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Susquehanna Life

Floating Classroom Teaches Respect for the Susquehanna

Jun 03, 2015 07:37PM ● By Erica Shames

Sixteen years ago, Bill Cornell and the Harrisburg Area Riverboat Society decided to address a seeming indifference to the Susquehanna River by imparting knowledge about it.  

From concept to reality

Their concept was to create the Susquehanna River School, a seasonal floating classroom that would get people out onto the river and encourage them to find new ways to think about its resources, feel a sense of ownership of it and ideally help protect it.

The vessel that houses the school is a custom-designed 100-ton stern-driven paddlewheel riverboat licensed and inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard and authorized to carry 120 passengers. “It’s a beautiful boat with a large air-conditioned main salon outfitted with tables and chairs that easily seat 50 or 60,” explained Cornell.  “We have a sound system as well as audio and video equipment. There is a large foredeck and an upper deck that can be used to help students learn to look around our river and make observations or ask questions.”

At first, the primary goal was to teach young people and their parents about the river on weekday mornings. The Riverboat Society soon learned that parents are working and it’s actually grandparents who bring their grandchildren – and often enjoy the programs as much as the kids.

School is in session 

The Susquehanna River School also teaches students about the history associated with the river, which stretches back before the arrival of European settlers in the 1500s, the ecological significance of the expansive watershed and the environmental issues impacting it—and why each person plays a role in protecting it.

“By virtue of the size and East Coast proximity, as well as the fact that goods and travelers could venture all the way down to the Chesapeake Bay and onward to the Atlantic Ocean, the Susquehanna has been an important feature to the creation and building of America,” says Cornell.  “Just as our river was an important means of travel, food and trade for Native Americans, our river’s importance has continued with the settlement and growth of our nation.

“We strive to get people more interested in our river, to give them enough new information to expand their interest in our river,” he added.  “We want people to understand their shared ownership of our river, the problems our river faces and the important need for all of us to become more engaged in protecting it.” 

The school offers a variety of lessons and classes for different interests and age groups. In the summer of 2015, the school will transition to Saturday morning educational voyages at 10 a.m., for which people do not need to register in advance. They will also offer a Saturday Eco-Camp for younger kids that begins at 12 noon. Reservations are accepted, but not required, for Saturday educational activities and camps. Weekday group voyages should be scheduled in advance, as sailing times vary.

New horizons: an educational park 

A new project of the Riverboat Society is an educational park whose sole purpose is to educate the public about the Susquehanna River. In the river’s entire 400-plus miles, not one facility like the envisioned park exists. 

The year-round park on City Island in Harrisburg will include a pathway dotted with historical markers as well as a water feature that impresses upon people the size and layout of the river. The timeline for the construction and opening of the building has not yet been finalized, though the group has secured approval for it.

A labor of love 

As the driving force behind the Susquehanna River School, Bill calls his effort a labor of love. He’s been on the river since he was a teenager and now lives along, and docks his boats in, the river.

“I really enjoy what I am doing, both in teaching and promoting the school and the educational park projects,” Cornell stressed. “I truly believe in the importance of having people learn more about our great river, its history and the significant environmental issues associated with the ecology of the river.  We get a lot of positive feedback about our educational efforts, from both parents and seniors. While that’s fulfilling, it’s always good to see indications on people’s faces when they just learned something about our river they are going to long remember.” 

For more information about the Susquehanna River School and its programs, go to or search for The Susquehanna River School on Facebook.

Lisa is a full-time marketing professional and freelance writer living in Columbia County. She can be reached at

Written by Lisa Z. Leighton

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