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Tag Archives: Lancaster County

When Williams Corporation proposed building the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline through Lancaster County, the promise they made was that the landscape would be unchanged—that the pipeline would be invisible, once it was completed.  Can this be true?


Pequea Creek, just upstream from pipeline crossing point, summer 2004

As a photographer, one can at least try to answer this question, by photographing the route of the pipeline before and after construction.  My friend and fellow photographer Bob Lowing has been doing precisely this ever since the pipeline project was announced in the spring of 2014.  At that time, surveyor stakes appeared along rural roads weeks  before a public announcement was made of the intention to build the pipeline.   The initial route was mapped only to a precision of a 500 foot corridor—a fat red line on a fuzzy google earth map—the precise route was not given—and of course, a large number of people objected to the route.  Over the next year, the pipeline route was adjusted to avoid the loudest protests, and the exact route of the line remained in doubt until tree cutting began in the fall of 2017.


Pequea Creek, Pipeline Crossing, October 2018

Of course, the ideal photographic evidence of the pipeline’s lack of harm on the route would be from pairs of images, one made of the landscape before the pipeline was built, when the land was ordinary and safe, matched with the same view taken after the pipeline is operational .  Even more convincing would be a photograph made before the pipeline was even proposed, when the only reason to make the photograph was for some reason other than the pipeline, such as, perhaps, the completely pastoral nature of the landscape.    I have been making photographs of landscapes through the windshields of cars for decades now, many in Lancaster county, and have a handful of images of the pipeline route from before the pipeline was proposed in 2014. Once the pipeline route was proposed, I also drove the route looking for the stakes that marked the route.


Bob Lowing at Hilltop crossing, November 2, 2017

I also photographed during the construction of the pipeline, when the landscape was dramatically disrupted.  The construction occurred in phases—marking the route with stakes and ribbons, defining the construction corridor width with plastic pipe and streamer ribbons; tree removal; topsoil removal; placement rock and wood entry points at road crossings; placing sections of pipe along the route;  welding and bending the pipe; digging the trench; placing the pipe in the trench; covering the pipe with soil; replacing the topsoil; seeding with a cover crop;  cleanup;  and final restoration.   The construction began simultaneously at several locations in the county, and driving the route on any given day would show the pipeline construction at various phases of completion.  The first section of pipe to be completed was a short section just south of the Columbia pike—right through the land of the strongest protesters.  It was, and was intended to be, a big fat middle finger to the opposition.


Hilltop Crossing with pipe sections, January 23, 2018

I traveled back to Lancaster County five times during the construction of the pipeline:  in late October and early November 2017 (an extended visit for a family funeral),  late January 2018, May 2018, early September 2018 (a very short, hot visit), and late October early November 2018.  Most of these photographs are from that period.

I think it safe to say that, as of this writing, the pipeline has not yet disappeared into the landscape.  With the exception of a few spots near the southern terminus of the route, no crops were planted on the right of way during 2018 (and those that did go in were planted late).


Hilltop Crossing, welded pipe, January 25, 2018

Williams requested permission to begin flowing gas through the line in September, promising to have the restoration work completed on the line by the end of October.  Gas flow was permitted to begin on October 6, a Saturday.  However, when I traveled back to the county at the end of October, it was apparent that clean-up and restoration along the line was far from complete.

As a farm boy, I recall being amazed by the first major construction project I was involved in—a power plant costing about a billion dollars in the late 1970s.  It blew my mind that anyone would take on a project of that size—thousands of construction workers on site for a decade building a power plant big enough to power  the city of Philadelphia for decades.  Who dreams up these projects?


Hilltop Crossing, May 7, 2018

The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline project is a three billion dollar project, which averages out to about $10 million per mile.  All for something that the pipeline company tells us disappears.

But, of course, the pipe is still there.  As is the natural gas that flows through it, and the carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere after it is burned.  And the fugitive methane that escapes before it is burned.   All invisible.  But the damage is done, and continues.


Hilltop Crossing, October 30, 2018

But how much Carbon Dioxide is released from the gas flowing through this pipeline?  The nominal flow rate is 1.7 billion cubic feet per day, which is a big number.  Converting this to a mass flow (1.25 moles per cubic foot, 16 grams per mole, 1,000,000 grams per metric ton) gives a figure of 34,000 tons of methane per day, which wen converted to CO2 results in 93,500 tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere every day.

Now that is a very big number—I have a hard time visualizing that.  What I can visualize is a coal train—they go through Spokane for coal deliveries to Asia.  Each coal train car holds about 100 tons of coal, each train is 100 cars, so a single coal train is hauling 10,000 tons of coal.  So if the CO2 were a solid, it would take 9 coal trains a day to haul that much CO2, or one train every 2 or 3 hours.  I have stood by watching coal trains as they rumble by—the earth shakes from their weight.

