A Brief History of ‘Black Diamond’ Dredging on the Susquehanna

Here’s just one sample of the great content you can find on the Uncharted Lancaster Facebook group as members contribute fascinating images and history from the area. Click here to join the group.

Coal Dredging at Shenks Ferry

Randy Moyer recently shared two photos from his personal collection in a post in the Uncharted Lancaster Facebook group. Both images are from the 1920s and highlight the coal dredging operations on the Susquehanna River at Shenks Ferry.

The first photo looks east past Shenks Ferry towards the Enola Low Grade. It is dated 1922. There are a few features worth noting in the image. It predates the construction of Safe Harbor Dam by nearly eight years, so the topography along the river will appear differently than it does today.

1922 aerial photo looking east
1922 aerial photo looking east. Image courtesy of Randy Moyer.

The Shenks Ferry Hotel is also visible near the center of the image. Local historical documents indicate that Henry Shenks operated the Shenks Ferry Hotel for many years in the late 1880s. After burning to the ground at the turn of the century, it was never rebuilt. However, this photo suggests the fire didn’t happen until after 1922.

Furthermore, the Enola Low Grade and the Shenks Ferry tunnel are both visible in the image above, as well as the coal dredging operation that took place there.

Picture of the Shenks Ferry Hotel taken 1919 with a train visible on the Enola Low-Grade above.

Randy Moyer’s second image (shown below) is also at Shenks Ferry but from 1926. This photo looks south down the Susquehanna with additional elements of the coal dredging operation shown.

1926 aerial photo looking south.
1926 aerial photo looking south. Image courtesy of Randy Moyer.

A Brief History of Coal Dredging on the Lower Susquehanna

Believe it or not, between the early 1900s and 1972, there were numerous coal dredging operations on the lower Susquehanna. During the preceding decades, millions of tons of waste anthracite from coal mines near Wilkes-Barre had washed downriver. The coal eventually settled on the bottom, where dredges began drawing them out in the last years of the nineteenth century.

According to Jack Brubaker in his book, Remembering Lancaster County, the arduous process of coal dredging did not catch on quickly. In fact, it was still relatively novel in 1926, one year after Holtwood Dam began dredging coal for use in its steam-generating plant.

A 1951 Safe Harbor / Holtwood visitor’s guide and map discussed the coal dredging on the Susquehanna and included this image of a paddleboat reclaiming coal from Lake Aldred.

Reclaiming River coal from Lake Aldred by paddle boat.

Here’s an excerpt:

The hydroelectric developments at Safe Harbor and Holtwood are supplemented by the generation of elec­tricity by steam. The steam-electric station adjoining the hydroelectric station at Holtwood burns “river coal,” anthracite dredged from the river bottom. The dredging of coal, which has been washed downstream by the river in its passage through the anthracite region, is a never-ending source of interest to visitors who wit­ness the coordinated operation of hydro and steam gen­eration of electricity from energy obtained from both water power and coal provided by the same river. Click here to see the full brochure.

Coal dredging continued on the Susquehanna until 1972, when Tropical Storm Agnes made significant changes to the Susquehanna’s sediment load.

Now & Then

The following two images show Shenks Ferry today and in 1922 using pictures taken from similar locations. Click here to learn more about Shenks Ferry.

Ice in August

It was in August of 1926, the same year as Randy Moyer’s second photo, that David Rankins of Conestoga while dredging coal at Shenk’s Ferry, discovered something very unusual hidden in the depths of the river. Despite temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, Rankins had snagged four large chunks of ice, averaging five feet in length.

The theory of how the ice survived into August was this: strong river currents drove the ice beneath rock formations. River sand washed over the ice, forming a kind of crust several inches thick. The summer’s heat could not penetrate that insulating layer.

Uncharted Lancaster Facebook group

This was just one sample of the great content you can find on the Uncharted Lancaster Facebook group, as members contribute fascinating images and history from the area. Join the group today.

Click here to learn more about Shenks Ferry, and its history.

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3 thoughts on “A Brief History of ‘Black Diamond’ Dredging on the Susquehanna

  1. I am writing an article for the Pennsylvania Railroad Historical Society about coal dredging on the rivers and streams that flowed out of the coal regions. One of those photos by Randy Moyer would be very useful for my article. How can I proceed in trying to obtain a copy. Proper attribution would be given.

  2. The whole process of dredging coal is fascinating. If I remember correctly they would add kerosene to the slurry to float the coal to the top. They would then send the coal through a centrifuge to reclaim the kerosene.

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