Harrisburg History Facts and Timeline

(Harrisburg, Pennsylvania - PA, USA)

It is widely believed in history that the site of present-day Harrisburg, on the eastern banks of the Susquehanna River, has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years. Native Americans lived here for many centuries, calling their settlement Paxtang.

Harrisburg became an important natural crossroads, being regularly visited by Native American Indian traders. Trails led to both the Ohio River and the Delaware River, as well as other significant destinations.

The course of Harrisburg history was to change in the year of 1608, when the natives experienced their first contact with Europeans. When famed English explorer Sir John Smith arrived in this year, he met with the Susquehannock peoples and documented his time here.

European Settlement

Towards the end of the second decade of the 18th century, influential English entrepreneur John Harris chose to settle here and began to develop a small community and trading post, later securing roughly 325 hectares / 800 acres of land. Many decades later, in 1785, the son of John Harris drew up ambitious designs for a town to be named Harrisburg, in honour of his father.

The town of Harrisburg was officially incorporated in 1791, becoming the capital of Pennsylvania at the end of 1812. Various important government meetings began to be held here, an organized infrastructure was established and plans for a State House were drawn and discussed. It was decided that there would be a competition to design the State Capitol Building and entries flooded in by leading architects of the time, keen to show their expertise in this field. Eventually a design was selected and the 'Hills Capitol' was constructed between the years 1819 and 1822, costing in the region of US$250,000.

A Time of Change

In the 1820s, Harrisburg appeared very much as a green town, surrounded by expansive fields and farms. However, due to its rather strategic setting, the town gained importance and grew at a rapid pace. Dirt streets were structured in orderly intersecting straight lines and many important moments in the history of Harrisburg followed.

In 1831, the Cumberland Valley Railroad arrived in town, followed three years later by the opening of the Pennsylvania Canal. Next was the building of a railway station, along with the establishment of an iron works and local newspaper, named the Pennsylvania Patriot.

Incorporation as a City

The continued expansion and growth of Harrisburg naturally resulted in the town being incorporated as a city in the year 1860. Soon after, a horsecar service commenced, with horse-drawn trolleys transporting passengers around prominent downtown streets.

Steel and iron production dominated the local economy, assisted by the city's excellent railway connections and natural resources. Telephones were installed and in 1885, the city of Harrisburg enjoyed its centennial celebrations. An electric trolley service was implemented and things were looking truly positive, despite the State Capitol Building burning to the ground in 1897.

The Late 19th Century Onwards

Following the Capitol's fire damage, government officials began to meet in a local Methodist church. The very real possibility of relocating the capital elsewhere, to either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, was muted. However, it was decided that the construction of a new Capitol Building in Harrisburg would be the most sensible course of action and the rather plain Cobb Capitol came into being in 1902, although was never finished in its entirety. It was in the same year that automobiles arrived on the city's roads.

Just a couple of years later, more than 100 passenger trains were stopping at Harrisburg each day, with this point in history showing just how important Pennsylvania's state capital had become. Officials remained unhappy about the appearance of the Cobb Capitol and so commissioned a new grander, more palatial design in 1902, which was to incorporate some elements of the existing state house. Construction of the Huston Capitol began in 1904 and work was completed in 1906.

Other important dates in Harrisburg history include the opening of Hershey Park in 1907, the creation of the planned Bellevue Park neighborhood in 1910, the construction of the Riverwalk in 1912, and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Farm Show in 1917. By the 1920s, the beachfront on Island Park was proving to be a major tourism draw for the city, welcoming close to 250,000 visitors each year.

In more recent years, museums have opened in Harrisburg, such as the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts in 1999, and the National Civil War Museum in 2001.