Phantom Places: Wabank House. What happened to this ‘fashionable and favorite place of summer resort’?

For less than a decade, a magnificent establishment exuded prominence and grandeur suitable to a National Park lodge, but incredibly right here in our County along the Conestoga River. Then, it was dismantled, reconstructed, and admired in Lititz before burning to the ground just shy of another decade thereafter.

This Phantom Place is almost entirely gone and forgotten. But, the stories of this four-story recreational edifice seem to echo across the centuries. Frank Diffenderfer’s 1904 account appeared not just in the local Lancaster newspaper “New Era,” of which he was editor, but also in the Journal of the then-named Lancaster County Historical Society. Here’s a link to that Journal article.

Screenshot of Lancaster County Historical Society journal article.

I’ve found only one photograph, most likely taken from a hilltop across the Conestoga. Trees now obscure the view. So, I had to use a drone to capture a similar perspective.

A Brief Timeline:

  • Constructed in 1855 for $60,000 ($1.8 million today) by a speculative company comprised of well-known Lancaster County folks named Shroder, Hager, Baumgardner, Mathiot, Longenecker, Hubley, Frantz, McGrann, Bausman, et alia. The name was the result of a contest. Purportedly of Native American origin, the entry in the contest was made by the wife of one of the stockholders, who also happened to be the daughter of another stockholder.
  • The mills and the water power were sold for $12,000 in 1855.
  • The site was resold in 1858 for just $9,150, along with 19 acres.
  • 1863/1864: The hotel structure was sold for just $4,000, dismantled, and reassembled as an annex to the Lititz Springs Hotel.
  • July 31, 1873, a great fire consumed the Wabank House annex portion of the hotel.
  • Today, the Wabank House site still contains the stone retaining wall but is private property near the end of Rice Road in Lancaster Township. The Lititz site is now the location of the Police Department.
The Wabank House after being moved to Lititz.

Other similar structures were planned, some built, and a few smaller ones remain today in various hidden nooks and crannies of the County. I know of none other that were relocated so deliberately. The structure itself would certainly today be considered historically significant. But, it seems certain that it would not have survived. Most of the posh and headline-grabbing events took place in the first few years.

Advertisements for transient lodging seemed to signal a death knell for the Wabank House’s economic viability.

Imagine, if you will, that the water in front of the Wabank House was probably 10’-15’ higher than we see it today. The river bed had not yet seen the dreadful scouring away from all of the upstream runoff that our conversion of Penn’s Woods into the Garden Spot resulted in.

Here’s a Google Street View of the former Wabank House location. The stone retaining wall is all that remains.

A dam across the river was built in 1827 in concert with Lock #3 of the Conestogo Navigation Company’s slackwater navigation system. There were at least six more dams downstream of the Wabank House location holding back the Conestoga into a series of step-pools and locks that made the River navigable to watercraft. More than a hundred other dams were in existence upstream of this point in the Conestoga watershed, as well. These dams provided at times mill power, navigation, or impoundment for the City’s water supply.

Coincidentally, these dams created flood control but also stored legacy sediment and other pollutants all along the way. For a time, the setting must have been lovely though with water flowing with an 8’ drop over a stone and timber dam.

As part of its Sherriff’s sale auction in 1858, the property was described in the Lancaster Examiner on February 17 as noted below:

So, what occurred here to cause the claim of being a “fashionable and favorite place of summer resort”? Here are a few:

  • May 26, 1855: The Lancaster Bar Association offered a fantastic gathering here to present the Supreme Court with a complimentary dinner. The Bill of Fare appears in James Buchanan’s papers. So, I’m guessing he attended this event, just two years prior to his presidency.
  • May 27, 1858: Delegates to the State Medical Convention dined here following a tour of other nearby locations. Both lunch and then dinner were offered here, commencing with the words from the Master of Ceremonies “If you have stomachs, prepare to fill them now.” A lengthy litany of toasts, resolutions, and speeches rounded out the evening. “Altogether the day was one of pleasure to all who participated in the exercise and the festivities.”
  • Independence Day 1858 was celebrated with a military encampment and exercises at Wabank. A parade of thousands from the City was followed by meetings among several notable citizens, prayers, a reading of the Declaration of Independence, speeches, dining of various means, and fireworks for all to enjoy. There was at least one report of “eccentric bowsman” plunging headfirst into the blue waters of the Conestoga from one of the boats.
  • Reported in the late 1850s, The Wrightsville Star says that it is the intention of Mr. Buchanan to take up his quarters and spend the summer at Wabank, a place of some celebrity as a fashionable resort for gentlemen of leisure, on the banks of the Conestoga river, a short distance from Lancaster City. It is also the intention of Mr. Buchanan, on leaving Wabank, to make an excursion to the head waters of Salt River, another “place of some celebrity as a fashionable resort for gentlemen of leisure.” He will take passage in the boat that leaves Wabank of the 4th of November. (Lititz Record Express July 3, 2012) I look forward to comparing notes with local Buchanan experts to confirm this event and the 1855 dinner. Needless to say, Presidents always seem to be magnets of attention. If not always warranted, this attention and documentation does help us decades later to re-connect the dots for other events of the time.
  • As the country was on the brink of Civil War in 1861, a “grand flag-raising and demonstration” was held at Wabank in response to the attack on Fort Sumter.

These stories have been reported and re-reported all too infrequently (i.e. 1904, 1922, 1930, 1963, and 2012). So, I nominate this location as a premier example of a Phantom Place that certainly has a place of honor in Uncharted Lancaster.

Adventure Awaits!

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Purchase a beautiful reproduction map from 1875 or 1899 of Conestoga Township and Manor Township.

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