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Dauphin County

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Founded in 1785 and named for Louis XVI, the French king who supported American independence, Dauphin County embodies many of the contradictions that are shared throughout eastern Pennsylvania. Both rural and urban and settled by German and Scots-Irish pioneers, it epitomizes the state's overriding duality. Its borders are shaped by three waterways, the Susquehanna on the west, Mahantongo Creek on the north, and Conewago Creek that forms the border with Lancaster County. The eastern borders are artificial and were established when Lebanon County was created from portions of Dauphin and Berks counties in 1813. Geologically, the northern half of Dauphin County is part of the Ridge and Valley zone that formed the frontier while the south is part of the broad, fertile valleys that were settled by Germans. It is crossed northwest to southwest by the Kittatinny or Blue Mountain ridge, and the fertile farmland of the limestone belt forms a southern arc. The opaque gray limestone is a common building material for farmhouses, barns, and, along the Susquehanna riverfront, mid-nineteenth-century suburban mansions.

Culturally, the county is divided along the fault lines that are central to the history of eastern Pennsylvania, making it a microcosm of the region. To the south are traces of the German migration while remnants of the Scots-Irish frontier can be found to the north, notably the Paxton Presbyterian Church ( DA29) and the so-called Fort Hunter ( DA28) on the Susquehanna River. The southern agricultural and dairy zone attracted Milton Hershey to establish his chocolate town at Hershey in the early twentieth century. The northern portions of the county are nearly as desolate as the Ridge and Valley zone across the Susquehanna and are dotted by a few of the tiny villages that marked the first frontier. Dauphin County contains three remarkable architectural centers: Middletown, an eighteenth-century village on the Susquehanna with examples of all eastern Pennsylvania's principal architectural types from log cabin to industrial; Hershey, Milton Hershey's chocolate factory town masquerading as a Renaissance-styled theme park; and Harrisburg, seat of state government since 1812. The last became an intermodal transportation boomtown by the middle decades of the nineteenth century when the Civil War and the connection of river, road, and rail transportation systems made it an important gateway to the war front. Now it is an increasingly trendy government center. As the state capital, Harrisburg has attracted architects from across Pennsylvania and, after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, offers the most important concentration of significant architect-designed buildings in the commonwealth.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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