I recently came into possession of the long out-of-print 1976 Canoeing Guide to the Historic Conestoga. Included inside the 33-page booklet are five detailed maps of the Conestoga River. Being a firm believer that “information wants to be free,” I have transcribed the document’s text and scanned its images. Both are included below.
I have added links and additional images of the locations and objects mentioned by the guide. Please keep in mind that this booklet is 45-years-old as such numerous parts are out of date. For example, several covered bridges and small dams have been removed since 1976.
If you would prefer to read the booklet in its original form, here’s the PDF.
Canoeing Guide to the Historic Conestoga
This canoe guide has been prepared to meet popular demand for information on the Conestoga River. It includes a centerfold map of the river from Brownstown to the Susquehanna River at Safe Harbor Dam. Information is also included on canoe access areas, landmarks, location of portages, common plants and animals along the river, and a brief history of the area. A set of five enlarged maps is included in the guide to help canoeists plan their trip and locate points of interest.
The river has been divided into four sections which are covered by maps one, two A and B, three, and four. On the basis of experience from local canoeists, each section is recommended as a halfday trip which will take about four hours. Experienced canoeists may cover some areas in less than four hours, and inexperienced canoeists may need more time, but on average each section should be a pleasant half-day trip.
The Conestoga River has long areas of quiet water, so be prepared to do a lot of paddling. There are occasional short rapids that may be easily traversed by experienced canoeists, but as indicated on the maps, there are a few Class III rapids that may present problems to beginners. It is recommended that these areas be portaged.
We hope this guide provides you with helpful information and wish you many pleasant trips.
Plant and Animal Life of the Conestoga River
The Conestoga River passes through a great variety of habitats along its 60-mile journey, ranging from some small woodlots of second-growth beech-maple-hemlock forests, which covered most of the riverbank in the 1700s, to open farmland. Each habitat has its own set of plants and animals. Passing from one habitat to another, the close observer can spot many different plant and animal species.
The most common habitat along the river today is farmland. The plant life is minimal, but along the edges, one may see so called “weeds,” such as Queen Anne’s Lace, St. John’s Wort, daisies, and swamp milkweed. Rabbits, pheasants, and groundhogs are the most common animals in this habitat.
Other birds that can be seen are the blackbirds—redwings, grackles, and starlings—feeding in the fields, mourning doves, and the beautiful meadowlark sitting on a post singing his delightful song. Flying swiftly back and forth across the fields are barn swallows, with their identifying deeply forked tail, hunting insects. Another hunter of this habitat is the Kestrel, or sparrow hawk, which feeds on mice and large insects such as grasshoppers.
A closely related habitat is the thick brushy area along the floodplains. The predominant plants here are box elder, or ash leaf maple, and sumac. This habitat often borders the farmland and has many of the same animals. Quietly paddling along early in the morning, one may sight either a red or gray fox, both of which are found in this habitat. Some of our most beautiful summer birds can be found here, such as the beautiful blue indigo bunting, or the yellow-breasted chat with its brilliant yellow breast, or the yellowthroat with its yellow throat and contrasting black face mask. Two of our most vocal birds also live here: the song sparrow and the Carolina wren.
The residential areas along the river offer another habitat. The grassy lawns with their well-spaced trees, usually sycamore, are the areas in which to look for one of our best-loved birds, the American robin. Often joining the robin is the noisy killdeer with its two black throat stripes and red eye. On the spreading limbs of the sycamores look for the drooping nest of the beautiful Baltimore oriole.
The wooded areas, of course, offer the greatest diversity of plants and animals. The original forest would have been primarily sugar maple, American beech, and scattered eastern hemlocks and white pines. A few small second-growth stands of these trees remain; today, however, they are composed mainly of sugar maples, ashes, tulip trees, oaks, ironwoods, dogwoods, and bitternut hickories.
On the edge of the river, often growing partly in the water, are typical streamside trees, such as river birch, silver maple, American elm, spicebush, paw paw, and sycamores.
