Uncovering the history of the 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. This location 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.

Drawings of Safe Harbor Iron Works 1880.

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.

Labeled image courtesy of Alex George.

The above advertisement circa 1850 shows the ironworks located in Safe Harbor on the Conestoga Creek being used by the Conestoga Navigation Company canal near the Susquehanna River. The view includes the blast furnace, foundry, and carpenter shop in addition to smaller outbuildings.

Carriages, horse-drawn carts, workers, and a large pile of ore are visible on the property near the canal on which canal boats, including the “Ohio,” travel. Also shown are the drivers following a horse-drawn cart loaded with ore traveling on the canal bank in the foreground.

The partnership between the Reeves and the Abbotts lasted from 1849-1851.

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 used for heating and cooking by families on both sides of the house.

Safe Harbor Village circa 1900.

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.

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.

Rolling Mill floor plan.

It covered over an acre of ground and stood on the present Safe Harbor Park’s tennis court site. 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.

Safe Harbor Rolling Mill was so large it covered over an acre of ground.

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.

John A. Dahlgren standing next to a 50-pounder Dahlgren rifle aboard USS Pawnee, 1865.

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 breach 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 that became their most identifiable characteristic.

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3 thoughts on “Uncovering the history of the Safe Harbor Iron Works

  1. Hiya, this history is frickin amazing! I’m writing an essay about ghost towns, can I ask where you got your sources from so I can back it up to my teacher? Like any museums you visited or something. Thanks so much! Lilz x

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