The ghost village of Safe Harbor: Born in fire and died by ice

Everyone that knows me knows that I’m sort of a history hunter. I have a great interest in historical landmarks/places, especially those of the abandoned kind or the places now known as ghost towns. Being a native of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I decided to dig deeper into the history of Safe Harbor. Firstly, I’ll take you through some of the history of how Safe Harbor became what it is today, and then I will lead you through a nature trail that allows you to revisit what was once the original Safe Harbor Village that was devastated and destroyed by the 1904 ice flood.

If you visit Safe Harbor Dam today, you will see this sign. It commemorates the Conestoga Navigation Company and the bold venture of turning Lancaster into a port city. Its ambitious goal was to give Lancaster direct access to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other ports. Never mind the fact that Lancaster is 102 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

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 an area of 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.

In 1846, Reeves Abbot & Company from Philadelphia selected the Safe Harbor area to build the Safe Harbor Iron Works. The location for industry was ideal with the downriver navigation and canals on both the Susquehanna and Conestoga Rivers. Construction of the Historic Safe Harbor Village and Iron Works required about two years and production began in August 1848.

Initially Safe Harbor Iron Works was built to produce iron for the thriving Pennsylvania Railroad. The rolling mill was the largest of all the structures, and it’s main building. It covered over an acre of ground and stood on the site of the present Safe Harbor Park’s tennis court. Inside the building, hot slabs of metal were passed between rollers. This action squeezed the iron to a specific thickness in the production of rails for the railroad.

Almost overnight this quiet rural area along the Conestoga transformed into a bustling community. The 250 workers and their 500 family members needed somewhere to live. Reeves Abbot & Company solved the housing crisis by building over 70 duplex frame dwellings complete with a system of arrow-straight streets such as Walnut, Cedar, Spring, Griffin, Willow, and Race.

These houses were occupied by Irish “puddlers,” the nickname for the men who worked in hot conditions to convert molten pig iron into malleable iron. The Philadelphia Company that built the iron works journeyed to Ireland, during its devastating potato famine, and had little trouble recruiting puddlers.

Safe Harbor grew at a feverish pace. Within 20 years, it contained a blast furnace, rolling-mill, foundry, drug store, post office, two general stores, two school-houses, two churches, two hotels, five taverns, three liquor stores, six beer halls, and an Odd Fellows Hall all to support the town’s estimated population of 1,200.

When the Civil War began in 1861, production switched from rails to cannons, specifically Dahlgren guns, for Union forces. Dahlgren guns are muzzle loading naval artillery designed by Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren.

Several weeks before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865, a devastating flood wiped out canal facilities along both the Conestoga and Susquehanna rivers as well as a bridge. Without the plant’s lifeline for supplies and shipping of goods, the plant withered and the village deteriorated.

The Iron Works were finally shuttered and abandoned in 1894. However, the community lingered despite the closing. One of the former manufacturing buildings was converted to a match factory. After that, it housed the machine shop and air compressor station for the contractor that built the Enola Low-Grade Line. 

Only a handful of buildings remain of the historic Safe Harbor village. One of them is the breathtaking iron master’s house, a huge stone mansion wonderfully restored by its current owners. The home actually predates the historic village of Safe Harbor being built in 1725 by Benjamin Eshelman, an early Mennonite settler.

The Odd Fellows Hall is another of the few buildings still standing today in what is now Safe Harbor Park and Arboretum. It has a storied history. It began in 1848 as the Conestoga Lodge No. 334 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The lodge enjoyed a successful existence until the start of the Civil War when many of its members enlisted. After the war ended, its prospects brightened and continued to flourish for another 40 years.

One building not standing today is the Safe Harbor Independent School. The Independent School was built in 1850. Initially, it was part of Conestoga Township until about 1854. Safe Harbor had two one-room schoolhouses. The first was the Safe Harbor School on the Manor Township side of the Conestoga River. The other was the Independent School on what was once East Spring Street. But by 1883 only one school building remained as the other had been destroyed in a storm. To accommodate the loss of the building, classes were held on the second floor of Odd-Fellows Hall in 1882. What remains of the Independent School can be seen today on the blue and white trail, but we’ll get to that shortly.

