Historical Society Highlights: Possible origin of how Safe Harbor acquired its name

Historical Society Highlights

Historical Society Highlights is an opportunity for various local historical societies to feature a fascinating story from their area as well as any upcoming events. In this inaugural edition, here is the Conestoga Area Historical Society with a story about the possible origin of how Safe Harbor acquired its name from their president, John Stehman.

1851 map of the Safe Harbor area

The majority of the information was taken from the November 1952 issue of Hydro Hi-Lines. Hi-Lines was a bi-monthly, 12-page publication for Pennsylvania Water and Power Company employees, Safe Harbor Water Power Company, and the Susquehanna Transmission Company. Folks are generally aware of the more romantic definition that Safe Harbor means exactly that; a harbor to provide safety for ships. But, according to the Corporate Finance Institute, it is also a term used in business and law; “a provision in law or regulation that affords protection from liability or penalty or reduces liability if certain conditions are met.” When you look into this further, it seems like they write these “safe harbors” in contracts to protect an individual, for example, a CEO, from being held accountable for a bad decision.

Back to our Safe Harbor. After they checked old deeds in the Safe Harbor Property Department files, researched the Lancaster History archives, the Courthouse, the Orphan’s Court, and newspaper records, it was found the name dates back to the early 1800s.

There are two theories. The first theory involves William Penn and sounds a bit far-fetched. According to Dr. Herbert C. Beck, noted Lancaster County historian and also the writer of the article about the Conestoga horse that provided the information for the winter newsletter article on the horse, suggests Penn bought up the 16,000 acres of Manor Township with the idea of establishing a city to rival Philadelphia. He also suggested Penn planned on cutting a channel up the Susquehanna to a “safe harbor” in the Conestoga for shipping.

I have no idea how they would have managed that in the 1700s. It could be Penn really did not understand the lower end of the river as he did not spend much time in this area.

Theory number 2 makes more sense.

It is thought that the rafters running down the river, after the treacherous journey past Columbia and around Turkey Hill, were happy to be able to pull into the calm, placid Conestoga River: their “safe harbor.” There they could catch their breath and visit the many taverns in the area before heading downriver. They knew the next section, below the Conestoga, was just as nasty.

Image courtesy of LancasterHistory.

In the Safe Harbor Property Department files was (in 1952) a will of Valentine Miller, who had patented 140 acres on the Manor Township side at the mouth of the Conestoga. It is where Conestoga Substation and Warehouse Road are today. The property was left to his son Jacob Miller who died in 1810.
In their history of Lancaster County, Ellis and Evans state that Jacob Miller and “Widow Miller,” probably the son and widow of the above-named Jacob, laid out the town of “Millersport.” Ancient deeds and other records bear out the fact that Millersport-latter called “Millport”—was the early name of the proposed settlement.

Later deeds appear for the sale of land in “Millersport,” commonly known as Safe Harbor. Since these follow the first ark and raft trade, which began in 1795, one logically can presume the name change came from the river man who found a harbor for their crafts and refreshments for themselves. In 1811 Israel Nestelroad was operating a tavern there, but the sale of lots and the village’s growth were slow. The name given by its founders refused to stick, and where early deeds used the phrase “Millersport, commonly known as Safe Harbor,” deeds recorded in the middle of the century stated, “Millersport now Safe Harbor.”

1842 map of the Safe Harbor area

In the middle of the 1800s, the village Safe Harbor had the distinction of being one of the “booziest” for its size anywhere in the country, with a population of 1,200 supporting five taverns, three liquor stores, and six beer halls. This was due to the thirsty habits of the ironworkers. People who lived in the area that were not overly concerned about this “honor” noted that five taverns and two liquor stores did a thriving business when the village population was only 200.

The waterman of the day were certainly hardy fellows. Before the hydroelectric projects, the river bottom was visible in places for much of the year. Only during high water was it navigable and only in one way; downriver to the Chesapeake Bay. Efforts were made to try to clear out a channel in 1803 by Henry Latrobe, engineer and designer of the White House. There were unsuccessful attempts to get steamboats upstream.

In 1825 the Lancaster Journal of July 3rd, 1825, reports that “The Susquehanna Steamboat was on Wednesday evening at the foot of Eshleman Sluice.

Yesterday she was expected to reach Safe Harbor at the mouth of the Conestoga Creek.” Apparently, no one bothered to follow up on its progress, as there was no more mention of it. The only real commerce was from the upper reaches of the river downstream to the Chesapeake Bay. They could only run when the water was high, avoiding the rocks, poling from one side of the river to the other to take advantage of what channels there were, and at the end of their trip, the only way to get back home was to walk.
I would bet the walk home included a layover at one of the numerous taverns in Safe Harbor.

Conestoga Area Historical Society

The Conestoga Area Historical Society is a non-profit, volunteer-based organization dedicated to the preservation of the Penn Manor Area history (consisting of the Conestoga Township, Manor Township, Martic Township, Pequea Township, and Millersville Borough) by the exchange of ideas and information, the preservation of resources, and the presentation of historical artifacts from the area through its museum and buildings.

If you would like to learn more about the Conestoga Area Historical Society, visit their website and follow them on Facebook. They are located in Ehrlich Park at 51 Kendig Rd. in Conestoga, PA 17516.

CAHS Upcoming Events

2023 Season
Open Saturdays & Sundays from 1 to 4 pm
April 15, 2023, through December 10, 2023

Opening Day & Spring Fling
Saturday, April 15, 2023, from 10 am to 4 pm

Come join the CAHS for their 2nd Annual Spring Fling! They will have an Egg Hunt for the kiddos, vendors for shopping, activities, and, of course, food!

Fall Harvest Fest
Saturday, September 23, 2023, from 10 am to 4 pm
Sunday, September 24, 2023, from noon to 4 pm

Christmas Candlelight
Saturday, December 9, 2023, from 5 to 9 pm

Closing Day
Sunday, December 10, 2023, from 1 to 4 pm

Support the CAHS by becoming a member. Click here to join.

Historical Society Highlights

Historical Society Highlights is an opportunity for various local historical societies to feature a fascinating story from their area as well as any upcoming events. If you would like to highlight your local historical society with a fascinating story from your area, email me.

Adventure Awaits!

Never miss a new article by signing up for email updates below. Be sure to follow Uncharted Lancaster on Facebook or Instagram for exclusive content.

Learn More

Side Quest: Investigate the ruins of Lock 12

Lock 12 of the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal

Lock 12 is one of the most well-preserved locks of the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal. It paralleled the Susquehanna River for 43 miles between Wrightsville and Havre de Grace, Maryland. It was built between 1836 and 1839 and opened in 1840 for commerce between the greater Harrisburg area and the Chesapeake Bay. The canal carried lumber, coal, iron, and grain bound for Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York until it was abandoned in 1895. Click here to read more.

On this Day in History: Fatal Accident Occurs on the Susquehanna Tidewater Canal

On This Day in History: Fatal 1859 Susquehanna Tidewater Canal accident occurs near Safe Harbor as reported by ‘The Columbia Spy.’ Click here to read the full account.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: