As a kid growing up on Bald Top Mountain above the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, Van Wagner would look down during times of low water to see a mysterious “V” rising from the bottom, pointing downstream.

Later, he learned it was an old eel weir built from stacked river rocks, a simple but effective way to funnel and catch migrating American eels. As the eels swam downstream, the walls of the weir funneled them to a narrow point where they could be captured in traps or speared more easily.

Historic eel weir in Susquehanna

This old stone eel weir in the Susquehanna River, near Danville in northcentral Pennsylvania, is said to have been built by Native Americans.

As Wagner shows in a recent drone video, the two walls of the weir rise about 3–5 feet from the river bottom. The weir is about one-eighth of a mile wide at the top of the V.

Wagner, a high school environmental science teacher from Danville, PA, was told a story that has been handed down by generations of local residents: The weir had been built by Native Americans. Indeed, the weir is located at the mouth of Mahoning Creek, where a community of Native Americans once lived.

Wagner’s own research led him to the startling theory that not only was the weir erected by Native Americans, but that it was perhaps built well before the great pyramids of Egypt. He asserts this possibility because wood recovered from an old capture basket at the end of an eel weir in Maine was carbon-dated to an origin of approximately 6,000 years ago.

Moreover, it seems the Susquehanna is full of old eel weirs, underwater landmarks still standing after centuries, if not eons, of floods.

The historical record does not include much documentation of eel weirs in Pennsylvania. But when COVID-19 grounded field trips this year at Lewisburg Area High School, Wagner tasked his students with poring over satellite imagery of the Susquehanna to find the telltale Vs of eel weirs.

So far, they think they have found several dozen. And almost all are near documented Native American sites.

That’s no surprise to Aaron Henning, a fisheries biologist with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. “There are hundreds out there. There’s one next to the airport in Harrisburg,” he said.

One simple reason may be that the snakelike eels were once a primary source of food for people living along the Susquehanna. “Native Americans used to smoke and dry the eel meat to be used all winter. This was likely the most important source of protein and calories for local people for several thousand years,” Wagner said.

Eel weir on the Susquehanna

One of the last eel weirs in operation on the Susquehanna River is shown here near Selinsgove, PA, in the 1950s or early 1960s. (Courtesy of Bill Simcox)

Swatara Creek near Harrisburg draws its name from a Native American word believed to mean “where we feed on eels.” Swatara Township has an eel in its crest. The city of Shamokin, which drains into the Susquehanna, is said to mean Eel Creek in the language of the Delaware tribe.

According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission website, “Estimates of historical abundance suggest that eels made up 25% of all fish biomass in the Susquehanna River basin.”

Weirs also have been found in Maryland, New York and Delaware.

In his master’s thesis, Prehistoric Fish Weirs in Eastern North America, Allen Lutins wrote that eels and other fish played an important role in the diets of Native Americans along rivers and the Atlantic Coast before the Woodland Period, which stretched from 500 BC to AD 1100.

The reason: Catching fish required little effort and risk. And, American eels were plentiful. Wagner marvels that Native Americans obviously knew the natural history of eels even though it takes place entirely under water. They knew to operate their weirs in the fall when adult eels migrated in mass numbers down the Susquehanna. The fish were on their way to the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean to spawn and die, a far-off central gathering spot for American eels that was only discovered a few decades ago.

The eel is the only fish in the Susquehanna to spend its adult life in the river, then return to the sea.

Lutins, citing other scholars, said it is often difficult to distinguish between prehistoric eel weirs and those built by early colonists who copied the Native American techniques. He cited several settlers who described stone or stake weirs in Virginia’s James and Shenandoah rivers still in use at the time by Native Americans.

Newly arrived colonists took over the weirs and built new ones. Eels became a diet staple of residents around Danville into the early 1900s, when hydroelectric dams downriver began sealing off the great eel migration and disrupting the reproduction cycle.

In September 1914, four years after the Holtwood Dam had blocked the migrations, 3 tons of eels were taken in 10 days from the Danbury weir, according to historical documents Wagner unearthed.

“The word spread quickly when the eels were starting downstream and men would leave their jobs to man their eel nets,” Wagner wrote. “Boys could be seen walking the streets of Danville with a stringer of eels thrown over their backs. They would stop at restaurants, bars and family homes to sell the delicacy to anxiously awaiting purchasers.”

Even after a phalanx of four hydroelectric dams blocked passage, eel hauls continued in the river into the 1950s for the remaining adult eels, which can live up to 40 years and grow 5 feet long.

In recent years, the federal government and fisheries agencies from Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland have stepped up eel restoration efforts. Since 2005, more than 1.5 million young eels from the Sargasso Sea have been captured at the Conowingo Dam and trucked upriver for release.  

Ad Crable is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Pennsylvania. Contact him at 717-341-7270 or acrable@bayjournal.com.

(9) comments

goconnelljr

How do the ells and shad get past the conawingo dam ? I've boated and fished below the dam many many times when I was a young man.

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Both shad and eels are caught in fish lifts at the dam and trucked above the various dams and released in historic eel waters. There has been a new emphasis on restoring eels to the Susquehanna. Hopefully it does better than the American shad restoration effort.

Jim Cummins

There are also many fish weirs in the Potomac, some many hundreds of feet long. In both rivers and many others, the First Americans fished them for thousands of years, some perhaps for 10,000+ years. Brunswick, MD, was called "Eeltown" during pioneer days due to all of the eel weirs. Eels are the largest native fish predators in the Potomac River, some over 4' long, and they are delicious. If you are driving south down I-81 from Hagerstown in the summer, when you cross the Potomac look upstream, to your right, and most of the time the river is low enough that you can see a fishweir which goes across the entire river. When New colonists kicked out the First Colonist, they kept fishing the weirs. Many were fished into the early 1900s. A 1936 amendment to the Lacey Act made their use illegal and after much resistance they were eventually all abandoned. So for some of the weirs it has been less than 100 years since they were last fished.

