Photos by Joseph Insalaco
Cycling along a river should be easy and scenic. The Susquehanna River flows through a valley but the roads often leave the valley floor going into the mountains. Our ride was full of scenic beauty, historic places, and interesting breakfast stops, but it was not easy.
The Susquehanna River was not our planned ride for 2021. For the past 2 years we wanted to cycle along the Danube River in Europe, but the COVID pandemic interfered with our plans. So, we asked ourselves, what is the next best adventure for 2 cyclists that have taken annual trips for 20 years? Keeping with the river theme we thought about other possibilities; ones closer to home and more likely to be achievable in spite of the pandemic restrictions. Since we had already cycled along the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Columbia, and Saint Lawrence, we had to find another worthy river. The Susquehanna quickly moved to the top of our list. Its headwaters are in Cooperstown, New York and the river travels 444 miles to the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland.
To start our trip, I drove from Falls Church, Virginia to Poughkeepsie, New York to meet my cycling companion Joe. From there we cycled about 120 miles to Cooperstown, New York. Joe lives on the top of a mountain so our ride started out on a great note as we flew for 4-miles downhill. The next 45 miles had many additional great downhills that were only dampened by modest climbs. Wow, we thought, this trip could be easy.
Before we crossed the Hudson River, we enjoyed 2 interesting stops. The first was Clermont State Historic Site where Robert R. Livingston, Jr. was Clermont's most notable resident. According to the park’s webpage, his accomplishments include: drafting the Declaration of Independence (guess the Thomas Jefferson guy just stole the limelight), serving as first U.S. Minister of Foreign Affairs, administering the oath of office to George Washington, negotiating the Louisiana Purchase and developing steamboat technology with Robert Fulton. Quite a guy!
Our second stop was at Olana, the home of Frederic Church, a
well-known painter, world traveler, a self-taught architect, farmer and
landscape designer. The Olana estate
overlooks the Hudson. While it was a serious climb to get there, the effort was
worthwhile. The story-book castle-like structure was very picturesque and the
river view spectacular.
Once we crossed the Hudson River, we had a lot of climbing in the Catskill Mountains, as we headed to Cooperstown, New York. Cooperstown, drew its name from the family of James Fenimore Cooper whose historical writings depicted life from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Our first stop in Cooperstown was Otsego Lake, the headwaters of the north branch of the Susquehanna River.
While the lake was of primary interest, Cooperstown is better known for the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1839 Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown. While baseball has been his legacy, he is also known as a decorated Union Army officer who is claimed to have fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War. Another point of interest, just north of the town, is The Farmers' Museum. Its land has been part of a working farm since 1813, when it was owned by James Fenimore Cooper.
Finally, we started our Susquehanna River ride as we left Cooperstown. At this point, the Susquehanna River is a very modest stream, just a few feet wide. As the days progressed, we knew that the river would grow wider from this humble beginning.
We enjoyed the many towns found along the Susquehanna. The
town of Oneonta, New York was first settled around 1775 and its Walnut Street Historic
District showcased many interesting old homes.
One of them was the Wilber Mansion.
It was built in 1875, as a simple, flat roofed structure. However, in
the early 1890’s, the building was transformed into a fancy Victorian Lady, with an imposing turret, wrap around porches, and stained-glass windows. During our tour of the Walnut Street District, we were stopped by Malcolm, who shared his bicycling adventures and asked about our ride. Malcolm cycled across the United States in 1989, back when Joe and I were still earning a living and caring for children. He indicated that his next dream adventure was to kayak down the Susquehanna River.
We spent a night in Sidney, New York. The town was named after Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith. A British naval officer serving in the American and French revolutionary wars, he later rose to the rank of admiral. There we saw the Andrew Mann Inn that was built in 1787. The inn sits next to the Susquehanna River and served early travelers on the Catskill Turnpike Stage Coach Line. Currently the Inn is in the early stages of restoration and not a place where we could spend the night.