The woods reach their peak of beauty in the early spring when the wildflowers bloom. Starting with bloodroots and hepaticas in early April, a whole parade of flowers follows to grace our world after the stark nakedness of winter: spring beauty, Virginia bluebells, Dutchman’s breeches, squirrels corn, trout Ii.lies or dogtooth violets, jack-in-the-pulpit, May apple, phlox, toothwort, Solomon’s seal, waterleaf, and many others.
While floating near the numerous rock cliffs overhanging the river, you may see such beautiful and rare flowers as columbine, red trillium, and shooting star. Many trees and shrubs are also flowering at this time: the familiar white flowers of cherries, hawthorns, and blackhaws, or the wine-colored flowers of paw paw all add enjoyment to the trip.
The numerous orchards southwest of Lancaster offers one of the most beautiful scenes you may ever see from a canoe.
Deer; red, gray, and flying squirrels; chipmunks; and weasels can all be found in these woods. The tapping sound you hear may be a hairy, downy, or red-bellied woodpecker searching for a meal. The brown bird with the spotted breast feeding on the ground like a robin is its relative, the wood thrush. Cedar waxwings and great crested flycatchers perch on tree limbs hawking insects that fly by. The woodpecker-like bird often seen feeding on the ground is the flicker.
During spring and fall migrations, numerous small birds can be seen flitting among the trees. Most numerous of these are the myrtle or yellow-rump warblers with their yellow rumps and sharp “cheek” notes.
Many other animals are found along the whole length of the river. Muskrats, skunks, raccoons, and opossums may be seen by the quiet canoeist, especially early in the morning.
Mallards, black ducks, and Canadian geese are commonly seen and the spectacular wood duck can be seen in summer. Great blue herons can be seen year around fishing in the shallows. Other waders are found at certain seasons: from early spring through fall, black-crowned night herons, dark above and whitish below; yellowcrowned night herons, dark above and below; and the smaller green heron. The yellow crowns nest in several areas along the stream. Their large stick nests are usually constructed in sycamores. These nests are one of the northernmost known nests of this heron in the United States.
Later in July and August the totally white great egret, which is three and one-half feet tall, and the smaller, all white, snowy egret are often seen catching minnows and crayfish along the river. Also fishing for minnows are kingfishers. These mostly bluebirds with the long rattling call will surely be encountered on any canoe trip.
On the mudflats feeding on small invertebrates will be the noisy killdeer and the spotted sandpiper. The sandpiper has a spotted breast and a curious habit of teetering its posterior end up and down. While canoeing along, if you look up and see a large black bird with white wing linings sailing effortlessly through the sky, you are looking at the turkey vulture, commonly seen in the open areas along the river. Two hawks are also commonly seen—the broadwing, May through September, with a black and white striped tail; and the red tail, with a brick-red tail.
These are just some of the more common plants and animals you may encounter while canoeing. The careful and trained canoeist could no doubt add hundreds to this list.
The Conestoga River originates from a large spring in Caernarvon Township, Lancaster County, known as “Bortz’s Swamp” or “Pengall Field.” It flows sixty miles before emptying into the Susquehanna River in western Lancaster County. The total fall from origin to the end is three hundred ninety feet. It drains four hundred seventy-five square miles of land and has an average depth of two feet except behind dams, which may have pools ten to twelve feet deep.
The section of river covered by this guide is primarily a Class I river. The International Scale for Grading Rivers defines a Class I river as easy going with occasional small rapids that have low regular waves. The correct course is easy to find and the river speed is less than hard-back paddling speed.
There are a few Class III rapids that require maneuvering around rocks in a current that is moving faster than hard-back paddling speed. A practiced beginner will have little difficulty on the Conestoga River if the Class III rapids, which are labeled on the maps, are portaged.
The best time for canoeing the Conestoga River is in the spring and fall. The water level in July and August is generally too low for an enjoyable trip. During flood stage the river is very dangerous and canoeing should not be attempted.
The Conestoga Valley Association has been working at cleaning up the Conestoga River since 1956. Progress is slow but steady. You can help in this clean-up campaign by not throwing litter into the river or onto the banks. Plan ahead and take a litter bag with you so your trash can be taken home with a minimum of effort.
