Historical Markers
Susquehanna Canal Historical Marker
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Susquehanna Canal

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
PA 624, 1.8 miles NE of Craley

Dedication Date:
April 2, 1948

Behind the Marker

On May 28, 1840, dignitaries from Baltimore and Philadelphia gathered at Havre de Grace to celebrate the opening of the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal. Only forty five miles in length, it was one of the most expensive canals built in the United States. But the new waterway promised to bring a great boom to the businessmen of the Susquehanna Valley, who could now float their products cheaply and safely all the way to Baltimore. To keep the canal filled with water, the Canal company built a ten foot-high dam across the river to create a slackwater pool at Columbia.
Columbia Basin with canal boats
Columbia Basin with canal boats, Columbia, PA, circa 1900.

While the assembled dignitaries fantasized about the riches the canal was sure to bring, many Pennsylvanians who lived above the dam were outraged at its completion, since the Directors had failed to build the promised fishway that would have allowed passage of the shad.

Since the beginning of time, millions of migratory fish swam from the Atlantic Ocean into the fresh water streams of North America. Of these migrations, none was more important than the great spring runs of the American shad. The arrival of the shad early in the spring saved many Indians and colonists from starvation and by the late eighteenth century had given rise to a great industry of inland fisheries along the banks of Pennsylvania's rivers and streams.
Susquehanna River, Asylum Township, Bradford County, as seen from Marie Antoinette Overlook along US Route 6.
Susquehanna River, Asylum Township, Bradford County, as seen from Marie Antoinette...
Fishermen stand in the water while fishing.
Trout fishing in the Yellow Breeches, Boiling Springs, PA. circa 1960.

Draining more miles of stream than any other river in the state, the Susquehanna River supported a large, economically important shad fishery. Indeed, for more than a century shad was the East Coast's most important food fish. In the early 1800s, fishermen took more than two million pounds of shad out of Pennsylvania's streams. A canal dam constructed at Nanticoke in 1830, however, had cut the shad off from 256 miles of the river. Now the Columbia dam was closing off another 123 miles, leaving only the lower 43 miles open to the shad and the fishermen.

In 1851 the state legislature passed a statute requiring the Susquehanna Canal Company to build fish sluices on all of its dams. The company never built them. No action was taken until the end of the Civil War, at which point the collapse of shad fisheries up and down the East Coast had become a national crisis. In response, the Commonwealth established its first Fish Commission in 1866. After an angry meeting in Harrisburg that same year, 600 state fish convention delegates convinced the state legislature to require the construction of fishways in all dams on the Susquehanna and its tributaries. The primary mission of Fish Commissioner James Worrell was clear: restore the shad to the Susquehanna.
A photograph of the Conowingo Dam, with a second, close-up shot of the fish elevator and a third of a school of fish within the cage of the elevator.
Conowingo Dam, with close-up shot of the fish elevator, circa 2000.

In the decades that followed, the Pennsylvania Fish Commission opened fish hatcheries to restock the rivers and streams, hired agents to destroy illegal fish traps on the Delaware and Susquehanna and forced the canal companies to build fishways – which never worked. After the Susquehanna canal closed in the 1890s the Columbia dam fell into disrepair and winter dam breaks permitted small numbers of shad to again migrate upriver. In the early 1900s, four hydroelectric dams on the lower Susquehanna ended the runs again. Completed in 1928 only ten miles above the Chesapeake, the Conowingo dam created an impenetrable barrier for migrating shad.

Pennsylvania fishermen continued the fight for the shad. Sixty years later, they finally won. With the completion of fish lifts that carried migrating fish over the Conowingo dam in 1991 and at Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams in 1997, the shad and other migratory fish once again had access to the Susquehanna. In 2001, the fish lift on the Conowingo Dam carried more than 200,000 shad into the river above. Of those, more than 16,000 swam through the fish ladder at the York Haven dam on their way to the spawning grounds of their ancestors.
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