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Harrisburg: History


Susquehanna River a Crossing for Indians, Europeans

Native Americans occupied what is now Harrisburg as early as 5,000 years ago. The first European contact with Native Americans in Pennsylvania was made by the Englishman, Captain John Smith, who journeyed from Virginia up the Susquehanna River in 1608 and visited with the Susquehanna tribe. The Shawnees, a nomadic tribe, and members of the Algonquin nation came to the Susquehanna Valley from the southwest in the 1690s. The Swedes and the French used the Susquehanna River as a route during their explorations of the Middle Atlantic Region but did not settle there. The Englishman, John Harris, was the first white man to appreciate the region's strategic location. He established a trading post at the site in about 1710 and began ferry service in 1733. After Harris' death in 1748, his son, John, continued his father's liberal policies with the natives so there was considerable settlement of the region by the time of the French and Indian Wars of 1753–58.

Thousands of German settlers were attracted by the rich farmlands, and their industriousness contributed to the region's prosperity. The iron industry became so important that workers were forbidden to leave work to join the militia during the American Revolution unless they had special permission. Following the Revolution, the Pennsylvania state assembly created Dauphin County out of a portion of Lancaster County and directed the establishment of a county seat near Harris's Ferry. They temporarily named the county seat Louisburg in honor of the French king who had been so helpful during the Revolution. But John Harris refused to sell the land for the county seat under these terms, and it was agreed that the new name would be Harrisburg, in honor of his father.

City Becomes State Capital, Transportation Hub

Harrisburg's location on major east-west routes and the importance of the Susquehanna River as a gateway north and south quickly established the city as a business center. At the same time, there was growing sentiment in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania against what were seen as the aristocratic goals of the Federalists in Philadelphia, capital of the United States from 1790 to 1800. When it came time to select a state capital, the choice of Harrisburg became official in 1812.

Stagecoach lines from Philadelphia had reached Harrisburg by 1776. By the 1830s Harrisburg was part of the Pennsylvania canal system and an important railroad center as well. Steel and iron became dominant industries. To the original German settlers were added people from the rest of the nation and immigrants from throughout the Old World, especially Scots-Irish, Welsh, French, and Huguenots. Because farming was still the predominant industry, Harrisburg did not develop in the arts, music, and science as did Philadelphia—the lack of leisure time and concentration of population hindered that development. Settlers in Harrisburg and environs did bring with them aspects of European culture that flourished, including the fashioning of pottery, furniture, glass works, and pewterware, and the use of brass instruments.

Harrisburg's population had grown to more than 13,000 people by 1860, when it was incorporated as a city. Its industrial power played a decisive role in the Civil War, and it also served as a Union Army training center. Harrisburg was the target of a Confederate Army invasion in 1863, but General Robert E. Lee stopped his troops a few miles from the city and ordered them to proceed to nearby Gettysburg, where the battle ensued that was to be the turning point of the Civil War.

Prosperity, Building, Culture Distinguish City

Steel and other industries continued to play a major role in the local economy throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century. The city was the center of enormous railroad traffic and supported large furnaces, rolling mills, and machine shops. The Pennsylvania Steel Company plant, which opened in nearby Steelton in 1866, was the first in the country; it is now operated by Bethlehem Steel. Harrisburg Car Manufacturing Company began as a railroad car manufacturer in 1853; in 1935 the firm changed its name to Harrisburg Steel Company then in 1956 to Harsco, a diversified Fortune 500 company. Many fine schools and churches were built; banks and other institutions were founded. Stately residences were erected overlooking the Susquehanna River. The first three decades of the twentieth century saw the building of high-rise department stores and opulent hotels. A $12.5-million expansion of the state capitol complex was completed in 1906, and many cultural institutions were founded.

Decline Followed by Rebirth

As was the case throughout the industrialized Northeast, Harrisburg began to decline after World War II as residents moved to the suburbs. The decline continued into the early 1980s, when Harrisburg was regarded as one of the most distressed cities in the country. The area's economic troubles were heavily influenced by the nuclear accident at the nearby Three Mile Island power plant in 1979 that resulted in mass evacuations and a loss of billions of dollars. Small amounts of radiation entered the atmosphere, though no deaths were ever attributed to the partial meltdown.

A revitalization spurred by business and industrial development led to residential restoration and new building. During the period 1982–2003, over $3.4 billion in new investment was undertaken in Harrisburg, one of the highest investment rates in the country for a city its size. After 30 years of suburban flight, the city realized its first net population gain in 1995 as thousands of new residents joined a burgeoning "back-to-the-city" movement. Although the population declined by the 2000 Census, Harrisburg, which remains an important transportation hub for every mode of travel, is enthusiastic about its prospects as a rejuvenated city in a stunning natural setting on the Susquehanna River with its abundance of beautiful isles.

Harrisburg boasts a pro-business, reform mayor in Stephen R. Reed, whose initiatives since he took office in 1982 related to economic development, creation of non-tax revenue sources, and the improvement of the operations of local government that have helped to turn around a city that at the start of the 1980s was considered the second most distressed in the nation under the Federal distress criteria. In the period from 1981 to 2003, the city experienced a crime rate reduction of 56.5 percent while the fire rate fell by 76.3 percent. This change put the city in the eleventh spot for "Best Crime Rate in the Nation" on Forbes 2004 Rankings for Performance list. Central business district revitalization has resulted in nearly 9.2 million gross square feet of developed business land in the downtown, or Center City area, figures that led to Inc. magazine's ranking Harrisburg eighteenth on its March 2004 "Top 25 for Doing Business in America" for mediumsized cities.

This growth contributed to a record number of 6,951 businesses in 2005 for the city. According to Mayor Reed, "The City of Harrisburg has become an example of urban resurgence at a time when many of America's cities continue to undergo further decline and serious economic stress. Harris-burg's renewal has been multi-faceted, touching virtually every area of city governmental and community endeavor."

Historical Information: Dauphin County Historical Society, 219 S. Front St., Harrisburg, PA 17104; telephone (717)233-3462; fax (717)233-6059; email hsdc@paonline.com. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, State Museum Bldg., 300 North St., Harrisburg, PA 17120; telephone (717)787-3362


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