Cecil Soil Magazine — May/June 2010
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Dixon: Lost City of Old Conowingo
Mike Dixon

If you are the type who likes to find lost villages, we have a little journey you might enjoy. To start, ask someone for directions to old Conowingo. But be watchful, for that accommodating person might send you to a stretch of highway near U.S. 1 and Route 222. That is a commercial area lined with a collection of roadside shops, gas stations, restaurants, and taverns—businesses which rose up in the 20th century following the demise of the earlier town. The location you’re searching for was nestled nearby in a hillside at river’s edge. It was once a thriving town that met a watery death in the name of progress.<br /> <br /> At least you’re in the neighborhood, so journey down Mt. Zoar Road to a cove where the Conowingo Creek meets the Susquehanna. That’s as far as you can go to reach your destination for you are shortly looking across a broad lake at the gentle, rolling hills of Harford County. Not too far from this idyllic setting, near an arched railroad bridge, lies the lost hamlet beneath the impounded water. The story of the demise of this once bustling place of habitation, a spot where generations lived and died, ended on a winter day in 1928 as waters of the dam slowly climbed over the buildings, erasing all traces of the community.<br /> <br /> Although memories of the church, the school, the general store, the garage and the inn have largely faded, the written record tells the story. Back in 1993, Ralph Reed, who was born there in a house next to the river recalled that the place “was dear to us and we thought it was going to last forever.” However, it lasted only until January 18, 1928 when the dam’s final eight floodgates closed and the Susquehanna slowly backed up into town.<br /> <br /> Farmers and villagers uprooted by the building of the large hydroelectric dam gathered on the hillside to watch as the village met its watery doom. As the sun slowly sat behind the western hills of Harford County, old Conowingo slowly vanished beneath the water.Port Deposit’s Curtis Poist recalled that final day in a 1975 piece in the Baltimore Sun. “Many of the people who had lived in Conowingo were On hand to watch. Many of them insisted on lingering around their old homes sites, retreating only as the water backed up and drove them away . . . All day long they watched from a distance as the backwater inched its way over the bluffs and up the gullies until at sundown only the tree tops and the roofs of an occasional house and barn remained above water to identify the place which had once been home.” <br /> <br /> The 4,648-foot dam with 53 gates regulated 105 billion gallons of water impounded behind the structure and generated electricity for the growing industrial nation. The building of this massive public works project drastically changed the rural area as work crews began arriving. It required some 4,000 workmen and the creation of a temporary village to house the families. “Any able bodied boy or man who wanted a job could get one at the dam site at 35 cents an hour for common labor, 60 cents for skilled laborers,” Poist noted.<br /> In 1989, David Healey interviewed Curtis Ragan, 84, whose father was the town doctor. “It was a busy place, always something happening here. The town had a post office, hotel, restaurant, train station and several businesses. The spot where people gathered in town was the hotel,” he told Healey. “I never hung out in the hotel myself. I was too young for that.” <br /> <br /> The Maryland State Gazetteer for 1902-03 provides a little more information. In the decades before utilities got to work harnessing the power of the river, it had a population of 350 people. Two doctors, Samuel T. Roman and D. M. Ragan, cared for the sick. Lodging was available from John T. Adams and E. P. Bostick, while Thomas Coonie baked bread and cakes for townspeople. Merchants included Chas A. Andrew, George Brewinger, William Gross, E. B. McDowell, and W. W. McGuigan.<br /> There were tradesmen such as John C. Smith, blacksmith; James Ritchey, shoemaker; Robert McCullough, harness maker; and W. R. Love was the postmaster. Mills included: Allen & Wilson, flint mill; James C. Bell, saw and flour mill; and the Susquehanna Paper Co. A daily stage provided transportation to Rowlandsville, Berkley, Darlington, Delta and other places.<br /> <br /> Ragan’s wife, Hazel, taught school in the town’s two-room schoolhouse. Since she was the only teacher, she taught all seven grades in one room. She also had to sweep the floors, carry water and cut firewood for the school house, she recalled in the Healey interview.<br /> <br /> But once the Philadelphia Electric Company became interested in using the power of the flowing water as a source to power turbines, it meant the end of the town.<br /> After the one-mile-wide and fourteen-mile long lake was created by the dam, water covered 9,000 acres of habitable land, obliterating the old landmarks and farms, the Sun reported. Gone were the “historic Conowingo Pike, the old Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad, the ancient bridge, the old canal, towpaths and the toll house.” In their place was a new Conowingo Bridge across the crest of the dam with a great lake on one side and a one-hundred foot waterfall on the other.<br /> <br /> The project, which had started in 1926, had been a tremendous undertaking. In addition to building the massive dam and power house, it had been necessary to relocate 16 miles of the Pennsylvania Railroad, to evacuate and demolish an entire village, reroute historic Baltimore Pike over the dam and build a 58-mile electric transmission line to connect with the Philadelphia Electric system.<br /> <br /> Today in this serene spot, it’s hard to believe that such a lively community thrived here near a cove just north of the large dam, for the backwaters of the dam have erased the physical evidence and an uninterrupted tide of time has eroded away most living recollections.<br /> But it hasn’t been forgotten for its stories survive in aging newspaper clippings, history books, and the stories of the subsequent generations. The great influx of workers from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other southern states established the very fabric of life in Cecil County. Cecil Countians are hard working, tough, resolute folks who are known for their ability to adapt and adjust to the changing times. —CSM