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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The "Civilization's Dark Side" Story

Lancaster County Prison in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
It was an ordinary day.  My grandson, Caden, and I are walking around Reservoir Park on East King Street in Lancaster, Pennsyl- vania.  Checked out a pretty neat fountain with a stone lion and just finished walking around the street hockey rink where my youngest son played street hockey for years.  
An old postcard showing the jail.
As we were headed back to the car Caden looked off in the distance and asked what that big castle in the block to the west of us was.  Told him it was Lancaster County Prison and his eyes grew larger the closer we walked toward it.  He noticed the razor wire around the entire perimeter and the very tall stone walls that surrounded the prison.  
Beautiful gate reminds one of a castle.
We hopped in the car and made a circle around the block a few times so he could see exactly how the prison looked.  It was close to 300 years ago that the bigwigs of Lancaster met at John Posthlewait's Tavern, in what was known as Conestoga Township, and ordered the erection of a County Jail.  The County Sheriff, Robert Barber, was told to erect a log Common Gaol (Jail) which he did on his property in nearby Columbia, PA.  
This photograph shows the prison in
the background with a mile marker in
the foreground telling that the prison is
62 miles to Philadelphia by the turnpike.
Year later a new jail was built on the corner of West King (known as High Street at the time) and North Prince Streets in downtown Lancaster.  This jail was of solid stone and completed in 1775.  Then in 1831 the walls of the jail were raised four feet along West King and repairs were made to the interior of the jail.  On January 30, 1849 the Commissioners approved a plan for a new prison to be built by John Haviland from Philadelphia.  A site near the city Reservoir on the Philadelphia Turnpike (also known as Rt. 30E as well as West King St.) was chosen and purchased for $500.  A contract was awarded to Mr. Haviland for jail construction at a cost of $102,000.  The stone used was Cocalico sandstone quarried in nearby Ephrata, PA.  The front of the prison was 200 feet in length, castellated Norman in style and composed of four towers 110 feet tall.  The walls of the prison were to be 22 feet high.  
This photo from 1950 shows three Amish men leaving
the prison after being released.  They were jailed for
not sending their children to high school.
The prison was to house 160 prisoners in 80 cells in two stories of 40 cells each.  The design was almost an exact model of an 18th century castle in Lancashire, England with an arched gateway, large grating of iron bars that was lowered by chains in front of the main entrance.  The old prison at King and Prince was sold and eventually was used as the base for Lancaster's current Fulton Opera House.  The prison was used for the first time on September 12, 1851 and hangings were carried out at the prison until 1912 which has led to numerous ghost stories, even today.  
An old photo taken after the jail opened. The
iron fence, which was removed in the 1920's
can still be seen in this photo.
The prison has been updated a few times since 1851 and has been enlarged with new exterior walls and guard towers and razor wire around the walls and now holds close to 1,000 prisoners.  The last renovation took place 24 years ago and talk is now circulating of either more renovations or a new jail.  Renovations could cost $10 million, but a new jail could cost more that $170 million.  My guess is that Caden and I will have many more chances to pay the prison a visit to view its majestic towers and impressive front gate.  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.

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