River Monsters of the Susquehanna Deeps

About 15 years ago, I was on a tour of Safe Harbor Dam while taking the Hands-on History of Lancaster County course through Millersville University. Our guide, a retired employee, said they periodically send divers down behind the dam to remove large underwater debris like sunken trees. One time a diver went down only to resurface a few minutes later. He quickly climbed out, announcing he was quitting!

The reason?

In the murky depths, he claimed to see a creature large enough to eat him.

Truth be told, every hydroelectric dam in the country has some version of this story. However, there might be a kernel of truth to this fishy-sounding tale. Catfish, for example, never stop growing. Several variables affect their size, with water temperature and access to food being the biggest. Catfish begin active feeding at water temperatures above 70°F with the potential for rapid growth if adequate food is available. As a reference point, the Susquehanna River near Safe Harbor was 84 degrees in August 2022.

The following two photos lend additional credibility to the local man-eating monster tale. Someone caught this 46-pound beast from the Safe Harbor Dam fishing pier on September 26, 2022. Both images come courtesy of Bruce Nickles’ Instagram. Believe it or not, bigger fish have been caught on the river.

The largest ever caught in the Susquehanna was a 57-pound, 50-inch-long flathead on December 27, 2020, near the Lapidum Boat Ramp, about 10 miles downriver of the Pennsylvania-Maryland state line.

Joshua Dixon hoists the 57-pound flathead catfish that is the largest of its species encountered to date in the Susquehanna River. Photo courtesy of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

In Pennsylvania’s portion of the river, the record is a 50-pound, 7-ounce catfish hooked near the Muddy Creek public access in York County on April 6, 2019.

UPDATE: A new state record of 66 pounds 4 oz was caught on Sunday, May 14, 2023, near Columbia, PA, as reported by Columbia Bait & Tackle. Reports indicate that the fish was live released after having it officially weighed.

Elsewhere in the world, much, much larger catfish have been snared. The Mekong giant catfish is the official freshwater heavyweight champion of the world. A nine-foot-long one caught in northern Thailand in 2005 weighed a staggering 646 pounds. It fought for over an hour before a team of fishermen finally prevailed in hauling it in.

I have seen enough episodes of River Monsters with Jeremy Wade to know that even the biggest catfish are not large enough to swallow a full-grown human. However, bottom feeders like catfish will try to eat anything that will fit in their mouth, so theoretically, a person’s arm or leg is fair game.

Giant catfish may not be the Susquehanna’s only monsters. In January 2023, I attended Paul Nevin’s Ancient Carvings on the Susquehanna presentation at the Zimmerman Center. He mentioned that at least one petroglyph at Safe Harbor might depict another.

Here is the carving in question seen from various angles.

Much surrounding the 1,000-year-old petroglyphs is still unknown. As such, theories vary in their meanings. For example, one theory suggests that this particular pictogram represents the manitou—the spiritual and fundamental life force among Algonquian groups in Native American theology. It is omnipresent and manifests everywhere: organisms, the environment, events, etc. Others think it resembles a comet or shooting star that Native Americans would have seen in the night sky a millennium ago. Maybe both.

Nevin suggests it might portray a “creature of the deeps,” specifically a Misiginebig. The Misiginebig is a giant underwater serpent. It is described as being as large around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head, a bright blazing crest on its forehead, and scales glowing like sparks of fire. Misiginebig lurks in the depths of large bodies of water and eats humans.

Belief in the creature includes most Native American tribes, including the Algonquian. As such, the animal has many names—Misiginebig, Mishi-Ginebig, Ginebik, Uktena, etc.—depending on the indigenous group, but they all mean “great serpent.”

Below is a LiDAR scan of Little Indian Rock that you can interact with virtually. Figure 5 highlights the Misiginebig found on the LiDAR.

Fun Fact

Geologically, the Susquehanna River is one of the oldest major river systems in the world. If it isn’t the oldest, it is definitely in the top five. It dates back to the Paleozoic Era (543 to 248 million years ago). There is evidence that the flow of the ancient Susquehanna was established early enough to predate the Appalachian mountains’ formation over 300 million years ago.

With the Susquehanna being the longest commercially unnavigable river in the United States, where could just a massive creature hide? Enter the Susquehanna Deeps.

The Susquehanna is 444 miles long, and for most of that distance, the river moves along lazily, dropping two to three feet per mile. Things change dramatically when the water enters an area south of Columbia, PA, below Turkey Hill. Here the river is funneled through a deep canyon-like region carved into the ancient rocks of the Piedmont called the “Susquehanna Gorge.”

As the water is squeezed through the gorge, it drops sharply, approximately six feet per mile. On the flat bottom of this 40-mile-long stretch are six long spoon-shaped depressions called the “Susquehanna Deeps.” These underwater canyons descend as much as 200 feet below the surface, their deepest portions extending below sea level. The deeps first appeared on Latrobe’s map, derived from his 1801 survey.

Susquehanna River Survey Map by Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

Construction of the Holtwood dam in 1909 exposed some of the deeps, prompting more extensive studies of the depths of all six. Coincidentally, the last three of the Susquehanna’s hydroelectric dams each have one of the deeps directly behind them.

Perhaps that Safe Harbor diver didn’t bump into a giant catfish in the murky waters behind the dam but Misiginebig, who wandered up from the deeps looking for something to eat.

What do you think?

Diver at Safe Harbor spots a Misiginebig in the murky depths of the Susquehanna.

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2 thoughts on “River Monsters of the Susquehanna Deeps

  1. Just spent more than an hour reading about the wiers and on to the earlier tribes and archeology. Just fantastic. I’m already a member of Unchartered Lancaster.

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