Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Inside Conowingo

October 14th, 2017 No comments


 The Susquehannock natives called the site Conowingo meaning “at the rapids”. Today, we (and quite a few other birders, nature enthusiasts, and photographers) think of it as the place with the dam where all the Bald Eagles come in winter to eat the remains of fish that don’t always make it through the big turbines alive. Well, I suppose fish do make it through…and I suppose also that some of the eagles (and herons and gulls and vultures) actually catch live fish when they are perusing the menu below the dam.

When the Philadelphia Power Company began construction of a new hydroelectric dam “at the rapids” on the Susquehanna River near the small town of Conowingo in 1926, I’m sure the intent wasn’t to provide such a magnificent winter feeding ground for the birds, but, as things happened, that is what developed…..along with a new continual source for about 500 Megawatts (MW) of electricity. (The hydroelectric plant is connected to the eastern portion of the continental electrical “grid” and how much is produced by Conowingo depends on how much is needed by the grid and the price per kilowatt on any given day.)

Building the dam had some negative effects too. And there is a website ( that lists all of them in detail. The dam changed the seasonal water flow (although I have to add, it also stops flooding downstream). It blocks the spawning runs for shad, eel, herring, and a variety of other fish. And it has, of course, changed the aquatic habitat and altered the river’s natural ability to purge itself of the sediment that now remains trapped behind the dam.

Conowingo Dam from Fisherman’s Park

It took two years (amazing feat all by itself) to build the dam. It is 105 feet high by 4,648 feet long. The reservoir created on the Susquehanna River behind the dam is about 14 miles long and covers 9000 acres. Sadly, there are no more rapids “at the rapids” on this part of the river and the original town of Conowingo lies somewhere at the bottom of the lake. It happens.

We have visited the dam many times. I mean, really, it’s a no-brainer if you love birds and especially Bald Eagles; it is the place to go. And, on top of that, it is just about two hours away and great for a day trip up to see a few eagles, grab lunch somewhere, and head home before dark. Really, it is a perfect local birding spot. Even in summer when the eagles are scarce, there are always Vultures (but take care where you park because the big black birds have a taste for anything rubber that is attached to an automobile) and Cormorants and Gulls….plenty of gulls. I have read that, of the 170 species of birds recorded at or near the Dam, there are at least 11 species of gulls. And then there are the Herons…who doesn’t like to see a beautiful Great Blue Heron fishing along the river?

Lined up to get that perfect photograph….standing room only.

Just a quick note about the photographers: If you want to see thousands of dollars’ worth of “glass”, i.e., binoculars and super-sized zoom camera lens, just head up to Conowingo in December or January. Pick any Saturday – ah, just pick any day of the week – and you’ll see photographers and birders lined up along every inch of the rails and fence line along the river in Fisherman’s Park with their gear set up on expensive tri-pods (and some not so expensive ones) just waiting for that perfect eagle flying, fishing, fighting moment. And, trust me, they get the pictures.  A quick stop by the Visitor Center at the top of the dam and you can see amazing photographs taken right there below the dam.

So, we too have stood on the banks of the Susquehanna below the dam at Fisherman’s Park (did I mention fishermen love the place too….for obvious reasons?) in the chill of winter with me freezing my patookas off watching the eagles scuffle with each other over the fish they’ve caught (or fish parts they’ve retrieved) looking up at that dam and wondering if they ever let anyone go inside and take a look around the place.

Turns out they do. If you call on a specially designated day in August (got this info from the Visitor Center when I stopped in one afternoon for a potty break before heading home), you can sign up for a tour in September when they have the Conowingo Dam festival….which is not to be confused with the Eagle Days Festival they have later (or is it earlier?) in the year. This year, I called in and signed us up. So, one fine hot Saturday in September (the 23rd), we headed up US Route 1 north of Belair to the dam and waited for our turn inside.

View from inside the dam just between Turbine Hall and the gates.

Actually, I was quite excited at the prospect of getting inside the dam. I had always admired its industrial art deco type styling sitting there straddling the Susquehanna River.  You can tell from the outside that it is gonna be pretty cool inside too.

Still looking for a retirement job.

