Conestoga River

River of the month #5

author: Pat Reilly
date: August 1998

The first time I saw the name of Lancaster's Conestoga River I wondered if the wagon was named after the river or the river named after the wagon. Turns out they were both named after the Indians. With almost 500 square miles of watershed the Conestoga qualifies as a real river. It even has it's own canoeing guide booklet, published by the Conestoga Valley Association. But the guide doesn't cover the more than 20 miles of intriguing stream running through the heart of Amish country above Brownstown.

At the rt. 23 bridge near Churchtown, the river is but a trickle of cool clear water that appears to have limestone origins. But it soon turns to chocolate milk brown, typical of Lancaster County creeks at runable levels. One will notice plenty of Amish farms when paddling any Lancaster County stream, like Chickies or Pequea, but on the upper Conestoga all the farms are Amish. Thus, they are all being intently worked and this means plenty of obstacles to challenge the paddler. There are low water bridges, fords, and lots of electric fences.

In the first 10 or so miles, it seems that you are within the confines of a stockyard more often than not. It can be hard to tell unless you're counting fences (an odd number means you're inside, even means you're out). If you loose track you may be surprised by a herd of cattle. It's unnerving when you round a bend and come up on a number of these beasts standing in the water. You never know what they are going to do. When a young bull glares at you with those big glassy eyeballs, you wonder if he's contemplating doing the bovine version of the Texas-two-step on the deck of your boat. I generally whistle softly and try to glide by quickly with no sudden movements. But I have had two major stampedes thunder across the creek in front of me while on the upper Conestoga. After the first I swear it took a few seconds for the current to refill the riverbed after the herd had splashed all the water out!

Dams are always present too, as hydropower is alive and well on the Conestoga. After Quarry Rd., 5 miles above Hinkletown all the way down to Brownstown (13 miles) the river is about 90% impounded! A lot of the pools start immediately after the previous dam. Most of these dams are being used to generate power for Amish farms. Many turn small turbines to generate electricity but on some of the older farms they spin paddlewheels that use reciprocating arms to pump water. Interesting. With all these dams and many small rubble and rock dams in between, this section could conceivable be run anytime with only minimal scraping. Being in a plastic boat I was able to run most of the dams. That is, if you count scraping and sliding over rock and concrete as running. With most of the water being channeled for power generation there is little left to form keeper hydraulics.

Soon after Brownstown the Conestoga is joined by the Colcalico and becomes a sizable river. The green of farms is slowly replaced by the green of suburban lawns and the Lancaster Country Club. The dams are less frequent and usually accompanied by majestic old mills. These larger dams will have to be carried.

Below rt. 30 by the Lancaster pumping station you will need to do a double carry around 2 dams that signal your entrance into the City of Lancaster. It will be hard to tell you are within city limits as the river is surrounded by mostly parklands for miles. This area is rich in history. Well into the 20th century large passenger vessels traveled these waters. Robert Fulton first experimented with paddlewheel boats here.

No longer in flat land, the river now loops back and forth and is usually bordered by a steep hill on one side or the other. It's still flat water though, but there are many old navigation dam ruins that appear on a regular basis and spice up your trip with easy rapids, some rather long. The only glimpse of real urban looking city is around the double bridges of rts. 222/272 just as the river loops away from Lancaster for the last time.

The next section is reminiscent of Cumberland County's Conodoguinet, the way the river continues looping through monotonous affluent suburbs filled with groomed lawns and fat geese. Another golf course and the scenery finally gives way to farmland mixed with wooded slopes and the occasional bottomland woods.

As I remember, evenly spaced rapids continue to add a little excitement up until the beginning of a 3-mile long pool formed by the PFC dam above Rock Hill Rd. Bridge. However all this has changed since I paddled this stretch. I'm told the dam is no longer there! It was one of first dams removed for the PFC's ambitious shad restoration project. Currently there is discussion underway involving removal of the Good Hope Mill dam on the Conodoguinet for the same project. It is proving to be quite controversial. Stay tuned.

Parklands return after Rock Hill Rd. Bridge. A recreation area developed by the Conestoga Valley Association starts here and extends along the river at various locations toward the Susquehanna. Long easy riffles end your cruise. Take out before the picnic grounds end after River Road Bridge as there is no access at the mouth. This last section is probably runable most of the summer in a wet year and would make a good place for a family outing

Unless you're planning on confining your run to dam pools, 4.5 feet on the Lancaster gauge is probably about minimal for the creek above Brownstown. Figure about 3.5 for below and a little less near the mouth.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 1998 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.