SALTSBURG, Pa. – The brother and sister duo may seem quiet, but their work is hardly dormant.
Their names are Conemaugh and Loyalhanna: two giants whose front gates are only eight miles apart. They both reside in the town of Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, with a population of roughly 700.
They may have a small-town presence, but their combined impact and hard work extend for miles, reaching downstream to Pittsburgh and beyond.
Conemaugh and Loyalhanna were “born” 10 years apart, but the two siblings are not flesh and bone – they are concrete and steel. The two dams are among a family of 16 reservoirs managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. The reservoirs form a network that reduces flood damage and provides water for navigation to the Great Lakes watershed.
While the 16-reservoir family extends across five states, separated hours from each other by car, Conemaugh and Loyalhanna live mere minutes apart. The Conemaugh River and the Loyalhanna Creek join to form the Kiskiminetas River, which flows into the Allegheny to reach the Point of Pittsburgh and helps create the Ohio River.
“Conemaugh is a silent warrior,” said April Richards, a Pittsburgh District park ranger who oversees the recreation and nature preservation around Conemaugh River Lake.
If Conemaugh didn’t exist as a reservoir with a dam, its waters could cause four feet higher floods at the point of Pittsburgh during heavy rains. Imagine being stuck downtown, vehicles submerged with water reaching up to your belly. Conemaugh also provides water to a hydropower plant producing electricity for 10,000 local homes.
“Nobody knows Conemaugh exists, but it quietly does its job. They notice it only during high water or floods,” Richards said of the 137-foot dam.
Loyalhanna’s dam is smaller and older. Over time, its concrete face has turned rust-colored and dark grey since the dam began operating in 1942. The top of the dam is undergoing a facelift that will take the next few years to complete.
“Loyalhanna is gritty and old school. It has a ‘get ‘er done’ type of attitude,” said Glenn Hawkey, who oversees Loyalhanna’s operations among other reservoirs in the Pittsburgh District’s southern area.
“They complement each other,” Hawkey said of the two neighboring reservoirs. “It’s a partnership. They balance each other as far as providing water to the Kiski and to the Allegheny to support barge traffic.”
Although close in proximity, the two dams are more different than they are similar. Both are concrete dams, but Conemaugh’s 355,500 cubic yards of concrete are nearly twice as much as Loyalhanna’s 182,588 cubic yards. Conemaugh’s landscape is more expansive, with the dam holding back more than 1,300 square miles of water, more than four times the size of Loyalhanna’s 290 square miles.
Conemaugh may be larger and younger, but its summertime recreation life is the calmer of the two. Most visitors come to Conemaugh for paddle boating, biking, hiking, and quiet fishing. The older sibling, Loyalhanna, hosts motorboats of all sizes for people to enjoy, and it has a campground while Conemaugh does not. Conemaugh’s landscape is vast and rolling, while Loyalhanna’s slopes are steeper, and its valley is narrower.
“Even the visitors at the two lakes are different,” Richards said, who has served as a park ranger at both locations. “At Loyalhanna, everybody wants to talk to you. Here, at Conemaugh, it’s a relaxing and beautiful escape. People come for the quiet.”
Richards comes to Conemaugh to escape, even though she works there. Her coworkers joke that she spends more time “at work after work” than anybody else. She enjoys paddling on Conemaugh’s lake and hiking through its surrounding hills.
“I could talk for days about what I love about Conemaugh,” she said.
When she offers tours of the dam, she brings visitors to her favorite spot. From the top of the dam, guests can look downstream to a series of structures – a power plant, a bridge, a set of leftover piers, and an active railroad – dating back to the mid-1800s.
“It’s a perfect picture of our history. You’ve got a hydropower facility and remnants of a railroad from centuries apart within yards of each other,” she said.
The interior walls of the Conemaugh dam also hold history. Once inside, the stairs descend below the lake’s water level. The concrete walls hold imprints of wooden grain from planks used to form the original molds. Some areas on the walls reveal nail imprints, evoking images of engineers hammering thousands of planks by hand to construct the tunnels.
“Even the imprints hold history. They hold character. It’s a reminder of the hard work it took to build these facilities without the technology we have today. Conemaugh is still in impeccable shape,” Richards said.
The two old concrete brother and sister duo hold more than history. Their massive structures hold back lakes. They store water. They are responsible for the greater mission of reducing flood damages and providing water flow needed for river navigation. They are quiet giants.