Most of the land along the Conestoga is privately owned. Respect the rights of property owners and do not build fires or picnic on private land without permission. Be considerate and do not park cars on private property without permission.
Do not pick wildflowers or dig them up to transplant into your garden. Wildflowers are part of the natural heritage of the Conestoga River. Leave them there for others to enjoy.
Canoe Safety Tips
- Never canoe alone.
- Know how to swim.
- Wear a life jacket at all times.
- Never stand up in a canoe.
- Do not overload a canoe.
- Do not change positions while a canoe is afloat.
- Kneel when canoeing through rough water; sit when the water is calm.
- Always stay on the upstream side of a capsized canoe to avoid being pinned against obstacles.
- Have a spare paddle ready for immediate use.
- Tie down anything you do not want to lose on a trip.
- Observe rapids from shore before attempting to navigate them.
- Beware of dams; they can usually be heard before they are seen.
The Conestoga Indians, who preceded the early settlers in Lancaster County, gave this river their name, which in their language means “Great Magic Land.” The Conestoga is more closely intertwined with the county’s history than any of the many other streams to be found in it. William Penn explored its waters. Continental Congress members fleeing Philadelphia forded it on the way to a one-day session in Lancaster.
It drains the land of the Conestoga wagon and the Pennsylvania rifle; Robert Fulton experimented in a paddleboat on it. General Edward Hand, George Washington’s adjutant general, built a mansion overlooking it. As you paddle your canoe, you are passing very historic and scenic territory.
Section 1: Brownstown to Paddock Inn
1. Brownstown is easily accessible from Route 222 or the OregonPike (Route 272), north of Lancaster. The Conestoga is south of Brownstown, flowing under Route 772. The mill you see one-half mile above Route 772 at the end of Main Street in Brownstown dates back to 1856. The concrete pillars above the Route 772 bridge are reminders of the bridge which carried the old LancasterEphrata trolley. You can put in your canoe in the vicinity.
2. The next landmark is Zook’s Mill, dating back to 1857. It formerly had two undershot wheels, but in 1922 turbines were installed to grind flour. Portage here. There is quiet deep water before the dam.
3. On down the stream are ruins of another mill—the old Leman gun factory, erected in 1848. Henry Leman’s rifles are collector’s items today. His home, Cedar Hill, is nearby, as are homes he built for workers. He moved his factory from here in 1865; a flood in 1883 destroyed the building, and tropical storm Agnes in 1972 wreaked further damage.
4. The Pinetown covered bridge was built in 1867. Heavily damaged by tropical storm Agnes, it was repaired and replaced by funds from Lancaster County.
5. Hunsecker Mill is gone, but the miller’s house is still occupied, with its 1773 datestone.
6. Hunsecker’s covered bridge was washed away by Agnes floodwater. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania constructed a replacement covered bridge.
7. Eden Paper Mill is in a historic setting. Christian Binkley built a grist and a sawmill here in 1772. It was converted to a paper mill in 1866. Fire destroyed it in 1882; a new four-story grist and sawmill replaced it. Now it is a paper mill again. Portage here. There is deep quiet water before the dam.
8 Below the mill dam was Binkley’s Bridge, built in 1789, the first stone arch bridge in Lancaster County. A covered bridge replaced it but was later demolished.
9. The cast iron bridge built in 1932 carries Route 23, an entry to Lancaster.
Section 2A: Paddock Inn to Water Works
10. A second paper mill near the village of Eden was originally built as Graff’s carding mill in 1845. Note dam at Paddock Inn. Portage here.
11. You pass the Lancaster Country Club, on your right, and the former Whatglen Farm of the McGrann family. Nearby was Grand View Park, near Grand View Heights.
12. You are now entering Lancaster City, the oldest inland community in America. On the left is Lancaster City public recreation land, near Conestoga Pines, the city swimming pool. Still water, gradually becomes deeper, alerts you that a dam is near.