We donned hardhats and were issued ear plugs. There wasn’t any construction going on – we wore the hardhats because the fishermen outside were known to cast their lines out with heavy weights that sometimes broke off and came crashing through the windows in Turbine Hall. Just another hazard of working there, I suppose. The earplugs? Well, it was noisy with the turbines running.

Turbine Hall

Generator #1

Our tour guide led us into a side door and right into Turbine Hall which is pretty much as far in as they let us go. But that was okay although I really wanted to go down into the bowels of the place and see the twenty-seven (27) foot butterfly valves that were originally used to control the water flow through the turbines. Nowadays the water is controlled by something called wicket gates which do not sound nearly as impressive as humongous butterfly valves. But, alas, we did not get to go that far into the dam….guess we would have needed more than hardhats and earplugs for that.

One of the older turbines.

Going down under Turbine #2

We did get to see the big beautiful turbines in the aforementioned Turbine Hall of which there are eleven (11). Although the dam was built to accommodate eleven (11) turbines, only seven (7) were installed when the dam was completed in 1928. The last four (4) higher capacity turbines were added in 1978. Each of the new turbines drives a 65 Megawatt (MW) generator increasing the dam output to about 548 MW. The original seven turbines produced about 252 MW. In total, the plant at Conowingo adds about 1.6 billion Kilowatt (KW) hours to the grid.

East Fish Lift

We also got a look at the two fish lifts that have been added to the dam to attempt to accommodate the spawning of the shad, herring, eels, etc. The east lift is very large and essentially a large elevator. The fish swim into the bottom and then the lift is raised the 100 feet to the top of the dam where the fish are released. This lift was at the top when we visited; I did not climb all the steps up to the top to see if there were fish inside when we visited although it is not the season so I expect the lift was empty.

The west lift is much smaller and apparently used by scientists to monitor the shad, count them during spawning season, and sometimes to collect the fish and transport them to creeks and tributaries up river which could be a daunting task considering the Susquehanna runs for 464 miles from Cooperstown, New York (yep, the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame) to the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland.

Our guide did tell us a bit of a tall tale about the fish coming through the turbines and then swimming over to the lift so that they could go shooting down through the turbine again….swirling around like on a roller coaster….but I think he was pulling my leg….I really do.

Susquehanna comes from a Len’api word – Sisa’we’hak’hanna – which means Oyster River or “river with the oyster beds” which probably works better for the end of the river at the Chesapeake Bay rather than the beginning up at Cooperstown. There are some who say the river still runs under the Bay and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach, Virginia. That makes sense as the Chesapeake is basically a relatively shallow estuary with the deep parts running right through the middle, i.e., the river.  The Susquehanna is the longest river on the east coast of the US draining just about 27,000 square miles….so that accounts for quite a few tributaries to transport those shad to during spawning season.

Dam with several gates open.

With all that water, you’re gonna need quite a dam. Conowingo Dam includes fifty (50) crest gates to control water flow from the reservoir. Less than ten (10) are open to the lower river at any given time – generally. But the dam is also used for flood control so that, as the water level rises in the upper river and reservoir, more gates are opened to the lower river and the Chesapeake Bay. The flood control gates are operated by overhead cranes that basically are hooked up to a gate at the top and then the gates are raised and lowered to allow water to escape the reservoir.

Crane used for lifting and lowering flood gates. It would be operated from above the gates.

Overhead cranes.

All fifty (50) gates have rarely been needed. The last time all the gates were opened was June 19-24, 1972 after Hurricane Agnes. The water levels were so high and the water pressure so great on the dam that explosive charges were laid on the eastern side of the dam as a precautionary measure. Fortunately, with all gates open, the water levels receded to a safer level and they did not have to destroy the dam. On the other hand, with all the gates open, Port Deposit just down river was totally flooded out…all that sediment and mud just washed right into the little town and pretty much buried it in muck. But the people who lived there had been evacuated in time so came back home and went to work. The town did recover.  After all, in the past couple hundred years, Port Deposit had seen quite a few floods and, worse, ice flows being located so close to the Susquehanna. Nowadays, anytime the gates are opened, the operators at Conowingo have to give due notice to the officials at Port Deposit to allow time for evacuation if necessary.

