Demolition of Harrisburg's Old 8th Ward
The Old 8th Ward was still a thriving community when it was slated for destruction as part of the Capitol Park Extension, which was intended to set off the new Pennsylvania State Capitol Building dedicated in 1906. The Old 8th Ward, notorious throughout the state for its saloons and gambling establishments, bordered the new capitol building to the east. So when journalist J. Howard Wert called for a "park addition, to set off to best advantage the superb building just completed" in a newspaper article published in February 1906, the 8th seemed a perfect location (Barton et al, 20). Not only would the new capitol building be surrounded by beauty through the addition of a park, but one of the most undesireable sections of Harrisburg, the Old 8th Ward, would be destroyed in the process.
The two photos above show similar views of East State Street from the capitol building. The pre-demolition photo to the left shows the ward filled with buildings and factories. The photo on the right, taken in 1917 after demolition was well underway, shows a much emptier ward with expanses of open space. For a view of the ward after demolition was complete, see this photo.
As Harrisburg's City Beautiful Movement was in full swing by the time of Wert's article, the proposed Park Extension met little public resistance. Senator John E. Fox first proposed the measure extending the capitol grounds in 1906, but questions over appropriations kept it from passing the Pennsylvania State Legislature until 1911. In support of the bill, Senator Shreve stated that "the people are clamoring and insisting that the State of Pennsylvania surround this beautiful building [Capitol] with a fitting and appropriate beauty as it deserves" (Chappell, 5). No doubt, the Old 8th Ward was not the beauty about which Senator Shreve was speaking.
By 1911, the Old 8th Ward had grown to include five precincts. The newer 3rd and 5th Precincts, which were across the State Street Bridge in the Allison's Hills section of Harrisburg, were left intact, but the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Precincts were chosen for the new park extension (Barton et al, 23). Over a period of approximately ten years, the 541 homes, churches, and businesses between North Street to the North, Poplar Avenue to the East, Walnut Street to the South, and Fourth Street to the West, which totaled more than 20 city blocks, were purchased and demolished by the state to make way for new parks and public buildings. Through the addition of the Capitol Park Extension, the capitol grounds were increased from 15 acres to 29 total acres. Most of the displaced residents and businesses of the Old 8th Ward relocated into other areas of Harrisburg further away from the Capitol building.
This 1930s aerial view of the Capitol Complex shows a large parking lot and various government buildings in the area once known as the Old 8th Ward.
Although all of these properties were purchased and demolished by 1917, the Old 8th Ward remained unimproved until 1925. In that year, the State leveled the area, which for years had "contained the hills and mounds of the foundations of those homes, with some of the ashes, tin cans, and other rubbish" that had been left behind by the demolition (Inglewood, 46). After the area was leveled, grass and trees were planted in hopes of creating a beautiful surrounding for the Capitol building. And by the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, the Old 8th Ward of "canal boating and Civil War days" was no more.
--Stephanie Patterson Gilbert
For further reading:
- Harrisburg's Old 8th Ward Then and Now
- General History of the Old 8th Ward
- Harrisburg's City Beautiful Movement
- Samuel Chappell's paper on Senator John E. Fox
- See the Sources page for complete information on the citations above