Conestoga Navigation Company

From 1829 through approximately 1857, the Conestoga Navigation Company operated a slackwater canal between Lancaster and Safe Harbor. Passengers and freight could board a barge at Reigart’s Landing on South Prince Street and travel down the Conestoga to the Susquehanna. From there, the traffic crossed the Susquehanna and entered the Susquehanna and Tidewater canal system on the west side of the river. The boats would then travel down the S&T canal to Havre de Grace and from there they could continue on down the bay to Baltimore or they could navigate through the Chesapeake & Delaware canal (which opened in 1829) then up the Delaware to Philadelphia. There were nine locks between Lancaster and Safe Harbor. Each lock was 100 feet long and 22 feet wide and was accompanied by a dam which piled up the water into ponds to facilitate navigation. The river bottom was dredged to ensure a minimum of four feet of draft. A tow path was cleared on the river bank so that non-powered canal boats could use the system.

Head of Navigation

The Conestoga canal started at what was called “Reigart’s Landing” named after Adam Reigart who was the first president of the Conestoga Navigation Company. This was located at then end of E. Strawberry Street near to where the entrance to Lancaster County Park is today. The entire length of navigation from here to Safe Harbor was just short of 18 miles with a drop of 64 feet.

The Conestoga Navigation Company enabled goods like coal, lumber, grain, and whiskey to be shipped to Baltimore and Philadelphia faster and cheaper than it took to transport them overland to Columbia.  A hogshead of whiskey could be shipped to Baltimore for $1.50 or to Philadelphia for $1.75.  In addition to the mule powered canal boats, the steamer “Conestoga” provided passenger service between Lancaster and Philadelphia. The steamer Conestoga was seventy-five feet long with separate cabins for gentlemen and ladies. The steamer ceased operations in 1856 when the railroads became the dominant form of transportation.

After about 30 years of operation, the company ran into financial troubles, and finally ceased operations in 1857.

What follows is an outline of the nine locks with their approximate locations and some images of their remains.

Lock 1 (Light’s Mill)

The first lock had a lift height of seven feet. The first lock was located along the New Danville Pike (rt 324) across from the historical marker pictured at the top of this post. No remains of the original lock have survived but at this location you can still see the remains of the head race for Levan’s Flour Mill and the piers of a railroad bridge that was used to transport flour from Levan’s Flour Mill to a rail line on the other bank.

Head race of Levan's Flour Mill
Entrance to the head race of Levan’s Flour Mill

Lock 2 (Haverstick’s)

The second lock was located where Second Lock Road crossed the river. It had a lift of six feet. A covered bridge at this location was burned by vandals years ago. Remains of the lock can still be seen on private property just upstream from the foundations of the old bridge.

Second Lock

Lock 3 (Heinley’s)

The third lock was located just downstream of where Millersville Road (Rt 741) crosses the river. It had a seven foot lift.

Location of lock #3 of the Conestoga Navigation Company.

Lock 4

Lock four had an eight foot lift and was located where Slackwater Road crosses the river just upstream from the old Slackwater covered bridge. The bridge was burned down but the abutments remain.

Lock 5 (Rohrer’s Mill)

Lock five was located just above the Rock Hill iron bridge. Remains can still be seen at the Rock Hill Access Area. Lock five had a six foot lift.

The ruins of Conestoga Navigation Company Lock #5 on the Conestoga River.
Remains of Lock #5 on the Conestoga River

Lock 6 (Miley’s Mill)

Lock six was located across from Boy Scout road near to the mouth of the Little Conestoga. It had a nine foot lift. No remains are visible today.

Lock 7

Lock seven was about a mile below lock six where the River makes a bend as Conestoga Blvd. cuts across the corner. It was seven feet high. No remains are visible today

Lock 8

The remains of lock eight can be seen in Safe Harbor park just upstream of the River Road bridge. It had a six foot lift.

The remains of lock #8 on the Conestoga River.

Lock 9

Lock nine was located at the Susquehanna River. This lock has been obliterated by construction related to the Safe Harbor dam. The final (or first depending on your direction) had an eight foot lift.

The Conestoga River flows into the Susquehanna River at the “Port of Lancaster”.

