She is so old the origin of her name is lost in the mists of time. The Susquehanna, geologists say, established her path to the sea long before tectonic upheaval transformed the plains of Pennsylvania; mountains and valleys formed around her rather than directing her course.
Ancient peoples gathered on the Susquehanna's banks, attracted by the sparkling waters, ample game and bountiful fisheries, and left traces of their presence in the form of petroglyphs. The lower Susquehanna River — the stretch that flows through the midstate — has the highest concentration of these stone carvings in the northeastern United States.
From their earliest days, European settlers were drawn to the Susquehanna as well. Farms and towns slaked their thirst for water. Industrialists planted paper and steel mills on her banks. As a commercial conduit, the river brought to market timber from the commonwealth's extensive interior forests as well as coal. Hydroelectric and nuclear plants continue to generate electricity for millions.
But all this development came at a price. By the 1960s, the Susquehanna was one of the most polluted rivers in the country. Long stretches ran orange with acid mine runoff. So much coal fell into the river that business sprang up to retrieve and resell it.
Communities routinely discharged raw sewage into the river well into the 1970s.
In recent decades, population growth, deforestation and modern farming methods increased the amount of runoff laden with silt, chemicals and toxins, further impairing the river. Periodic flooding exacerbates the problem.
Today, thanks to changing attitudes, the Susquehanna is not only on its way back but also promises to be a significant economic driver for the region again — mainly through recreation and tourism. The 40-year-old federal Clean Water Act started the turnaround. Because the river is the primary source of the Chesapeake Bay, cleanup efforts redoubled in the 1980s and continue today.
As a result, while many established industries dependent on the Susquehanna continue to thrive, more people are being drawn to outdoors activities supported by the river. These kayakers, boaters, fishermen, birders, hikers and others turn to suppliers, guides, restaurants, hotels, campgrounds and the shopping offered by river communities, thus providing jobs, income and tax dollars to reinvest in the region.
Many challenges remain and, to date, no one has attempted to put a figure on the economic return from a cleaner river. But it's hard to attach a dollar amount to quality of life. One thing is certain — the Susquehanna continues to be the dominant feature of the midstate landscape. As such, its ability to support commercial and leisure activity is invaluable.