Ice on the Susquehanna

Ice on the Susquehanna is a femme fatale—mysteriously beautiful and potentially dangerous. More than once, this naturally occurring phenomenon has had catastrophic effects on the Susquehanna Valley. Here are six unique ice on the Susquehanna short stories.

Ice jam on the Susquehanna photo taken by Ed Schopf in Pequea. Dated February and March 1918.

March 1784

The first recorded ice jam flood on the river dates back to 1784. There were undoubtedly more before that. The following March 24, 1865 article from the Lewisburg Chronicle details the event.

March 24, 1865 edition of the ‘Lewisburg Chronicle.’

During the intervening centuries, ice on the mighty Susquehanna has ruined bridges, canals, railroads, and communities multiple times.

Winter of 1832

1832 proved to be a bitterly cold winter creating thick ice that stacked up to great heights along the shallow sections of the river. When the ice began to break up during a February thaw, it flowed down the river raising the water 30 feet in places. It picked up homes, barns, and even cattle. Then the ice jammed up south of Columbia, creating a natural dam. Water and ice rose lifting the first bridge that spanned the Susquehanna off its piers and destroyed it on February 5, 1832.

Possible painting of the first bridge across the Susquehanna by W. H. Bartlett.

Winter of 1852

Another long and cold winter was in 1852. That year the Susquehanna froze from bank to bank in Maryland, preventing all ferry service. This presented a real problem for the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad Company. They had no bridge across the river using ferries to transport passengers and freight across the water.

Railroad officials overcame this perplexing situation by laying tracks across the ice. Workers completed the project on January 15, 1852, and for the next 41 days, 10,000 tons distributed across almost 1,400 cars made the trip across the frozen river. Click here to read more about this unique railroad line.

Close-up of the Adams Express Company lithograph.

Great Ice Flood of 1904

Another brutally cold winter was 1904 when the Susquehanna River was frozen solid in two-foot thick ice. The ice was so thick that local merchants could transport goods between Lancaster and York counties via horse-drawn freight wagons.

Finally, in early March, signs of spring began to emerge, and the mighty river’s enormous ice sheet started to break up with the help of heavy rains. However, as the gigantic ice floe moved downriver on the afternoon of March 8, it became snagged on the landscape, instantly damming the river. 

In some places, the river level rose 10 feet in five minutes. The ice and water destroyed the York Haven power plant and a paper mill, erased the town of Collins near Falmouth, and blocked the Conestoga River at its mouth, punishing the village of Safe Harbor. 

The Pennsylvania Railroad brought in 3,000 men with pickaxes and shovels to clear the tracks between Columbia and Harrisburg. In some places, the ice was 30 feet deep. Click here to read more about this unique railroad line.

Ice 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.

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. The two men fired up the machine and began work.

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

The two 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.

Despite being early August with temperatures hovering around the 100 degrees mark during a week-long heatwave, the seemingly impossible happened. Rankins dislodged four large chunks of ice, averaging nearly five feet in length.

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. Click here to read more.

January 1978

More recently, on January 29, 1978, a combination of ice and melting snow caused the highest level of flooding ever seen at Safe Harbor Dam—202.4 feet. Agnes, on the other hand, was 195.5 feet in comparison. It knocked out the electrical generating system at Safe Harbor Dam and forced a shut down at Holtwood Dam eight miles downstream. Click here to read more.

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4 thoughts on “Ice on the Susquehanna

  1. Hi there, just wondering, where the Safe Harbor Ironworks damaged/ destroyed in the 1904 ice flood at all?

    1. I’m not 100 percent sure. The ice flood did major damage to the community basically ending the town. I think at that point the rolling mill had become a match making factory. If I remember correctly it burnt down.

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