Cover image for Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake By Jack Brubaker

Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake

Jack Brubaker


$37.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02336-6

288 pages
10" × 8"
63 b&w illustrations/9 maps

Keystone Books

Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake

Jack Brubaker

“Captures the charm—and violence—of the Chesapeake Bay’s only indispensable tributary. . . . Doubly welcome, for its own considerable virtues and for filling in so many of the blanks in our knowledge of a river that plays a far larger role in this part of the country than most of us realize. . . . Brubaker’s meticulous and loving description of the river should do much to heighten our appreciation of this secret treasure. . . . [U]niversity-press publishing at its absolute best.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
As the largest river on the East Coast of the United States, the rolling Susquehanna is the indispensable tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary. Gathering strength from scores of streams along its 444-mile journey, the river delivers half of the freshwater the bay requires to maintain its ecological balance.

Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake traces the course of the Susquehanna River through New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland to the bay. Fifty-six short chapters discuss key locations along the route and how the river changes from sources to sea. These chapters also look at how natural resources influence, and in some ways shape, the lives of the people and their communities.

Along the river tour, Jack Brubaker examines the natural and human history of the Susquehanna, exploring how the river has been used and abused, as well as its current condition and future prospects. He explains how the unusually shallow, rocky river has substantially altered its drainage pattern over geologic time and how it continues to cut channels while erasing and creating islands.

For generations the Susquehanna has ebbed through the daily lives of the riverside residents, providing water to drink and a place to pump sewage. Floods have humbled those who chose to live close to the river’s edge, and droughts have fretted farmers. A vibrant fishery has provided sustenance and recreation for hundreds of thousands.

The Iroquois and the Susquehannocks reluctantly yielded the river to white settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the Susquehanna defined the American frontier. Coal mining, lumbering, and hydroelectric and nuclear energy production polluted the water and nearly ruined the landscape beyond hope in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hope returned in the latter part of the last century as the people of the Susquehanna began restoration efforts.

With the aid of more than 70 maps and illustrations, Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake provides a bold new look at a dynamic old river. This powerful journey brings alive the Susquehanna, its history, and the colorful personalities who live along its banks.

“Captures the charm—and violence—of the Chesapeake Bay’s only indispensable tributary. . . . Doubly welcome, for its own considerable virtues and for filling in so many of the blanks in our knowledge of a river that plays a far larger role in this part of the country than most of us realize. . . . Brubaker’s meticulous and loving description of the river should do much to heighten our appreciation of this secret treasure. . . . [U]niversity-press publishing at its absolute best.”
Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake is a first rate history and environmental saga. Brubaker not only captures the sweep of eons of time; he also zeroes in on tiny details which must have taken endless time to find and put together.”
“Enhanced with more than 70 maps and illustrations, Down The Susquehanna To The Chesapeake is a fascinating, well written, highly recommended treatise and would serve as an admirable model to writing about and exploring the histories of other major American rivers.”
“If you have time this summer for only one nonfiction book, this is to beat a drum for Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake. . . . Jack Brubaker is superbly informed.”
“Jack Brubaker, editorial page editor and a columnist for the Lancaster New Era, may have written the ultimate book about the Susquehanna River. Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake, published by Penn State University Press, is a paean to the largest river on the East Coast.”
“There have been dozens of books written about the Susquehanna River, the largest river on the East Coast of the United States, and the river that delivers half of the freshwater needed by the Chesapeake Bay to maintain its ecological balance. But perhaps none is more engaging than Jack Brubaker’s Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake (Penn State Press, 2002), mainly because it tells us so much more about the river’s history—both natural and human—than we’ve ever known before.”
“Brubaker’s carefully researched and skillfully written volume [is] a fascinating read for anyone needing a reminder of how much a river can affect human lives.”
“This beautifully written and designed volume is the best book I’ve ever read about the Susquehanna River, a subject dear to my heart.
Geology, archaeology, sociology, ecology, biology and many other areas of academia come to life in Down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake, which seems to me a real life saga that reads more colorfully and memorably than many an acclaimed novel.”
“[Jack Brubaker] offers an intimate view of life along the East Coast's largest river by layering geology on history on ecology on travelogue.”

Jack Brubaker is a columnist for the Lancaster New Era. His previous books include The Last Capital: Danville, Virginia, and the Final Days of the Confederacy (1979; 1996) and Hullabaloo Nevonia: An Anecdotal History of Student Life at Franklin and Marshall College (1987).


