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Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

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Harrisburg is the capital city of Pennsylvania and the county seat of Dauphin County.

Official Website

Early Settlement

The site along the Susquehanna River in which Harrisburg is located is thought to have been inhabited by Native Americans as early as 3000 BC. Known to the Native Americans as "Peixtin," or "Paxtang," the area was an important resting place and crossroads for Native American traders, as the trails leading from the Delaware to the Ohio and from the Potomac to the Upper Susquehanna intersected there. 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 Algonquian 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 here.

In 1719, John Harris, Sr., an English trader, settled here and 14 years later secured grants of 800 acres in the vicinity. The same year, Harris was granted a license to operate a ferry, and the place was long afterwards known as Harris's Ferry. In 1785, John Harris, Jr., made plans to lay out a town on his father's land, which he named Harrisburg. In the spring of 1785, the town was formally surveyed by William Maclay, who was a son-in-law of John Harris, Sr. The following year, the city was temporarily renamed Louisburg in honor of Louis XVI, who had been helpful during the American Revolution. However, John Harris refused to sell the land for the county seat under those terms, and it was agreed that the new name would be Harrisburg in honor of his father.

A noted gathering of anti-Federalists, the Harrisburg Conference (or Convention), met here on September 3, 1788, to deliberate on the new Federal Constitution. The meeting was well attended and adopted resolutions carrying 12 amendments to the constitution to be presented for action to the Pennsylvania legislature in form of a petition, but the petition was never formally presented.

In 1791, Harrisburg became incorporated and was named the Pennsylvania state capital in October 1812. The cornerstone for the new capitol building was laid in 1819 by Governor William Findlay.

19th Century

During the first part of the 19th century, Harrisburg was an important stopping place along the Underground Railroad, as escaped slaves would be transported across the Susquehanna River and were often fed and given supplies before they headed north towards Canada. The assembling of the Harrisburg Convention in 1827 led to the passage of the high protective tariff bill of 1828. In 1839, the Harrison-Tyler ticket was nominated at Harrisburg. By the 1830s, Harrisburg had become part of the Pennsylvania canal system and an important railroad center as well, with Steel and iron the dominant industries. People from the rest of the nation were added to the original German settlers, along with immigrants from throughout the rest of 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, unlike Philadelphia. In 1860, Harrisburg was chartered as a city.

Steel and other industries continued to play a major role in the local economy throughout the latter part of the 19th century. The city was the center of a large amount of 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 and was later operated by Bethlehem Steel. Harrisburg Car Manufacturing Company began as a railroad car manufacturer in 1853, and in 1935, the firm changed its name to Harrisburg Steel Company.

Underground Railroad

Black people gravitated from farms in and around Dauphin County, Pennsylvania and from Virginia and Maryland. Some were runaways and some were freed by manumission. Starting in 1817, churches and schools were established by blacks, and sometimes with donations from local white people. Harrisburg was an inviting place to settle because there were opportunities for unskilled jobs. It also made it possible for them to be part of a black community where they would be one of many, could have a social life, and find spouses. It it also provided opportunities for education, including a school for black children that was established by Thomas Dorsey. There were 900 free blacks by 1850, and nearly 1800 by 1860.

In 1836, an anti-slavery society was formed. Delegates went to Philadelphia where the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1837. Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison were invited to Harrisburg to speak in from of the courthouse.

The American Colonization Society auxiliary was formed, with the goal of having blacks emigrate to Africa. Beginning in 1820, some of the city's residents sought to control blacks by having a citizen's patrol, requiring all blacks to register with the city, and harassing them in the press and by gangs of white people.

It was close to the Mason–Dixon line, that separated the slave states from the free states, and there were many routes through the city. Roads, canals, ferries, and the railroad provided a number of ways that people could move through the area. These routes led north to New York and east to Lancaster and Philadelphia. It was also an important hub because of the number of free blacks that helped runaways.

Shelter was found in homes of free blacks, like the house of a schoolteacher Joseph Bustill and a merchant and physician, William Jones. Tanner's Alley, at Walnut and Commonwealth streets, was a center of Underground Railroad activity. The Wesley Union African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was a station on the UGRR.

