Where Was This?
Let’s start with this name for the mill since the name was affixed to a road. The mill’s location is at the east end of Ranck Mill Road in Lancaster Township, where a tricky S-curve bends around to join with North Conestoga Drive.
Like most mills, its power came from the hydraulic differential between the water upstream from the mill versus what was downstream. That differential is measured in vertical feet, also known as ‘head.’ Dams were an obvious way to increase the head. The more of it you had, the more power you had to drive your machinery.
But, if you had another mill come in too close downstream, then you would lose that lower water elevation. Or if someone diverted water away from your waterway, then that could cause problems for you as well. But, this was a sweet spot with no other mills for quite a distance. The next dam I know of was actually the first City Water Works, remnants that you can still see from the river. That dam is labeled as Swarr’s on the 1824 map image below.
The water flow from the Conestoga was steady, and flooding was only just beginning to occur as the woodlands were all changed over to cultivated fields. However, many other mill dams upstream in the watershed helped to mitigate those peak flows. With moderate sloping hills on either side, dam construction and milling operations were a good fit.
At this particular spot, a very substantial dam was built with two mills, one on each of the banks, 83 acres in total acreage, according to the following advertisement from the February 18, 1814, Lancaster Intelligencer and Journal. I commend it to you for reading in its entirety.
Who were these guys?
Abraham Witmer built that phenomenal nine-arch stone bridge across the Conestoga in the late 1700s. More details in the Bridgeport article. It was beneficial not just for Lancaster’s commerce and connection to Philadelphia but also for the westward expansion past the Susquehanna. If you happen to walk across the bridge today, you will find a stone plaque in his honor. The bridge was replaced in 1933.
John Graff was the grandson of Andreas Graff, who in 1767 built that substantial stone mansion on Ranck Mill Road. It was Andreas’ father, Sebastian, who owned the mill as early as 1758. His mansion was torn down as part of the Walnut Street Extension project, described below. Click here to see more pictures.
Bear in mind that spelling was not really standardized until the early part of the 19th century and names of people seem to be one of the most flexible. So, “Graff” is mostly known today as “Groff” but was also spelled “Graeff” and “Graess” depending on who read what, when, and how they deciphered or updated the spelling. This is important because of the impact of the Graffs on this section of our community.
If you drive on PennDOT’s SR 23 (Walnut Street Extension) on the east side of Lancaster City, that four-lane limited-access highway was not always there. When it was installed in the 1980s, the construction project obliterated and bifurcated Grofftown Road. You can still see parts of it on the map.
Starting at North Broad Street, it extended northeast and then swung down along the Conestoga. I believe that it then rose due north along what we know as Pleasure Road today and up to New Holland Pike at the toll house.
Grofftown Road followed the banks of the Conestoga, as you can see above, and crossed through the westernmost of the arches of the famous railroad bridge. Often framing the second of the City Water Works within one of the arches, Grofftown Road became a photographer’s common destination.
It might be hard to imagine, but Grofftown was actually a village, distinct from the City and depicted on maps and tax records as far back as 1776. Back then, it was home to fifteen families. There were cultivated fields between it and the “hub-bub” of Lancaster. Decade by decade, the City grew, and those fields vanished under streets and homes.
But, let’s get back to the dam and the two mills.
What can you see today?
Today, this location is occupied by Riverdale Manor. One of the mill’s old stone walls appears to have been left standing as a setting for wedding photos.
In the Water
There’s always a riffle here where shallower water is running across the embedded rock. I suspect this is the location of the dam.
Aside from the above-mentioned stone mansion from 1767, there are other stone foundations in the area and some robust sluice-like features right along the river.
Ranck Mill Road itself seems to lie in the same spot as in this map showing the mill still in place.
Then What Happened?
Following that 1814 advertisement, the mills and acreage were sold to Jacob Demuth, who had to rebuild the dam and mill after a disastrous flood in 1842. His rebuilding of the eastern mill to a four-story brick building (80’ x 100’) is pictured here. Samuel Ranck and his family operated both mills from 1842 until 1912. In June of that year, the mill had been demolished, and in September, the dam was removed. The removal may have been due to reported hazardous conditions for canoeists.