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Harrisburg and Vicinity

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In 1705, John Harris was licensed to trade on the Susquehanna River and he promptly built the stockaded log house and peltry sheds from which Harrisburg emerged. His son-in-law and subsequent U.S. senator William Maclay laid out the village plat in 1785. His shrewd decision to reserve a plot for a future state capitol paid off in 1812 when the capital was moved here from Lancaster. In the post-Revolutionary democracy, ease of access counted more than history. Harrisburg was laid out on the standard Philadelphia grid with Front Street along the river and a central market square that is still evident in the widening of Market Street at 2nd Street. This downtown is marked by the church spires near the former market square—churches for German and Scots-Irish settlers with their Reformed, Lutheran, and Presbyterian congregations. The location of Methodists and Roman Catholics farther to the north denotes their later arrival. Harrisburg grew steadily, reaching a population just under 10,000 by 1860. A substantial number of settlers were African American, mostly living in a small enclave to the north of the capitol and who were numerous enough by 1829 to build the first AME Wesley Union Church in the Susquehanna Valley. Their simple log structure was replaced a decade later with a brick building at 4th and Walnut streets, demolished for the state capitol complex.

Harrisburg developed a considerable factory district beyond the government district. This was served by the Pennsylvania Railroad as well as the Philadelphia and Reading, each of which built prominent stations ( DA24). Although the city reached its peak population of about 80,000 in 1940, it soon began to shrink with the decline of its industrial base. Today it has fewer than 50,000 inhabitants, most of them connected in some way with the state government. Despite the city's decline, the compact downtown between the river and the state capitol is of much architectural interest, with splendid riverfront houses and several Victorian Gothic churches.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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