WILKES-BARRE — Don’t let its quiet drifting fool you. The Susquehanna laps lazily on its riverbanks and gently ushers boaters downstream under bridges and past fisherman casting for a catch.
But its history is riddled with highs and lows.
Those who have strolled the River Common park or atop the levee system on the West Side appreciate the river’s wide magnificence. However, the Susquehanna has proven powerful enough to rise up and destroy homes, claim lives and cost her bordering towns billions.
Today marks 41 years since 18 inches of rain from Hurricane Agnes caused catastrophic flooding in Luzerne County. On June 23, 1972, the river crested 4 feet over the old levees and soaked prone areas. The flood separated the West Side from the East Side by shutting down or washing away bridges.
Nearly 25,000 homes were destroyed.
While the rain-swollen wreaked havoc, even in recent years, the Susquehanna is a source of pride for many.
This weekend thousands celebrate the Susquehanna’s beauty and the power at the three-day Wyoming Valley RiverFest, a festival that brings environmentalists and Sunday strollers together to learn about the river and enjoy her earthy amenities.
The river’s festival
Different groups called their June riverside celebrations different names — June is National Rivers Month — but the name RiverFest stuck in 1999 when Wilkes-Barre hosted the Susquehanna Sojourners, a local organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating the Susquehanna by paddling down the river on a different section each year.
Since then, RiverFest has grown each year from a small event to a large celebration.
In addition to entertainment, food and learning, RiverFest gives river lovers three opportunities this weekend to kayak and canoe down the Susquehanna River, from West Pittston to Wilkes-Barre, from Harding to Wilkes-Barre and a day-long trip from Wilkes-Barre to Hunlock Creek.
John Maday, executive director of the Riverfront Parks Committee, has been involved with the committee for 20 years and has seen RiverFest evolve firsthand.
He said RiverFest has gradually grown over time from an afternoon event to a weekend-long celebration in a logical fashion.
In its early years, it was an afternoon event with card tables in Nesbitt Park, then it was a day-long event. Next it developed into a two-day event with added elements such as entertainment and boat tours. As support from the community and sponsors grew, RiverFest evolved into the weekend-long event we know today.
“As long as the community sees value in it, we will keep on doing it,” Maday said.
Maday compared RiverFest to a classroom. He said the main goal of RiverFest is to educate people about the Susquehanna River, and the entertainment, food and vendors lead people to the classroom.
“You need to get people in their seats before you teach them something,” Maday said.
River Common’s attraction
The River Common, located on the eastern bank of the Susquehanna River, has been a public place of beauty since 1773, thanks to John Durkee, the man who gave the city of Wilkes-Barre its name. When Durkee laid out the plan for Wilkes-Barre, he designated the area along the bank of the Susquehanna River as a public or common ground.
The area was further decorated in the early 1900s as a result of the City Beautiful movement, a reform philosophy that aimed to beautify urban cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C. The City Beautiful movement swept through Wilkes-Barre when the city council permitted the Town Improvement Society to plant new trees on the common and to carve a footpath through it.
In 1906, Wilkes-Barre’s first Park Commission was created. The river bank was filled in, new footpaths and gardens were laid out and gas lamps were installed. The commission also encouraged local people to donate land giving birth to such parks as Nesbitt Park and Kirby Park. At this point, Wilkes-Barre was a booming city and the newly landscaped common gave inhabitants a spacious place to escape the city.
Things changed when the Wyoming Valley was flooded in March 1936, a time when there was no levee system to stop the rising Susquehanna River. After the flood, a dike system was built and the common was redesigned yet again.
The River Common we know today began in 1998 when the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority hosted a two-day long vision session, which planned out a blueprint for the future of the River Common.
Attendees believed an opportunity existed to create a grand public works project, one unlike anything seen before in the area and hoped the river would again be the showcase of the city. In 2006, then-Gov. Ed Rendell announced the state would provide another $5.2 million to the $23 million project.
It was developed by Sasaki and Associates of Watertown, Mass., and included two portals in the levees, a waterside 750-seat amphitheater, a marina and a landing on the riverside.
With the creation of a new River Common came controversy.
More than 100 trees were removed along the Susquehanna River levee from the courthouse to South Street as the impending construction would have caused root damage to 35 cherry trees near the levee. At the completion, 250 new trees along with 500 shrubs and 10,000 perennials and bulbs were planted, which added 50,000 pieces of ground cover.
The new design of the River Common was completed in 2009 and it allows the community to appreciate the river’s beauty and to interact with it.
The people’s river
General opinion might say that the river has a long way to go, but Riverfront Parks Committee President Vinnie Cotrone said it’s the cleanest its been in a century, with much of big coal’s dumping far enough in the past.
He said insect populations, though they are a nuisance, show the river’s vitality is strengthening. Specifically, he spoke of mayflies — insects that complete most of their lives under river stones.
“When we get a (mayfly) hatch that puts thousands of them on the Market Street Bridge, that’s a sign of good aquatic habitat,” Cotrone said. “Mayflies wouldn’t be there if there were toxins in the water.”
He credited efforts to river-conscious communities working to clean up the river after floods.
“Honestly, it was volunteers who pulled the debris after the river flooded (in 2011),” Cotrone said, adding that a few county employees were on the job as well.
He said he hoped this weekend’s festival starts to change public perception and inspire more responsible living.
“Part of RiverFest is really bringing people’s attention to the river so they’re not thinking of it as something dirty,” Cotrone said. “The way we clean the river up is to get more people to use it. One of the missions of RiverFest is to connect people to the river so we all become better stewards of our watershed.”
Over the decades, government interests offered flashy designations with hope that money to clean up and preserve the river would float to the surface.
Cotrone said, sadly, many of those efforts have drifted to the wayside. Former President Bill Clinton’s designated the Susquehanna as an American Heritage River. About two years ago it was named an Historic Water Trail.
“(That’s a) great designation. (But) along with it really doesn’t come the funds for things that are needed,” Cotrone said.
Cotrone estimated it will cost billions to reroute pollutants that flow into the river every year when storm water causes sewer systems to overflow along the shoreline. That deters swimmers and fishermen.
It would still bear great cost, but Cotrone suggested redirecting cities’ storm water systems deep into the water table instead of the river to keep it from conflicting with the sewers. He said this would be much cheaper than reconstructing the sewer lines.
Cotrone said to make sure they stay focused on their mission, vendors with commercial interests are not allowed at the festival. While organizing RiverFest, they try to steer plans toward a common purpose — understanding and preserving the river.
“It’s not just about paddling the river,” Cotrone said. “Everything’s connected if you look at the watershed as a whole.”