River Guide: Headwaters of the Conestoga

A frequently asked question about the Conestoga is, “Where are the headwaters?” I repeatedly fail at providing the asker a satisfactory answer unless I just respond, “Up near Morgantown.” So, here’s my much longer answer. Be forewarned.

First of all, the question is vexing for me to answer, because the entire 491 square mile watershed of the Conestoga constitutes where rainwater enters the Conestoga River basin. With hundreds of tributary waterways and stormwater outfalls, the overwhelming pointless part for me is to discern the importance of one groundwater source or one place of runoff collection over the importance of all others. We also MUST recognize that each of us impacts our waterways, everywhere & every day. The focused search for the headwaters becomes a bit of a red herring as we try as a community to help heal the Conestoga.

Similar to the question of creek or crick or river, I think that the asker of the “Where are the headwaters” question is looking to have a somewhat romantic appreciation for the Conestoga. But, there’s nothing like Victoria Falls at the head of the River Nile here in Pennsylvania. Then, how does one find the headwaters? It’s gotta be here somewhere, right?

Starting at the mouth of the Conestoga, where it empties into the Susquehanna, imagine traveling upstream and at each junction (major, minor, or minuscule) choose the wider channel size. Here are some widths at notable junctures and crossings:


The answer to the next inevitable question is “62 miles.”

It becomes debatable as you approach Morgantown as to whether one waterway is larger/wider than the waterway at each juncture. Staying on that theme of romantic appreciation, allow me to introduce Frank Reid Diffenderfer (1833-1921), who was an editor for the Lancaster New Era and president of the then-named Lancaster County Historical Society. In 1921, Mr. Diffenderfer presented A Plea for the Conestoga, in volume 16 of the Lancaster County Historical Society Journal. His article was primarily a flowery comparison of the Conestoga to other great waterways (each referred to as a “river”) and concluding that the Conestoga should also be so designated as if the term were somehow grander than “creek.”

But, Diffenderfer describes the various mills documented along the Conestoga both in Lancaster County and Berks County. Large township maps were examined. He also mentions traveling to the headwaters by automobile so that old men living in the neighborhood could be carefully questioned. Advised not to proceed further in his automobile, Diffenderfer ended his search with a sighting of the location called “Bortz’s Swamp,” where half a dozen springs empty into the main stream.

Alas, Diffenderfer didn’t achieve his chief goal of getting folks to stop calling the Conestoga a “creek.” Nor did Earl Rebman through his efforts with the Conestoga Valley Association in the 1960s-& 1970s. On some issues, we just need to go with the flow.

Fast forward to 2017, when Ad Crable of LNP published a front-page article in June retracing the steps of Diffenderfer. Unlike his predecessor, Crable finds the above-mentioned PA Turnpike and decides to cross it. The crossing under the Turnpike is not a bridge, but a culvert, pictured below:


Crable’s article also provides other local history not reported by Diffenderfer and pressed on deeper into the murky terrain than Diffenderfer did. He found lichen-covered boulders water bubbling from underneath.


Crable’s hunt stopped about 1/3 of a mile short of what I believe is the more likely source of the water bubbling. The boulders Crable described were observed in June when vegetation was obscuring his ability to see the water flowing to the boulders that I observed the following March.

That water appears to be coming from a pair of substantial farm ponds, slightly across the county line in Berks County. So, the debate is likely to continue to rage over where the headwaters are.


Part of the problem here goes back to the discernment of the “larger” waterway at each junction. My cohort-in-most-things-Conestoga, Donald Kautz, reminded me of the significance of the East Branch of the Conestoga near Morgantown. It runs north of Elverson and was actually part of the pre-settlement fur trade route that “…ran from the Susquehanna, up the Conestoga, out the East Branch where there was a short portage over to the French Creek. From there, the route went down the French Creek to the Schuylkill and down the Schuylkill to the agents at Philadelphia.” Wouldn’t it be a hoot to see if that portage route could be re-plotted?

Ad Crable also chimed in with his follow-up story in August of 2017 in which he revisited his Conestoga headwaters at the behest of some residents along the East Branch near Elverson.

The location was assigned a longitude and latitude for Crable by Steve Gochenauer of the Lancaster County GIS Department and then illustrated by LNP.


In case you’re still curious about such things, the elevation at this particular headwaters is 630 feet above the mouth at the Susquehanna River. It’s the geography that defines the watershed boundary, as each drop of water obeys the laws of physics and flows downhill. The depiction above also reminds me of all the bends in the river as it creates peninsulas of land. These are created as the river finds weak spots in the geology and erodes away the ground as it makes its way to the Susquehanna. A key factor in this erosion that results in all the bends is that the Conestoga drains across a flatter plateau in the middle third of the county. Flowing more steeply in both the northern and southern regions, the river must lose velocity as it slows down across the middle region.

I travel multiple times a day along the Conestoga and have noticed that the water is oftentimes much more silt-laden northeast of the city than it is southwest of Millersville. Perhaps, these bends scrub out some of the sediment deposited in the agricultural lands upstream.

Whether by car, canoe, kayak, or canal boat, the Conestoga tells a fascinating story every day, if we can just take the time to listen, observe, research, and perchance dream.

5 thoughts on “River Guide: Headwaters of the Conestoga

  1. So it seems unresolved. Unanswered officially. Put all your heads together, solve it, provide pictures. Thanks.

  2. I once read that there was a Boardwalk at the Conestoga river and the waters edge was closer to what is known as Lancaster,Pa

    1. Never heard of a boardwalk, like what you see at the beach. But Rocky Springs was quite an amusement park and there were boathouses, a promenade along the Conestoga, and a pedestrian footbridge over to Peoples’ Bathing Resort and Conestoga Park with its parkland boulevard.

  3. I always wanted to walk the length of the Conestoga River — but probably would encounter a lot of “private property” obstructions. Liabilities… lawyers… lions, tigers, and bears — oh my.

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