If you are ready to start the Safe Harbor Adventure, click here. Otherwise, read on for more history about the three Safe Harbors: Safe Harbor Hydroelectric Dam, the 1930s Village at Safe Harbor, and the mid-1800s Safe Harbor Iron Works.
Safe Harbor Hydroelectric Dam
In the late 1920s, strangers appeared in the area of Safe Harbor with offers to buy large chunks of property. Rumors quickly spread. Soon newspaper announced that another huge hydroelectric dam was to be built in the area. Safe Harbor was to be the last of three Great Depression-era public electrification hydroelectric dams on the Susquehanna.
At 464 miles long, the Susquehanna is the longest river on the East Coast of the United States that empties into the Atlantic Ocean traveling from Cooperstown, New York to Havre De Grace, Maryland. It drains an area of more than 27,000 square miles (including roughly half of the state of Pennsylvania) and is the single largest source of fresh water flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, the broad, shallow waters make the Susquehanna the longest, non-commercially navigable river in the country. But the 1,180-foot elevation change between its headwaters in Cooperstown and the Chesapeake Bay make it ideal for hydroelectricity.
The oldest of the still operational lower Susquehanna dams is the Holtwood Dam constructed between 1905 and 1910. Originally called McCalls Ferry Dam, but it was later renamed in honor of two Pennsylvania Water & Power Company executives.
The second is the Conowingo Dam, near the town of Conowingo, Maryland, built between 1926 and 1928. It is one of the largest non-federal hydroelectric dams in the U.S.
Planning for the construction of the Safe Harbor Dam started in November 1929 with construction beginning on April 1, 1930. It was to be a concrete gravity dam with a total length of 5,000 feet going shore to shore. The project cost $30 million (or $445,968,421 in today’s money) with nearly $10 million paid as wages to local labors. The massive construction project benefited 4,000 workers who all needed jobs amid the Great Depression. Most of the men lived in temporary shelters in the ravines surrounding Safe Harbor.
Not everyone appreciated the population influx from this well-paying employment opportunity. Residents of Safe Harbor sent a petition to the district attorney charging “bootleg whiskey is being sold openly and freely and that gambling is rampant.”
The irony of the petition was probably lost on the local residents when just 79 years earlier in 1851 Safe Harbor was known as one of the “booziest” towns anywhere in the county with its five taverns, three liquor stores, and six beer halls.
Being a concrete structure, the project was going to need a lot of crushed gravel. Luckily, the required raw materials were found just one mile east of the construction site. Several nearby hillsides were gouged of rock, and a crusher plant was built adjacent to the quarry to process the stone. Some 2.3 million cubic yards of rock was excavated for the project. The support structures for the old rock crusher are still visible today.
From the rock crusher, a short line railroad system ran next to the stream at the bottom of the ravine to transport the stone to the work site. Short sections of the railway are also still visible today.
The dam was completed and closed its gates for the first time on September 29, 1931. Power generation began shortly after on December 7, 1931. With the completion of Safe Harbor, it could outputt 265,000 horsepower and when combined with Holtwood’s 180,000 constituted one of the most significant hydroelectric developments on this continent at the time. Today Safe Harbor generates 422.5 megawatts, 230 MW at Holtwood, and 548 MW at Conowingo. As a point of reference, the Hoover dam can produce over 2,000 megawatts of capacity.
The Village at Safe Harbor
The dam was not the only construction project taking place at Safe Harbor in the early 1930s. Just a few hundred yards away, one of the more unique planned communities in the entire county was being built—The Village at Safe Harbor.
This was to be no shanty town of temporary buildings. The Safe Harbor Power Corporation commissioned architects to design beautiful English Tudor-style buildings along a single street. In total there was 21 brick and half-timber single-family homes, a Bachelor Quarters apartment, and a multipurpose building complete with a ballroom for workers and their families.
Also, there were two office buildings to serve as administrative headquarters associated with the dam and its operation. Work on the complex began in 1929 with most aspects completed by 1932.
During WWII, the Village also temporarily housed U.S. Military troops to protect the hydroelectric plant immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Those troops were not misplaced as Adolf Hitler had Safe Harbor targeted as a strategic point, for at the time it primarily powered the railroads and the city of Baltimore with its ports and industry.
The Village is currently owned by Safe Harbor Partners LP who purchased the 210-acre property in 2014 for $1.25 million from Safe Harbor Water Power Corp. Homes, apartments, and office space in the historic buildings are available for rent today.
