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Learn more about Latrobe’s 1801 mapping of the lower Susquehanna River

[MAP] Susquehanna River Survey Map Map courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

I will be doing a PowerPoint presentation this Saturday, April 12 on Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s wonderful map of a portion of our section of the Susquehanna River, as part of the York County Heritage Trust Second Saturday free lecture series. It will be at the YCHT museum and library/archives building, 250 East Market St., York, Pa. at 10:30 a.m.

Latrobe’s 1801 instructions from Pennsylvania Governor Thomas McKean were twofold: survey the lower Susquehanna and also clear a channel so that the river would be navigable at least part of the year. Latrobe, working with mostly local crews, accomplished this in October and November 1801. He then spent the next several months completing the beautiful, detailed 17 feet long map to be used by Pennsylvania and Maryland to plan future improvements, such as canals.

For more on this formidable venture, see my former York Sunday News column below

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.