We are blessed with an abundance of gorgeous scenery in York County. It seems especially striking when you get away from the towns into some of the more remote corners. The long eastern border along the Susquehanna River affords many striking views from near Harrisburg to the Mason-Dixon Line. We who live in this area, near “The River,” are so used to it, that we are often surprised to see the much narrower and shorter streams that are called rivers in other areas.
Besides its scenic beauty, the Susquehanna has played many roles in history, including being viewed formidable enough to be a desirable barrier between Continental Congress in York and the British occupying Philadelphia in 1777-78. If the war moved up from Virginia during the America Revolution, guards at Camp Security were ready to “throw” the British prisoners across the river so that they would not be liberated.
Many ferries were established, since crossing the Susquehanna was necessary as settlement spread from the northeast. This link will take you to my previous York Sunday News columns on some of those ferries. My current column, transcribed below, tells of a noted American landscape artist and his depictions of McCall’s Ferry in Lower Chanceford Township:
McCall’s Ferry painting in White House collection
Earlier this year a striking painting of our area by noted German-American artist Herman Herzog was sold by an Alexandria, Virginia gallery for a tidy sum to an unknown buyer. The seller listed it as “McCall’s Ferry, Susquehanna River,” but, on Herzog’s own inventory list, the artist called it “Team Crossing McCall’s Ferry.” The painting, infused with Herzog’s signature use of light and shade, depicts a wagon piled with golden hay or straw being offloaded from a flat ferry boat. The wagon is pulled by two dark-colored mules, one hitched behind the other, and guided by a red-shirted rider on the back of a white horse. A ferryman with a pole over his shoulder still stands on the flat craft. The painting came to light in May 2016 when it was sold at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, North Carolina as part of an estate from Richmond, Virginia.
This work is especially intriguing since there is a companion piece in the White House Collection, purchased by the White House Historical Association in 1975. The White House painting could be called the precursor of the recently sold work. It shows the ferry just a few feet away from the landing, ready to touch the bank. There are two ferrymen on the front of the barge, each with a pole to guide the ferry barge. Behind them is almost certainly the same two-mule wagon, accompanied by the man with a red shirt on a white horse. Rowboats rest in the foreground, as they do in the other painting.
Herman Herzog (1831-1932) was born in Bremen, Germany and studied in Dusseldorf, coming to America in his late thirties, after already becoming an established landscape artist in Europe. He settled in Philadelphia and painted many Pennsylvania and New Jersey scenes, eventually traveling to depict the Chesapeake Bay, Maine coast, the American West and, after 1880, to Florida, to create his atmospheric landscapes and seascapes. He is said to have invested proceeds from his successful art career in Pennsylvania Railroad stock. The investment paid off so well that in later years he painted for pleasure, keeping the canvases since he did not need the funds. One source says that hundreds were still in the family “until quite recently.” His last show was a joint one with painter son Lewis at a New York gallery in 1931. Herzog celebrated his 100th birthday during that show, passing away in early 1932 at his Philadelphia home.
McCall’s Ferry seems so remote today, even to people like me who grew up not too far from there. It doesn’t seem possible that it was such an important spot from the mid-1700s until the early 1900s. It is it said to have been the most important crossing on the lower Susquehanna for over 150 years, and the large McCall’s Ferry hotel was viewed as a pleasant resort. Names of the ferry changed with the owners over the years. The ferry was probably established before 1740 by an Ashmore, followed by Nelson, White and Stevenson. George Stevenson, land agent for the Penns and Clerk of Courts and Recorder of Deeds for York County 1749-1764, owned the ferry from 1757 to 1772, when he sold the ferry and rights to John and Matthew McCall. John moved to South Carolina and Matthew owned it until his death. Other owners followed, but the McCall name stuck.
Why that site? Because the lower Susquehanna is at its narrowest at that point, making for a shorter crossing. Prowell’s History of York County says that Native Americans crossed there before the white settlers came. You have to study maps today to try and figure some of them out, but then main roads led from McCall’s Ferry to Philadelphia and Baltimore as well as to York. Records show that many delegates to Continental Congress crossed there on their way to or from York in 1777-78. While meeting here, Congress resolved to instruct the Board of War to “…employ proper persons accurately to examine the river Susquehanna and its several fords, from the mouth to Harris’s Ferry…” to scout out river crossings for troops. A transcribed report in the files of the York County History Center states: “NELSON’S OR MCKALL’S FERRY. A half mile above this place the river is only [blank] feet wide; however, the current is not at all rapid, although the depth is considerable. The ferry is very good because of the short time required for the flat-boat to cross. Thus, it should be noticed that, if the army were to cross the river here, it would be necessary to repair the road that leads to Baltimore and Yorktown; that which comes from Wilmington, Newcastle and Charles-town in Maryland is very good.” (The river here is indeed very narrow and very deep. When Benjamin Henry Latrobe did his important mapping of the Susquehanna from Columbia south in 1801, he noted that the river there was only 16 perches (264 feet) wide, but his crew let down a line of 180 feet without touching bottom.)
Narrows are not best when you are dealing with a river that periodically freezes deep enough to create massive ice jams during a quick spring thaw, especially if you build a wooden covered bridge, as leading bridge builder Theodore Burr did near McCall’s Ferry. Burr stated that the spot he chose was 348 feet across the river at low water. Burr and his crew fought ice while erecting the bridge in the winter of 1814-15, but they managed to complete it. Burr’s masterpiece was no match, though, for the tremendous breakup of a massive ice jam, which swept it away just three years after completion, on March 3, 1818.
Today you can still turn off the Delta Road (PA 74) onto McCall’s Ferry Road and pass the McCall homestead. It becomes River Road as you near the river. You cannot get quite to the exact spot Herzog depicted, nor to where the hotel stood nearby, The riverside was flooded after the Frey family sold the ferry land “…with all its rights and privileges…” in 1905 to the McCall’s Ferry Water and Power Company to build a dam 55 feet high for producing hydroelectric power. The power plant, now known as Holtwood, has been generating electric energy since 1910. (River Road curves to the south from the McCall’s Ferry site, taking you by the river and dam to the Lock 12 historic area, where you can connect with Holtwood Road (PA 372) to take you back to Route 74 or across the 1968 Norman Wood Bridge to Lancaster County.)