Port of Lancaster and the Curious Etymology of Safe Harbor’s Name

The Etymology of Safe Harbor

How did the area where the Conestoga empties into the Susquehanna River become known as Safe Harbor? The history of the town and the eventual dam’s name is ambiguous.

One theory suggests that river crews knew the deepwater there was a “safe harbor” before facing the treacherous rapids further south.

However, there’s a second, much more interesting theory, and it centers around making the area an actual harbor.

Port of Lancaster

If you visit Safe Harbor Dam today, you will see this sign. It commemorates the Conestoga Navigation Company and the bold venture of turning Lancaster into a port city. Its ambitious goal was to give Lancaster direct access to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other ports. Never mind the fact that Lancaster is 102 miles as the bird flies from the Atlantic Ocean.

Port of Lancaster sign at Safe Harbor.
Port of Lancaster sign at Safe Harbor.

This slackwater canal ran a winding 18-mile course through a series of nine locks and dams from Lancaster to Safe Harbor along the Conestoga River. The lock at Safe Harbor is still visible today.

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Of the nine original Conestoga Navigation locks between Lancaster and the Susquehanna River, Lock 6 is the only survivor.

Upon reaching Safe Harbor, boats would begin the voyage down the Susquehanna, which also had its own canal at the time. Called the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, it paralleled the Susquehanna River for 43 miles between Wrightsville and Havre de Grace, Maryland, along the river’s western bank. It was built between 1836 and 1839 and opened in 1840 for commerce between the greater Harrisburg area and the Chesapeake Bay. The canal carried lumber, coal, iron, and grain bound for Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York until it was abandoned in 1895.

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Lock 15 of the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal.

Several of the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal locks can be seen today, including Lock 12, 13, and 15. For information on visiting the locks located on the York County side of the Susquehanna, click here.

Unfortunately, the Conestoga Navigation Company was immediately plagued with problems, both financial and environmental. The enterprise lingered for 40 years until finally succumbing to the dominance of the railroad.

However, while the canal was in operation, it was said a person could board a ship in Lancaster and depart in Paris, France. Although there’s no evidence that anyone actually ever did that.

If nothing else, you have to admire the chutzpah. The audacity of turning a landlocked city into a seaport is a definite nod to the American spirit.

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The Conestoga just before emptying into the Susquehanna. The Enola Low-Grade trestle and Columbia & Port Deposit Railroad bridge are visible in the background.

However, this wasn’t the first time Lancaster County attempted to turn itself into a seafaring town.

New Philadelphia

The second theory suggests that the name came from a plan devised by William Penn to create a “New Philadelphia.” This rival city would have been situated on a 3,000-acre site in Manor Township just north of Turkey Hill.

Pennsylvania archives: third series;

The city would have been ideally placed at the end of present-day Blue Rock Road, which at the time was considered the first gateway to the west.

A city of this magnitude would need a serious harbor to supply it. Part of Penn’s plan was to widen the Conestoga River to create a “safe harbor” for ships coming up the Susquehanna from the Chesapeake Bay.

A similar plan had worked in Philadelphia with the Delaware River, so why not for this new city and the Susquehanna River.

What Penn did not know was just how unnavigable the Susquehanna was once you got past Port Deposit.¬†Imagine what could have been if not for Smith’s Falls.

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Port of Lancaster, indeed!

Read more about Safe Harbor.

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