13. The dam impounded the water supply for the entire city of Lancaster between 1888 and 1954. This was the site of the second City Water Works. It could pump up to sixteen million gallons a day and still is an auxiliary city supply. The new Duckworth pumping station is on the left near the dam, also with sixteen million gallon capacity. All water for the city and many suburban areas is filtered here. The main supply is now the Susquehanna.
Portage here right side. Put canoes back in water below stone arch railroad bridge.
14. The stone arch bridge is the second on the site. Railroad traffic has been passing over the Conestoga here since 1834. The first bridge was 1,400 feet long and had ten piers. It was 62 feet above the water, and supposedly the highest bridge in the world at the time. The present bridge went up in 1888.
15. Mary Cassatt, famed American artist, lived on the hill overlooking the river as a young girl. The Cassatt family occupied Hardwicke, a fabulous mansion erected in 1810. It had 32 rooms. It was demolished in 1885 when the through rail track line was extended as a “cut-off” of the city.
Section 2B: Water Works to County Park
16. The northeast sewage disposal plant is on your right—part of the city sewage system. Note the old-time stone arch facing the river.
17. Graff’s (or Groff’s, in modern version) Mill stood here. Note the rapids. The Graff home, built in 1767, stands in restored splendor on top of the hill. The area around it is known as Grofftown. Since a Ranck family owned the mill later, the home is on Ranck Mill Drive, intersecting Conestoga Drive.
18. On the right is a red brick building, formerly a leading local center of entertainment. Built in 1877 by Lawrence Knapp, it was known as Tell Hain or Knapp’s Villa. Carriages could pill through the archway, to discharge and pick up passengers.
19. This has been a tavern site since the early days: the intersection of the Conestoga with the road to and from Philadelphia. It was known as Deering’s Ford, since Henry Deering was the tavernkeeper west of the river. Mrs. Deering nursed wounded Continental soldiers.
Through the ford, and probably often stopping at the inn for refreshments, passed American troops on the way to or from battle stations. Members of Continental Congress, scurrying out of the former capital of Philadelphia after the Battle of Brandywine, forded the river on their way to Lancaster to hold a one-day session, which took place September 27, 1777.
20. Abraham Witmer, a later tavern host closer to the river, built a wooden bridge here in 1790. In 1799 he replaced it with a nine arch stone bridge below the tavern. The modern bridge was built after Witmer’s stood 130 years; oldtimers still mourn it. A tablet, cut by Witmer’s fellow residents to honor him for building the bridge, is in the center of the modern bridge on the walkway.
21. An early toll booth stood on the east side of the river in a settlement called Bridgeport. The road under which you pass is Route 462, an entry to Lancaster. Canoes may be launched in the rear of Hartman and Lapp Marine Sales property every day except Sunday.
22. South of Witmer Bridge, in the 1900s, was the dock of the noted Lady Gay, on the right. The Lady Gay made her last trip many years ago, yet she is still spoken of fondly.
She was a steamer of shallow draw, able to carry 100 passengers on trips up and down the river. Everyone in Lancaster seems to have ridden the Lady Gay or her companion boat, the Evelyn B.
23. Conestoga Park stood in the vicinity of the dock, on the right bank. It was the starting point of the two-mile Conestoga Boulevard which was a favorite trotting spot. In winter the road was flooded and used for ice skating. Open-air summer entertainment was afforded in an amusement pavilion.
24. People’s Beach was an enterprise of “Cap” John B. Peoples, a colorful figure in Lancaster life. Lancastrians “bathed” or waded in the river. It was a favorite meeting place on the right bank.
25. Across the Conestoga was Rocky Springs Park, founded by Meilton Trissler. It offered boating and canoeing. It had a merry-go-round made by Denzel, a top American manufacturer (and still there today), as well as various other amusement devices. Baked ice cream cones are said to have originated here.
26. An iron suspension bridge connected Peoples’ Park and Rocky Springs. The center pier still stands.
27. An Indian village was located on the left, where Brenner’s Quarry operates today. Christopher Schleagel complained in 1714 that the Indians were dangerous and they had to move out. This may have been the first mill site in the county. Portage here. Get out above rapids and get back in below the bridge. Don’t try to go under the bridge.