Of course, all this plays with our perceptions.  When there is a natural gas leak, we can smell it because of the odorant that is added to the gas—but we never have a perception of weight—the natural gas simply mixes with the atmosphere, which we perceive as weighing nothing (after all, we don’t have to pick it up).   What I do think about is heating our cabin by burning wood—for a cold winter night, I bring about 100 pounds of wood into the house—it’s heavy, it takes me a few trips to move that much fuel.  In the morning, the wood is gone, only a tiny bit of ash remains behind.  Where did the rest of the weight go?  Most of it left the stove in the exhaust stream, as carbon dioxide and water vapor.   Burning natural gas is the same.  At my home in Spokane, gas enters my house in a small steel pipe, and the exhaust leaves by my chimney without me ever touching the gas, let alone carrying it.


Coal Train, near Sprague, Washington, December 2015

The old cliche goes, what you can’t see can’t hurt you.  The new Atlantic Sunrise pipeline is hidden underground.  It makes no sound.  It carries an invisible gas that has no odor, and appears to have no weight.  It enters homes and leaves without any effort on our part.  It all passes unseen and unnoticed.  We stay warm as if by magic.  But it isn’t magic.  And there are consequences.


I traveled back to Lancaster County in January 2018 with the sole purpose of photographing the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline construction project.  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, near Mount Joy, Jan 2018

My goal was to photograph the construction project in full swing–and my timing proved fortuitous.  During my first day photographing, I discovered pipe in the trench at the southern end of the line, ready to be buried.  There were sections with welded pipe, sections with unwelded pipe, sections with soil removed but no pipe, and sections with vehicle tracks over farm fields.  During the following two weeks, I watched as tasks were completed, and crews and equipment moved northward.  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Red Hill Road, Martic Township, Jan 2018

Based on my childhood memories of winters, I knew that the weather might be bad–January is the coldest month, the most likely to have snow and freezing temperatures.  But my luck held with the weather–the days were warm and sometimes sunny–and many of the nights were cold enough to freeze the soil.  There was also a rain of about 0.3 inches.   The result was a glorious mud mess.  


Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Red Hill Road, Jan 2018


My timing was intended to reveal the construction project during its most visible disruption to the landscape.  I know that once the pipe is buried and the grass planted, the pipeline will be largely invisible, except for the markers indicating where the pipe crosses under the road, and in the treeless right-of-ways through forests.  The wounds will heal, but scars will remain.  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Silver Springs Road, Drumore Township, Jan 2018


This project has also made me aware of some of my family history.  In reading about the Conestoga Indian Village, I discovered that  in 1739, my ancestor Jacob Witmer settled nearby, apparently maintaining neighborly relations with the Natives.  In 1763, the Paxton boys massacred the Indians, and threatened to kill anyone who dared identify them.  As a child, my uncle Oliver Hess farmed some land along Indian Marker Road (currently farmed by Donnie Witmer–same name as my dad).  Nearby Witmer Road, Witmer Run, and Witmers Run still carry the family name.  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Drytown Road, Martic Township, Jan 2018

The Paxton Boys justified their killing of the Indians, as they were “not making good use of the land.”   The argument for the pipeline is not that much different:  Williams Pipeline company is hugely profitable, and can offer farmers payments far in excess of what they make farming the land.  

Of course, Williams isn’t killing anybody, at least not directly.  But there are moral and ethical questions that can be asked about this project.  On a global scale, this project will deliver massive amounts of fossil fuels to markets, adding to climate change.  The contracts for the gas to be shipped through the pipeline are mostly for export, and could lead (decades from now) to energy shortages in the US, or to higher prices for natural gas for US consumers.  On a more personal level, what gives a large corporation the right to seize land from individual landowners through eminent domain, when the “public interest” claim is so tenuous?   Do land owners, or Native Americans have a sacred right to keep their lands from being disturbed?  

Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, Pequea Creek Crossing, Jan 2018

But what I found myself thinking about, as I drove the pipeline route, was how much this land has changed already, in my lifetime.  My father had a small farm–57 acres, a herd of 14 dairy cows–and told me that he didn’t think I could make a living on that farm.  Now, all the small farms are gone, except for those farmed by Amish (who are expanding their range).  Most of  the old stone barns have been Martha Stewartized–new roofs, new pointing, clean barnyards, and Christmas wreaths on the barn doors.  The “real” farms have huge new chicken and pig houses with massive ventilation fans, and big new tractors in the steel pole barns.  The Earl Butz “get big or get out” curse has run its course.  There are no more family farms.  

When I left the county in 1980, my fear was that the county would be paved over, becoming one huge housing development.  The changes that have occurred are different than I expected–there are still fields, but almost no farmers.  I’m not quite sure what to make of it.  

