York Town Square

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Susquehanna River, shallow and rocky, fends off 19th-century navigation attempts

This drawing of the iron-hulled steamboat “Codorus” by William S. Stair appeared in “Greater York (Pa.) in Action.” The flat-bottom boat was launched for a northward Susquehanna River journey from the Accomac area. Background posts: Murals of York get another colorful panel and How Sam Lewis State Park sightseers view Highpoint’s dome and For years, York countians have eyed amazing, destructive Susquehanna River ice jams.
Wish all questions from York Town Square readers were this easy.
An e-mailer posed a readily answerable question:
“Exactly where was the location where the first iron steam boat was built?”
In 1825, John Elgar constructed the iron vessel in York shops near the Codorus Creek. He labored at a factory that Phineas Davis later made famous for crafting what is considered to be the first successful coal-burning locomotive. (In 1831, Davis gained a $4,000 award from the Baltimore and Ohio Steam Railway for building “The York,” the first successful coal-burning locomotive steam engine in the United States.)
A historical marker at West King and South Newberry streets in York marks the site on the shops, demolished long ago.
This excerpt from “Never to be Forgotten,” tells more:

Quaker John Elgar completes the steam-powered, metal-hulled “Codorus,” designed to chug up the Susquehanna River. The 6,000-pound boat, reported to be America’s first iron steamboat, is rolled through York’s streets to its launch site at present-day Accomac. The next spring, the coal-burner performs according to design by completing an upriver trip to Binghamton, N.Y., the only steamboat to do so. The difficult three-month voyage proves that upstream navigation on the shallow, rock-filled Susquehanna is impractical. The boat returns to York Haven in 1826. Two other steamboats try to navigate the stubborn Susquehanna that year. “The Pioneer” makes it to Williamsport and returns. “The Susquehanna” travels from York Haven to Northumberland and back. Maryland officials, hoping to capitalize on two-way navigation, back the steamboat’s later exploration of the river’s branches. “The Susquehanna” explodes near Berwick, killing several passengers including a Maryland state legislator.

Such adventures helped dash hopes that the river could be navigated upstream and down. Credit John Elgar and York County for a contribution there.
Indeed, only flatboat traffic heading downstream during rainy seasons proved to work. It would take the development of a canal system to spark commerce by enabling nearly year-round travel along the river.
To see the historical monument marking the launch of the “Codorus,” click here.