28. A mill stood on the right also. It was bought by the city in 1836 and became the first waterworks, pumping the city supply up the hill to the right, to the reservoir built for that purpose. The reservoir supplied the city by gravity. A big parade marked the opening. Remains of the waterworks mill can be seen today. The land was occupied by a Mennonite settler in 1717, and the two homes you see date back well over 150 years.
29. Conestoga View, the county home for the indigent aged and ill, can be seen high on a hill to the right. Near this building is the county hospital erected in 1801, the second oldest county hospital in America. Close to it is Barnes Hall, a temporary residence for juveniles while awaiting court action, or before being sent to institutions.
30. You see in the stream what appear to be dead trees standing in the water. They are on piers of a bridge long vanished, which carried carriages and horsemen from Lancaster southward. Abutments of a later county bridge area are visible also on the banks.
31. You next pass Hickory Tree Heights, public low-cost housing, on your right. Below it is Franklin Terrace, a similar public project.
32. Bridge piers loom ahead—tall pillars this time. These held the bridge for the old Rocky Springs streetcar.
33. Next, on your left, is Sunnyside. It was a cottage development that became a slum.
34. The modern highway bridge replaced a covered bridge which was known as the Old Factory Bridge. The factory was part of a complex of buildings erected by Jacob Miller and his associates in the early 1800s. The mill was designed for making textiles, but chaotic economic conditions in the War of 1812 period doomed the effort.
Miller also built homes for workers and related buildings, all of which stood until demolished during the term of Mayor Thomas J. Monaghan. The factory later was used as a cotton mill and then as the first cork works in Lancaster, starting a tradition carried on today by Armstrong Cork Company and Dodge Cork Company.
35. On the left is the Williamson area of the Lancaster County Park system. This land was given the city by Henry S. Williamson, merchant-philanthropist who also gave Franklin and Marshall College it’s Williamson Field.
36. The river was so shallow that Rocky Ford was used here to get horses and wagons across. General Edward Hand, the physician who had been George Washington’s adjutant general in the Revolutionary War, built his mansion—Rock Ford—here about 1795. It is open to the public, furnished as it might have been in Hand’s day.
37. Legend says that Robert Fulton, a Lancaster County boy who in 1807 became the first to make steam navigation practical, experimented with a rowboat moved by a set of paddles on a wheel at this spot. Fulton was a protege of William Henry, armorer of the Revolution, who was the first man in America to suggest navigation by steam. A tablet commemorates Fulton’s experimental trips.
38. The area of the county park system on your left is Central Park. Below you will see the county swimming pool and headquarters for the parks and the park rangers. It’s a good place to launch a canoe. Picnic facilities are available. Lavatories are available too. In the summer, a snack bar is available at the swimming pool.
Section 3: County Park to Slackwater Road
39. On the right was Reigart’s Landing, headquarters for the canal system which utilized the Conestoga River from 1825 to 1837. You could ride the canal to the Susquehanna, go on to Baltimore via other canals, and take a boat to Europe. Reigart’s was the Head of Navigation. The canal had nine locks, the last at the village of Safe Harbor, where the Conestoga enters the Susquehanna.
40. Freddy’s Boat Landing opened after the canal ended business. You could rent a boat or a canoe for ten cents an hour or 25 cents a day.
41. On the hillside are city storage garages, on the former site of the city dump.
42. Kendrick’s Tavern stood about half a mile below Reigart’s. It was founded in 1808.
43. Engleside is one of the best-known locations on the old canal route. Originally, a ford crossed the river at Kendrick’s, half a mile above Engleside. A covered bridge was built near the present bridge site in 1805. It was replaced by a stone bridge in 1808, and a flood destroyed the replacement in 1824. Another wooden bridge was built, standing until replaced in 1900 by an iron bridge. Agnes destroyed the iron bridge. The railroad bridge, slightly downstream, was first a wooden span, then replaced by stone. Shallow water is on the left side below the bridge.
