Susquehanna River

Susquehanna River
Susquehanna River [1]
Susquehanna River in Bradford County, Pennsylvania
Country USA
States Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York
 - left Lackawanna River, Swatara Creek, Conestoga River
 - right Unadilla River, Chenango River, Chemung River, West Branch, Juniata River
Cities Harrisburg, PA, Wilkes-Barre, PA, Binghamton, NY
Source Otsego Lake
 - location Cooperstown, Otsego County, New York, USA
 - elevation 1,180 ft (360 m)
 - coordinates 42°42′02″N 74°55′10″W / 42.70056°N 74.91944°W / 42.70056; -74.91944
Secondary source West Branch Susquehanna River
 - location Carrolltown, Cambria County, Pennsylvania, USA
 - elevation 1,980 ft (604 m)
 - coordinates 40°35′55″N 78°42′56″W / 40.59861°N 78.71556°W / 40.59861; -78.71556
Mouth Chesapeake Bay
 - location Cecil County / Harford County, at Havre de Grace, Maryland, USA
 - elevation 0 ft (0 m)
 - coordinates 39°32′35″N 76°04′32″W / 39.54306°N 76.07556°W / 39.54306; -76.07556
Length 464 mi (747 km)
Basin 27,500 sq mi (71,225 km2)
Discharge for Conowingo Dam, MD
 - average 40,080 cu ft/s (1,135 m3/s)
 - max 1,130,000 cu ft/s (31,998 m3/s) June 24, 1972[2]
 - min 2,990 cu ft/s (85 m3/s)
Discharge elsewhere (average)
 - Danville, PA 29,000 cu ft/s (821 m3/s)
The Susquehanna watershed

The Susquehanna River (play /ˌsʌskwəˈhænə/) is a river located in the northeastern United States. At 464 miles (747 km) long,[3] it is the longest river on the American east coast that drains into the Atlantic Ocean, and with its watershed it is the 16th largest river in the United States,[4][5] and the longest river in the continental United States without commercial boat traffic.[6] It flows through three states: New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. It forms from two main branches, with the "North Branch", which rises in upstate New York, regarded by federal mapmakers as the main branch.[1] The shorter West Branch, which rises in western Pennsylvania, joins the main stem near Northumberland in central Pennsylvania.

The river drains 27,500 square miles (71,000 km2), including nearly half of the land area of Pennsylvania. The drainage basin (watershed) includes portions of the Allegheny Plateau region of the Appalachian Mountains, cutting through water gaps in the lateral mountain ridges in a broad zigzag course to flow across the rural heartland of southeastern Pennsylvania and northeastern Maryland. The river empties into the northern end of Chesapeake Bay, providing half of the Bay's freshwater inflow. Chesapeake Bay is in fact the ria of the Susquehanna.



Rising as the outlet of Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York, the north branch of the river runs west-southwest through dairy country, receiving the Unadilla River at Sidney and the Chenango in downtown Binghamton. At Athens Township (just south of Waverly, New York) in northern Pennsylvania, just across the New York state line, it receives the Chemung from the northwest and makes a right angle curve between Sayre and Towanda to cut through the Endless Mountains in the Allegheny Plateau. It receives the Lackawanna River southwest of Scranton and turns sharply to the southwest, flowing through the former anthracite industrial heartland in the mountain ridges of northeastern Pennsylvania, past Wilkes-Barre, Nanticoke, Berwick, Bloomsburg, and Danville. It receives the smaller West Branch from the northwest at Northumberland, just above Sunbury.

Harrisburg, with the state capitol dome, from across the Susquehanna River in Wormleysburg, Pennsylvania

Downstream from the confluence of its branches it flows south past Selinsgrove, where it is joined by its Penns Creek tributary, and cuts through a water gap at the western end of Mahantongo Mountain. It receives the Juniata River from the northwest at Duncannon, then passes through its last water gap through Blue Mountain, just northwest of Harrisburg. It passes downtown Harrisburg (where it is nearly a mile wide), the largest city on the lower river, and flows southeast across South Central Pennsylvania forming the border between York and Lancaster counties, as well as receiving Swatara Creek from the northeast. It crosses into northern Maryland approximately 30 miles (48 km) northeast of Baltimore and is joined by Octoraro Creek. The river enters the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, where Concord Point Light was built in 1827 to accommodate the increasing navigational traffic.[7]


Geologically the river is extremely ancient, often regarded as the oldest or second oldest major system in the world.[8] It is far older than the mountain ridges through which it turns, most of which were formed in uplift events of the early Cenozoic era. Like the Hudson, Delaware and Potomac rivers, the basin was well established in the flat plains that existed during the Mesozoic era.[9] Before the end of the last ice age, the Susquehanna was a much longer river. The Chesapeake Bay constituted its lower valley before it was flooded by rising waters at the conclusion of the Pleistocene, a formation known as a ria.


