Harrisburg 1900-1930: From Industrial Blight to Shining New Metropolis

Not many cities are able to make the kind of turn around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania pulled off between 1900 and 1930. This town that started as a tiny grouping of houses on the east bank of the Susquehanna River was able to revamp its image and become the center of national attention within 3 decades. The population doubled, the public parks became a national example, new public building were erected, and the streets were cleaned, leaving Harrisburg the central hub of commerce in Pennsylvania. But why did this happen? Why did the city suddenly decide to turn a new leaf? Was it really about reform, or did political motivations spur the local government to bring their city out of the industrial age?

At the turn of the century, Harrisburg’s physical appearance was a little worse for ware. A campaign had begun to have the capital moved from Harrisburg back to Philadelphia because it did not represent a cosmopolitan enough place to house a state government (Chappell 1). After a flood in 1899, the third worst in the city’s history, the people began to rebuild their city from the ground up. “The Harrisburg Plan” was developed by the Municipal League to modernize the town to keep commerce and status within the state (Beers 53). Most of the reform occurred in the physical features of the city such as the water filtration system, public spaces, and streets. However, many shifts also occurred within the population themselves that radically redefined the city’s image and reputation.

Postcard from 1906 announcing the public dedication of the new capitol building (Pennsylvania State Archive MG 213, Box 15, Harrisburg: Capitol Building (new): Dedication)

One of the first projects initiated by the Harrisburg Plan was the construction of the new capitol building. With the previous capital having burned down in 1897, the new building soon stood as a symbol for the new era Harrisburg would enter. It was the tallest building in the city by far at 286 feet 5 inches and, being situated on a hill, held a massive presence over the city (Beers 14). After the building itself was built and dedicated in 1906, the City Beautiful Movement was gaining ground and an idea was hatched to expand the capital park grounds into a large public space. Unfortunately, in order to expand, the builders needed to raze what was then the Eighth ward of the

View of the Capitol from State Street, 1917 (Pennsylvania State Archive, RG 017, Box 23)
Abandoned home on the NW corner of First St. and North Alley: May 8, 1917 (Pennsylvania State Archive, RG 17, Box 23)

city which held 541 properties that closely abutted the capitol property (Morrison 253-255). This section of the city was home to a large segment of the African American population. According to J. Howard Wert, the old eighth ward “had early become a haven of refuge for a large, colored population, many of them poor, [and] some fugitives from Southern slavery.” (Gilbert) It was also a mixing pot of low income workers and immigrants including Germans, Irish, Russian Jews, Greeks, and even Chinese (Gilbert). Physically, however, the ward was dilapidated. Though relatively self contained because most of the industrial jobs held by its residents were also located in the ward, it had a reputation for crime and debauchery (Gilbert). Whether motivated by the intention of improved park space or clearing out neighborhoods outside the new city aesthetic, the bill for Capitol Park extension was passed in 1911 (Chappell 3). Many times, in order to come by the land legally, the city would try to condemn houses in court (Capitol Park Extension Commission Minute Book). However, much of the land acquisition involved paying off the families for their property and telling them to relocate other parts of the city (Capitol Park Extension Commission Minute Book). The residents of the old eighth ward were scattered all over and not necessarily placed in the best conditions.

Map of the Capitol Grounds and the Old 8th Ward, 1901 (Harrisburg Title Company Atlas)
Map of Capitol Grounds, 1929 (Harrisburg Title Company Atlas)

Though the project was meant to be part of the beautification of Harrisburg, it represented a larger trend in the movement of the city from an industrialized, overgrown wasteland to a booming state capital. Much of what comprised the old eighth ward was the kind of filth of industrial growth that the rest of the city was trying to wash away. It did not fit with the image of sophistication needed to keep the capital alive. The government was so adamant about extending the grounds that they paid $2,107,655,000 for the settlement of all the 8th ward properties they needed (Capitol Park Extension Commission Minute Book). Similar projects sprang up all across the city as different reformers ripped up the city’s industrial roots. The blue collar Harrisburg that was once a steelmaking giant was abandoned for a society where businessmen and suburbs were the norm. Communities that were once the center of the job market like Sibletown and Steelton found themselves wasting away as the major business in Harrisburg switched from steel manufacturing to railroad work. Their mostly poor residents were left to catch up the changing town (Beers 104).

Many Harrisburgers, especially people like Mira Lloyd Dock, had been campaigning for city improvement since the 1890s, but one could argue that they only started gaining ground because of the threat to the city’s status as a capital. It took 6 years and four legislative sessions for this extension motion to even pass (Chappell 4). Harrisburg had also been involved in a graft scandal, so the government’s reputation was already a sinking ship (Beers 162). They needed something to improve their standing. So the question still remains: were the improvements for the sake of the public, or to maintain a state title?

Regardless of what spurred it, City Beautiful took the city by storm. Because of the work of Mira Lloyd Dock and J. Horace McFarland, their public parks and conservation system became nationally renowned. Much of what the government used to attract people to the state were the many public spaces featured in ad campaigns and postcards starting in the early 1900s.

A Postcard feat. Capitol Park, Sept. 24, 1906 (Pennsylvania State Archives, Mg 213, Box 15, Harrisburg: Capitol Park/Extension)

2,500 new buildings were constructed for public use all over the city including 7 new banks from 1903-1910, hotels, theaters, club houses, and a governor’s mansion (Beers 3). Harrisburg became the mid-state transit hub for the Pennsylvania railroad system with 400 trains traveling through per day at it’s peak (Beers 111). When the city switched to oil heating in the 1920s, the coal industry disappeared along with many other big factory names like Harrisburg Shoe Manufacturing Co.; King Oscar, Sweet Girls, and Owls Cigars; and the cotton mill (Beers 116-117). The people themselves came to resemble much higher a class than they were part of. Front street residents, the most wealthy in the city, saw themselves as aristocrats even though they were only separated from the majority of the city by old money and ambition (Beers 98). Thanks to the improved education system, literacy rate of the city increased for 94 to 97% between 1900 and 1930. With the opening of Edison and Camp Curtin junior highs in 1919, enrollment was at a high of 14,000. Even the education itself was inexpensive. According to the Superintendent F.E. Downes in 1908, “the average family with five children living in an assessed home of $5,000 paid less for schooling than for its milk bill, or $31.50 yearly.” (Beers 130). Finally, because of the increased railroad business, new jobs were created and the overall employment rate increased (Beers 111).

With little to no outside funding, Harrisburg literally pulled itself out of a failing economy and became one of the most talked about cities at the turn of the century. Though political status may have been the ultimate reason for improvement, the changes made sent Harrisburg into the lime light for nearly half a century. Once the town started to turn toward middle class ideals, it was impossible to go back. Whatever the catalyst, Harrisburg was changed both demographically and geographically by the City Beautiful movement which left a lasting impression for generations to come.

Beers, Paul B., Michael Barton. City Contented, City Discontented: a History of Modern Harrisburg. Pennsylvania: Midtown Scholar Press. 2011.

Capitol Park Extension Commission Minute Book. Harrisburg, PA: Capitol Park Extension Commission. 1911.

Chappell, Samuel. The Fox in the Park: State Senator John E. Fox and the Capitol Park Extension. Penn State Harrisburg. Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward, 2004. http://www.old8thward.com/pdf/Chappell2004.pdf.

Gilbert, Stephanie Patterson. “General History of Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward.” Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward, 2005. http://www.old8thward.com/history.htm.

Morrison, Ernest. J. Horace McFarland: A Thorn for Beauty. Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1995), 253-255.


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