Dam-building days on the Susquehanna


HAVRE DE GRACE -- In March 1926 young Earl Hopkins, age 15, made his way to the new office the Boston engineering firm of Stone & Webster had just opened in the little village of Conowingo. The company was getting ready to build a dam, and Earl was one of its first hires. He earned $12 a week as an office boy.

For residents of Harford and Cecil Counties that spring, the start of construction on the Conowingo Dam must have come as something of a relief. It had been assumed for more than 20 years that a hydroelectric plant would eventually be built in that part of the Susquehanna River's narrow valley one day, but until 1926 the project was all talk and no digging.

As long ago as 1905, entrepreneurs had been thinking about a dam using the river's energy to produce electricity, and by 1921 a group of investors operating as the Susquehanna Power Company had assembled 5,424 acres in the valley. Residents of nearby Darlington were especially interested in all of this, as they still lived beyond the reach of the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.'s ++ lines, and had no public electricity at all.

Eventually, the deep-pockets Philadelphia Electric Company acquired Susquehanna Power. Stone & Webster and the Arundel Corporation won contracts to build the $50-million dam. A railroad was built along the river from Havre de Grace to carry construction materials. New power lines brought electricity to the job site from the Holtwood hydroelectric plant in Pennsylvania. (That wasn't as easy at it sounds. One worker was shot and wounded by a farmer who didn't want the lines crossing his land.)

A 24-month job

About 3,800 people, including Earl Hopkins, were hired. Housing and mess halls were built for their use. Local contractors provided trucks, steam shovels and other equipment. Teamster and livestock dealer Roy James of Havre de Grace, whose son would later become president of the Maryland Senate, brought in teams of mules to help clear and grade the bed for the rail line.

It's interesting to look at this 1926 project from the perspective of today, when the requisite environmental impact statement alone would probably take at least a decade to fight its way through the courts. Protestors would be chaining themselves to trees, federal safety inspectors would swarm over the work site like ants at a picnic, and there would be major labor disputes.

But as the novelist L.P. Hartley observed, "the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." It took 18 months to build the Empire State Building in 1930 and 1931, and it was just 24 months from the 1926 groundbreaking when the giant turbines at Conowingo began to transmit power. There were no work stoppages and few serious accidents.

During the construction period, young Earl Hopkins got out of the office and performed a variety of jobs. He drove the first vehicle, a truck carrying lampposts, across the top of the dam. (More than 50 years later, after the dam was refurbished and re-dedicated, he would drive across it again -- in a 1928 Lincoln, at the side of Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes.)

Sometimes on a Saturday he'd drive a busload of French-Canadian woodcutters from Conowingo to the fleshpots of Havre de Grace, and then -- the most demanding and probably the most dangerous part of the task -- round them up and drive them home again that night.

When the dam was complete he left Stone & Webster and stayed on at Conowingo, working for Philadelphia Electric. In the Depression days, he recalls, he earned 50 cents an hour, and was required to contribute a day's pay every month for the relief of the unemployed.

He retired from Philadelphia Electric in 1972, the year the Conowingo Dam survived Tropical Storm Agnes -- a freak summer storm which sent more water down the Susquehanna valley than at any other time in the dam's history. He and his wife Ruth live outside Darlington now, and he remains a great informational resource about the dam-building days.

The town of old Conowingo is long gone now, submerged beneath the waters of the river impounded by the dam. The old bridge which used to carry Route 1 traffic over the Susquehanna is gone too, and little towns through which the main road used to pass are either submerged, like old Conowingo and Glen Cove, or almost forgotten, like sleepy old Berkeley.

To today's local people, who have lived with the dam all their lives, the great technological triumph of 1928 is just part of the landscape. Visitors go to the dam these days to fish from the catwalk, launch small boats, or walk on the attractive gravel path which runs where Roy James's mules once heed and hawed.

The visitors to Conowingo look for bald eagles, which are numerous there, or tour the new equipment which lifts migrating shad upriver past the dam. But as a rule, these modern visitors don't pay much attention to the rest of the machinery. They may know, but probably don't care, that the old-fashioned turbines of Conowingo still help to fire the toasters and air-conditioners of Philadelphia -- and of happily-electrified Darlington too.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 6/26/97

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