  Pine Creek (Prologue)

  Spring-Water River

Ocquionis Creek

Lake Otsego

The Outlet

The Course


Goodyear Lake

  Long Crooked River

Great Bend


Rockbottom Dam



Wyalusing Rocks

Wyoming Valley

Wilkes Barre: Coal

Wilkes-Barre: Flood

Nescopeck Falls


  Long Reach River

The Headspring

Bakerton Reservoir


Canoe Place


Kettle Creek

Lock Haven

Great Island



  Broad Shallow River

The Confluence

Shamokin Riffles

Port Treverton


Juniata River

Harrisburg: Water Gaps

Harrisburg: Renewal

Harrisburg: Ice

Harrisburg: Drought


Three Mile Island

Conewago Falls: Geology

Conewago Falls: Navigation

York Haven

Brunner Island



Columbia Dam

  Rock River

Turkey Hill

Lake Clarke

Safe Harbor

Conestoga River

Conowingo Pond

Conowingo Dam

Smith’s Falls

  Great Bay River

Havre de Grace

The Mouth

The Flats

The Bay

The Sea (Epilogue)

  An Afterword of Gratitude

  A Note on Printed Sources


Pine Creek


If Art Tomack owned this ridgetop grass and wildflower meadow, he would build an observation tower in it. He would invite visitors to climb his tower and admire the undulant hill-and-vale landscape of Pennsylvania's Northern Tier. And he would tell them something like this: Up here in these old, eroding Appalachians, tall trees flourish on the slopes but settlers have cleared the hilltop plateaus for agriculture. Up here on these mountain farms in God's Country, the fields grow more stones than anything you could eat. Up here, on this beautiful but unbountiful land, hardwoods and hard rocks have conspired to make a hard working life.

And then Tomack would ask his visitors to consider this particular ridge's exceptional watershed—the basis for locating his tower on this hill and not the next one over. Here, he would say, three substantial rivers originate and flow to distant seas. "This is the highest ridge," he would explain, "and everything that goes down to the south is Susquehanna water and everything to the west is Allegheny water and to the north Genesee water. This is the Continental Divide in the East."

When he is not dreaming of building a tourist tower, Art Tomack operates a general store in the town of Gold, about a mile north of the watershed meadow and 10 miles south of the New York border. Along with frying pans and Hershey bars, he and Betty Tomack sell t-shirts advertising "The Gold General Store: At the Headwaters of Three Rivers." Travelers stop to shop and, more often than you might expect, ask where they can find the beginnings of these rivers.

Art tells headwaters hunters to drive south on Route 449 to Rooks Road, hang a right and look for the meadow at the peak of the ridge. "The triple divide," as Betty calls it, lies along this plateau, 2,400 feet up in the Appalachian Range. Springs in the meadow on the Slaybaugh farm feed the Genesee River. Meadow springs on the adjacent Torok farm feed the Susquehanna and the Allegheny.

The Genesee, as the Slaybaughs and Toroks and Tomacks and the Tomacks' t-shirts will tell you, empties into Lake Ontario, which feeds the St. Lawrence River and the Gulf of St. Lawrence and, ultimately, the North Atlantic Ocean. The Allegheny joins with the Monongahela to form the Ohio, and the Ohio joins the Mississippi and the Mississippi runs to the Gulf of Mexico. The third set of springs feeds Pine Creek, the largest tributary of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. The West Branch meets the Susquehanna's North Branch, forming the Lower Susquehanna. The Lower Susquehanna washes into the Chesapeake Bay, which runs out to the mid-Atlantic.

The phenomenon that Art Tomack considers worthy of marking with an observation tower—water flowing in three directions from one hill—is unusual on the perimeter of the Susquehanna's drainage area. At most places along the high grounds dividing this river's watershed from its neighbors, rainfall drains in one of two directions. It either trickles into the Susquehanna Basin, or it runs off toward the Hudson or St. Lawrence by way of their tributaries in New York, toward the Allegheny or Delaware by way of their tributaries in Pennsylvania, or toward the Potomac or directly into the Chesapeake in Maryland. Before running to rivers, some of this water lingers—in groundwater emerging as springs or in aboveground swamps and lakes and ponds—and these are the sources of the Susquehanna.

Pine Creek's headwaters in Potter County's hinterlands and thousands of other Susquehanna sources pepper the periphery of a vast watershed of 27,500 square miles. On the East Coast of the United States, only the St. Lawrence's watershed is larger. The Susquehanna drains nearly half of Pennsylvania, an eighth of New York and a fragment of Maryland. Its sources are all over the map.

This book concentrates on the river's ultimate beginnings—those swamps and springs farthest by water from the river's mouth—because most travelers searching for sources wind up there. Likewise, most river followers who visit the Tomacks' store are not looking for a secondary source of the Susquehanna but for the primary source of the Genesse.