Satellite photo of the Susquehanna (upper left) where it empties into Chesapeake Bay (center)

The environmental group American Rivers named the Susquehanna "America's Most Endangered River for 2005" because of the excessive pollution it receives. Most of the pollution in the river is caused by excess animal manure from farming, agricultural runoff, urban and suburban stormwater runoff, and raw or inadequately treated sewage. In 2003 the river contributed 44% of the nitrogen, 21% of the phosphorus, and 21% of the sediment flowing into Chesapeake Bay.[10] It was designated as one of the American Heritage Rivers in 1997.[11] The designation provides for technical assistance from federal agencies to state and local governments working in the Susquehanna watershed.


Before the arrival of the English colonists, the vicinity of this river in present day Maryland and Pennsylvania was the territory of the Susquehannock tribe. This tribal name is an exonym, reported by John Smith on his 1612 map, with the spelling "Sasquesahanough".[12] It is understood to have come from a neighboring tribe, the Powhatan of tidewater Virginia, which was an Algonquian speaking tribe. However, some scholars[who?] have suggested the possibility that it comes from a different Algonquian language. The meaning of the name is unknown; competing claims were reviewed in the early 1900's.[13] Nowadays, there is an erroneous local legend that the name of the river comes from an Indian phrase meaning "mile wide, foot deep".[citation needed]


In the 1670s the Conestoga succumbed to Iroquois conquest and assimilation. In the aftermath, the Iroquois resettled some of the semi-tributary Lenape in this area, as it was near the western boundary of the Lenape's former territory, known as Lenapehoking.

The river has played an important role throughout the history of the United States. In the 18th century, William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania Colony, negotiated with the Lenape to allow white settlement in the colony between the Delaware River and the Susquehanna. In late colonial times, the river became an increasingly important transportation corridor with the discovery of anthracite coal by Necho Allen in its upper reaches in the mountains. In 1790, Colonel Timothy Matlack, Samuel Maclay and John Adlum were commissioned by the Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to survey the headwaters of the river and explore a route for a passageway to connect the West Branch with the waters of the Allegheny River.[14] In 1792, the Union Canal was proposed linking the Susquehanna and the Delaware along Swatara Creek and Tulpehocken Creek. In the 19th century, many industrial centers grew up along the river.

Monument at the site of Gen. Clinton's dam at the source of the Susquehanna River on Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York

In 1779 General James Clinton led an expedition down the Susquehanna after making the upper portion navigable by damming up the river's source at Otsego Lake, allowing the lake's level to rise and then destroying the dam and flooding the river for miles downstream. This event is described by James Fenimore Cooper in the introduction to his novel The Pioneers. At Athens, Pennsylvania, then known as Tioga or "Tioga Point", Clinton met up with General John Sullivan's forces, who had marched from Easton, Pennsylvania. Together on August 29, they defeated the Tories and Indians at the Battle of Newtown (near today's city of Elmira, New York). This became known as the "Sullivan-Clinton Campaign" or the "Sullivan Expedition".

Conflicting land claims by Pennsylvania and Connecticut to the Wyoming Valley along the Susquehanna led to the founding of Westmoreland County, Connecticut, and the Pennamite Wars, which eventually led to the territory being ceded to Pennsylvania.

The Susquehanna River holds importance for members of the Latter Day Saint movement as the location where Joseph Smith, Jr. and Oliver Cowdery received the priesthood from heavenly beings and the place in which the first Latter Day Saint baptisms occurred. Smith and Cowdery said that they were visited on May 15, 1829, by the resurrected John the Baptist and given the Aaronic priesthood; following his visit, Smith and Cowdery baptized each other in the river. Later that year, they said they were also visited near the river by the apostles Peter, James and John. Both events took place in unspecified locations near the river's shore in either Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, or Broome County, New York.

During the Civil War's 1863 Gettysburg Campaign, the commander of the Department of the Susquehanna, Union Major General Darius N. Couch, resolved that Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia would not cross the Susquehanna. He positioned militia units under Maj. Granville Haller to protect key bridges in Harrisburg and Wrightsville, as well as nearby fords. Confederate forces approached the river at several locations in Cumberland and York counties but were recalled on June 29 when Lee chose to concentrate his army to the west.

