Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The flour trade industry in the Susquehanna River watershed is one of the lesser known stories in Pennsylvania’s history, but it is among its most significant sagas. Millers were among the first tradesmen to arrive in the New World to sustain the settlers. The Keystone State’s rich farmlands produced abundant flour for local and regional markets with a consistent surplus for export to foreign markets. But farmers and millers first had to overcome the daunting challenges of geographic distance and primitive transportation methods, and the broad Susquehanna River soon became their flour highway.

Not long after William Penn (1644–1718) founded Philadelphia in 1682, its port became the busiest commercial center in the New World. Nearby lay the distinctive Piedmont region farmlands of southeastern Pennsylvania in the present-day counties of Adams, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton, and York. Piedmont wheat, brought to the city first by dugout canoes and later by Durham boats, contained an ideal moisture content of about 14 percent. European flour, which had a higher moisture content, often fermented during the long voyage to markets such as Jamaica. Excess moisture could also induce the growth of mold.

Export flour prices fluctuated from $3.62 to $10.00 a barrel. Since processing and transportation costs remained fixed, shipping flour over land more than one hundred miles was no more than marginally profitable. To assure quality exports, Philadelphia passed a series of laws, beginning in 1700, requiring shippers to brand each cask of flour with information on its contents and origin. After buyers in Jamaica complained about the deterioration of Pennsylvania flour in 1722, a system of inspections was established. It wasn’t until 1781 that the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed an act to prevent “the exportation of bread and flour not merchantable” and specified the exact construction materials and dimensions of flour casks. Each cask, or barrel, used to transport flour out of the state was required to be marked with the miller’s brand and registered with the county clerk where the flour was milled.

Additionally, a second brand was required on each barrel with the numerals one, two, or three, according to its diameter, and stating its weight. Barrel number one was required to have 224 pounds of flour, barrel number two, 196 pounds, and barrel number three, 158 pounds. When the barrels were moved from the mills to the docks, law required them to be transported in a cart, wagon, or boat with a “good and sufficient covering.” The barrels were to be protected from rain and other hazards during storage.

The port inspector was required to bore the head of each barrel, “piercing it through with a proper instrument, in order to prove whether it be honestly and well packed; as also to enable him to judge of the goodness thereof, and shall afterwards plug up the hole: and if the said Inspector shall judge the same to be merchantable, he shall brand every such cask of flour on the quarter with the arms of the state of Pennsylvania.” This made the third and final brand ready for shipping out of state and most likely overseas. However, the state arms were too graphically detailed for a blacksmith to replicate, and, as a result, in December 1781, the stamp requirement was simplified to read “S. P.,” presumably for the State of Pennsylvania.

Following the French and Indian War in 1763, farmers west of the Susquehanna River were able to produce more wheat than was consumed. Some of the wheat flour and wheat from the lower Cumberland Valley and Pennsylvania’s Piedmont region were shipped by wagon over Maryland turnpikes to Baltimore. Farmers from the Juniata and the upper Cumberland Valley regions shipped their flour and wheat to Middletown, Dauphin County, just above the Susquehanna River’s unnavigable Conewago Falls. Middletown brokers purchased the wheat and hired local mills to grind the wheat into flour.

One of the largest grist mills in America at the time was Frey’s Gristmill in Middletown, built about 1760 by John Fisher and later sold to George Frey. Four stories high, the mill had three sets of millstones to produce large quantities of flour and other grain products. Much of the flour was shipped to Philadelphia, where it was sold to exporters.

During the Revolutionary War, from 1775 to 1783, exporters in Baltimore bought flour at four dollars per barrel, but buyers in Jamaica were paying $29 a barrel. The higher density superfine flour shipped to the British West Indies sold for as much as $33.33 per barrel and in Havana, Cuba, for as much as $36 per barrel.

In 1790, 150,000 bushels of wheat arrived at Middletown by way of the Susquehanna River, where purchase prices were low and the cost of shipping a barrel of flour to Philadelphia by wagon was $2.61. By 1886, brokers in Middletown deducted transportation costs from the expected Philadelphia exporter’s price, leaving little for the Susquehanna farmer.

The port of Baltimore, established in 1706, is on a deep inlet of the Patapsco River, at the upper end of the Chesapeake Bay, two hundred miles from the Atlantic Ocean. With the port’s warm waters, the harbor remained virtually ice free and provided an ideal location for water-powered gristmills. Baltimore’s location was in the center of a vast hinterland in the wider Piedmont region, which made it suitable for growing wheat. Similar to Pennsylvania, Maryland passed inspection laws to maintain the quality of exported flour. In 1761, Joseph Ellicot and his two brothers moved to Baltimore from Bucks County, to establish mills and to help make Baltimore the flour exporting capital of the New World. Here, flour was selling for $7.88 a barrel in 1786. This was high when workers in Philadelphia and Baltimore earned $7.00 per month. Inspectors in Baltimore had a reputation for being less likely to reject wheat grown outside Maryland, compared to their counterparts in Philadelphia, who were accused of rejecting wheat for protectionist reasons.

