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As I drove towards York, Pennsylvania from Annapolis, I was thinking what a perfect day for a bike ride this would be, and welcomed a change from my home turf, the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail. It was a picture-perfect, mid-September day and nice break from the summer heat that just never seemed to end. I had signed up for a guided bicycling tour of the newly minted Northwest Lancaster County River Trail which runs through the Susquehanna National Heritage Area. What I didn’t realize, as I drove north through the Pennsylvania Piedmont, was that I was in store for more than just a bike ride on a nice day.
I arrived at the Columbia Crossing River Trails Visitor Center with enough time to look around before the ride. I was struck by how new and shiny everything looked. The visitor center building was a beautiful glass and steel structure, with a large meeting room and outdoor porch overlooking the river. The rockers were all occupied with visitors enjoying the view. A short distance from the center was a large parking lot for boaters and both “hard” and “soft” boat launches. There were also picnic tables and platforms that jutted out into the river from which people were fishing. Juxtaposed to all this newness stood the historic landmark that defined it all – the Veterans Memorial Bridge, aka the Columbia–Wrightsville Bridge.
As our small group of riders set off from the center, under the expert guidance of Susquehanna National Heritage Area staff member Emily Munn, the bridge, dominating the landscape as it did, absolutely had to be the first topic of discussion. The first Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge was built in 1814 and considered to be the longest covered bridge in the world at the time, accommodated east-west traffic across the Susquehanna for 14 years before being destroyed by ice, high water and severe weather in 1832. Its replacement, built of wood and stone, was constructed in 1834 and in 1846 a double-track railway was added. During the Civil War, Union forces set fire to the bridge to prevent the advancement of Confederate soldiers. Its replacement, the third bridge, was destroyed by the 1896 Cedar Keys hurricane. With the advent of steel, construction of the fourth bridge, the Pennsylvania Railroad “Iron Bridge,” began in 1897. This bridge was dismantled for scrap, after the needs of vehicular traffic preempted the needs of the railroad. The current Veterans Memorial Bridge is the fifth incarnation. It is designated as State Route 462 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is also a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The bridge also has the distinction of being the world's longest concrete multiple-arch bridge.
By the time we’d heard the long history of the bridge, we were well on our way down the trail and had come upon our next important topic: geology. As we approached the Point of Rocks railroad tunnel, Emily pointed out the exposed rock, found in this area on the Susquehanna and how these rock formations were created 325-260 million years ago as a result of an African and North American plate collision. She also pointed out chisel markings going perpendicular to the foliation. These are from the construction of the tunnel where workers would hold a star-bit tipped chisel and another worker would strike the chisel with a sledge hammer, rotate the chisel again numerous times until a hole would be deep enough to place black powder and blast the rock loose.
The trail travels through several miles with the old canal (on which the trail itself is based) on the left and alternating rock formations close to the trail and more open sections, where the hillside recedes. The Chickies quartzite rock is harder and forms the hillside closest to the trail, while the so-called Harpers phyllite is softer and defines the areas recessed from the trail.
We soon came to a clearing with the most dramatic example of Chickies Rock towering above the trail on the right-hand side. The rock face is popular with local climbers and there were a few there that day. There is an outfitter nearby who rents climbing equipment, canoes and kayaks, and offers guided kayak fishing, paddling and more.
When we reached Chiques Creek Bridge, the trail opened up and we were able to see some fascinating rock striations in and along the creek. Emily explained that Chiques Creek is considered “an impaired waterway,” due to agricultural runoff. But, she continued, creeks, lakes, and streams that feed into the Susquehanna help minimize the environmental impacts of agriculture and development.
As we traveled along the trail, Emily pointed out various “industrial ruins,” including the Henry Clay Furnace, one of the first of the anthracite furnaces along the Susquehanna River between Columbia and Marietta. The limestone used for flux in the furnace was quarried to the north of Chickies Ridge at the Billmeyer quarry and was also transported here by canal.
Thanks to some construction being done on the trail, we diverted into the sleepy little town of Marietta, which allowed us to see some great historic buildings and architecture – many of which were once condemned but were lovingly restored in the last 40 years. Marietta thrived in the mid-1800s through the early 20th century due to industries such as timber and iron smelting. However, the town was hit hard by the Great Depression, with the final blow being the Great Flood of 1936, during which the Susquehanna overflowed its banks and devastated the community.
Just before we diverted to Marietta, we had passed by the Musselman-Vesta Iron Furnace Center. On exhibit in the Center are photos, information and artifact displays from seven of the furnaces, the nearby lumber mill and the canal and railroad that were in the Chickies Historic District. The stories of the people who lived and worked at the sites are featured. It is only open for three hours on Sundays, but a member of our group said it was well worth visiting.
The Trail and the National Heritage Area
A word or two about the trail itself. The trail is mostly shaded, level, and affords many opportunities to glimpse the beautiful Susquehanna River. Being fairly new, the surface of the entirely paved trail is in excellent condition. There are numerous access points and parks along the 14-mile length of the trail that allow for rest stops and serve as alternative starting points if you don’t want to begin at Columbia Crossing.
National Heritage Area Designation
In March, 2019, York and Lancaster counties (including this trail) were officially designated as parts of the Susquehanna National Heritage Area. Prior to my guided tour, I don’t think I fully understood what a National Heritage Area is (there are 55) and what it represents. Unlike national parks, National Heritage Areas are large, lived-in landscapes. Signed into law in 1984, National Heritage areas were intended to be “a new kind of national park" that married heritage, conservation, recreation, and economic development.
It was easy to see how this area qualified for this designation after my guided tour. With its unique geology, Native American heritage, and history of lumbering, iron manufacturing, and railroads, it is the perfect candidate. I can also see how this region’s many recreational opportunities are taking it beyond its roots to a future of conservation and restoration.
I think you will find that when you get the opportunity to ride or hike the Lancaster County River Trail, it is much more than a peaceful meander with great views of the Susquehanna River.
The Columbia Crossing River Trails Center is managed by Susquehanna Heritage. It is a gateway center for education and trailhead for river and land trails in the area as it is located right on the Susquehanna River.