Today the dam is owned and operated by Exelon Power Corporation and is one of the largest non-Federally owned dams in the United States.  Just shy of ninety (90) years old, it is not certain what the future holds for the dam. There are some who say the power being generated is not needed so much and the river should be returned to its original state allowing nature once again to take its course. Part of me agrees – take it down and let the river flow again “at the rapids”; but another part of me thinks it would be a shame to destroy the beautiful old dam. In the meantime, the eagles and cormorants and gulls and vultures and herons will come in winter to hunt and fish and fight. And, as long as they do, the birders and photographers will also show up to stand in the cold and watch the spectacle unfold.

Sources for Factual Information:

  1. Wikipedia Conowingo Dam –
  2. Conowingo Dam –
  3. Wildlife South Conowingo –
  4. Exelon Conowingo Dam –
  5. Harford County Bird Club – Conowingo Dam –
  6. Conowingo, Maryland –,_Maryland
  7. Susquehanna River –
  8. For great information on visiting Conowingo, Emily Mitchell‘s blog/visitor guide:

Nebraska Trifecta & More – Day 8

July 7th, 2017 2 comments

(Previously on Nebraska Trifecta & More – NE Day 1, NE Day 2,  NE Day 3, NE Day 4,  NE Day 5,  Day 6, and Day 7.)

viz ctrLast days are for doing last things. But this time, the last day was an extra day. We had allowed more travel time to get back to Omaha from Burwell so we hadn’t anticipated having a whole day available for one last adventure in Nebraska…well, not only Nebraska.

Do not assume that I hadn’t added a few possibilities to my list of things to do just in case we had extra time. Yep, I knew there were two National Wildlife Refuges near Omaha that would just be perfect for filling in any extra time that we had.  So, after breakfast, we headed up the Missouri to DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) …..which is technically in Iowa…I think.


Nebraska Trifecta Day 8

Okay, it is in Iowa although the actual spot might have once been in Nebraska since the two states are separated by the great Missouri River. The Refuge sits inside what used to be a loop in the river…but at some point the US Army Corps of Engineers (COE) went in and cut the loop off and made a channel that made the river straighter and the leftover loop became a lake inside the refuge.  Why did the Engineers do this way back in the 1800’s, you might ask? Well, I will tell you what I got on good authority – they did it to help the steamboat industry – they cut out some of the loops on the river making it easier to navigate.  You don’t hear about that kind of thing much anymore what with all the environmental groups wanting to leave natural things alone and let rivers flow whichever way they have flown (sounding like birds now….oh my) for thousands of years.  I’m thinking that should be “flowed” now that I ponder on it… gets rid of the bird’s part in it if I use “flowed” instead of “flown” so “flowed” it is.  And, yes, the Government does still tinker in terraforming and manipulating rivers but maybe not as much as they did back a hundred years or so ago.

desoto on riverBut, both the “loop” that’s now a lake and the steamboats on the river both play a part in the history of DeSoto Refuge which is the first of two refuges we visited on our last day in Nebraska.  Because of the river and the locations where the bridges are built, we seemingly took the long way up to the Refuge – first in Nebraska, then in Iowa, then back to Nebraska…..seemingly for miles.


I found out later, we could have just turned left out of the hotel parking lot and drove north for maybe fifteen or so miles and gotten there with a whole lot less travel time and without crossing state lines but the route we took was the one the GPS told us to take via the Interstate.  But these things happen when you’re in unfamiliar territory – you stick to the map and you go where the GPS tells you to go and sometimes it takes you the long way.

tealBut we got there all the same with no big problems. From the very start, we found birds. There are nice wetlands and impounds right along the entry road to the refuge and, although most migrating birds had left the area, there were still enough to keep our interest as we drove into the refuge.

The visitor center was quite attractive. You never know what you’re going to find in the National Wildlife Refuge system – some sites have large modern and beautifully built visitor centers and some are very small with buildings that are much more rustic and little more than an office with bathrooms, which are a good thing to have… heck with nice visitor centers, give us the bathrooms.

