Mystery abounds in Lancaster County, especially the closer you get to the Susquehanna.
Perhaps that’s because the river is so old. Ancient things always seem mystifying. And if the Susquehanna is anything, it’s ancient.
In fact, the Susquehanna is considered the oldest major river system in the world, dating back to the Paleozoic Era (543 to 248 million years ago). There is even evidence that this primordial river predates the formation of the Appalachian mountains.
The most famous mystery object that springs to mind is the Native American petroglyphs below Safe Harbor Dam. They are likely the oldest human-made artifact in Lancaster County and one of the two largest remaining concentrations of rock art in the northeast United States. Their meanings are still unclear. Last week (June 2021), I had a once-a-year opportunity to venture out to see the petroglyphs during a scheduled water drawdown in search of additional carvings as Holtwood was performing some safety projects. You can read about it here.
Another mystery object is the recently rediscovered Royal Arch Purple upstream from Vinegar Ferry Road near Marietta. The marking belongs to a secret Protestant fraternal organization predominantly based in Northern Ireland. It is unknown why it is in the middle of the river along an old ferry route crossing. You can read more about it here.
Buried Treasure or Hidden Mine?
A lesser-known mystery rock a short distance from the Susquehanna can be found at Safe Harbor near the mouth of the Conestoga. If the year carved into the surface is to be believed, it dates back to 1879.
I first learned of its existence a few years ago while reading Earl Rebman’s book, Conestoga River Watershed. Rebman only devotes a single page of his 212-page book to this mystery rock, but that was more than enough to pique my interest.
Just read the photo’s caption:
Mysterious carvings buried deep in the woods on a huge rock outcropping near the Boulevard. What does the hand point to—buried treasure or a hidden mine—could pirates have possibly traveled this far upstream to bury their loot—who will be the one to discover the answer?
Buried Treasure! Hidden Mine! Pirates!!! Sign me up.
I knew instantly I wanted to be the one to unlock its secrets. The first challenge was figuring out where the enigmatic stone was hiding. A blurb about it on the Conestoga Area Historical Society website, similar to Belloq, had me looking in the wrong place.
After a year of looking, I got a tip that I needed to “take back one kadam to honor the Hebrew God” and found it.
Here are a series of photographs I have taken of the boulder trying to highlight its various carvings. A second comparison photo with digital enhancements has been included as well.
The easiest part to read with letters that are well over 12 inches tall is the F.S. 1879. The most apparent meaning is that someone with the initials of F.S. carved this in 1879. However, upon closer inspection, there are dots after both the 8 and the 9. So it really reads F.S. 18.79.
The F and S also have a lot of detail work with crosshatching filling in the letters.
Above it, written with slightly smaller letters, is J.K. 18.79. Again, with the peculiar pips after the 8 and the 9.
Below the “dates” are a trio of symbols. The first is a hand pointing in the direction of the Conestoga River. A compass reading taken next to the hand indicated a directional heading of 231° SW. Curious. What is it pointing towards?
The second symbol appears to be a pair of stone cutting tools: hand hammer and hand chisel. The hammer was easy to identify, but the chisel was more difficult. For a while, I thought it was a capital letter I. However, I watched a movie one night, and a logo similar to this popped up with the name stonecutters. A quick Google search of stone-cutting hand chisels confirmed it. The inclusion of stonecutting tools would appear to strengthen Rebman’s hidden mine theory.
I omitted the third symbol as it is the answer to one of the clues on the Slackwater Navigation Adventure.
There are other carvings, but they are more difficult to read. One of them is this 1231 with the initials D.B. beneath it. But that’s just a guess. I’m not totally sold on the second digit being a 2. Your thoughts?
If the second digit is actually a 7 or 8, then the D.B. might mean date of birth. A google search of D.B. offered the following suggestions of double, debt, dead body, daybook, and dropbox. A mystery for sure.
The most difficult carving to see is a person’s head located to the left of the J.K. initials. It’s a shady location, and I’ve struggled to get a photo with good contrast that shows it well.
My gut tells me it’s supposed to be a Native American, and the man is wearing something on this head, perhaps a feathered warbonnet. Maybe not, though. At the very least, it’s a person’s face. No promises that something from the 1870s is politically correct.
Rebman’s mention of buried treasure isn’t completely crazy. Newspaper reports from 1870—nearly a decade before the carved dates on the stone—detailed how treasure hunters were looking for hidden riches somewhere around the village of Safe Harbor. As a point of reference, the boulder is very close to the former town’s location.
Over a two-year period beginning in 1870, the Lancaster Intelligencer and The Columbia Spy ran four articles reporting the treasure hunting exploits centered in the Safe Harbor and Marticville area. While the origin and the actual treasure changed over time, their conviction in finding it did not.
According to one loose-lipped treasure hunter, a fortune teller in Columbia had shared the uncanny story of the gold’s origin and its final resting place with the intrepid adventurers. The $4 million treasure had been taken from the French army by local Native Americans in the chaos that ensued during the French and Indian War.
Of course, no proper buried treasure story would be complete without a supernatural component. This prize was no different. Allegedly, the treasure was guarded by a seven-foot-tall “Indian Spirit” who moved the cache nightly, increasing the difficulty of locating it.
Interestingly enough, a short distance away was Conestoga Indian Town. This was the site of the first in a two-part raid that wiped out the Conestoga in 1763. Could the Paxton Boys, in addition to seeking revenge, been looking for gold? You can read more about it here.
As with any good mystery, it is all open to interpretation. What do you think it?
Where to find it
If you want to discover these curious carvings’ hidden whereabouts, you must complete the Slackwater Navigation Adventure. Its hidden location is revealed while on the expedition.