44. Highway bridges carry Routes 222 and 272, entry to Lancaster.
45. Engleside was originally Graeff’s Landing on the canal. A tavern stood here, dating back to 1790. Fred Engle bought the tavern in 1875 and enlarged it. He built a park, which he called Conestoga Retreat. The whole area is now known as Engleside.
46. The South Sewage Treatment works is below Engleside on the right side.
47. Buchmiller Park, on the left, comprises 70 acres given Lancaster in 1924 by Dulan H. Buchmiller. He also gave a statue of President James Buchanan, which stands at the entrance to Buchanan Park near Franklin and Marshall College.
48. A single pier standing midstream evokes memories of Levan’s Mill. George Levan built it in 1870, the largest woolen mill in Lancaster. It was destroyed in 1915. The old Levan mansion, on the right, is a home for the aged. Efforts were made for years to have Levan’s Mill dam restored – in vain. Portage recommended for inexperienced canoeists. Portage left side.
49. You pass under the New Danville Pike. A small cave is reported in the hills.
50. The old stone foundation of Second Lock Mill can be seen. The miller’s home is nearby.
51. Second Lock Bridge is gone, but until burned by vandals in 1968, it was the longest covered bridge in the county—349 feet long. The channel of flow left side. Portage right side.
52. A mile below Second Lock is a cave, now mostly caved in.
53. Gable’s Park, not visible from the river, once drew happy holiday throngs. It had a pavilion and large springs. A wrecked house still can be seen from the Wabank Road.
54. On the left is Circle M Ranch, a recreation area open to the public; formerly the farm of H. W. Prentis, Jr., Armstrong Cork Company president.
55. Just below the bridge, on the right, was Wabank House, erected as a resort hotel for well-to-do Lancastrians. The building stood 1855-1863 until sold to Samuel Lichtenthaler. He took it down and moved it by horse and wagon to Lititz, where he reassembled it as the Lititz Springs Hotel. It was destroyed in 1873 by a fire so violent that companies were called in from as far away as Lancaster to fight it.
56. Ruined walls recall Wabank Mill, built in 1800, later used as an electric mill, until destroyed by fire. Channel of flow right side. Portage left side.
57. Millersville State College has land stretching to the vicinity of the river. The college was chartered in 1859 as the first school in Pennsylvania to train teachers. Access area via Creek Road.
58. Lock Number 4 on the old canal stood at a hamlet called Slackwater. Highway bridge carries Slackwater Road; entrance to Millersville.
Section 4: Slackwater Road to Safe Harbor
59. The first courts in Lancaster County were held at Postlethwaite’s
Tavern. A bronze tablet erected by the Lancaster County Historical Society commemorates events here. The township in which Postlethwait’s is located is called Conestoga.
60. At Rockhill there is a tavern. There is also a dam requiring a portage. A recreation area developed by the Conestoga Valley Association starts here and extends along the river at various locations toward the Susquehanna. River wide; deep, quiet water. Access here.
61. A major Indian trail bordered the river here. A plaque tells the story.
62. The confluence of the Conestoga River and the Little Conestoga Creek has many historic associations. Indian Town, a village of the Conestogas was to the southwest. James Logan, William Penn’s secretary, set up a trading post on the right bank below the meeting of the streams.
The stone foundations of Logan’s building now support a large barn. Logan was first to use the term “Conestoga Wagon”; he had wagons such as these in 1716. These became basic to trade between Philadelphia, Lancaster, and the lands west of it.
63. Safe Harbor is on the site of a major city that William Penn envisioned. He and his family reserved land here as Penn Manor, but the idea never came to fruition. Safe Harbor was once a manufacturing center.
It is now known for the hydroelectric dam of Pennsylvania Power and Light Company and as a center for cottagers, boaters, and fishermen. From here, one can travel by water into the Chesapeake Bay and thence to the Atlantic.
You are advised to end your voyage before your canoe enters the Susquehanna unless you know the area or have full information about water level changes on the Susquehanna. An excellent place to debark is at the public picnic areas on the left.
If you would prefer to read the booklet in its original form, here’s the PDF.
Need a Kayak?
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