Landowners along the Juniata River petitioned the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1769 to clear the river of rock obstructions, stating that if there were no improvements, all products would be exported through Maryland, diverting profits from Philadelphia. On March 9, 1771, the assembly passed a law making the Susquehanna River and several of its tributaries public highways, which meant that rivers and creeks could not be blocked by dams or toll gates. The law, designed to keep Maryland from benefiting from Pennyslvania’s public highways, specified that no money should be spent improving navigation of the river below Wright’s Ferry. John Wright’s ferry, patented in 1730, shuttled people, animals, and goods between the eastern Lancaster County shore, incorporated in 1814 as Columbia, and the western York County shore, incorporated in 1834 as Wrightsville.

In 1799, Pennsylvania’s state legislature strengthened the 1771 designation of the Susquehanna River as a public highway. The law more clearly made it illegal to improve the river below Wright’s Ferry and the York County community of Wrightsville to the Maryland border. The fine for violations was not less than two hundred dollars or more than two thousand dollars. This law was repealed two years later when the legislature wanted to build the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and bring the Susquehanna trade to Philadelphia.

The 1771 act had designated not only the Susquehanna River a public highway, but also its tributary, Penns Creek, for twenty miles from its mouth. Penns Creek drains Penns, Buffalo, Dry and Middle Creek valleys, as well as the farmland west of Selinsgrove, Snyder County, although this area was not self-sufficient in agricultural production until after 1790. The Society for the Improvement of Roads and Inland Navigation reported that “in 1788, large quantities of wheat and flour were carried up the Susquehanna River for use by the settlers. However, by 1790, 30,000 bushels of wheat returned down the river from the same area.” In 1792, a second act was passed by the Pennsylvania legislature, extending Penns Creek’s public highway to the mouth of Sinking Creek at Spring Mills, Centre County.

As a result of the public highway law, if a mill owner wanted to build a dam on an affected waterway, he had to petition the Commonwealth for permission. On December 23, 1792, a petition was presented to the senate by Simon Snyder (1759–1819) and Anthony Selin (17??–1792) to enable them to maintain a dam across Penns Creek with a height of two and a half feet. Selin, the founder of Selinsgrove, was Snyder’s brother-in-law and a professional Swiss soldier who distinguished himself as a captain with George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Snyder served as Pennsylvania’s third governor from 1797 to 1806.

The legislative act authorizing the construction of the petitioned dam by Snyder and Selin’s heirs was passed on April 10, 1793. The purpose of the law was “to maintain and keep in good order, on the body of said dam, in a convenient part of the same for rafts to pass through, an opening of at least twenty-five feet wide, the bottom of which shall not be more than twenty inches above the common level of the water below said dam . . . and also erect, or cause to be erected and kept in good repair, a compleat lock of twenty feet wide, through which boats and canoes may at all times safely and conveniently pass.” If these conditions were not met in keeping the Penns Creek public highway open, then the court could fine the owners up to fifty pounds. Interestingly, all chutes were required to be twenty inches deep, but arks usually drew about eighteen inches, giving only a two-inch clearance when proceeding through the chute. The day before the legislature approved construction of the dam, they approved another dam, on Swatara Creek, at Middletown, requiring fifteen feet of chute for each foot of dam height. However, this dam was not required to have a lock for boats heading upstream. Some dam owners provided a block and tackle to pull boats up through their chutes.

Because there was opposition to the Penns Creek dam, the state required Snyder and Selin to build and maintain a lock for up-creek traffic. The law mentioned rafts, boats, and canoes, but not arks. River arks were only two years old and possibly the legislature thought of them as boats or rafts.

Thirty-two years later, on March 26, 1825, the Union Times of New Berlin reported that “Union County [Buffalo and Dry Valleys] sent annually to market a surplus of about 150,000 bushels of wheat, 6,000 bushels of clover seed and 200 tons of pork. And that Centre County [Penns Valley] sent annually about 180,000 bushels of wheat, 6,000 bushels of clover seed and 1,000 barrels of whiskey.” The Union Times did not state the method by which this surplus was moved to market, but it was six years before the opening of the Pennsylvania Canal, and thirty to forty years before railroad transportation. Since there were only two ways to get the flour to market, by wagon or ark, the choice likely was determined by shipping expenses and market prices. Baltimore buyers were paying $6.64 a barrel in 1822, and Philadelphia buyers were known for paying less.