Involvement with the Underground Railroad was inherently dangerous, but even more so for Harrisburg because it was near the border between the slave and free states increased the risk, such as from slave catchers.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it more dangerous to assist runaways and it made it much more dangerous for slaves and free people. Slave catchers could enter free states and expect assistance from law enforcement, regardless of how long and how settled they were in a free state. It also meant that conditions existed so that free people could be enslaved. People who would kidnap blacks knew that it was very hard for a free person to prove that they were free. Such situations were frequently reported by newspapers after 1850, such as the Francis Johnson v. John W. Deshazer court case of Francis Jackson, a free man from New Castle, Pennsylvania who was taken across state lines and sold into slavery.

Some of its residents were abolitionists and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was the site of a Pennsylvania antislavery convention in 1837.

Civil War

Harrisburg was a significant training center for the Union Army, with tens of thousands of troops passing through Camp Curtin. It was also a major rail center and a vital link between the Atlantic coast and the Midwest, with several railroads running through the city and over the Susquehanna River. As a result of this importance, it was a target of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia during its two invasions. The first time during the 1862 Maryland Campaign, when Lee planned to capture the city after taking Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, but was prevented from doing so by the Battle of Antietam and his subsequent retreat back into Virginia.

The second attempt was made during the Gettysburg Campaign and was more substantial. Two full divisions of Richard S. Ewell's Second Corps approached Harrisburg in June 1863 from the southwest through Cumberland County, while a third division under Jubal Early planned to cross the Susquehanna River at Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, and attack Harrisburg from the rear. In response, Union Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch, commanding the Department of the Susquehanna, dispatched troops to the present day borough of Camp Hill, located in the Cumberland Valley approximately two miles west of Harrisburg. Laborers hired by Couch quickly erected earthworks and fortifications along the western portion of Bridgeport, adjacent to Camp Hill. The two largest of these became known as "Fort Couch" and "Fort Washington."

On June 29, two Confederate cavalry companies attacked Union militia positions around Oyster Point, but were driven back with two wounded. This allowed officers from Ewell's staff to get a view of Harrisburg's fortifications from what is today the Drexel Hills development of New Cumberland. Based on their information, Ewell prepared for an attack but that same day Lee ordered Ewell to pull back. Lee had recently discovered that the Union Army of the Potomac was closer than he thought and desired to concentrate his forces near the South Mountain range to parry oncoming Union forces, a move that culminated in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Ewell left two cavalry units behind at a place known as Sporting Hill, on the west side of Camp Hill. Brigadier General William F. Smith, commanding the 1st Division of the Department of the Susquehanna, sent two militia infantry regiments and a cavalry company to locate the Confederates. The two forces collided the next day, fighting a short skirmish at Sporting Hill before the Confederates withdrew. This is considered by many to be the northernmost battle of the Civil War.

Perhaps the most known Civil War attraction in the Harrisburg area is the National Civil War Museum, located on a large hill in Reservoir Park. The museum features collections of Civil War artifacts, interpretative displays, dioramas, and seasonal or temporary exhibits. Some 390 historic Civil War battleflags are available for tour at the Capitol Preservation Committee's Civil War Flag facility in Harrisburg, along with an interpretive exhibit which highlights the development and use of flags in battle. The site of historic Camp Curtin is marked with wayside markers, as are surviving sections of the defensive earthworks south of Harrisburg in Lemoyne. In nearby Mechanicsburg, a statue of Confederate general Albert G. Jenkins commemorates the cavalry commander. The State Museum in downtown Harrisburg has a modest, but historically significant collection of artifacts, paintings, and war relics.

20th Century

On February 2, 1897, the Capitol was gutted by a fire. Construction of a new capitol was commenced, with an expected budget of $5 to $10 million. However, when it was completed in 1906, the cost had risen to $12.5 million, $4 million of which was for graft. (For example, $850 was spent for a $150 flagpole.) Five people, including the architect and chief contractor, received prison terms. The dedication of the Capitol was held on October 4 and attended by US President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1902, Vance McCormick was elected mayor of Harrisburg as part of the growing City Beautiful movement and immediately set about to improve the city. He expanded the city park system, which eventually included 1,100 acres; built steps along the Susquehanna River, which still exist today; paved seventy miles of roads; and improved the city water system. The city's population increased from 51,000 to 73,000.

The Pennsylvania Farm Show, a major annual agriculture exposition, was first held in 1917 and has been held every January since. The present location of the Show is the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center, on the corner of Maclay and Cameron streets.

On February 14, 1964, the Harrisburg Area Community College (or HACC) was founded as the first community college in Pennsylvania in the former Harrisburg Academy. In March 1965, the City of Harrisburg sold the college 157 acres in Wildwood Park for a permanent campus. Construction of the academic buildings was completed in 1967. HACC now has additional campuses in Lebanon, Lancaster, Gettysburg, and York, besides the main campus in Harrisburg (now called the Wildwood Campus).

