Plying through history: A look at the Conestoga River
LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — A kayaker gliding along the Conestoga River through Lancaster city might encounter a few fishermen, some birds and maybe other kayakers, but that’s about it. Most people don’t -- or won’t -- swim in the slow-moving, quiet body of water that is often still called a creek.
But just over a century ago, the Conestoga was the lifeblood of recreation in the county, complete with a steamboat ticket price war between two competing swim resort owners for patronage of the crowds that packed the river’s banks each summer.
In summer of 1900, for example, a dime could buy a round-trip ticket for a scenic ride on one of three boats. That ride, about a mile down the river, brought passengers to one of two bathing parks along the now-overgrown banks, where a summer’s day could be filled with sun-bathing, swimming, picnicking, dancing and the occasional diving contest.
What the river lacks in depth, it makes up for with a deep historical resonance.
“It was a real boon of recreation in every season,” said Benton Webber, an engineer for Lancaster Township. “The swimming was wonderful; it was beautiful. And then in the wintertime, there was ice skating.”
Ice skating was made possible by the Slackwater Navigation System of the mid-1800s, said Webber, a river aficionado who has given speeches with LancasterHistory and the Lancaster Conservancy on the river’s Slackwater system.
The locks and dams of that system made the Conestoga navigable for commercial ships, providing the city with fresh essentials, like salt, alum and whiskey. But the system had other perks, such as creating depths of more than 15 feet in spots, Webber said. Comparatively, the river’s depth today averages about 40 inches, just over 3 feet, according to the National Weather Service’s water gauge in East Lampeter Township.
At the turn of the 20th century, the water was deeper, still and mostly clear, without today’s constant ripple. In fact, the river froze over many times, Webber said, and the depth of the ice made it great for ice skating and curling.
In a 1937 photograph, a group of men and boys are pictured standing on the ice, some holding curling stones. Another image shows a crowd ice skating at Engleside, at the end of South Prince Street in the city behind where the Dirty Ol’ Tavern stands today.
Fast forward to early this May, and the Conestoga measured about 48 inches deep. For a kayaker floating the 6 miles down the river from Pinetown to Conestoga Pines Pool, the landscape is far from what it was in its heyday.
The beauty of the river, however, is hard to miss.
Todd Roy, the founder and president of the Conestoga River Club, knows each “hazard” while driving to a launch point he frequents — a private property owned by a friend in Pinetown. He has navigated sections of the Conestoga countless times since his first experience in 2019.
“There are times when you are floating and the water disappears beneath you,” Roy said. “And it’s almost like you’re flying down this green corridor of rock and tree.”
The river serves as an oasis for Roy.
“You know you’re less than a mile from 222, but here you are, hidden from all eyes, floating through this green paradise that nobody knows,” Roy said.
Floating down the middle of the river on a late-spring morning in a kayak provides an immersive experience within nature on a river with a history that runs deeper than the river’s depth.
The river’s history is still very much present, like the centuries-old stone-arch bridge, near where Henry Lehman would have been smithing rifles in the 1800s. Bald eagles might soar overhead, with their nests tucked away near the water.
Paddling past abandoned duck-hunting blinds and under bridges, it can be difficult to imagine steamboats plying the same water — albeit downriver — which is shallow enough to see minnows swimming under ripples and old tires peek through the river’s dirt floor.
The steamboats of the Conestoga
The lock and dam system also allowed for navigation by steamboats, which had been invented about a century before by Lancaster County native Robert Fulton.
The first steamboat was the Clermont, which carried passengers between New York City and Albany, N.Y. Fulton’s early steamboat experiments, in fact, took place in what’s now Lancaster County Central Park on the Conestoga, according to LNP ′ LancasterOnline archives.
A stone marks the location of the experiments, near Historic Rock Ford.
In 1890, Capt. John B. Peoples commissioned a steamship dubbed Lady Gay, bringing a new berth of recreation to Lancaster.