EdNiz

A friend of mine in the Town of Owego (Tioga County, NY) just spotted an eel in the Owego Creek. He contacted DEC and was told that this was the first sighting of an eel since the 1960's. I have done a lot of research into local environmental history. I came across these historical references:

“Eel Fishing in the Susquehanna”

Owego Times, November 4, 1858

“At the present time the pursuit and capture of the piscatorial treasures of the Susquehanna furnishes a vast amount of sport for the riparian residents, and what is of importance supplies them with a considerable amount of valuable food. About the middle of August the water of the stream becomes very low, and usually by September that in the channel is only a few feet deep, leaving the stony bottom for a wide space on either side in some places nearly bare, with occasional deeper furrows which pass along it.

“At this stage of water the instinct which governs the fish to descend previous to the advent of cold weather becomes the means of their destruction. For many miles of the river’s length, therefore, north and south of us, the people owing the shore adjoining, erect their fish dams and gins, by deepening the channel somewhat and building an elongated V shaped wall, at the lower point of which is fixed a box from which the fish, when once caught, cannot extricate themselves.

“Fisherman secure and salt down some five or ten barrels of eels during the season, besides living entirely upon them during the catch. The larger operators make the business pay, as a single man along can perform all the labor required in taking and salting the fish. We have read of various illustrations of digital dexterity, and have seen Ole Bull’s, Paul Jullien’s and Vauxtemp’s manipulation of the violin; but could either of these gentlemen once behold the marvelous rapidity of their slipping epidermis or integuments they would stand abashed, and like the sable individual in the song, ‘lay down the fiddle and the bow’ for ever afterward.

…………………….

“The wall which remain under the water are very seldom disturbed, and the next year, with a little repairs, are just as good as ever. The eels are packed in full-sized barrels, and many are sent to Baltimore. Quantities are purchased by sea-going vessels, whose skippers are aware of the delicious flavor of this rather anomalous article of provision. The fishing season in some places closes with a grand carouse, in which a large quantity of whiskey is consumed.”

“Obeying the instinct in their descent of the stream, they find themselves borne pleasantly into his channel, and wriggling themselves cheerily, they let the current—pent in by walls carry them along until they tumble, plumpt! Into the box at the termination of the V.

“The fish taken in this manner are for the most part eels, of which almost incredible quantities are captured during the fall season. The eel catchers call it a fall run, and in many sections are in the habit of dating all events from it.

"Eel Weirs in the River"

From Binghamton Herald, Jan. 13

"Probably one of the grossest blunders ever put upon an unsuspecting public, was the law allowing the placing of eel weirs in waters in Tioga county and forbidding them in other counties in this state. The sportsmen and fishermen of Broome county intend to expend every effort to have the law allowing Tioga county to place eel weirs repealed or else to have the law made general at this session of the legislature.

"A special law was passed a year or two ago allowing eel weirs to be placed in waters in Tioga county, but not elsewhere. It being in the winter no objection was made, as the fishermen were not as alive to the sport as in gladdening days of fall, when they don't have to fish through the ice.

"…….eel weirs [have been placed] across the Susquehanna river a quarter of a mile from the Broome county line or in other words froze out the rest of Tioga county for the big grab. It is estimated by one familiar with the operations that on an average 900 pounds of eels a night were caught in the weirs for every night for six weeks. It is said that the day's run would average from 400 pounds to one ton a day. It is said that actually, 1,980 pounds were taken from the weirs in one night. In all it is estimated that 35,000 pounds were removed from the river in six weeks."

Owego Gazette, January 20, 1910

Jim Cummins

Nice article! There are also many fish weirs in the Potomac, some many hundreds of feet long. In both rivers and many other eastern rivers, the First Americans fished them for thousands of years, some perhaps for 10,000+ years. Brunswick, MD, was called "Eeltown" during pioneer days due to all of the eel weirs. Eels are the largest native fish predators in the Potomac River, some over 3' long. I grew up eating them at my grandmothers on the Eastern Shore, and they are delicious. If you are driving south down I-81 from Hagerstown, MD, in the summer, when you cross the Potomac look upstream, to your right, and most of the time the river is low enough that you can see a fishweir which goes across the entire river. When New colonists kicked out the First Colonist, they kept fishing the weirs. Many were fished into the early 1900s. A 1936 amendment to the Lacey Act made their use illegal and after much resistance they were eventually all abandoned. So for some of the weirs it has been less than 100 years since they were last fished. There are many dozen such weirs in the Potomac and her tributaries in MD, VA, WV and PA. Thanks for the great article on the Susq. weirs!

guest6

I'd love to learn more about how the eels are doing today- "Since 2005, more than 1.5 million young eels from the Sargasso Sea have been captured at the Conowingo Dam and trucked upriver for release. " That's roughly 100,000/year- I suppose that means trucked upriver past the York Haven dam? Are the numbers increasing during this 16 year period?? How are upriver populations?? Blessings, hoping for healthy rivers and eels.

KrzyBtchKris

From living by & fishing the Susquehanna for the last 20 years, I do know quite a few people that have been catching more eels in the last few years, I personally have not but 20 years ago, didn't hear much about the eels. So that must be a good sign that they are going in the right direction!

jaicee

What about the history of shad fishing before the power dam on the Pennsylvania/Maryland border. Native & early people got a lot of food from their shad fishing, too.

John N

I believe it's imperative to the health of the Susquehanna River that eels have complete access to the entire River. Thier relationship with the Eastern Elliptio mussel, a water cleaning bi-valve will greatly improve water quality in the River and Chesapeake as well!

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