Leaving Sidney, New York we had an interesting start on our way to find breakfast. I raced out of the hotel and headed right and Joe followed yelling “wrong direction.” This is not the first time one of us headed to the right and the other to the left (no political inferences please). Once we got synchronized, we cycled about 5 miles to Bob’s Diner. We both decided on blueberry pancakes that were 3 for $3.49. Our experience told us to order just 2 pancakes each. When they arrived, we wished that we had ordered only 1, and shared it. Yes, they were that big.The viaduct was built by the Erie Railroad Company in 1847-48 to cross the valley. It is a beautiful stone structure extending 1,200 feet and is 110 feet high. Next, we stopped at the Starrucca railroad station and hotel that was also built by the Erie Railway in 1863. The three-story Gothic Revival structure included a large hotel, called Starrucca House, with rooms for 200 people. There we met the owner, Andrew and his son, also named Andrew, who are restoring the building. Andrew, a German immigrant, purchased the building at a city auction. It is a beautiful building, but according to Andrew, the town wanted to demolish the building for redevelopment. Both men said that they live there even though the building does not yet have running water or electricity.
On an early Sunday morning, with sleep filled eyes, we toured Binghamton, New York to see some of the fine sites the city has to offer. There was absolutely no traffic which made it a perfect time for city exploring. The city was named after William Bingham, who bought the 10,000-acre patent for the land in 1786. From the days of the railroad, Binghamton was a transportation crossroads so our first stop was the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad passenger station. The station was built in 1901, in the Italian Renaissance style.
Our next stop was the Broome County Courthouse built in 1897, in the form of a Latin Cross and topped with an elegant copper dome.
Leaving Binghamton, on designated cycle routes, we saw more cyclists than cars. We stopped to talk to Mike who became a “bike widower” when his back started acting up. He was patiently waiting for his wife to finish her ride. We also met, a 5-year-old boy on a battery powered motorcycle looking bike. He was delightful, full of conversation and enjoyed racing his bike in a deserted parking lot.
We had another interesting breakfast stop. The closest restaurant from our night’s lodging was 20 miles away, outside of Towanda, Pennsylvania. After leaving Towanda we crossed over the river and had to cycle 5 more miles on a very busy 4 lane road (with no shoulders) through the town’s industrial district to reach our breakfast spot--Pipher’s Diner. Despitethe building being old and worn, it was full of customers and the 2 women owners efficiently provided great breakfasts. Typical of these types of diners, it was full of regular customers and we were an interesting diversion to their daily routine.
Our goal was to stay along the river whenever possible but that was seldom achievable. For example, after breakfast at Pipher’s Diner we had 40 miles of challenging cycling. The roads left the lowlands and went into the mountains. Our route had 7 significant climbs that led us away from the river. The first 3 were very long but with reasonable degrees of assent on a major highway. At the top of each of these we enjoyed a panoramic view of the valley below. After these climbs, we dropped back down to the river and cycled for a while on country roads. The last 4 climbs were also on the highway. While these assents were similar to the earlier ones, their shoulders were in poor condition.
Besides being in need of repair, they had lots of debris on them, making the climbs and descents challenging, and sometimes dangerous. Nor did these latter climbs provide a scenic overlook to compensate for the efforts to reach their top. Luckily, we ended the day with a nice descent into Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, for our night’s lodging.
In West Pittston, Pennsylvania, Joe came to an abrupt stop and pointed franticly at a shopping center sign “Insalaco Shopping Center,” his family’s name. Joe said that when his family immigrated to the United States they first settled in this area. He believes that it is likely that some of his distant relatives are still here.
For several days, Joe had been concerned with his rear hub bearings making noise. We stopped at a bike shop in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where Rich, the owner of Around Town Bikes, stopped his project and replaced Joe’s bearings. Before leaving, we decided to fill our bike tires using the shop’s floor pump and I had my first flat tire on this trip when my Presta valve broke off. If I was going to have a flat tire, I could not have picked a better place than in a bike shop.
