In tribute to bay's largest 2 tributaries


Marylanders have a love affair with the Chesapeake Bay, but we all too often ignore its appendages -- the rivers that flow into the bay. Without those tributaries, the bay would be a very different and much less fascinating body of water.

The rivers supply the bay with fresh water, which mixes with salt water from the Atlantic Ocean to support a rich variety of fish and plants. The rivers, and their tributaries, are where the fish spawn and where juvenile crabs go to grow up. And, if truth be told, the rivers touch us much more directly than the bay itself.

These books profile the bay's two largest tributaries, the Susquehanna and the Potomac. They have similar early histories -- Capt. John Smith had a hand in naming them, it seems, by identifying the waters with the Indians he encountered on their shores in his first exploration of the bay in 1608.

Each river was seen by those early European settlers -- and by their descendants -- as a resource to be exploited and harnessed for commerce. But abused and tamed though they have been, both rivers retain much of the mystery and awesome natural power they always have had.

Of the two books, Susan Q. Stranahan's tale of the Susquehanna is the more fulfilling. As she says in her prologue, rivers offer the perfect framework for stories. They provide a writer with a beginning, an ending and a sense of place and time.

Ms. Stranahan, an award-winning environmental reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, fleshes that framework out with chapters describing how the river has been assaulted -- by canal builders who wanted a navigable route to the interior, by loggers and coal miners, electric utilities, fishermen and farmers. She has peopled her account with colorful men and women whose lives revolve around the river.

The Susquehanna has endured a lot. Its 27,500-square mile watershed, draining nearly half of Pennsylvania and one-eighth of New York, once supplied a growing nation with pine for shipbuilding, hardwoods for homes and anthracite coal to power the steel industry. The river was the nation's leading spawning ground for American and hickory shad. Ms. Stranahan tells how unchecked exploitation over the past four centuries took its toll on each resource.

But the river has struck back at its tormentors from time to time, flooding its banks. Ms. Stranahan recounts the impact on Pennsylvania's river-front cities and towns when Tropical Storm Agnes hit in 1972, forcing thousands to flee their homes and causing more than $2 billion in property damage.

As with virtually every river in the country, the Susquehanna was used as an open sewer for decades. In this case, the coal industry was the principal culprit, making the water inky with coal dust and turning vast stretches into "dead zones," thanks to sulfuric acid draining from old mines.

One of the heroes in the subsequent battle to clean up the Susquehanna was William Eichbaum. A young lawyer chosen to prosecute coal companies and other polluters, he later came to Maryland to oversee this state's environmental regulations and helped launch the interstate campaign to save the Chesapeake Bay.

It was nuclear power that earned the Susquehanna notoriety for most of the nation. No one died when Unit 2 at Three Mile Island experienced a partial meltdown of its reactor core in 1979, but the incident fed the public's fear of anything nuclear and put a damper on construction of new reactors.

The final third of Ms. Stranahan's book deals with the lower stretch of the Susquehanna most familiar to Marylanders. She explains how farmers in Lancaster County were forced by economic pressures into raising larger and larger herds of poultry, pigs and cows, and how the manure generated by those burgeoning animal populations has overwhelmed the Chesapeake's ability to absorb nutrients.

Getting farmers to acknowledge they are part of the problem with the bay has not been easy, and Pennsylvania farmers especially so since they are so far from the estuary. But however slowly, they are changing, Ms. Stranahan suggests.

Her hopeful account of the effort to restore the Susquehanna's once-bountiful spring shad runs may be a little too rosy. With their numbers devastated by two centuries of overfishing, and their path to spawning waters blocked by hydroelectric dams, shad nearly disappeared in the late 1970s.

Their numbers since have been slowly increasing, thanks to a fishing moratorium in Maryland and restocking of the river with millions of hatchery-reared fingerlings. The construction of fish lifts at Conowingo Dam in Maryland and at upriver dams by 1999 may finally ensure the shad's recovery by allowing them to swim freely upriver again, but spawning runs the past two years have been down, suggesting the comeback may not be assured.

The Susquehanna story ends on an optimistic note at the river's mouth, with Maryland students on an educational boat tour seeming to absorb the lesson their parents could not, that "we ought to think of how what we do affects our neighbor. . . ." For the river's sake, and for the bay's, we can only hope that lesson is not forgotten.

Richard Stanton's book on the Potomac River is a more personal tale, rich in history and folklore and description of the waters he plainly loves.

He is a native Washingtonian and retired National Park Service official who served as superintendent of the C&O; Canal, a river-front national park on the Maryland bank. An avid canoeist, Mr. Stanton figures he has paddled, poled and portaged 9,208 miles on the Potomac since 1936.

But his story is more limited in its scope than Ms. Stranahan's, both in geography and style. It focuses on the upper Potomac above Washington, and virtually ignores the entire lower portion of the river, where it interacts with the bay. He does not try to paint as broad a canvas of people and places, and his book is ultimately less readable than Ms. Stranahan's.

Nevertheless, the book provides an entertaining historical account of how early settlers, the most prominent among them George Washington, explored the river and sought to use it to open the West for conquest and commerce. The canals and locks built by Washington's Potomac Co. were marvels of engineering. Equally fascinating for history buffs are Mr. Stanton's chapters on the heyday of barge traffic along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in the late 1880s, and on life along the river. The old photographs and century-old journal account of a barge trip enrich the story.

Like the Susquehanna, the Potomac has suffered from abuse and neglect, and the river's periodic flooding has wreaked havoc.

Pollution from urban and suburban development had become so bad in the Potomac by the 1950s and '60s that the federal government was moved to clean up what had become a "national disgrace," not to mention a stinking eyesore, with its vast mats of blue-green algae coating the river's surface in summertime.

The campaign begun in the 1960s to clean up the Potomac, with millions spent to upgrade sewage treatment plants all along the river, has paid off, as underwater grasses and fish have returned. There are still problems on the river, which Mr. Stanton acknowledges, but the river's recovery so far is an inspiring example of how the entire bay may be saved, if only we pay more attention to its tributaries. Perhaps thanks to books like these, we will.

Timothy B. Wheeler covers the environment for The Sun.


Title: "Susquehanna: River of Dreams"

Author: Susan Q. Stranahan

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press

Length, price: 307 pages, $25.95

Title: "Potomac Journey: Fairfax Stone to Tidewater"

Author: Richard L. Stanton

Publisher: Smithsonian Institution Press

Length, price: 203 pages, $24.95

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