Benjamin Latrobe’s map of the lower Susquehanna River shows wild York and Lancaster county shores
Latrobe thought the Turkey Hill rapids or falls “most formidible.”
Benjamin Henry Latrobe has been called one of the fathers of American architecture, but his work surveying and mapping the Susquehanna River in 1801from Columbia, Pa. to Havre de Grace, Md. was of more importance to the people of York County.
Today the wild, raging river that Latrobe that mapped has been somewhat subdued by the three 20th century dams–Safe Harbor, Holtwood and Conowingo–built to generate electric power.
Still, because of the steep “river hills” carved by the Susquehanna through the centuries, a good portion of the river’s shoreline is still relatively inaccessible and the landscape looks much as Latrobe saw it over 200 years ago.
Click this linkor do a Goggle search on Susquehanna River combined with Columbia, Holtwood or Peach Bottom. Then click on maps. That will get you to the lower York County part of the river. Then click on Satellite and zoom in for a bird’s eye view of some pretty wild wooded hills. Changing the view to Terrain will show you how steep they are. In Latrobe’s day the hills would have been higher above the river in many places. The dams formed three large pools, now known as Lake Clarke, Lake Aldred and the Conowingo Resovoir, raising water levels.
See below for my recent York Sunday News column on Latrobe’s efforts to clear a navigation channel, his survey and his beautiful map of the lower Susquehanna.
Famed Architect Benjamin Latrobe Mapped Lower Susquehanna River
Benjamin Henry Latrobe is best known as one of the fathers of American architecture. He designed the U.S. Capitol, Baltimore Basilica, Bank of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Waterworks. In 1801-1802 Latrobe used his engineering skills to complete a project much closer to (our) home, channel improvement and detailed surveying of the Susquehanna River from Columbia to the Chesapeake Bay.
The Susquehanna was only navigable, even during spring freshets, south to Columbia. From there to its mouth at Havre de Grace, it was fraught with dangerous rapids, falls and obstructions. By 1800, hundreds of thousands of barrels of flour and bushels of wheat, beef and pork, whiskey, iron, coal and lumber arrived at Columbia on barges and arks, virtually unsteerable, box-like boats up to 90 feet long and 20 feet wide. Arks drew only two feet of water, but because of the dangers south of Columbia they were offloaded, broken up and sold as lumber there. The cargo continued by wagon to Philadelphia and other markets. Only heavy rafts, often of timber, would venture to ride the spring freshets on down to the Cheseapeake.
The Pennsylvania government wasn’t keen on improvements to the lower Susquehanna, which could divert more commerce to Maryland’s Baltimore instead of Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia. Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware finally agreed, around 1800, to cooperate on Susquehanna improvements that would then allow for canal connections to benefit all three states.
Pennsylvania Governor Thomas McKean contracted with Col. Frederick Antes to survey the lower Susquehanna. Antes asked his nephew, architect Benjamin H. Latrobe, to assist him as engineer and surveyor. Antes started work August 1, 1801, scouting out the river from Columbia to the Maryland line for channel clearing. He hired local contractors, set up a tool repair shop and bought supplies such as black powder and brimstone for blasting. By the time Latrobe arrived at Lancaster on September 7, Antes was gravely ill, but he spent the last two weeks of his life planning, with Latrobe, the completion of the channel clearing and the river survey. Latrobe immediately took over, and channel clearing and obstruction removal were pretty well done by October.
Latrobe wrote: “All my exertions were bent to force through all obstructions, a channel clear of rocks, of 40 ft. wide close to the Eastern shore, never leaving any rock upon which a vessel could be wrecked between the channel and the shore, so that in the most violent freshes a boat should always be safe, by keeping close in shore. Rocks of immense magnitude were therefore blown away, in preference to the following a crooked channel more cheaply made, but more difficult and dangerous… .
The survey phase was conducted during October and November 1801. It was done in two directions with Latrobe starting at Columbia and assistant surveyor Christian Hauducoeur working north from the Maryland line, meeting at McCall’s Ferry. Each survey crew included an assistant surveyor, chain bearers, axe men and canoe men. (Hauducoeur had already published a map of the Maryland section of the Susquehanna in 1799.)
Latrobe’s part of the survey, from Columbia to McCall’s Ferry, took close to a month. The crews worked every day but Sunday, lodging and eating at the few riverside inns and farmers’ houses. Latrobe wrote to his wife Mary from Burkhalter’s Ferry: “The little incidents of our journey have been often extremely laughable, and almost always curious. The very reception we have met with has been so various, that I could fill a letter with description of character, and manner that would often make you laugh. And as to the natural Scenery in which we have been engaged, it is so Savage in many instances, and so beautiful in others, that I could not fail to find in that alone matter enough for twenty letters.”
Latrobe wrote his report for Governor McKean soon after the project was completed. Even with blasting obstructions and clearing a narrow channel, the Susquehanna was still very hazardous. He felt Turkey Hill was especially formidable, where the two mile wide river “suddenly contracts itself on breaking through the mountains to the width of 3/4th of a mile.” High ridges of rock made up the river bed there and current was “astonishing rapid in autumn.” He noted other danger spots and the geology that created them.
It took Latrobe about a year after the survey to produce a large scale, high quality, strip map 17 feet long and two feet wide. The Pennsylvania section was rendered in detail with pencil, ink and watercolor. Latrobe completed the Maryland section, mostly based on Hauducoeur’s 1799 map, without the coloring. Shorelines, streams, falls, rapids and channels were clearly defined. On shore, including on large islands, buildings were shown, as were woods and trees and the few existing fields.
Latrobe later complained of having seen his map “in scandalous condition,” stained by fly dirt and smoke from hanging…near the ceiling of the state house” in Lancaster (the capital of Pennsylvania from 1799 to 1812). Worse was to come–the map was in the House chamber in Washington in 1814 and destroyed when the British burned the Capitol.
Luckily, Benjamin Latrobe had drawn a facsimile copy for himself. It is now in the Maryland Historical Society, and has been reproduced in black and white. A reference copy may be used at York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives.
About $20,000 was spent by Latrobe and his colleagues in 1801 on the survey and channel clearing. Latrobe estimated it would take $100,000 more to make the lower Susquehanna “fit for the common purpose of convenient intercourse.” It was never provided, and not until 1840, with the opening of the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal from Wrightsville to Havre de Grace, was that section safely navigated.
Click the links below for more on the lower Susquehanna:
Port of Safe Harbor.
New Wrightsville-Columbia bridge.
U.S. capital on the Susquehanna.
York Furnace bridge across the Susquehanna.