From its high, wooded hills, visitors to Susquehanna State Park get panoramic views of the largest river on the East Coast. Down on its banks, anglers line the shore, hoping to hook the passing shad, perch and striped bass.
Hikers can also walk along the river on an abandoned railroad bed straddling a mound of land between the river and an abandoned canal. The canal is now habitat for turtles, bullfrogs and beaver instead of a commerce route for canal boats.
The canal is one of many indications that the quiet park of today was once a thriving center of activity. Ships from foreign ports once dropped anchor here, and the site boasted the first bridge across the Susquehanna.
Men once fished the waters not for sport but income, grew crops on the land, and even harvested ice from the river to sell in Baltimore during the summer.
“You wouldn’t know it now, but that was actually very much a commerce hub at one time,” said Brent Trautman, a ranger at the park, which was created in the early 1960s.
Today, the park — just a few miles upstream from the Bay in Harford County — is part of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, which showcases natural, historic and cultural sites around the Bay. And at the Susquehanna State Park, nature, culture and history are closely intertwined.
“That river, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, really affected people and their lives in this area,” Trautman said. “It was a source of income from fishing and the harvesting of ice. It was a source of transportation for commerce. And in a lot of ways, it was a huge source of headache and something to be overcome. It would wash out bridges. It would flood the area. So it really did have an impact on the community.”
When early settlers stood atop the hills around the park, they saw more than a panoramic view — they saw opportunity, and even foreign trade.
Development in the area began in the 1600s, as farmers began clearing the land and growing tobacco and wheat for export to England. Early settlers called it the “Land of Promise.” In 1794, businessman John Stump chose the site for a gristmill, around which a small town, Rock Run, grew.
No one is sure just how many buildings were once in Rock Run, but Stump’s mill, with a huge, 32-foot, water-powered wheel, was a focal point for the small community. It contained the local post office and served as a gathering place for farmers who would bring their corn, wheat and other grain for grinding on the French-made mill stones. The final product might be used locally, or exported. Ships bound for the West Indies would anchor in the river to pick up loads of grain for the Caribbean.
Visitors to the four-story mill can still see the grinding of grain today: Its 12-ton wheel, an exact replica of the original, is so finely balanced it requires only two pounds of pressure to turn.
Only a few hundred feet away is the Jersey Road Toll House, now a park information center. The toll house once collected fares for the first bridge across the Susquehanna, which was completed in 1820 on what was then the main road connecting Philadelphia with Baltimore.
The bridge caught fire in 1823, and was rebuilt in 1829 and stood intact until 1854. “A herd of cattle knocked it down while they were going over,” said Park Ranger Clark Old. “They never rebuilt it. And in 1856, it was taken away by an ice flow.”
Overlooking the gristmill is the Rock Run House, built by John Carter, a partner of Stump. Carter died in 1805, a year after the house was built, and it passed to Stump’s daughter, Ann, and her husband, Dr. John Archer, Jr., whose family continued to operate the mill for many years.
The house is open for tours in the summer, and visitors can see where its most famous inhabitant, James J. Archer, a Confederate general in the Civil War, grew up.
The Susquehanna once carried the largest shad and herring runs on the East Coast, consisting of tens of millions of fish each spring. While much of the harvest activity took place a few miles farther downstream, near the mouth of the river, plenty of fish still made it up to the Land of Promise.
Metal hooks, which were used to anchor nets, are still found in a few old trees along the shore. A smokehouse located near the gristmill helped to preserve the catch.
The Susquehanna is difficult to navigate much farther upstream than Rock Run — Capt. John Smith was halted by rapids nearby during his exploration of the Bay in 1608.
In 1836, construction began on the Susquehanna Tidewater Canal, bypassing river obstacles and connecting the Chesapeake with the Pennsylvania Canal upstream. Like the bridge, floods on the Susquehanna took a toll on the canal, making continued repairs necessary. All but a few sections were out of business by the 1880s.
Although the bridge and canal were gone, the grist mill kept operating through 1954, serving local farmers. Today, it operates for demonstration purposes and visitors can purchase small bags of ground corn.
