Safe Harbor Mini-Adventure (2023): River Navigation

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Location: Find the informational kiosk at the other end of the Safe Harbor Trestle Bridge, highlighting the construction of the Safe Harbor dam. 39°55’33.5″N 76°23’14.9″W.

History Brief: Until it was made obsolete by the railroad, downriver navigation played a large role in the formation of a community near Safe Harbor.

Clue: Record the 80 year period when downriver navigation was at its heaviest.

Rest of the Story: According to Ellis & Evans’ 1883 History of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, “The Susquehanna is one of the largest and most important rivers in the State.” Unfortunately, at 444 miles long, it is also the longest commercially unnavigable river in the United States. Captain John Smith had a vague idea of the river’s obstacles when he attempted to ascend the Susquehanna in 1608 while mapping the Chesapeake Bay but was soon stopped by rocky waters.

On his famous Map of Virginia, he called this spot “Smyths Fales” [Smith Falls], marking it with an ❌, which he explained as meaning “hath bin discovered what beyond is by relation.”

Trappers returning from the western frontier of what would eventually become Lancaster County in 1729 spoke of rich soil, timber-filled forests, and abundant wildlife. Europeans desired to push into this bountiful land that many saw as “free” to claim; however, one major problem kept the potential settlers from truly possessing the land—transportation. How could they get there with their belongings? By what means could they get their produce to the eastern markets?

The dangerous nature of the Susquehanna was soon seen as a “great obstruction and bar to the wealth and population of our Western country” as reported by a committee appointed to survey the river in the late 1700s. To remedy the situation, the Pennsylvania Assembly declared the Susquehanna a public waterway in 1771 and began taking steps to improve it.

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