Harrisburg: A Brief History

By Jeb Stuart

Inhabited by native Americans for at least eight thousand years before the arrival of European explorers, the site of present-day Harrisburg has had a long history of human settlement and service as a center of commerce and transportation.

In the 1600s, the Swedish and French first visited this site at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but no colonial settlement was made. Perhaps as early as 1710, however, Englishman John Harris chose it as the place to establish his trading post and later, ferry service. It was where long-established paths of the Shawnee and Delaware tribes converged at a river crossing; a crossing where the mouth of the fertile Cumberland Valley intersected with the natural passage of the Susquehanna River gaps to the north. It was where the surge of westward moving pioneers would follow the ancient tribal paths to ford the Susquehanna that Harrisburg would be born.

John Harris emigrated first to Philadelphia from Yorkshire, England, and later to Lancaster County. As a pioneer, he wished to venture farther west to build a productive life in a new land. Through his Philadelphia contacts, Harris received a land grant of 800 acres, on what is now the site of downtown Harrisburg and part of Shipoke.

Over a half century would elapse before an actual town developed at "Harris Ferry." In 1785, John Harris, Jr., Harris’ son, and William Maclay, Pennsylvania’s first U.S. senator, planned a village just north of the ferry crossing. The town was similar to the plan of Philadelphia with such familiar street names as Market, Chestnut, Walnut and Pine. In doing so, four acres of land were set aside for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on which it was hoped the state capitol would ultimately be located. Also in 1785, Dauphin County was carved from Lancaster County and the county seat was established in the new settlement of today’s Harrisburg. For a brief time after the new country was formed, the town was called Louisburg, but the name Harrisburg became official and final in 1791.

Harrisburg grew quickly after its incorporation by Act of the State legislature in 1791, mainly due to being a market center for surrounding rural areas and a stop-over for travelers who purchased goods and services. In 1794, Theophile Cazenove, a Frenchman traveling in Pennsylvania, wrote of Harrisburg: "This city is one of America’s little phenomena, in the matter of rapidity of its rise. There are about a thousand lots and already 300 houses neatly built in brick or logs and mortar, two stories high …. 32 taverns and eighteen merchants keeping in their stores European merchandise."

By 1810, the State Legislature, recognizing Harrisburg’s growth and strategic central location in the state, fulfilled John Harris II’s dream by approving the move of the state capital, once in Philadelphia, from Lancaster to Harrisburg. The move was completed in 1812. The first capitol building, Federal in style, was completed in 1820 and sat on a hill just north of the original four-acre reservation that now comprises Capitol Park. Harrisburg’s long and colorful political history was thus launched as the mecca for the decision-making process that was key in shaping the future directions of the commonwealth and the nation.

The borough’s base of commerce in the first half of the 19th century was also unfolding as evidenced by the establishment of the grist mills, saw mills and brick yards along Paxton Creek (now the Cameron Corridor industrial area and the city’s portion of the New Baldwin Corridor Enterprise Zone), all necessary to meet the demands of an emerging economy. The Paxton Creek area became more industrialized after the establishment in 1826 of the Pennsylvania Canal and in 1837 of the first railroad line that later became the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad. As Paxton Creek represented a low-lying secondary waterway running parallel to and as a tributary of the Susquehanna River, transportation systems evolved along its course, spurring industrial growth there rather than on the main bank of the river.

This resulted in Harrisburg’s ability to retain and develop a magnificent riverfront that by the turn of the 20th century would become the initial focus of Harrisburg’s "City Beautiful Movement." Front Street, along the river bank, was Harrisburg’s most prestigious street from the very beginning. The mansion house of John Harris II, with its earliest part dating from 1740, and now open to the public as a splendid museum, was on what became the south end of Front Street. This set the trend of early Pennsylvania governors and Harrisburg’s "first families" living in elegant Front Street residences, many of which survive today. The present Govenor’s residence is at North Front and Maclay Streets.

