Looking into the Old 8th Ward

When researching for a history project, one can run into a lot of inconsistencies that make collecting any kind of data difficult. We expect the things we find to hand us information that correlates with our theories, but it’s hardly ever that easy. In order to get a realistic perspective from the artifact, one has to look deeper.

Over the past year I’ve worked on several different projects with Digital Harrisburg that have required me to use all manner of primary sources like maps, letters, photographs, etc. One would suppose that one letter would be read the same as any other, one map of an area is just as good, and so on. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Each piece has its own unique character that has to be examined differently. Two maps of the same place can show remarkable differences depending on who drew them. A letter can communicate emotion solely through the quirks of a person’s handwriting. Even a photo on closer examination can reveal much more about the time and place it was taken than what first meets the eye.

Just last week I was examining a map of Harrisburg from 1901 looking for a gambling business residing on East Street (as listed in the 1900 census). After staring at the same map for over an hour, continually circling around the 8th ward, I got very frustrated. Even enlisting several other pairs of eyes yielded no result. Maybe the street had just been recorded wrong. However, after following several census entries along the streets, we discovered the street name had been penciled in with hardly visible cursive.

But why was is so important to find this street? Back in the late 19th century, East Street played host to some of the larger faro gambling dens that brought in hundreds of lumber workers, soldiers, and businessmen from around the area who were looking for supplemental income (see Wert, in Barton and Dorman 66-67). Consequently, they brought with them an economic boost to the ward, but also a raucous reputation that came to characterize the Old 8th (60-61). I figured that because most of their patrons came from the industrial districts outside the Old 8th, these businesses would be clustered around the canals. However, they were actually spread out all over the ward.

Factory looking West from the Pennsylvania Railroad where many of the gambling patrons would have worked (Pennsylvania State Archive RG 17, Box 23)

At first glance, the Old 8th looks like a haven for bad behavior. But on a further examination, one discovers a much more complex situation. Many of the residents of the Old 8th did not have a substantial income. Gambling, except on horse races, was not illegal in Pennsylvania at this time. The only reason they had a reputation for vice was likely because of the disruptive guests who would visit every spring. Without these lucrative businesses, that entire sections of the city might have gone bankrupt. The people of the Old 8th Ward used their small means to attract greater wealth, even though it often led to ill effects.

Looking at these people hasn’t, however, hardened my opinion against them. I cannot account for their actual intentions, but from what I’ve seen they ran these businesses out of necessity. The most common occupation in the Old 8th ward in 1900 was laborer, but of the 1,672 residents 644 were unemployed (1900 Harrisburg Census). With little access to higher education or better employment, they were left with few alternatives.

Trying to understand the past becomes difficult when the subjects of your study don’t fit a certain stereotype. Even if you are as objective as possible, it’s hard to separate one situation from another so that each maintains its individual character. The gambling businesses of the Old 8th ward have a unique history, but to really comprehend it one must see past any kind of stigma and search for the root of the problem rather than the result. Just like the map, it requires more than several glances to find what you’re looking for.

1900 Harrisburg Census. Harrisburg, PA. Digital Harrisburg Project. March 28, 2019.

Barton, M., and J. Dorman, eds. 2002. Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward. Charleston: Arcadia.

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