Ice Found on the Susquehanna…in August!

The second week of August in 1926 started much like every other week for David Rankins of Safe Harbor. Rankins began by making the short trip to Shenks Ferry, where he walked along a floating pipeline riding on a flotilla of pontoons to a coal dredging barge.

On this day, his commute across the Susquehanna River was over 1,200 feet. The opposite shore still lay some 3,600 feet away.

A 1922 aerial photo showing how Rankins’ dredging barge would have looked.

The route could be somewhat precarious, especially if the river was in a sour mood. In rough weather, he would traverse the distance in a rowboat instead of by foot. However, today the waterway was calm, with temperatures expected to reach 100…again.

Rankins was employed by the Anthracite Products Corporation, where he was the first mate and engineer on a dredging barge. Soon his assistant Roy Kleinhans, also of Safe Harbor, arrived as well. The two men fired up the machine and began work.

The dredging was done utilizing an endless chain 30 feet long equipped with steel prongs that dug deep into the river’s bed. The chain was attached to a derrick mounted on the floating barge, which enables it to be raised and lowered. As the material was removed from the river, it was sucked up by a 12-inch diameter pipe running all the way back to shore. Once there, it circulated through a series of rotary sleeves that separated the coal from sand, silt, mud, wood, and water.

1922 aerial photo looking east
1922 aerial photo looking east at Shenks Ferry. Image courtesy of Randy Moyer.

The coal was then immediately loaded onto railroad cars and shipped to Lancaster and Baltimore for use in their industrial plants.

The unwanted material from the separating plant was then washed down to the river in wooden troughs. This created huge peninsulas that extended a great distance into the Susquehanna, as shown below.

1926 aerial photo looking south.
A 1926 aerial photo looking south at Shenks Ferry shows the monstrous discarded sand peninsulas.

The men could recover as much as 20 tons of coal an hour; however, sometimes, depending upon the richness of the deposit, the amount could go as high as 75 tons. In total, the operation averaged more than 75,000 tons of dredged coal each year.

By 1948, two million tons of anthracite had been recovered from the river. For a time, Holtwood even burned the once submerged fuel to turn two steam turbines, increasing the electric output of the dam by 25 percent.

Work started from the bank of the river extending in a semi-circle until the location was completely exhausted. Additions were then made to lengthen the pipeline, and dredging resumed further out in the channel.

A tug boat on the right is moving a loaded barge on the Susquehanna.

Interestingly enough, this dredged coal is not natural to the area.

Like a giant rain gutter, the Susquehanna had been collecting the coal particles that flow with the breaker waste wash and sluice off the culm heaps surrounding anthracite mines in northeastern Pennsylvania. Over the years, this steady trickle of coal began to settle on the bottom of the eight-mile-long Lake Aldred to the point that sand became black with coal.

The deposits grew to sufficient size behind the Holtwood Dam that it warranted the expenditure of thousands of dollars in equipment and men to harvest it.

For Rankins, the work was anything but tedious. The hum of the 300 horsepower motors and the swish of the pumps meant winter heat was being safely stored away for future use. There was also the promise of excitement with the ever-present chance of bringing something forgotten to the surface that has been lost for many years.

A hydraulic jet breaks up the dredges’ haul. Small particles, including coal, go through a screen onto a barge. Large material drops back into the river.

Today did not disappoint.

Despite being early August with temperatures hovering around the century mark during a week-long heatwave, the seemingly impossible happened. Rankins dislodged four large chunks of ice, averaging nearly five feet in length. At the time, Rankins was 1,200 feet from shore and operating in water 30 feet deep.

The appearance of the ice was a vivid reminder of the harsh winters that regularly struck the region.

News of the discovery spread quickly.

The working theory was that the previous winter’s ice had been caught in some inexplicable undercurrent that dragged it deep below the surface. There the ice became lodged beneath a formation of rocks and was eventually covered by sand and sediment. Hidden deep in the water and insulated with several inches of river bottom, the ice was protected from the sweltering summer heat. Its recovery became a first on record for August.

The appearance of the icebergs helped to revive many “mystery tales of the river.” Those who knew the ancient waterway well insisted it possessed many mysteries still unknown by man.

How ancient, you ask?

Geologically, the Susquehanna is considered one of the oldest major river system in the world, dating back to the Paleozoic Era (543 to 248 million years ago). There is even evidence that this primordial river predates the formation of the Appalachian mountains.

📷: John A. Pavoncello

One such “mystery tale,” says an underground canal leads from some unknown point in the river’s bottom and joins another stream many miles away. Logs have been seen to suddenly disappear in a whirling foam, never to be seen again. Attempts to determine the exact location of this opening have been fruitless.

Shockingly a variation of this myth became a reality on January 22, 1959, when the ice-laden Susquehanna River broke through the roof of the River Slope Mine of the Knox Coal Company in nearby Port Griffith in Jenkins Township in what would become known as the Knox Mine disaster.

This allowed billions of gallons of water to flood the interconnected mines through a whirlpool nearly 200 feet wide. It took three days to plug the hole in the riverbed, which was done by dumping large railroad cars, smaller mine cars, culm, and other debris into the whirlpool formed by the water draining into the mine.

Most of the railroad cars dumped into the pit were never seen again. Although, some people believe a few of those objects reemerged 130 miles downstream after flowing through a series of both coal mines and naturally occurring tunnels.

They prove this “theory” by highlighting the existence of two unexplained freight cars in the river. One is located near Susquehannock State Park. It’s not visible on Google Maps but is on others such as Bing and Apple Maps.

A second can be found further downstream near the mouth of Fishing Creek.

Unfortunately, it is extremely improbable that the Knox Mine Disaster is responsible for either. A more plausible explanation is a derailment along the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad. I’m sure a train enthusiast will be able to provide the dates for these accidents in the comments below.

Interestingly, a similar legend involves Wind Cave (located south of Shenks Ferry in Pequea). The belief is a secret passage inside the cave goes under the river to the York County side. If it is there, I have not been able to find it on any of my visits to the cave.

Inside Wind Cave near Pequea. 📷: Denny Zeigler.

Another river mystery tale speaks of the existence of an underground canal fed by some large subterranean pool. Yet another suggests the presence of a river with small caves in which the ice may have become lodged.

What do you think?

Do you have any mystery tales of the river you want to share?

Believe it or not, coal dredging continued on the Susquehanna until 1972, when Tropical Storm Agnes made significant changes to the Susquehanna’s sediment load.

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3 thoughts on “Ice Found on the Susquehanna…in August!

  1. I am curator of a small museum in York Co. I’ve heard tales of a high school teacher taking students out on the river annually. She would do a science experiment of weighted ropes to find the depth of the river. They ran out of rope before ever hitting the bottom.
    Also one of our quarries is supposedly fed by arctic water.

  2. I had a older friend Henry R. McBride . He worked for the P.R.R. at the time. He was one of the brave men that sent those railroad cars into the whirl pool. He said we all was afraid it would suddenly get bigger and take us down before we could run.

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