On the park property, the Steppingstone Museum, operated by a nonprofit organization, showcases rural lifestyle and handicrafts typical of local farms around the turn of 19th century.
The Steppingstone Farmhouse was built around 1771 by Nathaniel Giles, a prosperous Quaker and landowner, in what was then his county seat. Its interior, though, is furnished to offer visitors an insight into the lifestyle of the 1880–1920 period.
The kitchen is equipped with a wood-burning stove, icebox and shelves of tools for visitors to inspect while guessing their purpose. Above the stove is what looks like a metal cupboard, but a guide reveals that it’s actually an “oven” from a ship as she opens its many doors to reveal where bread was baked and where coffee was ground and then boiled as well as various storage compartments for spices and other foodstuffs.
Other ties to the nearby Susquehanna shipping trade of that time are present in the house’s main room. On the windowsill, which is made of a polished green stone from the northern Harford County, are pieces of “wharf china.” These elaborately decorated dishes, which appear fine by today’s perspective, were considered flawed enough in their time to be dumped on the river’s wharves where they could be sold off cheaply.
Other buildings on the museum’s lands are devoted to the rural crafts and trades of that era, including the Foard Blacksmith, as well as woodworking, cooper, wheelwright, dairy, weaving and decoy shops. A display barn’s exhibits include a general store and veterinarian shop.
While farms still operate in the area, the riverside hills have reverted largely to forests. Much of what was once Rock Run is gone, but a historic walking tour continues to take visitors to the remaining buildings and recreates the story of the river-based community.
The park is still a Land of Promise for visitors. But today, that promise takes the form of anglers dipping lines into the water, boaters exploring the river and islands, and hikers and mountain bikers traversing the park’s more than 15 miles of trails, often taking in stunning views of the Susquehanna.
“At one time, it was very much a source of commerce and transportation,” Trautman said. “Now it is very much a source of relaxation and recreation. It’s kind of neat to see the progression it has made.”
Susquehanna State Park
The park is open year-round, although some activities are seasonal and some historic buildings are open only during the summer months. In addition to historic sites, the park offers a boat launch, picnic area and campground, as well as such activities as hiking, fishing and mountain biking. For information, call the park of 410-557-7994, or visit the Gateways Network web site at www.baygateways.net
The Steppingstone Museum is open 1 to 5 p.m. weekends, May through September. Admission is $2. For information, call 410-939-2299, or visit its web site at www.steppingstonemuseum.org
To get to the park: Susquehanna State park is located three miles northwest of Havre de Grace off Route 155 in Harford County. Take Interstate 95 to Route 155, exit 89. Proceed west on Route 155 to Route 161. Turn right on Route 161 and then right on Rock Run Road into the park.
Updated Map & Guide Available
An updated Map & Guide to the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network is available to help visitors explore the places and stories of the Chesapeake. The Network system includes more than 100 parks, refuges, museums, historic communities and water trails in the watershed, each of which tells part of the Chesapeake story.
The Map & Guide is free at most Gateway sites, as well as in many state welcome centers in Maryland and Virginia. To order a copy by phone, call toll-free 866-229-9297 in Maryland, or 888-824-5877 in Virginia.
Copies can be ordered online from the Gateways Network at www.baygateways.net. The web site also offers descriptions and links for all Gateways, as well as the ability to search for Gateways by activities, areas of interest or geographic location.
Chesapeake Bay Gateways 2001 Annual Report available
The Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network 2001 Annual Report is now available. This 20-page report updates the progress made by the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network in its two years of existence, including a detailed look at the approaches and programs behind the Network’s success. Also included are initiatives in the works.
The report contains the Fiscal Year 2001 Budget as well as a list and descriptions of Gateways 2001 Grants.
The back inside cover lists contacts within the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Program Office and Gateways Network Working Group members.
To order a copy, write to: National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Program Office, 410 Severn Ave., Suite 109, Annapolis, MD 21403, or fax: 410-267-5777.