As the borough continued to develop, ferry activity was replaced in 1817 by the first bridge to span the 3,000-foot-wide Susquehanna at Harrisburg. Known as the "Camelback" (site of the present-day Market Street Bridge) due to its arched appearance between piers, the bridge, which was also a covered bridge, made Harrisburg more accessible to the farmers of Cumberland County, across the river, resulting in increased commerce for the area. More bridges would follow and be replaced over time for rail, pedestrian and vehicle passage. Among the most famous, the eastern span of which is preserved today, is the iron-trussed Walnut Street Bridge, constructed in 1888 to break the toll monopoly enjoyed by the Camelback. The Walnut Street Bridge, first known as the People’s Bridge because of its low toll, survives the Camelback as the oldest bridge on the Susquehanna and the oldest steel-span bridge of its type in the nation. By the mid-19th century, Harrisburg had its own water system, reservoir, pump house and gas company. Iron and steel-making plants were established along Paxton Creek providing materials to other Harrisburg factories for the manufacture of railroad cars and steam boilers. This industrial growth resulted in the boom of residential construction and population that lead to Harrisburg’s incorporation by an Act of the State Legislature as a city in 1860.

During the Civil War, Harrisburg, because it was the state capital and located only 40 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, served as a central location for the assembly and dispatch of many regiments of Union troops. Camp Curtin, named for Pennsylvania’s wartime governor, was located in today’s uptown Harrisburg. More Union troops were mustered into service at Camp Curtin than at any other facility in the Union or Confederacy. Confederate General Robert E. Lee twice made the taking of Harrisburg and Camp Curtin a primary objective. The first effort was in September, 1862, but ended with the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in U.S. history, with Confederate troops returning to Virginia. The second campaign was in June of 1863. The Confederates came close to invading Harrisburg and ventured as far as Bridgeport (now called Lemoyne), located just across the river. The northern-most fight of the war occurred at Sporting Hill and Oyster Point, just 2.5 miles from the city. Instead of Harrisburg, however, the South met the bulk of the Union troops at nearby Gettysburg, and the pivotal battle of the Civil War ensued on July 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Although Harrisburg was not taken, its importance in the war is recognized to this day as a focus for Civil War enthusiasts and living history reinactors and is now honored by the establishment of the National Civil War Museum in the city, the largest museum in the world, focused on the Civil War and the only one to include both Union and Confederate artifacts and to comprehensively cover the periods before, during and after the conflict.

The city’s population dramatically increased from 1860 to 1880, growing from 13,405 in 1860 to 23,104 in 1870; and to 30,762 in 1880. Much of this growth resulted not only from increases in manufacturing employment but also from the large number of railroad workers, as Harrisburg was now a major rail center. By 1891, streetcars were electrified, allowing easy passage to outer areas that were gradually annexed into the city. These annexations became more numerous and occurred well into the 20th century as subdivision plans were filed.

One of the most important events that occurred in Harrisburg’s history was a fire that destroyed the original state capitol in 1897. With plans drawn for a new capitol, erected on the same site and completed and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1906, the community recognized the need for major public improvements throughout the city. Hence, what became known as the "City Beautiful Movement" was launched in Harrisburg in the first years of the new century, involving massive expansion of improvements to the city’s park and public works systems. These included the construction of the famous river wall steps that line the waterfront, erection of a water filtration plant, extensive street paving projects, damming of the Susquehanna River for sanitary purposes and enhanced recreational opportunities, a long range master plan for design of the State Capitol Complex, and numerous water, sewer and other infrastructure improvements, nearly all of which exist today. Only since 1982 has Harrisburg experienced a similar period of extensive improvement efforts and development, which continues now.

Completion of the new state capitol also spirited a surge in commercial office, hotel and retail construction in the city’s central business district giving initial shape to the skyline of today. During the first decades of the 20th century such early high-rises as the Telegraph, Union Trust and Kunkel buildings presented office space for lease showing the advent of service-oriented industries in a new era. Department stores such as Bowman and Co. and Dive, Pomeroy and Stewart grew from modest storefronts into classy downtown edifices and destination points from miles around.

During the early part of the 1900s through the 1930s, the palatial Penn Harris and Harrisburger Hotels rose to grace the edges of Capitol Park; the State Capitol Complex continued to expand northward; Bellevue Park, central Pennsylvania’s first planned community, was developed; new high schools were completed; and important cultural institutions, such as the Harrisburg Symphony and Harrisburg Community Theater, were founded. Although Harrisburg suffered from many of the urban problems that started in the mid-1950s and have plagued most cities since, the city’s achieved and projected development now continues to keep pace with its distinction as being the Commonwealth’s seat of government.

Now in the 21th century, reflection upon the historic factors which have cumulatively shaped the Harrisburg of today gives additional insight to how the city will continue to grow and mature.