Diving the Conestoga River

Among the rolling hills and lush green countryside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania lies a secret, hidden in the streams and rivers that nourish these productive farmlands.

By guest blogger Terry Papavasilis

Among the rolling hills and lush green countryside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania lies a secret, hidden in the streams and rivers that nourish these productive farmlands. What do farmlands have to do with scuba diving? The answer lies with the generations who used these babbling brooks, streams and rivers as water for cooking, cleaning, drinking and sustaining life. Unfortunately, these same life-giving streams and rivers also became dumping grounds. But it turns out that one man’s trash really is another man’s treasure, and finding it has turned the Conestoga River into my favorite local diving spot.

Diving the Conestoga River

The Conestoga River is really more of a stream at around 5 feet deep, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in history. It meanders through the outskirts of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, an area better known for its Amish population than its scuba diving. A native Lancastrian, Johnny Walker owns Lancaster Scuba Center and is willing to scuba dive everywhere and anywhere, including in our own backyard.

In March 2013, Johnny introduced me to our local diving in an activity he affectionately calls “cricken,” which consists of taking your oldest set of functioning scuba gear and sliding down riverbanks to search for artifacts of previous Lancastrians. Equipped with a garden rake and dive gear, I climbed down the riverbank and scanned the cold, clear waters for the outlines of manmade objects. I saw a car tire and an old washing machine and began to think I was nuts for diving in such a sullied place. But I’m always game for something new and my skepticism would soon disappear.

I spent the afternoon with low expectations, but what I eventually found launched me into a world of excitement, mystery and research. Finding a few soda bottles dating to the 1950s and an inkwell, I surfaced to look for Johnny’s bubbles, indicating his location in the river. I was ready to go back underwater when a glint on the riverbank caught my eye. There was a strand of pearls, and I pulled them loose. As I did so, a bracelet, a necklace and a brooch emerged. Why would anybody throw away her jewelry?

Back on the tailgate of Johnny’s truck, I showed him my find. “Oh, it must be that lady’s jewelry,” he said. When I asked what he meant, he told me how he’d found a nursing-school bracelet with the name “Jeanne Hoffman” on one side, and on the other, “University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing Class of 1940.” I was intrigued to find out exactly who Jeanne Hoffman was. Was she still alive? Why was her jewelry in the river? These questions consumed me for days, and I continued to go back to that area of the river and look for more clues. Over the next several months I found more jewelry. My break in the mystery came one day when I found military insignia.

At the National Archives in Philadelphia, I researched Jeanne Hoffman. Born and raised in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Jeanne appeared in numerous newspapers for making the honor roll, participating in school plays, and being active in the YWCA. The newspaper articles chronicled her acceptance into nursing school in Philadelphia and she even had letters published in the paper while she was stationed in the South Pacific and Europe during World War II. I learned she married Jack Pigford, a major in the Army and thereby explaining the major’s collar insignia I had found. The newspapers mentioned her family moving to Lancaster County during World War II. Then, the trail went cold, except for one small clue — Johnny found a passenger manifest listing Jeanne and her baby seeking passage from Tokyo to San Francisco in the 1950s.

Since old newspapers had been such a help to us so far, Johnny alerted the local newspapers about our discovery, hoping someone from Jeanne’s life would contact us. A staff member at a local assisted living center saw the article and called Jeanne’s daughters, who contacted us. It was a joy to meet them, and tthey were able to fill in parts of the story that I could not find at the archives.

Jeanne Hoffman was alive but had Alzheimer’s disease, they told us. We agreed to meet at Lancaster Scuba Center and return the jewelry to Jeanne’s daughters. We saw pictures of Jeanne as a WWII nurse, and they explained that the jewelry ended up in the river as the result of a robbery. Returning the jewelry to Jeanne’s daughters after it had been lost for so many years was one of the highlights of my diving career.

Although the Conestoga River is certainly not a marquee dive site, its shallow waters are full of history and waiting for those who seek adventure. So bring a rake, your oldest scuba gear and a passion for discovery next time you’re in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.