The Great Ice Flood of 1904 that erased Lancaster County towns from the map

The winter of 1904 proved to be exceptionally cold as it froze the Susquehanna River solid in two-foot thick ice. The ice was so thick local merchants were able to transport goods between Lancaster and York counties via horse-drawn freight wagons. When Spring arrived, it brought its usual showers, but the giant frozen mass resisted the thawing rain…at first.

When heavy rains eventually broke up the enormous ice sheet, it created gigantic ice floes that began moving downriver on the afternoon of March 8. When it became snagged on the landscape, it instantly dammed the river. In some places, the river level rose 10 feet in five minutes. The York Haven power plant and a paper mill were destroyed. The town of Collins near Falmouth was entirely erased by ice. It blocked the Conestoga River at its mouth punishing Safe Harbor village perhaps the worst of all. In fact, the flooding far exceeded the aftermath of Tropical Storm Agnes.

Ice jam at Safe Harbor.

Here’s the account of the worst recorded ice flood along the lower Susquehanna River from the March 12, 1904 edition of The Inquirer.

Safe Harbor Almost Wiped Out

A 15-Minute Rush of Water and Ice Overwhelmed the Village on Tuesday After Great Gorge Broke Below Columbia.

Greatest Flood Susquehanna River Has Ever Had

Million Dollar Loss at York Haven — Buildings Destroyed at Bainbridge and Collins—Washington Borough Swept by Flood. 3000 Men Cleaning P.R.R. Tracks — 400 Families Are Homeless at Middletown — An Exciting Week Along the River — Aid is Asked for Safe Harbor.

About 3,000 men with pick and shovel, including 1,600 Italian laborers employed under H. S. Kerbaugh & Co., on the railroad construction in York County, are at work now—and have been since Thursday morning—clearing the tracks of the P.R.R. between Columbia and Harrisburg. For about a week these tracks have been useless, blocked by the floods that alternately rose and fell, carrying with them millions of tons of ice in great chunks, so that the railroad is covered with a frozen mass that in spots is 30 feet deep. These men are paid 20 cents per hour, and board is furnished by the company free of cost. It is the biggest job of house cleaning that the company has ever undertaken on this part of its system.

Freezing temperatures often created think ice sheets on the Susquehanna River, preventing travel.

This blockade has caused immense freight congestion at Harrisburg; for the running of freight trains has been practically impossible since the latter part of last week. Passenger trains were run over the Reading tracks to Lebanon: from there over the Cornwall road to Conewago, five miles above Elizabethtown; and then by the usual route to Lancaster and Philadelphia. When the Northern Central tracks became useless, trains for Baltimore and Washington came by the above route to Dillerville and then went via Columbia to York. Resumption of service on the mainline via Columbia is a matter of several days more; for the most significant flood ever known along the Susquehanna has damaged the roadbed substantially and made much work for tracklayers.

Ice jam on the Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania Railroad plow clearing Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad.

The Columbia & Port Deposit road is severely damaged. For many miles, it lies under an icy covering from 10 to 50 feet in thickness. Wreckage of buildings, masses of rock and earth, telegraph poles, trees and all sorts of debris also encumber both railroads. Columbia hardware men have sold all the shovels and crowbars they could find.

Ice jams were not unusual, especially in the decades before the construction of the three lower Susquehanna River hydroelectric dams.

Millions and millions of dollars of damage is the result of the 1904 freshet, at the close of the longest and coldest winter the east has known in a generation. Up the North Branch, all towns suffered severely, and the danger is not yet past. Wilkes-Barre, Bloomsburg, Danville, Catawissa, Sunbury, and Northumberland people sustained significant losses, and the finest bridges on the river were swept away.

Ice jam at the Catawissa Bridge in the 1904 flood before it was destroyed. The view is the Catawissa side looking north.

At Harrisburg, Steelton and Middletown vast industrial establishments were paralyzed for days, and in the last-named town 400 families are homeless, their houses wrecked and ruined and most of their effects destroyed. Appeals for clothing and provisions were issued this week. The state board of health is striving to prevent epidemics, while homeless people are huddled in churches, schoolhouses, market house, and public halls. At the mouth of the river Port Deposit and Perryville are water swept as usual.

Catastrophic damage caused by the March 1904 ice jam at Safe Harbor.

A large part of Safe Harbor was all but destroyed in a flood rush of 15 minutes, on Tuesday afternoon, when the river forced an opening through the immense gorge that stretched southward from Columbia. Today dozens of houses are hidden in the ocean of ice blocks, some of them as big as the houses, that covers the valley in which the village lies. Most of them are doubtless so crushed as to be useless for aught but firewood. An appeal for help for the homeless has been sent forth.