The visitor center at DeSoto was of the former type.  It was large and the architecture included just a touch of prairie style embellishments that really added to the overall effect of the building.  Almost all of the visitor centers, which are sometimes called nature centers, include small museums or natural wildlife displays and local geography type overviews to help you understand the area where you are birding. DeSoto was no different from the other refuges in that respect. But, this refuge also included a museum of another sort altogether……DeSoto has a museum which includes all the treasures found in the wreck of the Steamboat Bertrand which was lost on the Missouri on April 1, 1865……before the “loop” was removed which might explain why the loops were removed in the first place.

boat model

The Bertrand was built in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1864. She was built for river cruising in shallow water on the river.  (Who knew they ever built boats in Wheeling?) She left St. Louis under the command of Captain James Yore in March 1865 fully loaded with general merchandise and lots of mercury which was used for gold extraction (there was a gold rush going on a little further west at the time, don’t ya know).  They were headed west to the headwaters of the Missouri bound for the mining towns near Fort Benton in Montana territory. On that fateful morning in April, just about a mile from DeSoto, Nebraska, the 161 foot boat hit a snag and sunk going down in just about ten minutes flat…..gone….just like that. The passengers and crew were saved but the boat and all its cargo was lost….for just about 100 years.


It was the mercury that someone finally thought about….worth a fortune if you could find the boat and recover the goods. Two treasure hunters, Jesse Pursell and Sam Corbino, set out to find the wreck and recover the mercury in 1967….working in cooperation with the Federal Government who now owns the property.   The excavation was completed in 1969 and about 150 tons of cargo were recovered. While some mercury was recovered, the treasure hunters did not find enough to make them rich…..not even close……only 9 carboys out of the expected 500 were ever found.  (A carboy is a lead container used to transport mercury.)  I’m wondering if some previous treasure hunters didn’t get to that boat and the mercury before 1967.

betrand stuff

mud drum

But, even without all the mercury, the items that were found tell a story of life on the river in the 19th century and it is all there in the museum in the Refuge Visitor Center for anyone to see…and for various academic types to study and write about in their various academic journals. It is interesting to say the least. The only downside is that everything is stored behind glass walls so you cannot really get into the museum area and explore. Alas, it is sad but museums do have to protect things from unscrupulous thieves and….well, treasure hunters.

bertrand site

But, wait, there’s more. This had to be one of the best nature/visitor centers I have ever seen. Okay, the nature displays were nice and the Bertrand Museum was unique but what I really loved was the huge observation area at the back of the center.

obs deckRemember that “loop” from the river that became a lake (Loop Lake, by name) in the refuge? Well, the back of the visitor center has an observation area built to overlook the lake making it very convenient and very warm in the winter to come and see the thousands of migrating waterfowl that come to the river and lake each year. Most had already headed north for their breeding grounds when we visited but, having spent many winter days shivering in the cold on a refuge watching Snow Geese and Tundra Swans, etc., I can tell you that a large, warm, glassed-in visitor center built right over the lake would be just the ticket for winter birding.  As noted, I absolutely fell in love with that observation room…I really think Jerry thought I was a little bit crazy….but I’m telling you, warm birding in winter is way better than freezing birding….I’m just saying.


We did actually find some time to bird while we were on the refuge. They have a great nature drive around the southern end of the lake and along the river.  We enjoyed about an hour roaming around outside and then headed on down to Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge.

Which proved to be a bit trickier than we had anticipated….because this is where we had our last, and maybe most interesting GPS glitch of the trip.  We headed out of DeSoto, grabbed lunch at the next town up the road, added the address for Boyer Chute to the GPS, and headed out.  Nothing too complicated – continue down the main drag, hang a left, drive a few miles, then another left onto a gravel road….which was not unusual, all the secondary roads were dirt roads.  We were driving along checking out the scenery and didn’t pay too much attention to the huge gravel trucks that kept passing us headed back towards town…..right up until we came to the top of the ridge and found ourselves outside the main gate of what appeared to be a quarry. The GPS showed the road continuing through the area and indicated that our destination was less than a mile away…straight ahead…….straight ahead through that gate.

We debated a moment and then decided that maybe going through a quarry wasn’t really the best idea…even if the people in the office inside the gate allowed us to pass….and there had to be another way to the refuge. So, we turned around (after we checked out the quarry view by the side of the road) and headed back down the road.

quarry 2

I did manage to talk Jerry out of knocking on the office door and asking about work. Turns out he has this idea about checking out jobs at certain industrial type places and then working for maybe a week or two until he learns all about the place – sort of like getting an extended operational tour of the place – before quitting and moving on. I reminded him that he was in his 60’s and working even a week in a quarry might be just a tad bit too much – some dreams are for younger men, I’m thinking.