Transportation costs varied widely, depending on the mode of transportation used. The cost of shipping a barrel of flour from Penns Valley to Philadelphia by wagon in the 1820s averaged about $2.84. To ship the same barrel of flour from Penns Valley to Baltimore by ark cost about 39.6 cents. A seventy-five-foot ark cost $75.00 to build, plus eighteen dollars to pay a crew of three, and another eight dollars for a pilot to run the Conewago Falls and Susquehanna Gorge. Arks could be sold for lumber in Havre de Grace, Maryland, and the money used to ship the barrels to Baltimore by shallop. The total expense for running 255 barrels of flour to Baltimore was $101.00. The total amount of produce listed in the Union Times required about 440 arks annually to run down the Penns Creek from these three valleys. Historians assume very little flour was shipped to market by wagon.

What did the sale of this much wheat in 1822 mean to the people of Penns Valley? One hundred eighty thousand bushels of wheat made 38,571 barrels of flour, which sold for $256,111. With the average laborer earning $312 a year, the money represented 820 annual incomes. Today, the worth of that trade would translate to about $16.4 million. In Buffalo Valley, 150,000 bushels brought in the equivalent of $13.7 million today. Among the beneficiaries sharing in this money were farmers, grist mill owners, lumber mill owners, laborers, arksmen, exporters, and coopers.

New canals offered another method of commercial transport in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. A canal was dug around the Conewago Falls in 1793, but few watermen used it, opting instead to use local pilots to guide their craft through the falls. By 1805, the Susquehanna Canal was opened, connecting the Pennsylvania and Maryland border with Port Deposit below Smith Falls. This canal attracted considerable traffic from those who wanted to avoid the narrow Fanny Gap (only thirty-two feet wide), Bald Friar Falls, Hollow Rock, and Smith Falls, which claimed a number of lives. That year, Baltimore exporters were paying $7.50 for a barrel of flour.

By 1855, railroads dramatically changed the Susquehanna flour trade by making transportation available year-round and river and canal transport less economical. The Pennsylvania Railroad began transporting Susquehanna wheat to Philadelphia. River transport today would be impractical primarily because of obstructions by dams. For instance, the run from Middletown, Dauphin County, to Havre de Grace, Maryland, is obstructed by four hydroelectric dams at York Haven, Safe Harbor, Holtwood, and Conowingo. The modern transportation infrastructure of trains, trucks, aircraft, and oceangoing vessels has replaced the Susquehanna River’s role in the transport of commerce. There was an era, however, when an unobstructed Susquehanna River offered a vital, cost-effective route to transport flour, grain, and other products from Pennsylvania’s farmlands to busy shipping ports. Families in countries as far away as Jamaica and on the European continent were just as able to enjoy bread and other products made with Pennsylvania flour the same as the Pennsylvania farming families that grew the wheat.


Cryder’s Ark

About 1772, Michael Cryder (1742–1861), a German miller from Lancaster County, moved his family to Standing Stone, today Huntingdon borough in Huntingdon County, and built a gristmill on a stream. During the Revolutionary War, Cryder was an ardent patriot who donated liberally to the cause. By day, he worked his mill, but at night he was a guard at the local fort. After the war, even though he was compensated by the federal government, Cryder sank deeply into debt due to the depreciation of the Continental currency.

Baltimore’s market was more profitable than Philadelphia’s market. However, to reach the Maryland port, Cryder had to move his flour by wagon 110 miles, over six mountains. In 1791, with the help of his two oldest sons, Israel and Daniel, Cryder loaded 104 barrels of flour onto his ark that he designed. The ark subsequently proved to have a capacity of 255 barrels. The Cryders successfully delivered the load of flour to market.

Cryder’s hull construction included three squared pine logs, with the middle seventy-five-foot log serving as an internal keel. There were two fifty-five-foot side logs, with four shorter logs mitered into them and the end of the center log formed a mitered point at each end of the hull. Two oars, each about thirty feet long and mounted on each end of the ark, guided the craft around dangerous obstacles in the river. The ark’s roof, made of boards and sealed with pitch pine, prevented rain from getting on the barrels. A false bottom inside the boat protected the barrels from water seeping through the ark’s hull. The sixteen-foot-wide craft could carry a cargo weighing up to twenty-five tons, whereas dugout canoes averaged a capacity of nine barrels, and Durham boats about fifteen tons. Durham boats and canoes required skilled boat builders, so after unloading at Middletown, they were poled upstream to be used the next year.