We left our B&B in Berwick, Pennsylvania, early and looked forward to a later breakfast. However, breakfast came at a big price. Seven miles into our ride we had a big hill with grades ranging from 12 to 18 percent. What is noteworthy about this climb is Joe’s mastery of hills. He cycled it all the way to the top, I walked. Joe’s power must have been a carryover from yesterday’s 4 scoops of ice cream. After the following downhill we cycled into Bloomsburg and crossed the Rupert Covered Bridge. The
bridge cost $1,637 when it was built in 1847 and was named after the nearby village, which was settled by Leonard Rupert in 1788. Breakfast was finally found at Woody’s Café in Catawissa, Pennsylvania where our loaded touring bikes attracted conversation from other customers. We stopped in Danville, Pennsylvania so we could cycle on the J. Manley Robbins Trail. According to Rails-to-Trails “it is the oldest known rail-trail in the United States.” The 1.1-mile trail connects to the Old Reading Line Trail to form the 2.6-mile Hess Loop Trail. The trail was developed by the Danville Bicycle Club in the 1890s on a former narrow-gauge railroad built by the Montour Iron Works in the 1840s.
The Susquehanna River was a predominate feature of my childhood. Our next stop, Northumberland, Pennsylvania where I grew up, took me back to those early days. Our house was on a hill, providing a daily view of the river. The town is located at the confluence of the river’s north and west branches. The town dates back to 1772. Joseph Priestly settled here but it is unlikely that many know his claim to fame. As a clergyman, he was forced to leave England because of his scientific experiments with alcohol that led to the discovery of the element oxygen. We stopped by his home and several other properties
that were his legacy. We also cycled by the Front Street Train Station, constructed in 1908-1910. The station closed in 1958 and remained closed until it was restored as a restaurant in 1981. To obtain a birds-eye view of the river, we climbed to the nearby Shikellamy State Park Overlook. It is on top of a 360-foot cliff that overlooks the confluence of the north and west branches.
What began as a tiny stream in Cooperstown, the North branch has become a very wide river at Northumberland. Of course, to see this view required us to climb a very steep road.
Our longest day’s ride was from Northumberland, to Columbia, Pennsylvania. We cycled 80 miles, mostly flat and almost always near the river. However, the temperature was in the 90s which made for a long day. On the way we had another interesting breakfast stop. In Port Trevorton, Pennsylvania, we stopped at Lauver’s Family Traditions Restaurant. As we entered all the chatter in the room stopped and the “old guys” just stared at us—2 guys in spandex with sweat dripping off their foreheads, walking into a room full of working men that led hard lives. As an “ice breaker”, I said “we understand that this is a great place for breakfast.” The men responded with several jokes about our clothing and quickly welcomed us to join them.At Harrisburg, Pennsylvania we reached the rivers widest point. The Susquehanna grew from a small stream that we could leap over in Cooperstown, New York to a massive body of water nearly a mile wide.
Our ride from Columbia to Havre de Grace, Maryland, was only 50 miles but the morning patter of rain on our hotel window was not a good sign. The day was marred by rain, cold, hills and traffic. We also had to cross a bridge that was closed because of construction, got lost, and by the time we got to our hotel were wet to our skin. Havre de Grace, Maryland is the end of the Susquehanna River. Here it flows into the Chesapeake Bay and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean. Our travels from Poughkeepsie to Havre de Grace totaled 610 miles with 22,000 feet of climbing. Our daily blog showing our route, mileages, and lots of photos can
be viewed at https://susquehannariverride--2021.blogspot.com/
While Havre de Grace was the end of our joint travels, we still had miles to cycle to return to our homes. My trip south to Falls Church, Virginia was much shorter than Joe's trip north to Poughkeepsie, New York. I cycled 105 miles on my last day and Joe had 3 cycling days of 89, 99, and 56 miles.
Postscript: Several months after this ride I returned to Havre de Grace to see what we missed. It is a delightful historic town but filled with excitement. Its vibrant downtown area had lots of unique shops and restaurants. Public art was pervasive and the water views were spectacular.