We turned back onto the main road and, after going through a much smaller community a mile or so down the road, found a nice brown nature sign indicating that we should turn left again to get to the refuge.  I surmised that the old road had gone through the quarry prior to there being a quarry there and that we would find the other side of that road ahead of us prior to actually finding the refuge. And we did. But this the south side of the road had a barrier showing that the road was closed to through traffic – that would be us. A similar sign on the north end of the road might have been good too.

Boyer Chute Refuge was established in 1992, includes just over 4000 acres and is just southeast of DeSoto Refuge. Both refuges lie on the Missouri River. The name comes from a channel, the Boyer Chute, which was cut as part of a channelization project for flood control and navigation of the river. You guessed it, the Corps of Engineers (COE) again.

lewis and clark

There are two basic roads inside the refuge or, maybe just one…..turn left at the entrance to explore the north side of the chute or turn right for the south side of the chute. The refuge is much more rustic than DeSoto. While there are a few wilderness type bathrooms – composting toilets, etc. – there are no other facilities there. There are several hiking trails and, had the weather not turned cold, we might have checked them out.  At the end of the road on the south side of the chute, we did actually get out of the car and head down one trail that traversed a ditch spanned by a wooden bridge. Jerry wanted to find out what was on the other side but we had only traveled a hundred yards or so when the cold biting wind off the river cut right through our jackets and helped us to decide to cut that walk short. Crikey, it was cold there…something we hadn’t noticed up the way at DeSoto Refuge.  And what was on the other side? Well, not much really, just the trail leading down by the chute into the brush…but nary a bird in sight.

dutchmans breeches

We headed back to the car and I put the hand warmers from my gloves over my ears and held them there until I could feel my ear lobes again.  I might have looked silly but my ears were getting warm.  As we left the refuge, I noticed a road named Abbott Road – and that’s where I realized that this was the road that would take us right back to our hotel….we were just about 8 miles north of the airport and maybe a couple more to our hotel.

Our adventure was almost over. Tomorrow we would have an early wake-up and head to the airport and home.  What a successful journey it has been! We’d met our birding goals and then some. Okay, we’d only wanted to see three birds to start with but they were great birds and they were lifebirds.  We’ve chased a lot of birds in the past and we have not always been successful in seeing them….this trip was a resounding success but it was time to go and it would be good to be home.

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge
Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge

April 3 – Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE (via Minneapolis, MN): 1153 Miles
April 4 – Omaha to Grand Island (via Route 30): 160 Miles
April 5 – Grand Island to Kearney (via Interstate 80): 49 Miles
April 6 – Meandering around Kearney and Gibbon (I80 and the Back Roads): ?? Miles
April 7 – Kearney to Calamus Outfitters/Burwell (RT 10/RT 2/RT 183/RT 96): 122 Miles
April 8 – Calamus Outfitters/Switzer Ranch/Calamus Lake: @ 25 miles around & about.
April 9 – Calamus Outfitters to Omaha (via Route 11 and Interstate 80): 247 Miles
April 10 – DeSoto NWR & Chute-Boyer NWR: 69 Miles
April 11 – Omaha, NE to Baltimore, MD: 1153 Miles

Sites Visited Thus Far: 
ADM Grain Company Driveway (Day 2)
Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary (D3 & D4)
Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge (D8)
Calamus Outfitters & Switzer Ranch (D6 & D7)
Calamus Reservoir (D6)
Crane Trust (D3)
Dannebrog (D7)
DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge (D8)
Dowse Sod House (D5)
Eagle Scout Park (D3)
Fort Kearney Historical Park (D4)
Fort Kearney State Recreation Area (SRA) (D4)
Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA) (D2)
Gracie Creek (D5 & D6)
Grandpa’s Steak House (D4)
Great Platte River Road Archway (D4)
Happy Jack’s Chalk Mine – Unfortunately closed (D7)
Higgins Memorial (D2)
Louisville State Recreation Area (SRA) (D7)
Mormon Island State Recreation Area (SRA) (D3)
Platte River State Park (D7)
Townsley-Murdock Trail Site (D2)
Windmill State Recreation Area (D4)

birds d8

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