Running an ark on the normally shallow Susquehanna River and its tributaries required a freshet, or swell, of about three feet above normal. Once the river ice melted with the spring freshet of 1791, and with a son on each oar, Cryder piloted his boat down the Juniata River for an uneventful trip to the Susquehanna River. After entering the Susquehanna from the western shore, they rowed their craft across the mile-wide river to the eastern shore where the channel was less hazardous. Approaching Middletown at about four miles per hour, a crowd gathered, expecting the strange craft to land on the beach. The ark, however, remained in the main navigational stream heading for the gurgling white waters of Conewago Falls, which are at the lower end of where Three Mile Island and the York Haven Dam are today. Here the river drops rapidly for about three-quarters of a mile. Cryder exercised great care lining up his craft to enter the Conewago Falls, so that coming out of the falls the ark would pass between two rows of rocks, one on each side. Beyond the falls, the river is calm until it reaches Turkey Hill, below Columbia. The ark entered the Susquehanna Gorge for the run down the river to present-day Peach Bottom at the border. This stage of the trip only took three hours to travel twenty-five miles, with the ark reaching an unheard-of speed of thirty miles per hour in some parts of the river. The nine-mile stretch from Peach Bottom, in York County, to below Smith Falls in Cecil County, Maryland, tested Cryder’s skill.

On the fourth day of their voyage, the Cryders reached Havre de Grace, Maryland, where they sold the ark for its lumber, as planned, and loaded their flour on a shallop headed for Baltimore. A shallop is any watercraft capable of handling shallow waters — a vessel ranging from a canoe to a double mast ship — for larger quantities of flour. At noon the next day the Cryders reached the Baltimore docks where a crowd of entrepreneurs cheered their arrival. That year, flour averaged five dollars a barrel, plus Cryder received a bonus of $104 — one dollar for each barrel delivered — for showing the farmers of the Susquehanna Valley a new market for their goods. Cryder’s success reversed his financial situation and made him a legend to those along the Susquehanna River and its tributaries.

Farmers as far away as lower New York State began shipping produce to Baltimore by arks. However, the arks were being guided by pilots who were unfamiliar with navigating Conewago Falls and Susquehanna Gorge. This created an opportunity for skilled pilots living along the lower river to be hired by the upriver watermen. In the summer, when the river was low, pilots and their helpers piled driftwood on the bigger rocks, set the piles on fire and heated the rocks. Then water was thrown on the hot rocks, splitting them so these natural navigation obstacles could be more easily removed.

Five years after running the Conewago Falls on his maiden voyage, Michael Cryder had paid all his debts and moved to Ohio, near Chillicothe, where he remained until his death in 1816. Large stone warehouses sprang up along the Juniata River in Lewistown, forty-four miles down river from Huntingdon, to store wheat and other produce until the spring freshets allowed arks to carry them to market. Farmers turned their produce over to the warehouse owners, receiving a written acknowledgment of debt until the goods were sold. Communities along the Susquehanna River and its tributaries prospered by emulating Cryder’s pioneering venture.


For Further Reading

Brown, Earl E. Commerce on Early American Waterways: The Transport of Goods by Arks, Rafts and Log Drives. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 2009.

Eby, Eugene E. Perry County Grist Mills. Harrisburg: Triangle Press, Inc., 1978

Jones, U. J. and Floyd G. Hoenstine. History of the Early Settlement of the Juniata Valley. Harrisburg: Telegraph Press, 1940.

Livingood, James Weston. The Philadelphia-Baltimore Trade Rivalry, 1780–1860. Harrisburg:Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1947.

Lord, Arthur C. Water-Powered Grist Mills: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Millersville, Pa.: Arthur C. Lord, 1996.

Rung, Albert M. Rung’s Chronicles of Pennsylvania History. Vol. 1. Huntingdon, Pa.: Huntingdon County Historical Society, 1977.

Teitelman, S. Robert. Birch’s Views of Philadelphia in 1800. Philadelphia: The Free Library of Philadelphia, 1982.

Wolf II, Edwin. Philadelphia: Portrait of an American City. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1975.


Earl E. Brown, Lt. Col. U.S.M.C. (Ret.), grew up ice skating and boating on, and swimming in, Penns Creek at Selinsgrove, not realizing its rich contribution to the Commonwealth’s early history. A graduate of Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, he received a master’s degree in operations research from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. His professional experience included conducting Operation Research studies for the U.S. Marine Corps, and flying more than one hundred combat missions in Vietnam. After retiring, he directed and conducted operations research studies for the federal government. He is the author of the two books, Commerce on Early American Waterways: The Transport of Goods by Arks, Rafts and Log Drives, and The Early American Worldwide Flour Trade.