My distress about the pipeline through the landscape of my childhood is mixed with the other changes that have occurred.  Change happens.  Of course, in 1739, the change was brought about by a German immigrant named Jacob Witmer.  



I’ve noticed that on social media sites, people “share a memory”–re-post something from their site in the past–though, of course, the past is only as old as the social media site.


Near the Buck, Lancaster County, July 1983

Over the past few days, I’ve been scanning negatives I made during my first months working with a view camera, in 1983–now 35 years ago.  I don’t know when an image becomes a historical image–maybe the best rule is after the photographer and his generation are dead–when no one remembers what the time of the photograph actually looked like.  So by that definition, Walker Evans photographs are on the verge of becoming historical photographs–but my images from 1983 are not.  I still remember making the photographs–but perhaps even more important, they still look like I think the world looks now.  If I were to drive through the landscape in Lancaster County in 2018, the landscape would still pretty much look like these photographs, I could still find views that look like these.

Southern Lancaster County, July , 1983


Of course, there there have been changes–some farms have gotten bigger–embracing the industrialization of agriculture–but in Lancaster County, some farms have also gotten smaller–split into two or more farms, by the new Amish owners.  In 1983, there were no Amish in Martic Township–now there are several–and I suspect that there will be more in the future.

Amish Farm, near Quarryville, PA, July 1983


I moved away from Lancaster County in 1980,  thinking that the landscape in Lancaster county was being destroyed by development–farms that had been in my family for generations were being converted into housing developments–and the economics of farming were disastrous.  I think when I made these photographs, I thought this landscape would disappear within my lifetime.

The fact that this landscape remains as intact as it does is a bit of a surprise to me.  Maybe this says more about the slow pace of changes in the landscape–maybe in a few more decades, these pictures will look “historic”.

Four months ago, my father passed away, at age 83.  He lived a long healthy life until 79, but the last 4 years were a slow slide into the grave, no fun to watch, and even less fun to live through.  The last year was particularly hard, as his mind deteriorated: first his sense of time gave out (he had more problems with clocks than anyone I ever knew—we even had an atomic clock that supposedly got time from a satellite somewhere that would gain and lose hours a day…), followed by misconceptions of reality that bordered on hallucinations.

My Father's Tractor, 1987

My Father’s Tractor, 1987

My father wanted to be a farmer, a man who grows food for other people.  I made the image of my father’s tractor  in 1987, when my father was farming only a small part of his farm, mostly to grow a large unruly garden, and a small field of tomatoes.  I spent many hours on that tractor when I was living at home in the 1970s, plowing, raking hay, hauling tomatoes, helping my father do his work.

I gave a print of the image my father as a gift several years ago.  At that time, he was living off the farm, in a suburban house, and we hung the picture in a bedroom that functioned as his “office”.  We never talked about it—I just hung it up for him, he never said thanks.  When he moved from that house to a one bedroom apartment for seniors, the print went with him, hung by the door, the first image visitors would encounter.  After he collapsed from blood loss and moved to an assisted care facility, that print was in his room when he died.

If truth be told, my father was not a successful farmer, something in large part not his fault, as he was the son of a farmer who came of age during the great depression, and had no land or other assets to pass on to my father.  The farm my father did manage to buy, the one I grew up on, was on a north facing slope in the southern Lancaster county river hills—steep, rocky, and under laid with shale, not the flat, limestone rich farms of the northern and eastern end of the county—a very small farm sold to him in 1963 by another farmer who moved up to a bigger and better farm.

In 1997, my dad sold the farm, and moved to the northeast corner of Lancaster County, close to two of my sisters.  He and my mother started attending a new church, with a new graveyard, and  he and my mother told us they had picked out grave plots there.

My last visit with my father was in July.  At that time, he was very confused about why he was living where he was, and was convinced that the home had a chute that they put people in when they died, and buried them in the back lot.  One day, I took him for lunch at a nearby diner (he always ordered a big meal and ate slowly so he didn’t have to go back to the home), and then we took a drive into the farmlands to see the corn—12 feet high in places—amazing corn.  I drove to the church he had been attending, and pointed to the area where I thought the new graveyard was, a grassy strip next to the church parking lot, and told him that he had paid for a plot there, and when he died, he would be buried there.  He seemed confused about where he was, but he didn’t say anything, and the trip seemed to end his discussion about being buried in back of the home.

After my father’s funeral, I followed the hearse from the funeral home to the grave, and discovered at least one reason why my father was confused by that last trip—the graveyard was actually located some distance from the church, in the middle of fields, along a low ridge.  From the graveside, one could see farms, stretching out for miles in all directions.   The pile of dirt piled next to his grave was topped with chunks of limestone, scraped from the bottom of the grave.  My father had managed to find, in death, a place he had never found in life.

The death of my father was not unexpected, but is still sobering.  He worked hard all his life, but his work is done.  He has entered into rest.   My own work is not yet done.