SNYDER: Susquehanna flows with history

The York Dispatch

During the winter, we tend to get nostalgic.

As the cold weather chases us indoors, it’s not hard to daydream about warmer days and times gone by.

As somebody that’s passionate about our local waterways and how they affected our history, my thoughts naturally head toward that mighty river that flows through the county’s backyard.

The Susquehanna River, and the hills and valleys that surround it, are one of the area’s most popular recreational areas. We hunt, fish, swim, hike, boat and picnic on and around the river. But few of us truly understand the area’s history. If we did, our days outside would be much more exciting and enjoyable.

One of the first things folks like to do when they visit the Susquehanna is climb on the many rock outcroppings that line its present-day shoreline.

Folks familiar with the area’s history, however, know that the river’s current borders are far from where they once were. When the area’s first inhabitants, the Susquehannock Indians, ruled the land during the Paleo-Indian period (13,000 to 7,500 B.C.), the river’s flow was dramatically different. It didn’t cut its current shoreline until less than a century ago when the first of numerous dams were built.

Chances are, those very rocks where many of us have sat and pondered the world were scaled by some of the thousands of natives that inhabited the area long before the area was colonized.

With keen eyes, river visitors still have the opportunity to view the artwork carved into the rocks by the Susquehannocks. Unfortunately, many of the artifacts are now hidden beneath dozens of feet river water, slowly eroding with each drop of water that passes by.

Again, unless they are history buffs, most people do not know the significant role that ever-flowing water played in the area’s colonial days.

The mighty Susquehanna was once a vital delivery route for all sorts of goods. Tobacco, meat, grain, lumber and a wide variety of other important products flowed up and down the river.

Many folks have heard about the system of canals and locks that made river transportation possible. But few folks have ever heard about the 75-foot Susquehanna Arks that could be seen lazily drifting down the river during the early 19th century.

Each spring, as a winter’s worth of snow melted and swelled the river’s boundaries, scores of sailors in New York would board large wooden boats and head south down the river.

Their flimsy craft would be loaded with a range of goods destined for larger ships waiting at the head of the Chesapeake Bay. It would take eight dangerous days to make the interstate journey, but the rewards were worth it. Each year, millions of dollars of goods flowed down the river.

Once at the final destinations, the products were sold, the boats were dismantled and sold as lumber, and the crew — with heavy pockets — walked home. An upstream journey back to New York was out of the question.

Little-known stories like these abound. York County and its slowly curving section of the Susquehanna is ripe with history. As true lovers of the outdoors, we are charged with the duty of uncovering them and sharing them with those around us. It will make our time with Mother Nature infinitely more rewarding.

If it’s too cold to head outside, pick up a book. Learn about the natural history that surrounds us.

Andy Snyder writes about the outdoors for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at