Upcoming documentary focuses on the history of the Conowingo Dam
By Steven Hoffman
Maryland Public Television is working on a documentary film about the history of the Conowingo Dam, and producers are searching for people who have stories or memories to share about the construction of the dam and its place in local history.
Executive producer Mike English is looking for people to interview who may have worked on the dam through the years. He’s also looking for people who have photographs, home movies, letters, or diaries that will help tell the tale of the Conowingo Dam and the surrounding community.
The one-hour documentary, “Conowingo Dam: Power on the Susquehanna,” will premiere during the station’s Chesapeake Bay Week in April of 2016. The story will focus on the small town, the mighty river, and the dam that was second in size only to the large hydroelectric works at Niagara Falls, New York when it was opened in 1928.
“We have an annual initiative called Chesapeake Bay Week in April,” English explained. “It’s a way to celebrate the Chesapeake Bay. We do these documentaries on the some of the issues facing the Chesapeake Bay. We will use the story of the dam to tell some of the peripheral stories of the area. Why was the dam built and what impact did it have on the area?”
The Conowingo Dam is situated about 9.9 miles from the river mouth at the Chesapeake Bay and about five miles south of the Pennsylvania border, on the border between Cecil and Harford counties.
According to English, there was some controversy surrounding the construction of the dam. There had been much debate, through the years, about damming the Susquehanna River. There was a group of Maryland residents that was opposed to the concept of harnessing the dam and sending the power to Philadelphia. But Albert Ritchie, an influential Democrat who served as Maryland's governor from 1920 to 1935, was in favor of the dam project, and he was able to win support for it.
The dam supports a 9,000-acre reservoir, which now covers what was once the original town of Conowingo. During the construction of the dam, the town was moved to its present location about one mile northeast of the eastern end of the dam. The Conowingo Bridge, part of the original U.S. Route 1 crossing, would have been covered by the rising water so it was taken down in 1928.
English, who is an executive producer of history, natural history, and environmental programs for Maryland Public Television, used to live in Jarrettsville, Md. and would cross the dam all the time on his way to Lancaster, Pa. and other places.
“I have a lot of memories of that,” he explained.
Because he grew up in the area, English already had a good understanding of the importance of the dam, and the impact that it had on the region.
According to English, the Conowingo Dam was celebrated as a marvel of engineering when it was constructed. The dam was designed by Stone & Webster, the noted American engineering services company based in Massachusetts.
The company actually made a silent film titled “Conowingo” to showcase the massive hydroelectric project. English said that he would love to be able to find a copy of the film, but so far efforts have not been successful.
“We could never find it, which is frustrating,” he said.
English acknowledged that because much of the construction of the dam took place 90 years ago, the best that producers can hope for is information from the children or grandchildren of people who worked on the dam.
He said that everyone involved with the project is looking far and wide for any kind of source material to offer a well-rounded and thoroughly researched documentary.
“I’m on eBay all the time trying to find memorabilia,” English explained. “We’re looking for any leads that will take us to people who have stories to tell. The Conowingo Dam has had a big impact on the area, and we’re going to try to do the best show about it that we can.”
Anyone who has information to share about the Conowingo Dam is asked to contact producers at email@example.com.