“Pennsylvania Alcatraz”: The maximum security prison planned for Mt. Gretna

7 min read5,328 views and 686 shares Posted December 5, 2019

Though unbelievable now, the name of Mt. Gretna might once have been more strongly associated with state penitentiaries than with arts and recreation.

It’s true, however: there were plans in the late 1930s to construct a maximum security prison for Pennsylvania’s criminals in the backyard of the mountain town and the communities of Lawn and Colebrook. The project even began work on-site before it was abandoned in 1939.

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Much of the history of the project and the details of its proposal has been documented by P. B. Gibble Jr., who wrote a booklet on the subject entitled “The Mt. Gretna Maximum State Security Prison: A Monumental Failure.” This booklet is available at the Lebanon County Historical Society and the Mt. Gretna Historical Society.

The vision of a governor and preliminary plans

The story begins with the General State Authority (GSA), a government entity created in 1935 as a workaround for legal prohibitions on accepting federal funds for certain public works projects. Another major figure and promoter of the project was George Howard Earle III, Pennsylvania’s governor from 1935 to 1939.

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Earle described the project as “the greatest program of institutional construction in our history.” Earle, Pennsylvania’s first Democratic governor in four decades, had a lot he wished to accomplish during his term. The Great Depression was afflicting citizens of the nation and Pennsylvania, and Earle was part of a wave of Democratic politicians looking to implement major changes to existing public works and policies.

Pa. Governor George Howard Earle III would play a key role in the Gretna prison project.

Why was a new state prison needed? At the beginning of the project, the reasons for constructing a maximum state security prison were clear: current institutions and facilities were old and inadequate. The new prison would not only serve as an extra organizational location for categorizing prisoners, but it would also provide much-needed jobs to unemployed Pennsylvanians.

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The Mt. Gretna area, which had seen the National Guard depart its encampment several years earlier, was a suitable halfway point between Lancaster and Harrisburg, and large sections of land were already owned by the government. In August of 1937, the GSA announced its plans for the prison, situated right alongside the future route of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Over 736 acres of land from the Department of Properties and Supplies was transferred to the GSA for $1.00, and speculation began as to what effect the prison would have on the surrounding communities.

The Turnpike and Lawn Hill Road. This is along the northwestern edge of the land plot that was meant to be home to the prison. (Joshua Groh)

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The basic design of the prison consisted of three doorless, windowless white concrete towers, each over 30 feet tall and several hundred feet in diameter. The largest of the towers would conceal three dining halls and 592 cells. The second tower would hold offices and medical facilities, and the third would enclose the athletic areas and exercise yard. These apparently separate monoliths would be connected through underground tunnels accessible by elevators.

Around the towers, there was not to be even “a single blade of grass” – a jagged field of limestone would have blanketed the gently rolling slope. A few other buildings (a sewage station, power house, worker residences, and an administrative building) were also to be built. The property would have then been enclosed by a 12-foot barricade of steel mesh.

A map of South Londonderry Township and the prison’s planned location at the intersection of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Lawn Hill Road. (PennDOT)

It’s unclear as to whether the project was met with strong opposition by residents in the area. Gibble cites anecdotal evidence that suggests that the idea was disliked by Mt. Gretna residents, although there appears to be no record of any significant local disapproval in newspaper archives.

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Although the project is consistently linked to Mt. Gretna in references, its actual location would have been closer to the community of Lawn in the southwest corner of the county, alongside the Turnpike. The project was never officially named.

The project falters

Ground broke on the site on Oct. 27, 1938 (incidentally, ground was also broken on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that same day in Carlisle). A well was also constructed, despite initial concerns about finding a reliable source of water.

The forest was cleared and leveled, and some roadwork began. Concrete foundations of certain structures like the sewage plant were made. Work continued for the next several months, seemingly without a hitch.

Part of a large octagonal concrete foundation is visible at the bottom of this image. (Pennsylvania State Archives)
That same foundation can still be found some ways down the game lands road. One of the corners of this structure is pictured here. (Joshua Groh)

Earle, unable to seek reelection for a second term as a governor, eyed a seat in the Senate. But both this aspiration and the project Earle had spearheaded were met with strong opposition: Republicans claimed the Senate seat in 1938 and the Pennsylvania governorship in 1939.

Earle’s successor Arthur H. James targeted the project, suspending work in April of 1939 before ending it completely, as there was no funding in the new budget set aside for completing it. Officials and academics outside the project had questioned the need for the prison at all, believing that it would be difficult to move even 100 prisoners worthy of maximum security to the prison, let alone the nearly 600 that it would have had room for.

The cost of each cell as divided up from the total cost was $6,000, according to Pa. Welfare Secretary E. Arthur Sweeny in a 1941 statement. This was seen as excessive by the James administration, whose stated reason for halting the project was to save money.

The Reading Times, April 13, 1939.

This decision was questioned for several years thereafter. Democratic State Chairman Meredith Meyers, in a response to Sweeny and his suggestion to develop plans for a new prison, claimed that his idea was “three years too late[… it] calls to mind the bare foundations on a broad field in Mt. Gretna, Lebanon County, which have been gathering dust[.]” Meyers further claimed that Earle’s plan would have “fully served the needs of a new penitentiary” and that the James decision was shortsighted.

All told, taxpayers spent nearly $1 million on the project before it was abandoned. Over $3 million was set aside to be used at the start of the project.

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The GSA was abolished in 1945, only to be revived in 1949. Most of its responsibilities were later overtaken by the Pa. Department of General Services, created in 1975. Earle would soon be appointed Ambassador to Bulgaria prior to America’s involvement in World War II, one additional duty in a long, noteworthy career. (In a 1941 meeting with Adolf Hitler, Earle told him “I have nothing against the Germans, I just don’t like you.”)

As for the few concrete ruins of the abandoned prison, they still sit in the now-reforested section of land just southeast of Lawn.

The few concrete ruins that exist on the site are scattered wide, hidden from sight by thick underbrush and brambles. (Joshua Groh)

Decades later, rumors of a new penitentiary swirl

The failure of the project would surprisingly not be the last word on the possibility of a prison in the Gretna area. A plan to build a new 1,000-inmate Eastern State Penitentiary on the same area of state-owned land would be made in the mid 1960s. The GSA again would have been involved in the construction, meant to serve as a replacement for the fearsome old Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

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Arthur Prasse, Pennsylvania Commissioner of Correction, apparently planned this second project to be “unwalled” – fences would have stood in the way of any would-be escapees.

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This security measure was not enough for Gretna residents, who feared that they could “expect to hear a banging on our door in the middle of the night and when we opened it we would see one or more escaped prisoners staring at us,” as Gretna Playhouse operator Gene Otto put it. The community voiced strong opposition, either threatening to move out of the town or worrying that the prison would dissuade business and tourists.

In May of 1967, it was announced that Mt. Gretna was no longer being considered as a location for the planned penitentiary, much to the relief of longtime residents.

This game lands entrance off of Lawn Hill Road might have been the approach to the prison had the project been finished. (Joshua Groh)

It is fascinating to think what might have happened to Mt. Gretna, Colebrook and Lawn if the “Pennsylvania Alcatraz” or the 1960s penitentiary had been constructed nearby. Would Mt. Gretna still be recognized for its cultural institutions and recreational facilities, or would it have been written off as a prison town?

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