Initially known as Rocktown, Harrisonburg began as a crossroads settlement at the junction of the Great Wagon Road running north–south through the Valley and a major east–west road that crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains at Swift Run Gap. Around 1737, the Harrison family settled on this property because of its many springs, and Thomas and Sarah Harrison subsequently built their house (RH8) in the present downtown. Harrisonburg was established as the county seat in 1780 on fifty acres of Harrison's land. Harrisonburg's plan with a central courthouse square reflects characteristics of courthouse towns in Southern and Midwestern states with origins in England and Ireland, the former home of many of the town's settlers. By the time the settlement became an independent town in 1849 it had grown to 853 residents and expanded to one hundred and twenty-two acres.
Harrisonburg prospered through the late nineteenth century as a center of business and trade for the county, sparked in part by the arrival of the railroad in 1869. Groups of silos next to the railroad tracks indicate Harrisonburg's importance as a transportation center. In 1916 the town became a city and much of its growth occurred in the twentieth century, beginning with the establishment of a state Normal School here in 1908, now James Madison University (RH17). In the eighteenth century, Rockingham County became home to a large number of Mennonites from Pennsylvania, and Harrisonburg is the location of Eastern Mennonite University (1917 founded; 1200 Park Road). Harrisonburg continues to grow in population and in physical size.
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