It was one of the very first of my memories. From the lawn of our home I could look across the road and down the hill through a gap in the woodlands. There I could see water, sometimes still with numerous boulders exposed, other times rushing, muddy, and roaring. Behind these waters was a great stone wall and beyond that a wooded hillside. I recall my dad asking me if I could see the dam down there. I couldn’t see a dam, just fascinating water and the gray wall behind it. I looked and searched but not a trace of a structure spanning the near to far shore was to be seen. Finally, at some point, I answered in the affirmative to his query; I could see the dam…but I couldn’t.
We lived in a small house in the village of Falmouth along the Susquehanna River in the northwest corner of Lancaster County over fifty years ago. A few years after we had left our riverside domicile and moved to a larger town, the little house was relocated to make way for an electric distribution sub-station and a second set of electric transmission wires in the gap in the woodlands. The Brunner Island coal-fired electric generating station was being upgraded downstream and, just upstream, a new nuclear-powered generating station was being constructed on Three Mile Island. To make way for the expanding energy grid, our former residence was trucked to a nearby boat landing where there were numerous other river shacks and cabins. Because it was placed in the floodplain, the building was raised onto a set of wooden stilts to escape high water. It didn’t help. The recording-breaking floods of Hurricane Agnes in June of 1972 swept the house away.
During the time we lived along the Susquehanna, the river experienced record-low flow rates, particularly in the autumn of 1963 and again in 1964. My dad was a dedicated 8mm home-movie photographer. Among his reels was film of buses parked haphazardly along the road (PA Route 441 today) near our home. Sightseers were coming to explore the widely publicized dry riverbed and a curious moon-like landscape of cratered rocks and boulders. It’s hard to fathom, but people did things like that during their weekends before football was invented. Scores of visitors climbed through the rocks and truck-size boulders inspecting this peculiar scene. My dad, his friends, and so many others with camera in hand were experiencing the amazing geological feature known as the Pothole Rocks of Conewago Falls.
The river here meets serious resistance as it pushes its way through the complex geology of south-central Pennsylvania. These hard dark-gray rocks, York Haven Diabase, are igneous in origin. Diabase sheets and sills intruded the Triassic sediments of the Gettysburg Formation here over 190 million years ago. It may be difficult to visualize, but these sediments were eroded from surrounding mountains into the opening rift valley we call the Gettysburg Basin. This rift and others in a line from Nova Scotia to Georgia formed as the supercontinent Pangaea began dividing into the continents we know today. Eventually the Atlantic Ocean rift would dominate as the active dynamic force and open to separate Africa from North America. The inactive Gettysburg Basin, filled with sediments and intruded by igneous diabase, would henceforth, like the mountainous highlands surrounding it, be subjected to millions of years of erosion. Of the regional rocks, the formations of Triassic redbeds, sandstones, and particularly diabase in the Gettysburg Basin are among the more resistant to the forces of erosion. Many less resistant older rocks, particularly those of surrounding mountains, are gone. Today, the remains of the Gettysburg Basin’s rock formations stand as rolling highlands in the Piedmont Province.
The weekend visitors in 1963 and 1964 marveled at evidence of the river’s fight to break down the hard York Haven Diabase. Scoured bedrock traced the water’s turbulent flow patterns through the topography of the falls. Meltwater from the receding glaciers of the Pleistocene Ice Ages thousands to tens of thousands of years ago raged in high volume abrasive-loaded torrents to sculpt the Pothole Rocks into the forms we see today. Our modern floodwaters with ice and fine suspended sediments continue to wear at the smooth rocks and boulders, yet few are broken or crumbled to be swept away. It’s a very slow process. The river elevation here drops approximately 19 feet in a quarter of a mile, a testament to the bedrock’s persisting resistance to erosion. Conewago Falls stands as a natural anomaly on a predominantly uniform gradient along the lower Susquehanna’s downhill path from the Appalachian Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay.
The scene of dangerous tumbling rapids during high flows, the drought and low water of 1963 and 1964 had left the falls to resemble a placid scene; a moonscape during a time when people were obsessed with mankind’s effort to visit earth’s satellite. Visitors saw the falls as few others had during the twentieth century. Much of it was due to the presence of the wall. I had to be a bit older than four years old to grasp it. You see the wall and the dam are one and the same. The wall is the York Haven Dam.
The initial segment, a crib dam constructed in 1885 by the York Haven Paper Company to supply water power to their mill, took advantage of the geomorphic features of the diabase bedrock of Conewago Falls to divert additional river flow into the abandoned Conewago Canal. The former canal, opened in 1797 to allow passage around the rapids along the west shore, was being used as a headrace to channel water into the grinding mill’s turbines. Strategic placement of this first wall directed as much water as possible toward the mill with the smallest dam practicable. The York Haven Power Company incorporated the paper mill’s crib dam into the “run-of-the-river” dam built through the falls from the electric turbine powerhouse they constructed on the west shore to the southern portion of Three Mile Island more than a mile away. The facility began electric generation in 1904. The construction of the “Red Hill Dam” from the east shore of Three Mile Island to the river’s east shore made York Haven Dam a complete impoundment on the Susquehanna. The pool, “Lake Frederic”, thus floods that portion of the Pothole Rocks of Conewago Falls located behind the dam. On the downstream side, water spilling over or through the dam often inundates the rocks or renders them inaccessible.
During the droughts of the early 1960s, diversion of nearly all river flow to the York Haven Dam powerhouse cleared the way for weekend explorers to see the Pothole Rocks in detail. Void of water, the intriguing bedrock of Conewago Falls below the dam greeted the curious with its ripples, cavities, and oddity. It was an opportunity nature alone would not provide. It was all because of the wall.
Smith, Stephen H. 2015. #6 York Haven Paper Company; on the Site of One of the Earliest Canals in America. York Past website www.yorkblog.com/yorkpast/2015/02/17/6-york-haven-paper-company-on-the-site-of-one-of-the-earliest-canals-in-america/ as accessed July 17, 2017.
Stranahan, Susan Q. 1993. Susquehanna, River of Dreams. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, Maryland.
Van Diver, Bradford B. 1990. Roadside Geology of Pennsylvania. Mountain Press Publishing Company. Missoula, Montana.