Towards the end of the Great Depression in 1937, rumors circulated that a “new maximum security prison” was to be built near Mt. Gretna in Lebanon County. Project architect Henry Hornbostel described it this way:
“The prison will be the first innovation in design in penitentiaries since Cherry Hill [Eastern Penitentiary] was built in Philadelphia 100 years ago. Gretna will be a maximum security prison, practically escape-proof and practically riot proof.”
The Depression-era super max penitentiary would contain 592 cells constructed using a vitrified material to blunt any prison-made chisel. If a prisoner could somehow tunnel through a wall, the cells were laid out back-to-back and side-to-side, so any attempted escape would lead to another cell.
Apparently, Hornbostel had already seen the 1994 movie, The Shawshank Redemption.
Prisoners would also be under 24-hour supervision. Guards would walk on top of the cells looking down through a slot in the ceiling of each.
The bulk of the facility was to be dominated by three 33-feet-tall precast concrete towers. The center monolith at 672 feet in diameter would house the prisoners. The two flanking 450-foot diameter structures contained the exercise area and dining rooms. None of the towers would have windows or doors.
The entire complex would be surrounded by a “moonscape” of broken rock with no grass or trees that extended 300 feet beyond the towers in all directions. This, in turn, would be encapsulated inside a 10,000 long, 12-foot high tool resistant steel mesh fence.
Construction began on October 17, 1938, at a groundbreaking ceremony. By spring, concrete footers were being poured, manholes shaped, sewage disposal building was walled, and an octagon-shaped foundation was poured for the water tower.
With the wheels of progress fully in motion, it appeared that nothing could stop the project. But then, newly elected governor Arthur James released his June 1939 budget. A single sentence from his budget address essentially killed the prison, “Nothing is included in the budget for opening the Maximum Security Prison at Mt. Gretna.”
Construction soon stopped, and the prison was never finished.
Little remains today. What does is slowly being overtaken by the forests of State Game Lands 145.
Learn more about the prison including seeing the site with an overlaid LiDAR map here.
Planning Your Visit
You can find the remains of Mt. Gretna Maximum Security Prison in State Game Lands 145. You can access grounds from this parking lot along Lawn Hill Road highlighted in the Google Map below.
A short walk up the trail on the right, you can find the first piece of prison ruins. It is a small foundation for one of the support buildings. It was likely part of the nearby water tower system.
A few feet away on the trail on the left, you can find the largest piece of the remains—the octagon-shaped water tower foundation.
Further up the trail on the right, you can find this row of candy cane looking pieces of rebar. It has a slight curve, which makes me wonder if it was destined to be one of the three giant towers.
Keep in mind that hunting is permitted on State Game Lands, and you should wear orange if you visit.
Todd Bainbridge provided these two aerial photos of the prison from May 10, 1940. They show how far construction proceeded before funds ran out.
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