Treasured trash: A visit to the White Cliffs of Conoy

Lancaster

CONOY TOWNSHIP, Pa. (WHTM) — It may be the only industrial waste dump in the United States to become a recreation area.

If you get on the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail at Bainbridge and travel about 1.2 miles south, you will come to the White Cliffs of Conoy, tons of limestone and dolomite dumped alongside the Susquehanna River in Conoy Township. The “cliff” part is a relatively recent development.

“This pile was larger fifty years ago,” Stephen Mohr, the Conoy Township Supervisor said. “It extended out towards the water further. But over the years, the floods ate at the face of it, actually made it a sheer cliff. Before, it tapered down.”

Looking at the chalky white edifice, it’s hard not to think of the White Cliffs of Dover, so dubbing it the White Cliffs of Conoy seems almost inevitable. But where did all the rubble come from?

On the other side of the trail from the cliff, you can see the ruins of old buildings, now almost swallowed by vegetation. It’s part of what was once a huge industrial operation. Known as the Billmeyer or Bainbridge Quarry, it operated for over a hundred years.

“The limestone was the main focus when they started here,” Mohr said. “And a lot of that limestone was used for farm fields. And once they discovered dolomite, they had another whole factor into it that made it profitable. Dolomite is highly sought after for the iron ore business.”

At one time the operation was so big it had its own company town, Billmeyer. But in the 1950s the useful rock was getting harder to find. Operations started to shut down.

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“The last employee left here in 1957. And after that, the quarry filled up with water.”

Billmeyer became a ghost town. Eventually, the buildings were torn down. But the big pile of tailings was still there. Mohr has fond memories of visits to it when he was a child.

“We used to come down here fishing, on the weekends, and we’d go out in the river, get wet, then we’d come up and roll around in this lime dust, to see who could get the whitest, and then we’d go back out in the river and splash some more.”

When plans for the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail started to come together in the late 1900s, Mohr wanted the cliffs to be one of the attractions-but it was private property, and the owner didn’t want to sell. But Mohr and other trail advocates kept in touch with him.

“After about twenty or twenty-four years of contact, he said ‘I’m not going to sell it to you, I’m going to give it to you.”

The cliffs are now a popular stop along the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail.

“It’s a fairly level walk,” Mohr said. “It’s not a strenuous walk, so whether you’re walking, bicycle, skateboard, it’s accessible. And if we have someone that’s incapable of walking and they really want to see it because they used to live in this area or something, we’ll see that they get here.”

Mohr has simple advice for visitors.

“Keep ahold of their children and keep ahold of their pets, and enjoy it all they want, and when they leave, don’t leave anything but that footprint going back.”

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