A few weeks ago, Mr. and Mrs. Scribbler wandered around the Sunnyside peninsula. The peninsula is formed by a large horseshoe bend of the Conestoga River at Lancaster City’s southern end. We were searching for any sign of a trail along the water.
It was a futile journey into the wild undergrowth of one of this area’s most neglected natural features. So much could have been done with Sunnyside, if only those who had a vision to develop it as something more than the spacious site of a jail for juveniles had not been ignored.
The recent news that the present board of commissioners has selected a farmed site in a Conestoga River loop just southwest of Sunnyside to build a new adult prison begs comparison. Among other changes, a huge lockup built at that location will permanently alter the view from Indian Rock in Lancaster County Central Park.
Tradition claims that Sunnyside a century ago was similar to Mount Gretna, Lebanon County — that is, a charming summer retreat for those who could afford to maintain a second home a little over a mile from Penn Square.
The peninsula deteriorated during the Depression and its southern end became a “shacktown.” Some residents lived in old railroad boxcars. Sunnyside remained a marginal community from the 1930s until the city finally extended water and sewer to the area in the late 1980s.
For a few years, it seemed as if Sunnyside had a chance to progress.
Unfortunately, Lancaster County owned the upper two-thirds of the peninsula and the county commissioners decided to overbuild the juvenile detention center smack in the middle of that land. That project, as the late David Schuyler wrote in “A City Transformed,” a history of redevelopment in Lancaster, “may have sealed Sunnyside’s fate.”
The detention center and its expansive grounds, along with a nearby abandoned quarry, all but ruined the peninsula for further development. To its credit, Community Basics, a nonprofit developer, spent two decades trying to provide an affordable housing project on what was left. That idea finally died in 2019.
The trail plan collapsed with the Community Basics project, says Michael Domin, the county’s principal planner. Lancaster city will launch a new parks and recreation plan in a few months, and Domin hopes the trail will become part of it.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he says. “It has a chance to tie into a much larger trail network with the Williamson area of County Park and more.”
This column on Sunnyside and its failed trail has been prompted not only by the Scribblers’ hike, but also by an email from Scott Myers. Myers, who now lives in Lutz, Florida, lived with his family in Sunnyside from his birth in 1947 until 1955. From his description of the place, he might have been living in Appalachia.
“I remember,” he writes, “that we had an outhouse. I remember our only source of heat was the kitchen stove. I remember that we would take baths in the kitchen in a big metal tub, with hot water provided by a tea kettle on the stove. I remember that we had a dirt cave right off the living room and had a big barrel outside to collect rain water.”
Myers recalls walking over to Williamson Park and bringing home drinking water from a spring (now closed) in a Radio Flyer wagon.
Myers does not lament the deprivations of his youth. Sunnyside was not “sunny” — he is clear about that — but it was the way he and his neighbors lived at that time and he expected nothing different.
Conditions have improved for those who live in the modest homes on the southern end of Sunnyside today. But prospects for the peninsula as a whole are limited. Opportunities have been squandered. What a loss.
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes "The Scribbler'' column every Sunday. He welcomes comments and contributions at firstname.lastname@example.org.