Stories from the Old 8th Ward
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Harrisburg began to develop as an industrial center. Railroad steel, cigars, flour, shoes, and many other businesses thrived, especially in the Eighth Ward. A large thoroughfare was required in order to accommodate the movement of raw materials throughout the city for processing. Like most industrial societies, Harrisburg utilized water as a means of transportation, with the Susquehanna River flowing alongside the southern border of the city. The Harrisburg canal system was started in a similar manner as the City Beautiful movement– through internal efforts. In 1822, the Harrisburg Canal, Fire Insurance and Water Company was formed by a group of local businessmen to build a canal “from John Carson’s property near Second mountain to Harrisburg and through Paxton creek valley…to the north, possibly Mulberry street.” The original people behind the canal system had grandiose ideas for its industrial capabilities in the city, with images of mills lining the waterways for miles. However, the State “got into the canal business” and interrupted the company’s plan by taking over the land that the canals were being built. Despite this change of ownership, the canals were officially built in 1826, along many lines of “interesting enterprise.”
These canals served as gateways for economic prosperity in Harrisburg, bringing increasing business to the Old Eighth Ward. Roads were built along the canals out of necessity in order to accommodate foot traffic from the canals. With the canals increasing the amount of products that could be introduced into the city, a better system of land transportation was needed. Beginning in the 1830s, rail lines were being installed throughout the city to connect with the canals. By 1834, there was a complete line of transportation between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Harrisburg serving as a natural midpoint. Due to the increasing railway lines being built, additional lines began to connect through Harrisburg until it became one of the leading railroad centers in the United States. With most of these lines running to or around the factories of the Old Eighth Ward, it became known as a stopping place frequented by all walks of life.
Harrisburg, according to historian J. Howard Wert, “was a radiating point for the distribution of goods north, south, east, and west. This same law of location made it an inevitable railroad center.” Comprised of many factories, schools, churches, and small businesses, the Eighth Ward acted as a gateway to the rest of the city, prospering from the constant influx of people from the railway lines. Blue collar workers who traveled along with canal industry frequented many of the ward’s institutions. Union soldiers encamped at Camp Curtain would often find their way to the speakeasies to engage in games. In this way, the Old 8th Ward was a hub for people from many different walks of life.
The canals and railroads that passed through and around the Old 8th brought people from across the country into the city. They connected Pennsylvania’s capital city to the rest of America. Many people’s first introduction to Harrisburg was stepping off the trains in the Eighth Ward, experiencing the diverse life that it fostered. These transportation networks fostered opportunity for work, trade, and interaction between a variety of people, bringing even greater life to the ward and the city as a whole.
Gwendolyn Bennett would come to be world-renowned as one of the many writers and artists who were collectively part of the African-American cultural flourishing of the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance. However, before making her way to Manhattan Island, Gwendolyn Bennett spent time in Harrisburg. Unfortunately, she did not arrive under the best of circumstances, as she was kidnapped by her own father and stepmother amidst a custody dispute. Because Harrisburg was such a busy transportation hub at the time, Bennett’s father was able to avoid authorities until they relocated to Brooklyn in 1918. However, despite the troubling circumstances of Bennett’s time in Harrisburg, she nevertheless flourished in her elementary school, attending the Lincoln School located in the Old Eighth Ward.