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The Lower Susquehanna: A Landscape of Loss?


Pot from the Washington Boro site. Photo Courtesy State Musem of Pennsylvania.
Pot from the Washington Boro site. Photo Courtesy State Musem of Pennsylvania.

How are significant large landscapes eroded away? It usually does not happen overnight – the landscape character and heritage are lost acre by acre. But of some these losses are just more painful than others. Consider a recent example in the Lower Susquehanna Valley.

Although not yet well known, the Lower Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania is one of the great iconic landscapes in America.  Those who care about its cultural and natural resource values have recognized the region as the Susquehanna Gateway State Heritage Area and as the Lower Susquehanna Conservation Landscape. It was also recently designated as part of the connector trail for the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

Today much of the Lower Susquehanna River landscape looks rural and scenic with scattered small towns, farms and summer cabins.  However, it is also a landscape of power with three large hydroelectric dams harnessing the river flow. Much of the land along the river and many of the river islands, approximately 13,000 acres, is owned by utility companies.

This valley also has a nationally important story to tell. Before European contact, it was one of the most densely populated Indian settlements on the eastern seaboard. Over 3,000 people are estimated to have lived in just one the region’s  large palisaded town known as the Washington Boro site.  The natural environment supported intensive farming, hunting and fishing.  Today a blue and gold state historical marker remembers the Washington Boro Archaeological Sites noting that  This area contains one of the highest concentrations of archaeological sites in Pennsylvania. The sites range from small camps to large villages and cover 11,000 years of Native American culture. 

Until recently land use change came slowly to this region. Then on July 1, 2012 an article appeared in the Lancaster paper that Safe Harbor Power Company was “quietly” selling land containing some of the most significant archeological resources in the country. They were selling what were essentially the front yards of the great Indian settlement of Washington Boro and selling its burial grounds.  Caught off guard, conservation groups have scrambled to respond.

It does not have to be like this.  The significance of the archaeological resources was well known and the power companies have been working with partners to save open land in the region. Hopefully, this story will have a positive ending and all parties will become more aware of the need to save this rich heritage.