HomeLooking west across the 8th Ward towards the Capitol (PA)



General History of Harrisburg's Old 8th Ward

The first English settler in the area now known as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was John Harris and his wife, Esther Say Harris. John Harris, who had left his native Yorkshire, England, and traveled to Pennsylvania with William Penn, ventured in 1719 to Peixtan, a Native American village in the vicinity of Harrisburg. Soon after, Harris and his wife established a trading post along the Susquehanna River, where they traded with nearby tribes for furs which were taken by pack horse to Philadelphia. Harris also began farming, and he started ferrying people across the Susquehanna. His homestead was afterwards known as "Harris' Ferry." (Inglewood, 12-13)

John Harris' son, John Jr., received a land grant from the Penns in 1773 for the Harris' Ferry settlement, making the laying out of a township possible. In 1785, the county of Dauphin was created from Lancaster county, and Harris' Ferry was made the county seat. That same year the city was laid out by John Jr. and his brother-in-law, William Maclay, and the settlement had grown into a village of 100 homes, which were located near present-day Paxton Street. The town was incorporated as a borough in 1791 and named "Harrisburg" after its first settler, John Harris. The borough boundries were South Street to the North, Paxtang Creek to the East, Paxton Street to the South, and the western shore of the Susquehanna to the West. (Inglewood, 15-21; Story of Harrisburg)

In 1800, Harrisburg was a growing town that "had a taste of all the adventures and dangers frontier towns usually have." Twelve years later, Harrisburg became the state capital of Pennsylvania. During this period, many of the colonial coastal capitals, such as Philadelphia, became less centrally located as Americans moved westward into previously unsettled territories. In 1812, Harrisburg was still very much a rough and humble town, but the re-location of the state goverment to its streets promised new residents and businesses. As early as 1785, John Harris, Jr. had hoped the state capital would eventually move to Harrisburg as he gave four acres of land to the state intended for that purpose. An additional ten acres of William Maclay's land was purchased by Pennsylvania in 1810 for government purposes, and by 1822, a brick and wood Capitol building was completed at a cost of $200,000. Soon after, a resolution passed the State Legislature to purchase land surrounding the capitol, including what would become the Old 8th Ward. However, the price proved too expensive and the plan was never acted upon. (Inglewood, 24, 37, 45; Story of Harrisburg; Wilson, 126)

The original Pennsylvania State Capitol building, which was dedicated in 1822. After the fire of 1897, two of the six columns at front were placed on either side of the Market Street Bridge, and the other four columns were sent to soldiers' homes to be used as monuments.

Photo: Harrisburg Then and Now

The area of Harrisburg that became the Old 8th Ward began its history as Maclaysburg, which was described as a "thriving hamlet," which faced the Capitol between South and North Streets, even before it was incorporated into the town in 1838. The inclusion of this area within the town limits moved the northern boundry of Harrisburg to North Street at that time. Although Harrisburg grew throughout the early 1800s, it was mid-century before the town experienced a real growth, which allowed it to be incorporated as a city in 1860. By mid-century, the Pennsylvania Canal system had brought both economic and population growth to the city. In 1850, the city population numbered 7800, but it nearly doubled, reaching 13,400, within the next ten years. Warehouses and businesses, such as Gross & Kunkle and Red & Co., sprung up along the canal to handle the freight brought in by its boats. As the canal flowed along the back of what would become known as the Old 8th Ward, more undesirable businesses, such as saloons and inns, appeared within its bounds in order to provide services to the men who manned the canal boats. (Inglewood, 27-29; Story of Harrisburg; Wilson, 126)

It was during this time that the Old 8th Ward's notorious reputation for rowdiness began. As J. Howard Wert described it in 1913, the canal boating men tried to gain "practical experience in every form of wickedness the town [Harrisburg] could ladle up" in the 24 hours they were there. Even though the Old 8th already had houses of ill fame during the canal boating days, it was during the Civil War that the Old 8th Ward truly earned its statewide reputation for debauchary. (Barton et al, 61)

