Armchair Explorer: Inside the Bowels of Safe Harbor Dam

Christmas came early for Benton Webber and I when a friend gave us what felt like a VIP behind-the-scenes tour of Safe Harbor Dam on December 23. I’ve been there many times before, but it’s been more than a decade since I was last inside.

A couple of things stand out. First, it’s a HUGE cavernous space. According to Wikipedia, the dam is 4,869 feet long. So big it nearly gives you a sense of vertigo. For this reason, you can find bicycles strewn around the facility to decrease travel time. You can see several in one of the images below.

The view from inside Safe Harbor Dam.

The dam is seven stories tall and not just figuratively but with an elevator going to an actual seventh floor where the control room is. I was not allowed to take pictures inside the control room for security purposes. However, this photograph of the control room at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Massachusetts has the same color scheme and a similar layout as Safe Harbor. It gives you a good idea of how the room looked.

This is not the control room at Safe Harbor, but it looked similar-ish to the one at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant.

Second, the dam was once home to the second-longest elevator in Lancaster County, beaten only by the Griest Building (third image below). The first image below was taken from atop the dam, and it shows the upper end of the now small no-longer-operational elevator. It exited two floors down from where this photo was taken. The photo in the middle is a close-up of the elevator shaft housing accessible at the end of Observation Road that you see in the first image.

The elevator’s could be used as an emergency exit in case of natural disaster or accident. For example, if the Conestoga River flooded or a train wreck along the Columbia and Port Deposit Railroad blocked the entrance to the dam the elevator would be utilized.

Beleive it or not over the years, there have been a few times when the main entrance has not been accessible. Here’s an example from January 29, 1978 when a combination of ice and melting snow caused the highest level of flooding ever seen at Safe Harbor Dam—202.4 feet. It knocked out the electrical generating system at Safe Harbor Dam and forced a complete shut down at Holtwood Dam eight miles downstream.

Don’t worry that the elevator isn’t used any more. There are other (and probably faster) emergency exits from the dam. In fact, there are escape routes on both sides of the Susquehanna. The LiDAR map of the York County side of the dam below highlights one of those exits. Just look for the zig zag trail in red.

The zig zag trail in red highlights an emergency exit from the dam on the York County side.

Third, the dam is alive. The entire complex has a heartbeat as it generates millions of watts of electricity. When a turbine clicks on, it sends out a wave of vibration that radiates out from the generator. This must be how it feels when the Enterprise jumps to warp.

Here’s a close-up of one of the three 250 ton internal cranes for moving heavy equipment and turbines during times of maintenance.

If you look carefully below the crane in the following photo in the series, there are several of the bicycles I mentioned earlier.

The next photograph was taken from atop the dam looking downstream towards Holtwood. The fish ladder is visible on the left. In an attempt to prevent the spread of invasive species like the Northern Snakeheads, it has not run for two years at the request of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

View from atop Safe Harbor Dam looking downstream towards Holtwood with the fish ladder on the left.

Learn More

If you want to read more about Safe Harbor dam and its history, click here. Plus here’s a great map of the Lower Susquehanna River Historic Region from 1951. It has some outstanding information on it.

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