Villagers at Safe Harbor stand on a destroyed home’s rooftop after the ice flooding of March 1904.

Bainbridge and Collins sustained much loss. The Bainbridge railroad station is a mile down the railroad lodged, on the tracks. At Red Hill, a train of 40 cars was smashed by the ice. The two-million-dollar works of the York Haven electric power plant was almost utterly ruined, and the immense paper mill at the same place was greatly damaged. Parts of Marietta, Columbia and Washington Borough lie under a coat of mud and ice.

All that remained of the village of Collins along the Susquehanna River in Conoy Township after the 1904 ice flood was a railroad control tower.

The new railroad bridge above Rowenna has partly torn away. The rush of water up the Conestoga on Tuesday damaged the electric light works at Rock Hill and Slackwater. Washington Borough presents a remarkable aspect. The railroad is covered with mountains of ice from the northern end of the town as far south as Turkey Hill. The tracks are entirely hidden from view. The damage to the property at the southern end of the town is severe. Many lost considerable of their household effects, to say nothing of the damage to their properties, caused by the huge cakes of ice battering into them. In front of the borough, the river is packed with a gorge at least seventy-five feet high. It begins at the northern end of town and runs to the southern end, and extends out into the river in a V-shape almost to the York County shore.

Safe Harbor Destroyed

A Large Part of That Village Smashed…
Serious Losses and Narrow Escapes.

The highest water and ice flood ever known in Safe Harbor, ten feet higher than in 1873, practically demolished a large part of the village on Tuesday afternoon, when a sudden backing up of the river’s contents tore away a stone bridge of the P.R.R. which crosses the Conestoga right at the point of discharge into the river. Thus was broken down the barrier that has helped to break the force of other floods, and in a few minutes, an awful volume of water and ice rushed up the creek and covered the town.

Some of the Safe Harbor village homes destroyed by ice and flooding in March 1904 remain up to their second floor in ice even weeks after the event.

Five miles up that stream its effects are seen to-day, and at Rock Hill, the water stood four feet deep in the hotel. It destroyed the county bridge that stood a half-mile above the railroad bridge and carried it a quarter-mile away.

The road on the Manor township side, which is 20 feet higher than the creek, was covered to the depth of many feet. On the opposite side of the Conestoga, the water rose nearly 40 feet and invaded the second floor of John E. Herr’s Exchange Hotel, which occupies the high ground. In fifteen minutes, the flood had done all its work. Ice and water together crushed, mutilated and moved from foundations almost every building in the place.

A railroad bridge over the Conestoga River at Safe Harbor lies in ruins after the 1904 ice flood.

Safe Harbor is, in part, a deserted village. Many of the people spent Tuesday night in a schoolhouse on the hill, while others were cared for by the occupants of the hills above the town and at farmhouses in the neighborhood.

The schoolhouse some homeless Safe Harbor’s residents stayed.  

The damage will be considerable, but as yet nobody can form any idea of what it will be. Even after the waters recedes, and only the Conestoga creek is left in its natural channel, the vast field of ice will remain, and it will require weeks of milder weather before it is gone. The station was carried away and rests on a heap of ice. The tool houses and offices of the railroad contractors were smashed. Reuben Herr’s stone hotel on the Manor side of the Conestoga is damaged, and several houses near it are wrecks, the old Herr home among others. The post-office was twisted around, and Postmaster Lundy’s house was damaged. The Stauffer & Co coal office and warehouse were ruined; the latter being prevented from being overturned by a telegraph pole. Lumber and coal are scattered and buried deep beneath the ice.

Mr. Stauffer’s home was wrecked, too, and $5,000 will not cover his loss. The general merchandise store of William H. Riel was crushed in by the ice, and his loss is $3000. The brick general merchandise store of John D. Tripple was utterly demolished and the stock destroyed, and his loss will be several thousand dollars. The water stood nine feet deep in the grist mill on the Manor side of the creek, owned by A. J. Zercher. The building is damaged, but how much cannot yet be determined. The frame residence of Sherman Grumbline was crushed, as were the dwellings of Doris Else, Claude Irvin, John Clark, and Rev. Tobias Finefrock.

Ice jam on the Susquehanna River at Pequea.

The Safe Harbor match factory was flooded, and, while the building appears to be intact, no idea of the damage done the plant can now be formed. The H. M. Stauffer family had barely time to run from the house when the flood came, and Mr. Stauffer, the last to leave, was in water up to his neck before he reached safety.