During the Civil War, Harrisburg became a jumping off point for Union troops because of its proximity to the Mason Dixon line and its well-connected railroad lines. As soldiers flooded into the city, the town experienced a boom as the soldiers' steady pay attracted new businesses. Nearly 10,000 soldiers could be found at Camp Curtin at any time, and their need for lively entertainment could be satisfied in the Old 8th Ward. Gambling dens, brothels, and saloons abounded in the Old 8th Ward, and many soldiers found themselves duped, drunk, and beaten after a night spent in the Old 8th. J. Howard Wert stated that "freed from the shackles of home restraint" the young men of Camp Curtin partook of the Old 8th's "orgies by day, and fiercer orgies by night." Along with gambling and liquor, these young men also craved women, and these, too, could be found within the disorderly houses of the ward. By the end of the war, over 300,000 men had moved through Camp Curtin, where the last tent was taken down in September of 1865. (Barton et al, 60-62; Inglewood, 93-95)

This view of the 8th Ward was taken from the roof of a building near the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, which ran along the ward's eastern border. It clearly shows the contrast between the new grand Capitol building and the humble abodes of the Old 8th.

(PA State Archives)

Although the Old 8th was not officially deemed a ward until April 1868, people had lived there when it was known as Maclaysburg as early as the 1820s. The 8th seemed to be where Harrisburg's lower classes gathered to make their homes. After mid-century, the Old 8th Ward grew quickly into an ethnically and racially diverse community. Although Irish and Blacks dominated the ward in its early years, the ethnic mixture changed over time and came to include Germans, Italians, Russian Jews, and Greeks. In fact, every new wave of European immigrants seems to have changed the ethnic make up of the ward. Many of the European immigrants tended to begin their American lives within the Old 8th and then move on to more affluent areas of Harrisburg when they had obtained success; however, the Old 8th Ward always maintained a large population of Blacks. (Barton et al, 29-30)

Writing in 1913, J. Howard Wert noted that the area that became the Old 8th Ward "had early become a haven of refuge for a large, colored population, many of them poor, [and] some fugitives from Southern slavery." As early as 1825, race riots over the return of former slaves to the South under the Fugitive Slave laws occurred within the vicinity of the Old 8th. By 1839, the Wesleyan Union African Methodist Church had re-located to the corner of Tanners Alley and South Streets in order to better serve its congregation members who had settled in the neighborhood. Prior to the Civil War, Tanners Alley served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and many newly-freed slaves settled in the ward after 1865. (Barton et al)

With the movement of rural Americans into the cities, Harrisburg flourished, reaching 40,000 inhabitants by 1890. Those coming to Harrisburg from small towns and farms needed jobs, and Harrisburg had jobs to offer. After the spread of railways during the Civil War made the canal system obsolete, Harrisburg quickly became the principal railroad center in Pennsylvania, handling millions of passengers and several million tons of freight each year. Seven steam railroad lines and three electric lines served Harrisburg by 1912, and 225 passenger trains arrived and departed each day. The railroads eventually employed over 11,000 men and women, many of whom made their homes in the Old 8th Ward. (Wilson, 126; Story of Harrisburg; Inglewood, 75-77)

Because of its place as a major railroad hub, Harrisburg saw an expansion of industry as businesses could be assured that their products could be shipped out of the city efficiently. The iron and steel industry which developed in and around Harrisburg brought prosperity and jobs to the city. Machine manufacturers, such as the W. O. Hickok Company in the 8th Ward, gained worldwide reputation for their wares.