On what used to be East Spring Street near the top of a hill the woods opens to a clearing. It was here that St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church once stood. This Roman Catholic Church was organized as a part of St. Mary’s Church of Lancaster City, in 1853. The following year the puddlers of Safe Harbor built a stone church to serve the Irish iron workers and their families. By all accounts St. Mary’s was a beautiful stone church with a slate roof that measured 40-by-60 feet with a small, vaulted and semi-circular apse built into the southern wall for the altar. The church was shuttered in 1883 when the parish had shrunk to fewer than a dozen. The building was later sold for salvage in 1917 but remained standing after being gutted. Amid complaints that the structure was crumbling and dangerous, the Harrisburg Catholic Diocese had the structure bulldozed in 1985.

The town’s end did not come until March 1904. That year proved to be an exceptionally cold winter with the Susquehanna freezing solid with ice two feet thick. Spring brought its usual showers, but the river stayed frozen…at first. The heavy rains helped to break up the frozen mass creating great ice flow that marched downriver, getting snagged and instantly damming the river. In some places, the river level rose 10 feet in five minutes. In fact, the March 1904 flooding far exceeded that of Agnes.

Towns along the Susquehanna were erased entirely. Safe Harbor suffered the worst of all. As the ice gorge dislodged from Turkey Point and moved downriver on the afternoon of March 8, the Conestoga River became blocked at its mouth and began to back up.

The 79 homes at Safe Harbor along the Conestoga were smothered in ice the size of icebergs and water that families were forced onto roofs. The stone arch railroad bridge across the Conestoga was hoisted up like a Tinkertoy and dropped into the water a tangled mess. More than three miles up the Conestoga, almost to Millersville, the Rock Hill Hotel was inundated with four feet of water.

Safe Harbor is, in part, a deserted village. Many of the people spent that Tuesday night in a schoolhouse on the hill, while others were cared for by the occupants of the hills above the town and at farmhouses in the neighborhood. The historic village of Safe Harbor might still be there today if it had not been for the winter of 1904.

All the ironwork buildings were razed around 1907, and a few years later in 1913, the hopelessly damaged homes were sold for salvage at $30 apiece effectively bringing an end to the Safe Harbor Iron Works and its town.

In the late 1920’s, strangers appeared in the area with offers to buy property. Rumors quickly spread that some sort of project was in the offing. Newspaper announcements stated that a huge hydroelectric dam was to be built across the Susquehanna at Safe Harbor.

Planning for the construction of the Safe Harbor Dam started in November 1929 with construction beginning on April 1, 1930. It was to be a concrete gravity dam with a total length of 5,000 feet going shore to shore. 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.

Safe Harbor reached its greatest population with 4,000 workers at the height of construction. 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. This exciting period came to an end with the completion of the hydro project and the community became quiet once again.

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.

The dam was not the only construction project-taking place at Safe Harbor in the early 1930s. Just a few hundred yards away, one of the more unique planned communities in the entire county was being built—The Village at Safe Harbor. 

This was to be no shantytown of temporary buildings. The Safe Harbor Power Corporation commissioned architects to design beautiful English Tudor-style buildings along a single street. In total there was 21 brick and half-timber single-family homes, a Bachelor Quarters apartment, and a multipurpose building complete with a ballroom for workers and their families.

During WWII, the Village also temporarily housed U.S. Military troops to protect the hydroelectric plant immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Those troops were not misplaced as Adolf Hitler had Safe Harbor targeted as a strategic point, for at the time it primarily powered the railroads and the city of Baltimore with its ports and industry.

Now that you know some of Safe Harbor’s history I’ll lead you through the blue and white trail that opened without fanfare in 1997, the easy walking, dirt trail through open fields and returning woods passes through what was once the bustling river town of Safe Harbor. It’s now an arboretum with 50 kinds of trees and shrubs. Unfortunately, many of the identifying labels are gone.