Peoples, who was fondly remembered in his 1927 obituary as “the most conspicuous figure the amusement world of Lancaster has ever known,” was manager of Rocky Springs Park, then a popular spot to picnic or swim.
The steamer was 65 to 75 feet long and could carry 200 to 375 passengers. (The exact numbers are lost to history, since newspaper advertisements from the time were inconsistent and often exaggerated.)
Newspapers ran stories of ship breakdowns, first-hand accounts of rides on the boat and – sometimes – poems that lyrically told readers of the access it provided for passengers.
The following is an excerpt from a poem titled “The Parks of Lancaster,” by Herman E. Hoch, published June 18, 1927 in the Lancaster New Era:
“To Rocky Springs ’twas hard to get
A pleasure ground it was not yet
How well I do recall the day
Cap. Peoples’ boat, ‘The Lady Gay’
Made its first voyage down the stream
A two-decked boat propelled by steam ...”
For six years, the Lady Gay traveled the river, taking passengers from Conestoga Park – near East King Street – to Rocky Springs, about a mile down river.
The Lady Gay made trips from the wharf at Conestoga Park to Rocky Springs or People’s Bathing Resort every hour on the hour, from 1 to 8 p.m., according to an 1896 advertisement. The round trip usually took about 30 minutes, and the ship moved about 6 mph.
“The quickest time made on the run was nine minutes from Conestoga Park to Rocky Springs Park,” according to a 1930 Sunday News article recalling the ship’s legacy.
When Peoples left Rocky Springs to create his own resort – People’s Bathing Resort, directly across the river from Rocky Springs -- he kept his then-famous steamship.
The new manager of Rocky Springs, Herman Griffiths, commissioned boatbuilders from Pittsburgh to make two new steamers to compete with Lady Gay: the twin double-decker steamers Emma Bell and Evelyn B. They traveled the same mile-long stretch of the Conestoga, along with the Lady Gay.
Competition was fierce as the Conestoga River and its banks bustled with activity.
In the early days of Rocky Springs, long before the Wildcat roller coaster, the grounds were used mostly for swimming, picnicking, dancing and concerts. Groups like the Christian and Missionary Alliance hosted their conventions at the park for nearly 20 years (from 1899 to 1918).
More than 10,000 people attended these conventions, many camping at the park for a week or 10 days, wrote Donald Kautz in his book, “The Conestoga River: A History.” Many were baptized in the river’s waters.
In 1900, Peoples slashed the Lady Gay’s round-trip fare in half, costing passengers only a nickel compared to the dime fee of the twin steamers.
Rocky Springs’ manager Emma Wiener sued Peoples, claiming he was persuading passengers to ride his boat and catch a transfer ferry from his park to Rocky Springs, Kautz wrote.
The move sparked a literal nickel-and-dime lawsuit, which a judge would later throw out, because the river was public property — the landings were clearly marked. (The phrase has come to mean something that involves only a small amount of money).
The trio of steamships would later be remembered as the “Conestoga Navy” or “Lancaster’s Navy.”
In a July 27, 1930, newspaper article, published in the Sunday News with a “rare picture of old ‘Lady Gay,’” the author referred to the boats as “Conestoga goliaths, which once were the only means of reaching Rocky Springs and Peoples Bathing Resort.”
Busy days for bathing
On a Sunday afternoon in August 1901, a reporter estimated that 3,000 people had swarmed the banks of the “Conestoga Creek,” according to an article published in the Aug. 14, 1901, edition of the Semi-Weekly New Era.
The city of Lancaster had a population of 41,459 people that year, according to a Lancaster New Era report that detailed the county’s 159,241 residents. Today, Lancaster County is home to more than a half-million people; Lancaster city’s 2020 population was 59,322.
“The weather was all that could have been desired, and the crowd appeared to enjoy their outing,” the report said.
Because of the crowds, “hundreds were obliged to walk to and from the bathing resort,” the report said. The distance was roughly a mile.
There was no need to bring your own bathing suit; Rocky Springs rented them out. Toboggan slides (much like modern day water slides) also were at both parks.