Conclusion

It’s fun to imagine what it was like for the lower Conestoga to be able to support commercial navigation. Nine dams with their associated ponds above them. Barges being towed by mules along the towpath. Flat-bottomed steamers carrying passengers and freight up and down the river. The dams are all gone now and the locks are just a fading memory. But I don’t mourn their passing. They are artifacts from an era when modification of a natural resource to facilitate commerce was considered progress. I personally believe that the river is in a much healthier, more natural state now than it had been during the late 19th century. And when I see people kayaking on the river or fishing along its banks I am encouraged that we have a natural resource that will be enjoyed by future generations.

12 thoughts on “Conestoga Navigation Company

  1. During the 1950’s and early 60’s my family lived along the Conestoga near Millersville, between Locks #3 and #4. The dam at Lock #4 was still in place when we first moved there. We enjoyed the slow flow of the “crick” for boating and swimming until sometime in the late 50’s. Imagine our surprise when one morning we looked out and saw the level of the water had dropped probably 5 or 6 feet, a never-before-seen sand bar appeared, and the water was flowing much faster. The dam at Slackwater broke during the night allowing all the backed up water to drain out. In the years after the canal ceased operation the Slackwater dam was used to power (I believe) and small electrical power plant and at one time a mill that made paper for the Lancaster newspaper.

    1. This is great information, Jim. Could you please send me your email address so we could correspond outside of Don’s blog. I am the Lancaster Township engineer and am doing some research about the history of the 9 dams and locks.
      BentonWebber@gmail.com

  2. Dave. I am Philip Gerber, president of the Millersville Area Historical Society, and am interested in weather you have the time and interest to give a presentation at a MAHS meeting. We meet on the second Saturday of every month at the Millersville Borough Municipal building. The meeting starts at 9:00 AM with the doors opened by 8:30 AM. Several years ago Steve Runkle presented on Life on the Canal and we had an overflow crowd.
    Hope to hear from you. pge8507@aol.com, (717)872-8837 before 5:00 PM

  3. Donald,
    Very interesting! Our parents–Bruno & Louise–bought the farm with the “Second Lock” in 1963 and they raised eleven children there. It was a wonderful place to experience childhood. We have so many memories of enjoying the Conestoga, the Lock ruins and until the late ’60’s fire the longest covered bridge in Pennsylvania.
    I will share a few memories. You have this Lock noted as with the Haverstick Mill. I always thought it was “Snavely’s”. I always wondered how the Lock and Mills worked together. The rapids at this Lock appear to be from the Dam stones being demolished. It was a nice spot to go over with a canoe, or kayak or just swimming. There was one winter in the 1960’s that was so cold almost the entire Creek froze. We could walk on the ice for a long way.
    The bridge was very popular to drive through and the hill on the Lancaster side had “seven bumps” which apparently slowed down the horse-drawn carriages. We used to walk across to the Cherry Hill Orchards on that side. At night it was also a popular spot for young drivers to set off firecrackers inside–along with other activities.
    Sadly one night my Mother was awakened by a bright orange light on the windows and then fire trucks. As a young boy I went down to see the bridge burning and to hear the firemen say there was nothing they could do.
    My Father always said that even if the vandalism had not taken it, that Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 would have. In any case it was a tragic loss of such a beautiful wooden, double-span covered bridge.
    The Lock ruins were a fun place for us to play in and walk through. As you can see from your photos today there are massive trees that have grown there. During Agnes the river covered them and was inside our lower barn. The river flooded every Spring and many times after heavy rains but I think Agnes was still the highest. You noted the silt behind the Dam and we noticed after every flood our “Creek bottom” had a layer of silt left behind. Our Father compared it to the Nile River flooding that we had read about which created good growing conditions.
    Initially we grew corn there, then turned it into pasture but over time it became famous for an annual Pig Roast Picnic that my parents had there. Until homes were built on the Orchards we also sent skeet out over the River and fired shotguns. Great Fun memories!
    Thank you for the wonderful blog posts and many wonderful memories.
    Bruno S. Schmalhofer

    1. Thank you, Bruno, for sharing your memories. I love to hear stories of life along the river.

  4. I am sister to Bruno S. Schmalhofer who posted above.
    I believe the orchard at that time was named Shenk’s Orchard,
    not Cherry Hill, as it is known today.

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