YOUGHIOGHENY RIVER HISTORY
An address to the “Syria Mariners Club”
By DSO/IA J.A. Donaldson, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary
(Rewritten for clarity)
Youghiogheny River is the only river in the United States that flows two ways. It begins near Friendsville, Maryland and flows south into a branch of the Potomac River and also flows north approximately 100 miles into the Monongahela River at McKeesport. It begins with the conjoined flow of the Casselman River at Confluence, Jacobs Creek and many smaller streams that discharge into the Youghiogheny River.
Originally, the Yough Valley was the home of the Adena or ‘Mound Builder Indians’, the Paleo, Archaic, Woodland, Monongahela, Iroquois, Huron, Seneca, and Shawnee tribes. The Yough Valley is still rich in Indian relics.
A branch of the Nemacolin Trail crossed the Yough River between Springtown and Robbins Station.
In the late 1750’s, white settlers moved into the Yough Valley attracted by the clean waters which were abundant with fish and fresh water oysters and a rich concentration of deer and other wildlife.
The first industry buildup on the Yough River was a salt mine at Boston. However, the mine never became a huge economic success due to the large coal deposits found nearby. For many years, barges were constructed from timber cut along the river and loaded with coal. The barges sailed down river and when they reached their destination, the coal was sold and the barges were deconstructed and their timber was re-purposed or sold as well. One of these barges sank at Buena Vista and is still visible in low water today.
Many river crossings were constructed for wagons along the river. And later, cable cars were put in place to transfer passengers across the river at places such as Boston, Greenock, Duncan, Buena Vista, Scott Haven, and Douglas.
In the early 1850’s, a private company began operating steamboats between West Newton and McKeesport. In order for these boats to operate, two dams were built. The first dam was built at Alpville and the second at Buena Vista. These dams were crudely constructed of stone in a ‘v’ shape which raised the water as much as 14 feet. These dams were destroyed by ice and high water in 1886 and were never rebuilt. Debris left over can still be seen.
In 1861, the Pittsburgh-Connellsville Railroad was constructed (Now the B&O Railroad) and in 1883 the Pittsburgh-McKeesport and Yough Railroad began to be used by the public. These new train routes drastically reduced the role of the barges. However, river transportation continued in the lower Yough River. Passenger boats came up the river and stopped at the old Boston Bridge where they would remain overnight, playing their steam calliope to entertain passengers and residents of Boston and Versailles.
For many years, tug boats serviced the U.S. Steel Galvanizing Plant at Versailles and the U.S. Steel Plant at Christy Park and the McKeesport Tinplate Plant at Port Vue. During this time, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river to allow these tugs to operate. With the closing of the Galvanizing Plant and Tin Mill, no new dredging has happened. Due to the dredging, the river is now impassable in some places to anything larger than a small pleasure craft.
In the early 1900’s when the river was frozen during the winter, the West Penn Railways ran street cars from McKeesport to the Boston Bridge along the ice for skating parties. The company would have their employees sweep the snow from the ice and many local merchants cut ice from the river and stored it for refrigeration in the summer.
Due to the mines and lumber industry, the population increased very rapidly and new towns developed all along the river. With no laws in place, the mines and lumber mills dumped their waste into the river and towns piped their raw sewerage into the river. In a few years, the Yough River was just an open sewer; the water was so laden with mine acids that it would not freeze thick enough for ice skating in the winter, and the fish life had completely disappeared.
People became distraught over what was done to the river during the 1920’s, so organizations were formed to clean the river and pressured State Officials to do something about it. One of the first steps taken was the sealing of old mines along the Casselman River. During this time, many of the old coal mines along the river were worked out and the lumber mills had also ceased operation.
In 1940, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Yough Flood Control Reservoir Dam at Confluence. This became the major stepping stone in the recovery of the Yough River. It not only served as flood control, but it also discharged clean water during dry spells which maintained the normal flow of water and diluted many of the pollutants.
The Clean Streams Act also helped as it has been instrumental in the construction of millions of dollars worth of sewage treatment plants.
Now let’s look at the results. In 1980, the Yough River probably produced as much fish as any other river in the state. The creation of the Yough Reservoir, in a depressed area, has generated untold strength to the economy by generating revenue to restaurants, bait and tackle dealers, boat and motor dealers, gasoline stations, motels, etc. All along the river these various businesses are enjoying the luxuries of a clean river.
With the great shortage of clean water on the East Coast, this became a very important development. Since the Yough River produces a much better quality of water, it naturally benefits any river it discharges into. Industry requires great amounts of clean water and is a big requirement when any industry considers moving into a district. New Jersey, New York, Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania and other eastern states are having a critical clean water shortage now.
The Pennsylvania Fish Commission, in cooperation with the Elizabeth Township Board of Commissioners, recently constructed a light boat ramp and fishing dock at Boston. Many other boat launching ramps are located along the river. Residents along the river were cutting grass and weeds on the banks to make it look more pleasant. And McKeesport is now constructing a park along the river.
Some of the points of interest along the Yough River are the Yough Reservoir, the Ohiopyle State Park, white water rafting, as well as canoe and boat trips down the river. There is also a dam at Connellsville which boaters must navigate around.
Much has been accomplished in the past couple of decades, but there is still more to do. Most of the riverbed is sandstone and is constantly disintegrating. The resulting sand washes up and fills the riverbed causing the river to spread out. To most people, these sediments seem to be mud, but if taken from the water and left to dry, it becomes sand. Some uses have been found and they hope, in the future, other uses will be found to make it economically viable to dredge the river to make it more useful, at least for pleasure boats.
The question that is always asked is where the river got its name. Some stories say when the white settlers came to the valley, they did a great deal of hunting. The Indians resented the hunting and would follow the hunters and just when they were about to shoot, would make a loud noise called “yocking” to scare the game away. One such hunter become so annoyed at this, that as he went down to the river and an Indian raised up from the brush to “yock”, he shot him. Looking across the river, the hunter muttered, “Yock again Ye”. The other hunters promptly named the river: Youghiogheny. However, in reality, ‘Youghiogheny’ roughly translates from Algonquian, meaning ‘contrary system’; since the river is the only river in Maryland that does not flow south in the Potomac River.