As Harrisburg grew, it struggled to meet the demands of its ever-increasing population and industry. Even into the late nineteenth century, the city remained rough and antiquated. When the Pennsylvania State Capitol building was destroyed by fire in February 1897, the city of Philadelphia began to lobby the state government to move the capital back to Philadelphia. Philadelphians used Harrisburg's lack of refinement as a major part of their argument, noting that a state capital needed to be more modern and beautiful than Harrisburg. These efforts failed, however, and the state appropriated funds for a new building in Harrisburg. (Chappell, 2; Inglewood, 46)

In 1898, the Civic Club of Harrisburg was founded in part by Mira Lloyd Dock, a prominent city daughter, who had been trying to organize residents to clean up Harrisburg. Dock's efforts had included lectures with lantern shows, which showcased images of Harrisburg's natural beauty in direct contrast with its squalor. With the help of her efforts, the City Beautiful Movement swept into Harrisburg, and its advocates called for extensive renovations and modernizations of the city. Backed by mayor Vance C. McCormick and such well-known reformers as J. Horace McFarland, the Harrisburg League for Municipal Improvements was established in 1902, and it was able to push through a bond securing the funding for improving Harrisburg soon after. (Wilson, 126-130)

This photo of Christie's Court, an offshoot of Cranberry Alley, demonstrates the crowding and squalor of the Old 8th. Although the court did not exist on any map, it was home to several families.

(PA State Archives)

The dedication of the new Pennsylvania State Capitol building in 1906 and the efforts of Harrisburg's reformers signaled the beginning of the end of Harrisburg's Old 8th Ward. By 1912, the Old 8th Ward totaled five precincts and teemed with Harrisburg's poorer residents. It had become a self-sufficient urban neighborhood where residents could live and work. Even though the ward, in actuality, had much outgrown its days of drunkeness and crime, it could never quite escape either nor overcome its notorious reputation. And although the ward had benefitted from the modernization of Harrisburg along with the rest of the city, it still remained crowded and shoddy.

The Old 8th Ward was a perfect example of all that was wrong with nineteenth century cities that had urbanized quickly and without real thought to beauty and health. The following statement, written about New York City by Jacob Riis, the famed urban reformer, characterized what Harrisburg reformers thought was wrong with the Old 8th Ward:

. . . in the tenements all the influences make for evil; because they are the hot-beds of the epidemics that carry death to rich and poor alike; the nurseries of pauperism and crime that fill our jails and police courts . . . above all, they touch the family life with deadly moral contamination.

Whether immorality was any more prevalent in the Old 8th than in other parts of Harrisburg is difficult to determine, but the ward bordered the new and glorious state capitol to the east, making it a quick target of those behind the beautification effort in Harrisburg. Of the Old 8th Ward, J. Howard Wert wrote, "Here are little blind courts, too narrow for any vehicle to use, into which little of God's free air or sunlight can enter, closely built up and every tenement teeming with life." The ward's lack of green space, so crucial to the reform effort, and its weathered timber buildings plastered with advertising posters did not meet Harrisburg's new vision for itself. (Riis, 6; Barton et al, 24)

In a 1912 pictorial souvenir booklet of Harrisburg, the city is described as having "every modern municipal improvement of every character," and "'is in every sense of the word a thoroughly modern, progressive and up-to-date city." In this characterization of Harrisburg, the Old 8th Ward simply had no place. Efforts to expand the capitol's grounds into the 8th Ward, which had begun in 1906 soon after its dedication, passed the Pennsylvania State Legislature in 1912. The measure approved the acquisition and demolition of homes, churches, and businesses between North 4th Street and the State Street Bridge over the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks to the west and east and between North and Walnut Streets to the north and south. Although all of the properties within the Capitol Park Extension area were puchased and demolished by 1917, no improvements were made to the area until 1925, when it was leveled and seeded with grass and trees. (Story of Harrisburg; Chappell, 6; Inglewood, 46)

By 1917, much of Harrisburg's Old 8th Ward had been destroyed and its residents scattered into other parts of the city and beyond. The neighborhood, once bustling with activity, grew cold and silent. Ever progressing forward, the property now known as the Old 8th Ward was soon built up once again. Ironically, although the original plans for the ward's land included open spaces of green and other idyllic park environs meant to enrich the lives of Harrisburg's residents, asphalt and concrete cover most of the area not already occupied by government buildings and parking garages in the twenty-first century.

--Stephanie Patterson Gilbert

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