A rendering of the master plan to improve the Zimmerman Center in Lower Windsor Township shows the planned riverside pavilion with a canoe and kayak launch
A rendering of the master plan to improve the Zimmerman Center in Lower Windsor Township shows the planned riverside pavilion with a canoe and kayak launch area and other amenities. (Submitted photo)

About 50 years ago, the stretch of Susquehanna River that forms York's eastern border was too filthy for anyone to visit.

It was so gross in the  '60s that the YMCA closed Camp Minqua along the river because they didn't want the kids to swim in it.

Those days are gone, with decades of improvement since the Clean Water Act and other environmental protections were put in place. People swim, boat and kayak, and fisherman can generally eat their catch without a care.

But some Yorkers are still testing toe-to-water when it comes to rediscovering the county's biggest watercourse, said Jonathan Pinkerton, vice president at Susquehanna Gateway Heritage Area.

The not-for-profit organization, based along the river at Long Level, is tasked with reconnecting the people and their river. A $1.5 million enhancement project expected to break ground Monday is aimed at just that, Pinkerton said.

Historic building: Susquehanna Gateway has for about the past nine years been based in a historic building, the John & Kathryn Zimmerman Center for Heritage, at 1706 Long Level Road in Lower Windsor Township, said Betsy Buckingham, director of development and outreach.

The center is positioned between the river and the Native Lands County Park, an unfinished

187-acre property that can only be accessed by trail heads, one of which is located in the Zimmerman parking lot.

The park includes the last known village of the Susquehannocks, who lived along the river and were believed to have been driven into Maryland by the Seneca around 1680.

Pinkerton said the project will include improvements to land and water, including a new parking lot and better access to the park, as well as features that draw excursionists from the river and enhance the building's role as a visitor center.

"Part of the purpose of this project ... is to make people aware that these resources exist," he said. "A lot of people aren't aware of it."

The new features include a riverside pavilion, a canoe and kayak boat launch, a floating dock and scenic walkways to draw visitors to the center, he said.

There's a water trail on the river from Harrisburg to the Mason-Dixon line, and the project will connect that trail to the existing network of land trails on the site via a pedestrian crossing, he said.

Kayakers and others can explore the outdoors through the scenic walkways, native gardens, rain garden, and a river-view terrace planned for the site, or go inside the center to see a permanent exhibit of Susquehanna River art, he said.

Target date: The center is expected to be closed until after Nov. 22, when the project is scheduled for completion, he said.

Because of the historical significance of the area, an archeologist will be on site during reconfiguration of the parking lot to make sure any findings are properly documented, Pinkerton said.

The project is being funded through a mix of private and public money, including a $1 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration for construction of visitor facilities, $127,000 from the National Park Service, $110,000 from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and $75,000 from the state Fish and Boat Commission.

-- Reach Christina Kauffman at ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com.