A Walk through the Past: A Tour of Historic Harrisburg

Looking for something to do this weekend? The June program listings have it all.

This week we present guest blogger Corine Lehigh, a PHMC Keystone intern working in the PA State Archives. Corine recently earned a BA in American Studies from Southern New Hampshire University. In this post, she shares info and images from a walking tour of Harrisburg (her list of additional resources on Harrisburg history can be found on a separate page). Thanks, Corine.

Some of this summer's Keystone Interns. Guest blogger Corine Lehigh is in the front row in pink, with tour leader Pam Reilly behind her (photo by Amy Jukus)
Being an intern for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) isn’t all getting coffee and donuts for staffers. In fact - it’s none of that! Being an intern at PHMC is working for people who really want to see you succeed. Everyone is incredibly helpful and open to any questions you might have. The other great thing is all of the events they have planned for us. So far this summer we have toured 4 of the 5 Bureaus of the PHMC: the State Museum, State Archives, Bureau for Historic Preservation, and Historic Sites and Museums. Everywhere we go along the way we meet people who are excited about history, and most started just like us, as interns. One of these great people we have met is Pam Reilly from the Bureau for Historic Preservation. On Wednesday June 3rd, Pam took 13 of the summer interns on a walking tour of the Harrisburg Capitol Complex and revitalized Midtown area. Pam is a native of Harrisburg and a fountain of fun facts and knowledge about the area.

Pam started our tour outside The State Museum and gave us a brief overview of the changing façade of Harrisburg over the years, including buildings that may not be in fashion architecturally (and are quite dated looking) but still hold historic meaning. You can look down any street in the downtown and midtown area and see evidence of how much Harrisburg has changed over the years. Newer buildings are next to older buildings. 1970s buildings (like the one below, across the street from the Archives) are smack dab next to buildings that date to the late 1800s. Pam pointed out to us that like all cities, Harrisburg changes its face every few decades to keep up with demand and new architectural styles.

Office building at 3rd & Forster, across from the State Archives
We moved on to the steps of the Capitol Building, which Pam explained was the third capitol built in this place. Devastating fires contributed to the changing façade of the Capitol Complex. Very few of the original buildings remain from the 1821 construction. The early buildings can be identified by their shorter proportions and simplistic design indicative of the Federal period. The city’s period of greatest development was in the late 19th and early 20th century. Contractors and architects worked to seamlessly combine the new and the old. The result is a beautiful mix of Federal-style buildings from multiple decades throughout Harrisburg’s history.

PA Capitol Building with East Wing addition
Another interesting stop on our tour was the Forum Building. Alexis Henry, Archives intern, mentioned that she has been seeing operettas at the Forum since she was in grade school. I have attended Third in the Burg activities there, including a celebration of Women’s History Month. The Forum is a beautiful round building located to the south of the Capitol on Walnut Street. All of the exterior doors have metalwork depicting various cultures throughout history and artistic human hands jut out of the side of the building holding torches for lighting. The metal figures range from Egyptians to carpenters to farmers. The inside of the Forum is also worth a look. The large round auditorium has the most beautiful ceiling. Recessed lighting depicts the constellations and a large golden sun in the center of it all. I could have stood gazing at the ceiling for hours, but alas our tour had to move on. As we exited the Forum Elizabeth Sein, who is working on the Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania Collection at the Archives, noticed an interesting sign, which I thought I would share just so everyone knows if they plan a trip to the Forum: Balloons are not allowed!

Constellations and sun on ceiling of Forum Auditorium
Near the corner of Walnut Street and 7th Street you can see the trains go underneath the State Street Bridge. By the mid-19th century, the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh had brought both economic and population growth to Harrisburg. In 1850, the city population numbered 7800, but it nearly doubled, reaching 13,400, within the next ten years. Warehouses and businesses sprang up along the canal to handle the freight brought in by its boats. I could go on and on about the canals in Pennsylvania, as I find internal improvements absolutely fascinating – but that’s a story for another day. It’s worth a glance as you go over the State Street Bridge to remember that Harrisburg grew rapidly during the late 19th and early 20th century because it was a transportation hub. Trains are still a frequent sight here, but commercial activity used to be a lot busier. When you view a city through a transportation lens a lot of things can come out of the woodwork.

We left the Forum and moved around the back of the Capitol to the site of the old Eighth Ward of Harrisburg. The Eighth Ward abutted the Pennsylvania Canal; gambling dens, brothels, saloons, and inns sprang up to provide "services" to the men working on the canal boats. The Eighth Ward’s notorious reputation grew. During the Civil War, Union soldiers stopping at nearby Camp Curtin on their way north or south found lively entertainment in what became known as the "Bloody Eighth." When the Capitol building burned down in February of 1897, some began to lobby state government to rebuild it in Philadelphia, stating that Harrisburg lacked the refinement a capital city should have. A major part of the problem was the proximity of the Eighth Ward to the Capitol. Throughout the following years the Eighth Ward calmed down greatly from its heyday, but the reputation stuck. [Note (7/7/15): an editing error in the following sentence has been corrected] By 1925 the city had leveled the Eighth Ward to expand the Capitol Complex, adding office buildings and green space. Once again, demand changed the face of Harrisburg.

(Top) Harrisburg's 8th Ward, looking west toward Capitol Dome
(Bottom) Looking east across Soldiers Grove, which replaced 8th Ward buildings


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