When you think of Pennsylvania cities, you probably don’t think of Harrisburg. By no means is it as large as Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, but it does have its historical significance that is almost always overlooked. So why then was it chosen as the capital of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania?
It wasn’t the 1st or even the 2nd capital of Pennsylvania. Until 1799, Philadelphia was the government seat of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. A few years before, it was viewed as a less desirable location for the capital and Lancaster was voted to take its place. However, after only two years, Lancaster wasn’t considered a suitable capital either. Ideally, the lawmakers wanted to be based somewhere in the Susquehanna Valley. Eventually, Harrisburg was chosen out of eight possible locations and officially became the capital in October of 1812, largely because of its location on the Susquehanna River.
Harrisburg’s Glory Days:
During the American 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 for the Union and a vital link between the Atlantic coast and the Midwest, with several railroads running through the city and spanning the Susquehanna River. As a result of this importance, it was a target of General 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 in 1863 and was more substantial. Harrisburg was also a notable stopping place along the Underground Railroad, as escaped slaves would be transported across the Susquehanna River and were often fed and given supplies before heading north towards Canada.
Harrisburg’s peak of importance in the history of Pennsylvania came in the latter half of the 19th century through its central role in the steel industry. The city was the center of enormous railroad traffic and its steel industry 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, later operated by Bethlehem Steel.
The decades between 1920 and 1970 in Harrisburg were characterized by industrial decline and population shift from the city to the suburbs. Like most other cities that faced a loss of their industrial base, Harrisburg shifted to a service-oriented base, with industries such as health care and convention centers playing a big role. Harrisburg’s greatest problem was a shrinking city population after 1950. This loss in population followed a national trend and was a delayed result, due to World War II, of the decline of Harrisburg’s steel industry. This decline began almost imperceptibly in the late 1880s, but did not become evident until the early 20th century. The population decline continued until the 1990s.
As stated above, Harrisburg was a commercially important city for boats, trains and later, cars and airplanes early on in its history. It’s about one hour from Baltimore, two hours from Philadelphia and Washington D.C. and not too far from New York City either. However, Harrisburg hasn’t thrived as well as it could have. The Susquehanna River is too shallow in most places to run an efficient shipping operation and industries have come and gone with little success.
In 2010 Forbes rated Harrisburg as the second best place in the U.S. to raise a family. But despite what magazines may say, Harrisburg has been plagued with financial troubles since the turn of the 21st century. While economic activity of the city and its surrounding areas are stable due in part to the high concentration of state and federal government agencies, the finances of the city itself have been poorly managed and its inability to repay its bond debt has created an ongoing fiscal crisis that looks to have no end in sight.
Thankfully, the people of the Harrisburg area are making an effort to change this culture. Whereas in the past it was possible to drive downtown on the weekends and see no one at all, there are now people enjoying the city on their days off. The city is in the process of undergoing a revitalization or renaissance, but still has a long way to go. So don’t worry Harrisburgians, there are brighter horizons in store for you!
You’re Friend in Time,