland where it meets the Chesapeake Bay. The Susquehanna provides over fifty percent of the fresh water to the Chesapeake. The exact age of the river is difficult to determine, however, some research has found that the river is at least 60 million years old.
The Susquehanna River basin drains 27,500 square miles, covering nearly half of the land area in Pennsylvania and portions of New York and Maryland. There are approximately 260 tributaries to the river. The river is 444 miles long from Cooperstown, New York to Havre de Grace, Maryland. Most of the river flows through Pennsylvania.
William Penn and John Winthrop the Younger
The river has played a significant role in the history of the United States. Before the Europeans settled in Pennsylvania the Susquehannock Indians, whom the river is named for, lived along its banks. After years of fighting with other tribes in the area, the Susquehannock moved into present day Ohio and North Carolina. They eventually became extinct due to blending with other tribes.
In 1662, King Charles II of England chartered the northern part of Pennsylvania to John Winthrop of Connecticut. Nineteen years later, he chartered the same land to William Penn. Both colonies claimed the area, which led to many disputes. In 1782, the Continental Congress granted Pennsylvania ownership of the land.
One of William Penn’s priorities as proprietor of Pennsylvania was to make peace with the Lenape/Delaware tribe who lived in the Pennsylvania woods. By using gifts from Europe, Penn negotiated with the local tribes to allow settlements along the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers. Penn’s relationship with the various tribes throughout the colony ensured peace for thirty-six years.
In the late eighteenth century, the importance of the river grew as a transportation corridor. The Susquehanna River made it possible to transport coal out of the mines, produce to markets, and lumber to Philadelphia for shipbuilding. The corridor ran from the northeastern part of the state to the Chesapeake Bay. Eventually the river became too shallow for the arks and barges to transport items. In the early nineteenth century, the development of the railroad made it more efficient to transport products and to get them to their destination faster.
The Beginning of the Mormon Church
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church lived along the Susquehanna River and translated the Book of Mormon while living there. In 1829, as he and Oliver Cowdery walked along the river, they prayed to God to show them the laws of baptism. According to Smith, John the Baptist appeared and showed them the proper way of baptism. Smith and Cowdery baptized each other in the Susquehanna River. A monument stands where the baptism took place.
The Wrightsville Bridge and the Civil War
In 1863, during the American Civil War, the Confederate Army attempted to cross the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville in order to make their way to Philadelphia. The Union Army determined not to let that happen set the Wrightsville Bridge on fire, forcing the Confederate soldiers to turn back towards Gettysburg.
The Knox Coal Mine Tragedy
The Knox Coal Mine, located in Port Griffith, was the setting of one of the worse mining disasters in Pennsylvania history. On January 22, 1959, the supervisor of the mine ordered the miners to dig a tunnel within six feet of the Susquehanna River. The safe distance was thirty-five feet. The force of the river broke the thin wall and poured 12 billion gallons of water into the mine. The disaster took the lives of twelve miners. The bodies were never recovered. Sixty-nine miners survived.
Flood of 1972
The worse flooding to hit Pennsylvania was in June 1972. Hurricane Agnes stalled over New York and Pennsylvania pouring 20 inches of rain over the landscape. The Susquehanna River was the recipient of most of the precipitation. In Pennsylvania, flooding devastated everything in its path from Wilkes-Barre to the Chesapeake Bay, where the large amount of fresh water killed the marine life.
Three Mile Island
In March 1979, Three Mile Island, which sits on the river, made international news when the main feed water pumps shut down preventing heat to escape. By April 1, the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) determined there was no longer a threat to the community.
- Brubaker, Jack. Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake Bay, Pennsylvania State University, State College, 2003.
- Miller, Randall M. & Pencak, William A. Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania State University, State College, 2002.
- Stranahan, Susan Q. Susquehanna, River of Dreams, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1995.