In June 1972, Harrisburg was hit by another flood from the remnants of Hurricane Agnes.

On March 28, 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, down the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, suffered a partial meltdown. Although the meltdown was contained and little of radiation was released, there were still worries that an evacuation would be necessary. Governor Richard Thornburgh recommended an evacuation of pregnant women and preschool children who lived within 5 mi radius of the plant. Although only about 5,000 people covered by this recommendation, 140,000 people fled the area.

Center City as it appears from Harrisburg's City Island, Harrisburg's sports and recreation mecca. After Harrisburg suffered years of being in bad shape economically, Stephen R. Reed was elected mayor in 1981 and stalwartly served until his unexpected defeat in 2009 by Linda D. Thompson, which made him the longest-serving mayor of Harrisburg. Once elected, Reed immediately started projects which would attract both businesses and tourists. Several museums and hotels, such as the National Civil War Museum and the Hilton Harrisburg and Towers, were built during his term, along with office buildings and residences. Several semi-professional sports franchises, including the Harrisburg Senators of the Eastern League, the defunct Harrisburg Heat indoor soccer club, and the Harrisburg City Islanders of the USL Second Division, began operations in the city during his tenure as mayor.

21st Century

During the nearly 30-year tenure of former Mayor Stephen Reed from 1981 to 2009, city officials ignored legal restraints on the use of bond proceeds, as Reed spent the money pursuing interests including collecting Civil War and Wild West memorabilia—some of which was found in Reed's home after his arrest on corruption charges. Infrastructure was left unrepaired, and the heart of the city's financial woes was a trash-to-electricity plant, the Harrisburg incinerator, which was supposed to generate income but instead, because of increased borrowing, incurred a debt of $320 million.

Missing audits and convoluted transactions, including swap agreements, make it difficult to state how much debt the city owes. Some estimates put total debt over $1.5 billion, which would mean that every resident would owe $30,285. These numbers do not reflect the school system deficit, the school district's $437 million long-term debt, nor unfunded pension and healthcare obligations.

Harrisburg was the first municipality ever in the history of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to be charged with securities fraud, for misleading statements about its financial health. The city agreed to a plea bargain to settle the case.

In October 2011, Harrisburg filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy when four members of the seven-member City Council voted to file a bankruptcy petition in order to prevent the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from taking over the city's finances. Bankruptcy Judge Mary France dismissed the petition on the grounds that the City Council majority had filed it over the objection of Mayor Linda Thompson, reasoning that the filing not only required the mayor's approval but had circumvented state laws concerning financially distressed cities.

Instead, a state-appointed receiver took charge of the city's finances. Governor Tom Corbett appointed bond attorney David Unkovic as the city's receiver, but Unkovic resigned after only four months. Unkovic blamed disdain for legal restraints on contracts and debt for creating Harrisburg's intractable financial problem and said the corrupt influence of creditors and political cronies prevented fixing it.

As creditors began to file lawsuits to seize and sell off city assets, a new receiver, William B. Lynch, was appointed. The City Council opposed the new receiver's plans for tax increases and advocated a stay of the creditor lawsuits with a bankruptcy filing, while Mayor Thompson continued to oppose bankruptcy. State legislators crafted a moratorium to prevent Harrisburg from declaring bankruptcy, and after the moratorium expired, the law stripped the city government of the authority to file for bankruptcy and conferred it on the state receiver.

After two years of negotiations, in August 2013 Receiver Lynch revealed his comprehensive voluntary plan for resolving Harrisburg's fiscal problems. The complex plan called for creditors to write down or postpone some debt. To pay the remainder, Harrisburg sold the troubled incinerator, leased its parking garages for forty years, and was to briefly go further into debt by issuing new bonds. Receiver Lynch had also called for setting up nonprofit investment corporations to oversee infrastructure improvement (repairing the city's crumbling roads and water and sewer lines), pensions, and economic development. These were intended to allow nonprofit fundraising and to reduce the likelihood of mismanagement by the then-dysfunctional city government.

Harrisburg's City Council and the state Commonwealth Court approved the plan, and became implemented. The city balanced its budget in the late 2010s, was expected to have a surplus of $1 million in 2019, and maintained a surplus in 2020 despite COVID-19.