A Flood Of Memories To Look Back On

POSTMARK: CONOWINGO

April 11, 1993|By WAYNE HARDIN

Two fishermen, one wearing a camouflage jacket and the other in black, guide a flat-bottom fishing boat to the ramp in a cove where Conowingo Creek meets the Susquehanna River. As they drift in, a man in a blue kayak and a youngster in a yellow one push off from shore.

Down river two miles and up a long hill to the east, Loretta Riley, 38, stands near the bar in the stone New Conowingo Inn at the intersection of U.S. Routes 1 and 222. If water sports aren't your thing, you might share her view of the town.

"There's really not much to do around Conowingo, except hop from bar to bar. We have three here," Ms. Riley says. "You have to go to Elkton or Bel Air or Oxford [Pa.] if you want to see a movie or bowl."

This is new Conowingo. Beyond the arched railroad bridge that separates the creek from the river lies old Conowingo -- underwater.

The town owes its fate to the Conowingo Hydroelectric Dam, which was finished in 1928 for the Philadelphia Electric Co. The gray concrete dam submerged the old town in a 100-foot-deep lake that backed up 13 miles. The new town rose in the farm fields of western Cecil County above the dam.

Today, Conowingo starts a quarter-mile up from the dam with Sturgill Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge and, next door, the New Susquehanna Inn, a restaurant and tavern born in 1928 as a Prohibition-era "tea house." Everett Jones says he owned a Studebaker and Packard dealership where Sturgill is.

"I moved here from Pennsylvania in 1939 to start the business," says Mr. Jones, 76, who lives in a red brick house across Route 1. "There was very little around here then. I sold about 25 to 30 cars a year."

Along Route 1 for maybe a mile are liquor stores, bars, diners, garages, a gas station, a convenience store and carwash. Frame houses, blue or yellow or white, and a few red brick ones are interspersed among the businesses. A half-dozen horses graze in pastures. It's a little more residential up Route 222 toward Lancaster County, Pa., past the Conowingo Baptist Church, the Conowingo Gas Co., the Conowingo Viddy-Oh store.

"These are basically hard-working honest people trying to make a living," says Thomas A. Schardt, 39, of nearby Port Deposit, who has been postmaster here for seven years. "But there's little work in Conowingo itself. People have to go to Du Pont or General Motors in Delaware or the Peach Bottom [nuclear] plant in Pennsylvania."

Three events of the last 17 years hurt the town. In Port Deposit, Bainbridge Naval Training Center closed in 1976; Wiley Manufacturing Co. closed in 1987. And in 1983, "[Route 1] was closed for a whole year for repair," cutting Conowingo off from Harford County, Mr. Schardt says. "I don't think the town has recovered from that yet."

Farming still retains a role here, although a shrinking one. Frances Taylor of Quarryville, Pa., set aside 250 acres for state land preservation before she sold her Conowingo farm. "It can never be developed," says Ms. Taylor, 81, who worked as a teacher and lived in the relocated town and who remembers old Conowingo.

"I think there still may be eight dairy farms within five or six miles of here," says Paul Rawlings, 71, who was born here. He and his wife, Bessie, 68, have a 24-cow dairy operation on 130 acres at Connelly Road and Route 1 near Octoraro Creek, two miles east of the crossroads. He plants 40 acres of corn for feed and she raises, cans and freezes vegetables.

Lillian Love, 77, and her brother, Ralph "Bud" Reed, 75, were born in old Conowingo. Their house sat next to the river.

"I remember the floods," she says from her home in Rising Sun, north and west of Conowingo. "I remember my parents getting us out of bed and taking us to my grandmother on high ground in [nearby] Pilottown." She and her husband, Alfred, have a photo of 1927 Conowingo showing railroad tracks under construction for a route on high ground. The village, with dirt streets and railroad tracks, looks like a Western town.

Her brother recalls a Conowingo "that was dear to us and we thought was going to last forever." It lasted until Jan. 18, 1928. Conowingo was about 150 years old when the dam's final eight floodgates closed and the Susquehanna slowly backed up into the town. Residents gathered and watched. By sundown, old Conowingo had vanished beneath the water.

DOWN BY THE DAM

WHAT'S IN A NAME?: There's little agreement on the translation of Conowingo, which goes back to Susquehannock Indian times. Residents say it means "at the rapids," "at the falls," "long branch" or "they have been long gone."

THE DAM: Construction started in March 1926 and finished in less than two years, at a cost of $52 million, using 3,800 workers.

WELL-KNOWN RESIDENT: Dallas Green, former major-league baseball pitcher, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees, and general manager of the Chicago Cubs. He's now a scout for the New York Mets.

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