Become a Susquehanna River expert with these 8 engrossing facts

Towanda is a small town in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, with a population of less than 3,000. It was established in 1828 and sits on the scenic Susquehanna River. (Getty Images)

By Kalena Thomhave

March 6, 2024

Since before humans walked on this land, rivers have shaped Pennsylvania — and they continue to shape it. Perhaps no river is as key to the commonwealth as the Susquehanna River, the bulk of which winds through the Keystone State.

At 444 miles long, the mighty Susquehanna is the longest river on the East Coast and drains almost half of Pennsylvania. It sustains wildlife, provides drinking water to millions of Pennsylvanians, and offers recreational opportunities.

Read on to learn about the history of the Susquehanna River and how you can enjoy the river today — and help protect it for the future.

1. The Susquehanna River is one of the oldest rivers in the world.

The Susquehanna River formed 300 million years ago — before even the ancient Appalachian Mountains through which the river flows. Back then, the world looked pretty different. For one, the continents were united in one land mass we now call Pangaea, and for another, the earth was covered in swampy forests. Dead plants in the swamps produced peat, which was eventually compressed into coal.

We’ll get back to coal — that becomes important to Pennsylvania, and relevant to the Susquehanna, later.

2. We’re not exactly sure where the word “Susquehanna” comes from, but it refers to the people who lived in the area in the early 1600s.

The earliest documentation of the word was by Captain John Smith in his 1612 map of the Chesapeake region. He referred to an area along the lower river as “Sasquesahanough,” where a native tribe — which he called the “Sasquesahanocks” — lived.

That’s not how the tribe referred to themselves, but how another tribe referred to them. Smith probably got the name from a coastal tribe who referred to the tall Iroquoian people who lived along the branching river as the “Susquehannock.”

Translation is tricky, especially hundreds of years later, but in the Algonquian dialect of the coastal tribes, the word might mean “people of the muddy river” or even “people of the freshwater river.” It’s therefore a good assumption that “Susquehanna” originally meant “muddy river.”

3. You can still ride a ferry to cross the river.

Back before bridges were built across the Susquehanna, the river was crossable only by ferry! As long ago as the 1700s, people crossed the wide waters of the Susquehanna by man-powered ferries, dozens of which operated along the river’s shores. Of all these ferries, only the Millersburg Ferry Boats remain.

You can take a seasonal ride on either The Roaring Bull V or The Falcon III ferries which connect Millersburg to Perry County. There’s even limited space for you to bring your car!

Photo courtesy of <a href=httpswwwfacebookcomMillersburgFerry tn = UCF>Millersburg Ferry<a> via Facebook

4. The Susquehanna is vulnerable to pollution.

We said we’d get back to coal. Contamination from a variety of sources has polluted the Susquehanna. Urban stormwater, drainage from abandoned coal mines, and manure from farms along the river harm the Susquehanna and threaten the health of the river for all who depend on it. The condition of the Susquehanna also affects bodies of water further downstream. For instance, the Susquehanna River provides half of the Chesapeake Bay’s freshwater — and as a result, nearly half of the bay’s nitrogen pollution.

But Pennsylvanians can help the Susquehanna by getting involved with organizations like the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, which works to protect the river and educate the public about it.

5. The Susquehanna River was the site of a famous nuclear accident.

The infamous Three Mile Island accident occurred within the waters of the Susquehanna River in 1979, as the now-closed Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station was built on a sandbar in the river, not far from Harrisburg. During the 1979 accident, one of the plant’s two reactors suffered a partial meltdown, and dangerous radiation seeped into the environment. While a larger crisis of total meltdown was averted and only minute amounts of radiation were discovered in the river, the accident increased public backlash against nuclear power.

6. There are stories about a monster in the river.

Legend has it that the Susquehanna Seal — also called the West Branch Dugong or the Kettle Creek Monster — terrorized Clinton County inhabitants near Kettle Creek in the late 1800s. Lumber workers said that the creature would turn over their rafts and residents said they heard terrible howling noises coming from the river at night.

Central Pa. cryptid specialist Lou Bernard has written about the Susquehanna Seal, including how some suggest it may have been a prehistoric creature called a “hynerpeton” that didn’t get the memo that it was extinct.

7. You can paddle the river by kayak or canoe.

The Susquehanna may only be the 16th longest river in the US, but with its shallow waters and occasional rapids, it’s the longest commercially non-navigable one. You can, however, enjoy paddling the Susquehanna by kayak or canoe. In fact, the river holds the designation as Pa.’s largest water trail system.

The Susquehanna River Water Trail is made up of more than 500 miles of navigable waterway, passing the woodlands of the West Branch, the meadows and farmland of the North Branch, the river islands of the Middle Susquehanna, and the “lakes” of the Lower Susquehanna.

You can make a day trip out of a paddling adventure or you can devote multiple days to your kayak or canoe journey and camp at designated campsites along the river.

Photo courtesy of Discover Lancaster

8. Hydroelectric dams on the river produce hydropower — but dams are controversial. 

Communities around the river source some of their energy from the Susquehanna, as the river is the site of a handful of hydroelectric dams. These dams harness the power of water to produce hydroelectricity.

However, if not constructed with care, dams can also cause severe environmental impacts such as disrupting the river’s natural ecology, harming animal populations, and even increasing carbon emissions.

This article first appeared on Good Info News Wire and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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