One of the busiest times at the park, current owner Elaine Stoltzfus found, was Fridays, because of “Friday half-holidays,” after businesses would shut down.
Stoltzfus and her husband, Sam, bought Rocky Springs in 2001, and her research has produced insights into how Lancastrians used the grounds more than 100 years ago.
The Meyer family of Ohio, for example, traveled the East Coast in 1901 with their children (ages 15, 12, 5 and 3) in tow, performing diving shows -- including some in the Conestoga River.
The Conestoga River has played an important role for Lancastrians for centuries. Take a trip back in time and find out how the river was the lifeblood of recreation for thousands during the turn of the 20th century.
‘The Old Boat’s Gone’
Mother Nature and pollution led to the end of the Conestoga’s recreational heyday.
A disastrous flood in 1902 swept the Emma Belle and Evelyn B. from their wharves. The Emma Belle was saved by a rope, but less than a year later, it was dry-docked and dismantled. The Evelyn B. was destroyed when it crashed over the dam.
Land transportation changed, too, with the advent of the trolley system and the automobile.
A trolley from the Conestoga Traction Co. began running to Rocky Springs Park in 1903. Crowds packed the trolley cars for decades, and it was the last line to operate in Lancaster -- until 1947.
Its tracks now lead nowhere, just a wooded area at what once was a recreation hub, though the station still stands.
Lady Gay weathered the 1902 flood and kept steaming up and down the Conestoga. The ship’s final voyage is difficult to pinpoint, but seems to be somewhere around 1915.
The ship made news again shortly after, when it was announced in a front-page newspaper article in 1915 that the steamer could possibly star in a “picture story to be filmed along the Conestoga.”
This was big news, as the motion pictures were still relatively new.
The article radiated the love the county felt for the steamboat, ending the writing with a story about a Pequea Township farmer who named his male horse after the boat “in honor of the Conestoga steamboat.”
Nothing about the movie production or attempt at production followed in the papers.
Lady Gay was destroyed by fire May 14, 1918, according to a May 18 report in The Inquirer (a Lancaster newspaper at the time), under the headline “The Old Boat’s Gone.”
“The ‘Lady Gay’ was a more or less (chiefly less) palatial flat boat that up to a dozen years ago conveyed passengers up and down the Conestoga between Witmer’s bridge and the mill where her ruins lie,” the report said.
A replica of the Lady Gay was built in the 1960s and launched at Dutch Wonderland. It was much smaller, at 30 feet, and powered by diesel.
On its maiden voyage on Mill Creek, the replica cracked a beam when its smoke stack caught a tree limb, according to a Sunday News article, published April 14, 1963.
Like the steamers that once graced the Conestoga River, the attractions have, too, become distant memories of a recreational hub that is no more.
Swimming in the Conestoga was deemed unsafe in 1922 because of sewage runoff, and as swimming subsided, the bathing resorts of the early 1900s faded and morphed. (While progress has been made to keep the river a bit cleaner, there’s still eight points along the Conestoga that are combined sewer overflow areas, three of which are in Lancaster city.)
After its river-bathing resort days, Rocky Springs became a focus of controversy during the Civil Rights movement.
Marchers protested the park after the pool’s failure to integrate. Rocky Springs was one of three county pools sued for discrimination in 1960 and would eventually lose.
In an April 9, 2006, newspaper article in The Sunday News, former Lancaster city councilmember and protester Nelson Polite Sr. recalled his childhood years picnicking at the park and riding the trolley across rickety tracks over the river.
Rocky Springs was transformed into a bed and breakfast after it was purchased by Sam and Elaine Stolzfus, who restored the old house built in the 1800s.
Its website boasts its “gorgeous sitting areas” on the “historic park grounds with a quarter-mile of peaceful Conestoga River frontage.”
People’s Bathing Resort closed after the water became unfit for bathing shortly after 1903, Kautz said.
Like the steamboats, it now exists only in the annals of history.
Previous reporting from the LNP ′ LancasterOnline archives contributed to this report.