Just remember the photos above are of the current Safe Harbor Village comprised of 21 homes built in the 1930s when the Safe Harbor hydroelectric dam was built. The photos that follow are rather, its ghost town of the largely immigrant company town tethered to the Safe Harbor Iron Works, which sprawled across both sides of the Conestoga River from the mid to late 19th century.

While almost all the homes are gone today (a few remain on Main Street, formerly known as Willow Street), scores of indentations from the buildings’ foundations are still visible.

There is plenty of parking by the tennis court where the trail begins. This tennis court is the formal site of the Safe Harbor Iron Works building. I went early on a weekday morning and the park was completely empty. Nearby there is a stone monument with a faded picture of the historic village at Safe Harbor and iron works. This is where the trail begins.

Begin walking uphill on what was once Cedar Street. There is nothing there now but grass and giant trees, many of which were planted around the homes. Blue and white markers mark the trail. Soon, a sign instructs you to make a sharp left.

There on the facing hill is a large stone mansion that once belonged to the “iron master.” The home actually predates the historic village being built in 1725 by Benjamin Eshelman, an early Mennonite settler. Once you reach the hill that the home sits on, the trail turns right. You are now walking along a stone wall that once fronted Spring Street, the village’s main thoroughfare. If you look carefully, you can see the paver stones marking the curbs of the street.

Before entering the woods, on your left, you will see the Odd Fellows Hall built in 1848. Meetings were held every Saturday. It was said that the meeting room on the third floor was finely furnished and could accommodate 200 people. Later the Masons met there from 1871 until 1899. The building even housed classes for the Safe Harbor Independent School District in 1882 until it’s closure.

Can you imagine the clamor of a payday night in buildings like this? 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.

As you enter the woods, depressions off to each side of the trail mark the sites of former homes. There are scores of them through the forest in neat rows. Reeves Abbot & Company, owners of the Safe Harbor Iron Works, built 70 homes to house the 250 workers and their families in this company town. The buildings were duplexes with a shared central chimney that was used for heating and cooking by families on both sides of the house.

Further up, the trail is the site of the Safe Harbor Independent School built in 1850. Originally, Safe Harbor had two one-room schoolhouses. One was the Safe Harbor School on the Manor Township side of the Conestoga River. The other was here. However, the Safe Harbor School was destroyed in a storm before 1883, leaving only the Independent School. All that remains today of the Safe Harbor Independent School are a few foundation stones amid some moss and weeds and a sign with a faded photo of the school.

Continue East on the trail. Eventually, the woods open to a clearing. It was here that St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church once stood. In the far corner of the clearing atop a pedestal of stones salvaged from the walls of the church is a circa 1955 picture of the already abandoned church. It is the only existing photo of the building.

The clearing also has several tombstones; a few are Civil War veterans, while others are victims of shooting and stabbing incidents, and children killed when fires broke out in the crude shantytowns where many of the Italian immigrants lived. Another section of the cemetery contains the unmarked graves of at least 50 Italian immigrants who helped build the Enola Low-Grade Line.

The mounds contain the remains of workers killed during construction — at least 34 workers died during the epic project. There are no markers, save for a memorial plaque and two foundation stones, but the undulations in the ground marking graves are evident on both sides of the walking trail.

As you follow the blue and white trail markers back to the main parking area be sure to look carefully for the old stone foundations of one of the double houses that included a chimney in the center that could be used for heating and cooking by families on both sides of the house. Depressions off to each side of the trail mark the sites of former homes, now sprouting arching trees and tangled with multi flora rose.

Safe Harbor Park is located at 5365 River Rd, Conestoga, PA 17516

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Wander Woman

I'm a Writer/Screenwriter fueled by proponent travel. When I decided to leave the only home I knew the journey grew into a fierce dream to travel and write about the places I explore. My adventures are a constant struggle between fear and courage, but we humans are explorers and pioneers, and we find our inner strength when the end state is the absolute unknown.