Benjamin Lawyer took refuge on the roof of his house and was rescued with the aid of a boat by John Rineer and Benjamin Markley, who had to press through the flood in momentary danger of having their frail craft crushed in the ice. Mrs. Mary Tripple, who was carried from her house by her son J. D. Tripple, and Mrs. A. G. Hudson, who was ill with pneumonia, was rescued at considerable risk. Several cows belonging to Lundy Hutchinson were taken out of their stable through a hole cut in the roof, by the aid of ropes.

A couple poses on top of ice on the second floor of their home in Safe Harbor.

At Pequea, four miles down the river, the water rose 12 feet in 10 minutes; swept the county bridge a half mile or more up the Pequea Creek, and nearly wrecked it; drove Christian Shoff’s family out of their house; submerged Weise’s Island till only the roof of the barn can be seen; torn away parts of the C&P. D. railroad, and piled it thirty feet deep under huge cakes of ice. The entire length of the railroad, in fact, is under ice, and in many places badly torn up.

Flood and ice jam on the Susquehanna River at Pequea.

At Columbia

The Ice Gorge Broke on Monday Night – Damage Not Very Great

After four days of trembling, waiting, and hoping against hope, Columbia people had their anxiety eased on Monday night when the great gorge that had extended for miles up the river broke and set out for the Chesapeake with a tremendous racket. Thousands of people visited the town on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, and looked at the immense body of store-up danger that was piled to within a foot or two of the mile-long steel railroad bridge. Everybody feared that great structure would have to go, especially after part of the new railroad bridge above Rowenna was carried down against it on Monday. All day Tuesday the waters rushed by, bearing millions of tons of ice blocks, many of them big as a house. About noon a barn and a strawstack came down the stream. The barn could not get under the bridge safely and was severely broken.

During the afternoon there were several smaller buildings carried down which contained chickens and turkeys. In the early part of the afternoon, a wooden bridge was seen coming down with the ice. It only reached the railroad bridge, where it struck and was held, and it will remain there for some days. A large sized lumber pile went down the stream also. At the foot of Walnut Street, the large boathouse of the Columbia Canoe Club has washed away and turned completely around. The ferry houses were crushed, and the plant of the Columbia Water Company was surrounded by water. The Union street mill was closed down on account of the water, and several men employed there were taken away in boats.

Weeks after ice flooding in 1904, the mouth of the Conestoga River at Safe Harbor is still a mountain of ice. The river is visible through the ice arch in the lower left.

The planning mill and lumber yard nearby were also submerged. At the lace mill, the building was entirely surrounded, and during the afternoon vast cakes of ice struck the rear end of the building with such force as to shake it. The electric light plant was also surrounded. At Front and Lawrence streets, which is opposite the lace mill, there were about two feet of water in the road, and the building of the Eastern Milling Company on the southeast corner of these streets also had water in the basement. The water reached Bruner’s coal yard.

Washington Borough

No Such Disastrous Freshet Ever Seen There Before

It has been “Little Washington’s” worst experience. The breaking of the gorge at Columbia on Monday night was followed by a gorge that extended all the way to Safe Harbor. The rising water soon flooded a large part of the town, stood 12 feet deep on the turnpike, drowned out the railroad office and reached the second story of many a house. For 110 years the house now occupied by Christian Hines has stood on its present site on the river side of Front Street, and Tuesday was the first time that the water reached it. F. G. Charles’s store was flooded, and all business with the post office had to be transacted by boat. For the first time in its existence J. K. Shultz’s barn, below the borough, was touched by flood.

At Turkey Hill, there were thirty feet of water on the railroad tracks, which are twenty feet above low water mark, so that the river there had obtained the height of about fifty feet. The gorge broke on the York County side, from Spice Island, westward, and the great mass of water bore down on the gorge at Safe Harbor, which stubbornly resisted until a large part of that town was in ruins. The waters finally fell and left Washington Borough’s lower ward covered with ice, mud, and debris of all sorts.


For all its destruction up and down the river, there was luckily no loss of life. All the ironwork buildings at Safe Harbor were razed around 1907, and a few years later in 1913, the hopelessly damaged homes of Safe Harbor village were sold for salvage at $30 apiece effectively bringing an end to the Safe Harbor Iron Works and its town.

House damaged by ice

To learn more about the three Safe Harbors: Safe Harbor Hydroelectric Dam, the 1930s Village at Safe Harbor, and the mid-1800s Safe Harbor Iron Works, click here. If you are ready to start the Safe Harbor Adventureclick here.



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