The ultimate sources of the Susquehanna's branches spring from similarly rural but culturally distinct regions. The origins of the North Branch are associated with the scenic home of the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York. The West Branch's headsprings and streams flow out of the humble bituminous country of Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Hard ball and soft coal.

This narrative follows the flow from these dissimilar sources to the Chesapeake. Chapters focus on particular places along the course. Some chapters discuss an aspect of the Susquehanna that applies not only to that place but to others along the river. Most chapters examine how the river has changed over the years.

Before beginning this journey, it might be helpful to clarify the geography of the Susquehanna Basin by dividing the long and convoluted river into sections.

Most people cut the Susquehanna into three parts. The 316-mile-long North Branch and 228-mile West Branch join at Northumberland-Sunbury to initiate the 128-mile Lower Susquehanna, also known as the Main Stem. The wide, shallow, island-jammed Lower Susquehanna, sweeping by and, in flood, through Pennsylvania's capital at Harrisburg, is what most people think of when they think of this old river.

The Susquehanna's North and West branches are long enough and far enough apart, and flow through sufficiently disparate terrain, to have characteristics very different from the lower river and each other. Some confusion could have been avoided if these branches had retained individual names, but their complex Indian designations have all but disappeared.

Most Pennsylvanians consider the North Branch the Susquehanna's primary course. The West Branch is shorter and somewhat narrower and provides less volume to the flow at the confluence, so the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania calls it one of the Susquehanna's "major tributaries." Dedicated West Branchers appreciate this demeaning designation as much as they enjoy watching Penn State lose a football game.

More than 31,000 miles of streams with 31,193 names—thousands of rivulets and hundreds of significant rivers and creeks—feed the tri-part Susquehanna. Unlike most big rivers, the Susquehanna has several tributaries that are nearly as substantial as the main stream where they enter it. These include the 86-mile-long Juniata, the 70-mile Chemung and the 40-mile Lackawanna.

To organize this river's vast and varied watershed, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which coordinates the basin's water resources, divides it into six subbasins. North Branch drainage composes three parts: the Upper Susquehanna, which includes much of New York's Susquehanna drainage; the Chemung River, which includes only that tributary's drainage, also mainly in New York; and the Middle Susquehanna, which extends to the confluence with the West Branch. The West Branch and Juniata River watersheds form two more subbasins and the Lower Susquehanna the sixth.

These subbasins make sense from a water-management perspective; and setting apart the Chemung, West Branch and Juniata systems helps emphasize the watershed's remarkably lopsided reach to the west. However, these designations do little to identify the dramatically changing characteristics of the Susquehanna as it flows from cedar swamps in New York toward cypress swamps in Maryland.

This book uses variant translations of the Algonquian Indian word "Susquehanna" as descriptive designations for sections of the river. No one knows what the word means, but dozens of etymologists and historians have proposed at least 16 translations. Six of these seem to define general segments of the Susquehanna and the river's changing nature as it moves south. Chapters are clustered beneath these designations.

Chapters under "Spring-Water River" cover the North Branch's sources. The rest of the North Branch, winding into Pennsylvania and back into New York and back into Pennsylvania, is the "Long Crooked River." The arcing West Branch is the "Long Reach River." "Broad, Shallow River" flows from the confluence at Northumberland-Sunbury to Columbia. "Rock River" runs through the Susquehanna Gorge, from south of Columbia to Tidewater. "Great Bay River" washes into the Chesapeake.

These divisions not only differentiate and define Susquehanna sections, but help emphasize the river's significant reach through three states. In recent years, Chesapeake enthusiasts have focused on the Susquehanna principally as it relates to an endangered bay in Maryland. In this view, Pennsylvania's Susquehanna has all but lost its own identity and the river in New York has become an afterthought. As the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and other groups promote bay-related environmental issues, reinforced by the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, the river sometimes seems an appendage of the bay.

It is the other way around, of course: the Chesapeake is the appendage of the flooded Susquehanna. The river's ancient mouth opened into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of present-day Virginia. During the great ice meltdown, the rising ocean seeped inland to form the estuary around that lowest stretch of river. But the Susquehanna's earlier course has not disappeared: its deep trench runs through the bay, forming its primary shipping channel.

Today the Susquehanna is the bay's only indispensable tributary, contributing an extraordinary 19 million gallons of water a minute—90 percent of the upper bay's fresh water and 50 percent overall. Without that steady influx to hold back the briny Atlantic, the Chesapeake could not support its rich mix of estuarine life. Given the river's pervasive influence, "Susquehanna Bay" would be the Chesapeake's more accurate designation.

At an average speed of 20 miles a day, the nation's 16th longest river rambles from Potter County springs and other sources deep in the outlands of Pennsylvania and New York to and through the nation's largest bay. As it changes shape, it shapes the land along the way. Its journey is the story.