September 30: Safe Harbor Dam celebrates 92 years with ‘Fish & Fun’ event

Join me on Saturday, September 30, 2023, at Safe Harbor Dam for a morning of family fun that includes tours inside the 92-year-old megastructure, a fishing derby, food vendors, and educational booths, including Blue Rock Fire Company, Conestoga Fire Company, Lancaster Conservancy, Southern Lancaster County Historical Society, West Shore Wildlife Center, and Uncharted Lancaster.

The free family fishing derby runs from 8 a.m. until 11 a.m., with plant tours beginning at 9 a.m. The last tour will enter the plant at noon. Additional details concerning the fishing derby (register for the fishing derby) and plant tours (register for the plant tour) can be found here.

Safe Harbor Mini-Adventure

I will be running an exclusive one-day-only adventure that will have you exploring various locations within walking distance of Safe Harbor Dam as you learn some of the area’s rich history for fun prizes, including Native American replica arrowheads, wooden nickels, and other booty from the Uncharted Lancaster treasure chest. You can pick up your scavenger hunt paper at the Uncharted Lancaster booth or download this printer-friendly PDF version. If you want to get a jump start on your adventure before September 30, click here.

In addition, I will have photographs of the nearby 1,000-year-old petroglyphs of Safe Harbor on display and historic reproduction maps of the area from the 1800s. On sale will be copies of the 1821 and 1899 maps of Lancaster County, 1875 Lancaster City 4″x4″ Slate Coasters (four-pack), Veterans Memorial Bridge 4″x4″ Slate Coasters (four-pack), and Little Indian Rock Petroglyphs 4″x4″ Slate Coasters (variety four-pack).

Say hi and pick up a free bumper sticker or magnet. I will be happy to answer any of your “dam” questions and be sure to bring your camera because there will be plenty of opportunities to take some “dam” pictures. 😉

Event Details

Saturday, September 30, 2023, from 8 a.m. to noon at 1 Powerhouse Road, Conestoga, PA 17516, Hosted by Brookfield Renewable. Click here to register online for free and for full event details.

Tour Guidelines

  • All registrants must complete a waiver when registering online or sign a waiver on the day of the event.
  • No open-toed footwear. No sandals or flip-flops. Sturdy-soled shoes or sneakers are preferred.
  • No handheld infants.
  • A responsible adult must accompany all children.
  • Tour guides and routes must be followed at all times.
  • Tours are first come, first serve. The last tour will enter the plant at noon.

Click here for more information and to register online for free.

Where to Go

Displays and food can be found at 1 Powerhouse Road, Conestoga, PA, near the dam. Free parking is available just a short walk away from Safe Harbor Park. There will be plenty of signs and staff on-site to help direct traffic.

A Brief History of Safe Harbor Hydroelectric Dam

In the late 1920s, strangers appeared in the area of Safe Harbor with offers to buy large chunks of property. Rumors quickly spread. Soon, the newspaper announced that another massive hydroelectric dam would be built in the area. Safe Harbor was to be the last of three Great Depression-era public electrification hydroelectric dams on the Susquehanna.

Safe Harbor Dam

At 464 miles long, the Susquehanna is the longest river on the East Coast of the United States that empties into the Atlantic Ocean, traveling from Cooperstown, New York, to Havre De Grace, Maryland. It drains more than 27,000 square miles (including roughly half of the state of Pennsylvania) and is the single largest source of fresh water flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, the broad, shallow waters make the Susquehanna the longest, non-commercially navigable river in the country. But the 1,180-foot elevation change between its headwaters in Cooperstown and the Chesapeake Bay makes it ideal for hydroelectricity.

The oldest of the still operational lower Susquehanna dams is the Holtwood Dam, constructed between 1905 and 1910. Originally called McCalls Ferry Dam, it was later renamed in honor of two Pennsylvania Water & Power Company executives.

Holtwood Dam

The second is the Conowingo Dam, near Conowingo, Maryland, built between 1926 and 1928. It is one of the largest non-federal hydroelectric dams in the U.S.

Conowingo Dam

Planning for the construction of the Safe Harbor Dam started in November 1929, with construction beginning on April 1, 1930. It was a concrete gravity dam with a total length of 5,000 feet going shore to shore. The project cost $30 million (or $445,968,421 in today’s money), with nearly $10 million paid as wages to local laborers. The massive construction project benefited 4,000 workers who all needed jobs amid the Great Depression. Most of the men lived in temporary shelters in the ravines surrounding Safe Harbor.

Not everyone appreciated the population influx from this well-paying employment opportunity. Residents of Safe Harbor sent a petition to the district attorney charging, “bootleg whiskey is being sold openly and freely, and that gambling is rampant.”

The irony of the petition was probably lost on the local residents when, just 79 years earlier, in 1851, Safe Harbor was known as one of the “booziest” towns anywhere in the county with its five taverns, three liquor stores, and six beer halls.

Part of the crusher plant located adjacent to the quarry provided the stone for the dam’s cement.

Being a concrete structure, the project was going to need a lot of crushed gravel. Luckily, the required raw materials were found just one mile east of the construction site. Several nearby hillsides were gouged of rock, and a crusher plant was built adjacent to the quarry to process the stone. Some 2.3 million cubic yards of rock were excavated for the project. The support structures for the old rock crusher are still visible today.

Stone crusher supports

A short-line railroad system ran next to the stream at the bottom of the ravine from the rock crusher to transport the stone to the worksite. Short sections of the railway are also still visible today.

Support structures for old rock crushers used to make cement.

The dam was completed and closed its gates for the first time on September 29, 1931. Power generation began shortly after, on December 7, 1931. With the completion of Safe Harbor, it could output 265,000 horsepower and, when combined with Holtwood’s 180,000, constituted one of the most significant hydroelectric developments on this continent at the time. Today, Safe Harbor generates 422.5 megawatts, 230 MW at Holtwood and 548 MW at Conowingo. As a point of reference, the Hoover Dam can produce over 2,000 megawatts of capacity.

Adventure Awaits!

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Safe Harbor Archives: Native American Discoveries

#502: Ancient Algonkian warrior found near Shenks Ferry.

In the early 1930s, Donald Cadzow led an archaeology team to survey the areas that would be affected by the rising waters of the Holtwood and Safe Harbor dams. He likely took these three photos recently rediscovered in the Safe Harbor archives. Click here to read more.

Armchair Explorer: Inside the Bowels of Safe Harbor Dam

The view from inside Safe Harbor Dam.

I got an early Christmas present this year when a friend gave me what felt like a VIP behind-the-scenes tour of Safe Harbor Dam. I’ve been there many times before, but it’s been more than a decade since I was last inside. Here are three big observations for me:

  1. It’s a HUGE cavernous space. So LARGE it nearly gives you a sense of vertigo.
  2. The dam was once home to the second-longest elevator in Lancaster County, beaten only by the Griest Building.
  3. 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.
    Click the link to learn more and see additional images.

Click the link to learn more.

LiDAR imagery of Safe Harbor reveals razed ghost town

Prepare to have your mind blown because I recently gained access to LiDAR imagery of Lancaster County. So grab your magnifying glasses 🔍 fellow armchair explorers, as we explore the razed ghost town of Safe Harbor. Click the link to read more.

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