Safe Harbor Iron Works
In 1846, Reeves Abbot & Company from Philadelphia selected the Safe Harbor area to build the Safe Harbor Iron Works for the express purpose of manufacturing railroad rails. The location for the industry was ideal for two reasons. First was the discovery of vast amounts of iron ore in the immediate vicinity. The second was the easy access to canals on both the Susquehanna and Conestoga Rivers. Construction of the historic Safe Harbor Village and Iron Works required about two years.
Almost overnight this quiet rural area along the Conestoga transformed into a bustling community. The 250 workers and their 500 family members needed somewhere to live. Reeves Abbot & Company solved the housing crisis by building over 70 duplex frame dwellings complete with a system of arrow-straight streets such as Walnut, Cedar, Spring, Griffin, Willow, and Race.
These houses were occupied by Irish “puddlers,” the nickname for the men who worked in hot conditions to convert molten pig iron into malleable iron. The Philadelphia company that built the ironworks journeyed to Ireland, during its devastating potato famine, and had little trouble recruiting puddlers.
While almost all the homes are gone today (a few remain on Main Street, formerly known as Willow Street), scores of indentations from the buildings’ foundations are still visible. The duplexes shared a central chimney that was used for heating and cooking by families on both sides of the house.
Safe Harbor grew at a feverish pace. Within 20 years, it contained a blast furnace, rolling-mill, foundry, drug store, post office, two general stores, two school-houses, two churches, two hotels, five taverns, three liquor stores, six beer halls, and an Odd Fellows Hall all to support the town’s estimated population of 1,200.
Born in Fire
Initially Safe Harbor Iron Works was built to produce iron for the thriving Pennsylvania Railroad. The rolling mill was the largest of all the structures, and it’s main building. It covered over an acre of ground and stood on the site of the present Safe Harbor Park’s tennis court. Inside the building, hot slabs of metal were passed between rollers. This action squeezed the iron to a specific thickness in the production of rails for the railroad.
In the mid-1800s, Safe Harbor produced one-eighth of all rolled iron in Pennsylvania with the T-shape rail being the principal produce of the mill.
When the Civil War began in 1861, production switched from rails to cannons, specifically Dahlgren guns, for Union forces. Dahlgren guns are muzzle-loading naval artillery designed by Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren.
Dahlgren’s design philosophy evolved from an accidental explosion in 1849 of a 32-pounder being tested for accuracy, killing a gunner. He believed a safer, more powerful naval cannon could be designed using more scientific design criteria. Dahlgren guns were designed with a smooth curved shape, equalizing strain and concentrating more weight of the metal in the gun breech where the highest pressure of expanding propellant gases needed to be met to keep the gun from bursting. Because of their rounded contours, Dahlgren guns were nicknamed “soda bottles,” a shape which became their most identifiable characteristic.
Only a handful of buildings remain of the historic Safe Harbor village. One is them is the breathtaking ironmaster’s house, a huge stone mansion wonderfully restored by its current owners. The home actually predates the historic village of Safe Harbor being built in 1725 by Benjamin Eshelman, an early Mennonite settler.
Odd Fellows Hall
The Odd Fellows Hall is another of the few buildings still standing today in what is now Safe Harbor Park and Arboretum. It has a storied history. It began in 1848 as the Conestoga Lodge No. 334 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The lodge enjoyed a successful existence until the start of the Civil War when many of its members enlisted. After the war ended, its prospects brighten and continued to flourish for another 40 years. Meetings were held every Saturday. It was said that the meeting room was finely furnished at the cost of about $1,000 and could accommodate 200 people.
In August 1871, a special meeting of the Right Worshipful Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania was held in the building to constitute a new Lodge of Free Masons to be known as Charles M. Howell Lodge #496. The Lodge was named in honor of the then District Deputy Grand Master Charles M. Howell. The lodge boasted at least 50 members with meetings being held on Friday evening on or before the full moon. The Masons met there until 1899 when they moved to Millersville.
Later in 1882, the Safe Harbor Independent School District began holding classes on the second floor of Odd-Fellows Hall. Eighty students attended class there yearly.
Safe Harbor Independent School District
One building not standing is the Safe Harbor Independent School. As late as 1875, Safe Harbor had two one-room schoolhouses. The first was the Safe Harbor School on the Manor Township side of the Conestoga River. The other was Independent School on what was once East Spring Street now the blue and white trail.
The Independent School was built in 1850. Initially, it was part of Conestoga Township until about 1854. But by 1883 only one school building remained as the other had been destroyed in a storm. To accommodate the loss of the building, classes were also held on the second floor of Odd-Fellows Hall in 1882.
All that remains today of the Safe Harbor Independent School are a few foundation stones amid some moss and weeds. These foundation stones are visible on the blue and white trail inside the Safe Harbor Park and Arboretum.
People often mistake the converted schoolhouse at 4498 Main Street, Conestoga to be the original Safe Harbor Independent School; however, it is too young being built in the early 1900s according to Zillow.
St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church
On what used to be East Spring Street near the top of a hill the woods opens to a clearing. It was here that St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church once stood.
This Roman Catholic Church was organized as a part of St. Mary’s Church of Lancaster City, in 1853. The following year the puddlers of Safe Harbor built a stone church to serve the Irish ironworkers and their families. By all accounts, St. Mary’s was a beautiful stone church with a slate roof that measured 40-by-60 feet with a small, vaulted and semi-circular apse built into the southern wall for the altar.
The church was shuttered in 1883 when the parish had shrunk to fewer than a dozen. The building was later sold for salvage in 1917 but remained standing after being gutted. Amid complaints that the structure was crumbling and dangerous, the Harrisburg Catholic Diocese had the structure bulldozed in 1985. Almost nothing of structure exists today except for 28 pew doors that were sold as part of a fundraiser in 2012 as well as the original lithographs of the Stations of the Cross. Those now hang in the chapel of Lancaster Catholic High School.
Today a pedestal of salvaged stones from the walls of the church with a 1955 picture of the abandoned building marks the location.
The clearing also has several tombstones, a few are Civil War veterans while others are victims of shootings and stabbings. Another section of the cemetery contains the unmarked graves of at least 50 Italian immigrants who helped build the Enola Low-Grade Line. There is a plaque to mark the area. Reports indicate that 200 people died why constructing the ambitious project (Click here for more information about the Enola Low-Grade Adventure).
Several weeks before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865, a devastating flood wiped out canal facilities along both the Conestoga and Susquehanna rivers as well as a bridge. Without the plant’s lifeline for supplies and shipping of goods, the plant withered and the village deteriorated.
The ironworks remained idle from 1865 to 1877. When the furnaces were reignited 12 years later, it was on a reduced scale. During this time Safe Harbor was called upon to produce “puddled iron,” which involved converting pig iron into high-grade wrought iron.
The iron works were finally shuttered and abandoned in 1894. However, the community lingered despite the closing. One of the former manufacturing buildings was converted to a match factory. After that, it housed the machine shop and air compressor station for the contractor that built the Enola Low-Grade Line. The historic village of Safe Harbor might still be there today if it had not been for the winter of 1904.
Death by Ice
The town’s end did not come until March 1904. That year proved to be an exceptionally cold winter with the Susquehanna freezing solid with ice two feet thick. Spring brought its usual showers, but the river stayed frozen…at first. The heavy rains helped to break up the frozen mass creating great ice flowes that marched downriver, getting snagged and instantly damming the river. In some places, the river level rose 10 feet in five minutes. In fact, the March 1904 flooding far exceeded that of Agnes.
Towns along the Susquehanna were erased entirely. Safe Harbor suffered the worst of all. As the ice gorge dislodged from Turkey Point and moved downriver on the afternoon of March 8, the Conestoga River became blocked at its mouth and began to back up.
The 79 homes at Safe Harbor along the Conestoga were smothered in ice the size of icebergs and water that families were forced onto roofs. The stone arch railroad bridge across the Conestoga was hoisted up like a Tinkertoy and dropped into the water a tangled mess. More than three miles up the Conestoga, almost to Millersville, the Rock Hill Hotel was inundated with four feet of water.
All the ironwork buildings were razed around 1907, and a few years later in 1913, the hopelessly damaged homes were sold for salvage at $30 apiece effectively bringing an end to the Safe Harbor Iron Works and its town. To learn more about the great 1904 ice flood that erased entire towns from the map, click here.
Uncharted Lancaster: Safe Harbor Adventure
But that’s enough history. When you are ready to start the Safe Harbor Adventure, click here.
Safe Harbor Photo Gallery
- Left behind in Lancaster County: Rust and Ruins
- The Village at Safe Harbor
- Safe Harbor ravines you’ve probably never visited
- Safe Harbor’s trail of history
- History of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania: with biographical sketches of many of its pioneers and prominent men
- History of Charles M. Howell Lodge No. 496
- The ice flood that swallowed up a Lancaster County town along the Susquehanna [photos]
- Phoenix Iron Company records
- Modest renovations refresh charming Safe Harbor Village
- Pew doors a link to former Safe Harbor Catholic church (article)
- Dahlgren gun
- Pew doors a link to former Safe Harbor Catholic church (photo)
- Safe Harbor Dam
- History, construction, and operation of Safe Harbor Power Development
- Susquehanna River
- Safe Harbor United Methodist Church About Us