In 1972, the remnants of Hurricane Agnes stalled over the New York-Pennsylvania border, dropping as much as 20 inches (510 mm) of rain on the hilly lands. Much of that precipitation was received into the Susquehanna from its western tributaries, and the valley suffered disastrous flooding. Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, was among the hardest hit communities. Chesapeake Bay received so much fresh water that it killed much of the marine life.

In March 2011, Crary Park in Shickshinny, Pennsylvania was inundated with a flood when the Susquehanna at Wilkes-Barre rose above 27 feet.[15] Six months later, the entire town was "devastated" by a 42-foot record flood.[16]

In June 2006, portions of the river system were affected by the Mid-Atlantic Flood of June 2006, a flood caused by a stalled jet stream-driven storm system. The worst affected area was Binghamton, New York, where record setting flood levels forced the evacuation of thousands of residents.


The Susquehanna River has long been associated with boating because of the many migratory fish that are caught there. Many tourists and locals of Pennsylvania use the Susquehanna in the summer for recreation purposes such as kayaking, canoeing, and motor-boating. Canoe races are held on various sections of the river every year like the amateur race held in Oneonta, New York.


Rowing on the Susquehanna River has a long history. Starting in 1874, rowers from Shamokin Dam, Pennsylvania raced men from Sunbury. The General Clinton Canoe Regatta is the world's longest flat-water race and takes place each year in Bainbridge, New York on Memorial Day weekend. Binghamton University Crew, and Hiawatha Island Boat Club are also located on the river, in the Southern Tier of New York.

Bridges, ferries, canals and dams

The Susquehanna River has played an important role in the transportation history of the United States. Prior to the 1818 opening of the Port Deposit Bridge, the river formed a barrier between the northern and southern states, crossable only by ferry. The earliest dams were constructed to support ferry operations in low water. The presence of many rapids in the river meant that while commercial traffic could navigate down the river in the spring thaws, nothing could move up. This led to the construction of two different canal systems on the lower Susquehanna; the first was the Susquehanna Canal, also called the Conowingo Canal or the Port Deposit Canal, completed in 1802 by a Maryland company known as the Proprietors of the Susquehanna Canal; the second was the much longer and more successful Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal. The canals required additional dams to provide canal water and navigation pools. As the industrial age progressed, bridges replaced ferries, and railroads replaced canals, often built right on top of the canal right of way along the river. Many canal remnants can be seen in Havre de Grace, Maryland, along US Route 15 in Pennsylvania, and in upstate New York at various locations. These latter remnants are parts of the upstream divisions of the Pennsylvania Canal, of privately funded canals, and of canals in the New York system.

Today, there are over two hundred bridges crossing the Susquehanna. The sole remaining ferry, the Millersburg Ferry at Millersburg, Pennsylvania, is a seasonal tourist attraction. The canals are gone or are part of historical parks, and dams are related to power generation or recreation. Perhaps the most famous of the bridges, the Rockville Bridge, crosses the river from Harrisburg to Marysville, Pennsylvania. The Rockville Bridge, when constructed, was the longest stone masonry arch bridge in the world. It was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the early 20th century, replacing an earlier iron bridge.

See also


  1. ^ a b U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Susquehanna River
  2. ^ "USGS 01578310 Susquehanna River at Conowingo, MD". United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 2010-08-03. 
  3. ^ U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map, accessed August 8, 2011
  4. ^ Susquehannna River Trail Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, accessed March 25, 2010.
  5. ^ Susquehanna River, Green Works Radio, accessed March 25, 2010.
  6. ^ Paddle the Susquehanna, accessed September 10, 2011.
  7. ^ Simms, William Q.. "Two Lights on the Hill". Lighthouse Digest, Inc.. Retrieved 2006-12-28. 
  8. ^ "Historical Look at the Susquehanna River Watershed", by Sandy Lizlovs, Clearwater, Spring 2009.
  9. ^ "Description of the Geology of York County Peninsula". Penn State University Libraries. Retrieved 2007-10-26. [dead link]
  10. ^ Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Annapolis, MD. "Susquehanna River Named America's Most Endangered River for 2005." April 13, 2005.
  11. ^ U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Washington, D.C. "American Heritage Rivers: Upper Susquehanna and Lackawanna Rivers." October 19, 2006.
  12. ^ Interactive copy of John Smith's map, center right portion
  13. ^ Beauchamp 1907: 29-30
  14. ^ Storey, Henry Wilson. History of Cambria County, Pennsylvania. New York: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1907.
  15. ^ Skrapits, Elizabeth (March 12, 2011). "Winter flood slams Shickshinny". The Citizens' Voice. Retrieved March 18, 2011. 
  16. ^ Hughes, Matt (November 5, 2011). "Shickshinny offered help from group of Buddhists". Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. Retrieved November 18, 2011. 

External links

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