Harrisburg: A Brief History

By Jeb Stuart, Harrisburg City Archives

The site of present day Harrisburg has had a long history of human settlement and service as a center of commerce and transportation. It was where long-established paths of the Shawnee and Delaware Native American tribes converged, where the mouth of the fertile Cumberland Valley intersected with the natural passage of the Susquehanna River gaps to the north. It was inhabited by Native Americans for at least 8,000 years before the first European explorers arrived. The Swedish and French first visited this site at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the 1600’s, but no Colonial settlement was made.

Perhaps as early as 1710, Englishman John Harris chose it as the place to establish a trading post and ferry service. Over a half century would elapse before an actual town developed at “Harris Ferry.” In 1785 Harris’ son, John Harris, Jr., 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 and Walnut. Four acres were set aside for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on which it was hoped the state capitol would be located.

In 1785 Dauphin County was carved from Lancaster County, and the Dauphin County seat was established in Harrisburg. For a brief time the town was called Louisburg, but the name Harrisburg became official in 1791.

Harrisburg grew quickly after its incorporation by an act of the state legislature in 1791 because it was a market center and a stop-over for travelers who purchased goods and services. By 1810 the legislature recognized Harrisburg’s growth and strategic location in the state by approving the move of the state capitol from Lancaster to Harrisburg. The first capitol building was completed in 1820 and sat on a hill just north of today’s Capitol Park.

Ferry activity was replaced in 1817 by the first bridge to span the 3,000-foot-wide Susquehanna at Harrisburg. Known as the “Camelback,” the bridge made Harrisburg more accessible to the farmers of Cumberland County. More bridges would follow for rail, pedestrian and vehicle passage, including the Walnut Street Bridge, the oldest steel-span bridge of its type in the nation.

During the Civil War, Harrisburg served as a central location for the assembly and dispatch of many regiments of Union troops. More Union troops were mustered into service at Harrisburg’s Camp Curtain than at any other facility in the Union or Confederacy. Confederate General Robert E. Lee made the taking of Harrisburg a primary objective twice during the war. Confederate soldiers got as close as Lemoyne just across the river in 1863.

The borough’s base of commerce unfolded in the first half of the 19th century with grist mills, saw mills and brick yards along Paxton Creek. The city’s population increased dramatically, growing to 30,762 by 1880. Much of this growth resulted from manufacturing employment and the large number of railroad workers, as Harrisburg became a major rail center.

A fire destroyed the original state capitol building in 1897. With a new building erected on the same site and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the community recognized the need for major public improvements. Harrisburg’s “City Beautiful Movement” was launched, creating massive improvements to the city’s park and public works systems. Completion of the new state capitol also spurred a surge in commercial office, hotel and retail construction in the city’s central business district, giving shape to the city’s skyline of today.

From the 1900’s through the 1930’s, the palatial Penn Harris and Harrisburger Hotels rose, 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 problems that have plagued most U.S. cities since the mid-1950’s, the city’s development now continues to keep pace with its distinction as the seat of government for the Commonwealth.


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