Harrisburg is the capital city of Pennsylvania. As of 2011, the city had a population of 49,673, making it the ninth-largest city in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg is also the county seat of Dauphin County and lies on the east bank of the Susquehanna River, west-northwest of Philadelphia and east of Pittsburgh.
The Harrisburg-Carlisle Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Dauphin, Cumberland, and Perry counties, had a population of 509,074 in 2000 and grew to 549,850 in 2010. A July 1, 2007 estimate placed the population at 528,892, making it the fifth largest Metropolitan Statistical Area in Pennsylvania after Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown−Bethlehem−Easton (the Lehigh Valley), and Scranton−Wilkes Barre. The Harrisburg-Carlisle-Lebanon Combined Statistical Area, including both the Harrisburg-Carlisle and Lebanon Metropolitan Statistical Areas, had an estimated population of 656,781 in 2007 and was the fourth-most populous metropolitan area in the state.
Harrisburg played a notable role in American history during the Westward Migration, the American Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution. During part of the 19th century, the building of the Pennsylvania Canal and later the Pennsylvania Railroad allowed Harrisburg to become one of the most industrialized cities in the Northeastern United States. The U.S. Navy ship USS Harrisburg, which served from 1918 to 1919 at the end of World War I, was named in honor of the city.
In the mid-to-late 20th century, the city's economic fortunes fluctuated with its major industries consisting of government, heavy manufacturing including the production of steel, agriculture (the greater Harrisburg area is at the heart of the fertile Pennsylvania Dutch Country), and food services (nearby Hershey is home of the chocolate maker, located just east of Harrisburg). In 1981, following contractions in the steel and dairy industries, Harrisburg was declared the second most distressed city in the nation. The city subsequently experienced a resurgence under its former mayor Stephen R. Reed, with nearly $3 billion in new investment realized during his lengthy tenure.
The Pennsylvania Farm Show, the largest free indoor agriculture exposition in the United States, was first held in Harrisburg in 1917 and has been held there every early-to-mid January since then. Harrisburg also hosts an annual outdoor sports show, the largest of its kind in North America, as well as an auto show, which features a large static display of new as well as classic cars and is renowned nationwide. Harrisburg is also known for the Three Mile Island accident, which occurred on March 28, 1979 near Middletown.
In 2010 Forbes rated Harrisburg as the second best place in the U.S. to raise a family. Despite the city's recent financial troubles, in 2010 The Daily Beast website ranked 20 metropolitan areas across the country as being recession-proof, and the Harrisburg region landed at No. 7. The financial stability of the region is in part due to the high concentration of state and federal government agencies. The finances of the city itself however, have been poorly managed and its inability to repay its bond debt has created an ongoing fiscal crisis.
Harrisburg's site along the Susquehanna River is thought to have been inhabited by Native Americans as early as 3000 BC. Known to the Native Americans as "Peixtin", or "Paxtang", the area was an important resting place and crossroads for Native American traders, as the trails leading from the Delaware to the Ohio rivers, and from the Potomac to the Upper Susquehanna intersected there. The first European contact with Native Americans in Pennsylvania was made by the Englishman, Captain John Smith, who journeyed from Virginia up the Susquehanna River in 1608 and visited with the Susquehanna tribe. In 1719, John Harris, Sr., an English trader, settled here and 14 years later secured grants of in this vicinity. In 1785, John Harris, Jr. made plans to lay out a town on his father's land, which he named Harrisburg. In the spring of 1785, the town was formally surveyed by William Maclay, who was a son-in-law of John Harris, Sr. In 1791, Harrisburg became incorporated and was named the Pennsylvania state capital in October 1812, and has been since. The assembling here of the Harrisburg Convention in 1827 led to the passage of the high protective-tariff bill of 1828. In 1839, Harrison and Tyler were nominated for President of the United States at the first national convention of the Whig Party of the United States, which was held in Harrisburg.
Before Harrisburg gained its first industries, it was a scenic, pastoral town, typical of most of the day: compact and surrounded by farmland. In 1822, the impressive brick capitol building was completed for $200,000.
It was Harrisburg’s strategic location which gave it an advantage over many other towns. It was settled as a trading post in 1719 at a location important to Westward expansion. The importance of the location was that it was at a pass in a mountain ridge. The Susquehanna River flowed generally west to east at this location, providing a route for boat traffic from the east. The head of navigation was a short distance northwest of the town, where the river flowed through the pass. Persons arriving from the east by boat had to exit at Harrisburg and prepare for an overland journey westward through the mountain pass. Harrisburg assumed importance as a provisioning stop at this point where westward bound pioneers transitioned from river travel to overland travel. It was partly because of its strategic location that the state legislature selected the small town of Harrisburg to become the State Capitol in 1812.
The grandeur of the Colonial Revival capitol building dominated the quaint town. The streets were dirt, but orderly and platted in grid pattern. The Pennsylvania Canal was built in 1834 and coursed the length of the town. The residential houses were situated on only a few city blocks stretching southward from the capitol building. They were mostly one story. No factories were present but there were blacksmith shops and other businesses.
American Civil War
During the American Civil War, Harrisburg was a significant training center for the Union Army, with tens of thousands of troops passing through Camp Curtin. It was also a major rail center for the Union and a vital link between the Atlantic coast and the Midwest, with several railroads running through the city and spanning the Susquehanna River. As a result of this importance, it was a target of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia during its two invasions. The first time during the 1862 Maryland Campaign, when Lee planned to capture the city after taking Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, but was prevented from doing so by the Battle of Antietam and his subsequent retreat back into Virginia. The second attempt was made during the Gettysburg Campaign in 1863 and was more substantial. A short skirmish took place in June 1863 at Sporting Hill, just 2 miles west of Harrisburg. This is considered by many to have been the northern-most battle of the Civil War. During the first part of the 19th century, Harrisburg was a notable stopping place along the Underground Railroad, as escaped slaves would be transported across the Susquehanna River and were often fed and given supplies before heading north towards Canada.
Industrial rise 1850-1920
Harrisburg’s importance in the latter half of the 19th century was in the steel industry. It was an important railroad center as well. Steel and iron became dominant industries. Steel and other industries continued to play a major role in the local economy throughout the latter part of the 19th century. The city was the center of enormous railroad traffic and its steel industry supported large furnaces, rolling mills, and machine shops. The Pennsylvania Steel Company plant, which opened in nearby Steelton in 1866, was the first in the country; later operated by Bethlehem Steel.
Its first large scale iron foundries were put into operation shortly after 1850. As industries nationwide entered a phase of great expansion and technological improvement, so did industries – and in particular the steel industry - in Harrisburg. This can be attributed to a combination of factors that were typical of what existed in other successful industrial cities: rapid rail expansion; nearby markets for goods; and nearby sources for raw product. With Harrisburg poised for growth in steel production, The borough of Steelton became the ideal location for this type of industry. It was a wide swath of flat land located south of the city, with rail and canal access running its entire 4 mile length. There was plenty of room for houses and its own downtown section. Steelton was a company town, opened in 1866 by the Pennsylvania Steel Company. Highly innovative in its steel making process, it became the first mill in the United States to make steel railroad rails by contract. In its heyday Steelton was home to more than 16,000 residents from 33 different ethnic groups. All were employed in the steel industry, or had employment in services that supported it. In the late 19th century, no less than five major steel mills and foundries were located in Steelton. Each contained a maze of buildings; conveyances for moving the products; large yards for laying down equipment; and facilities for loading their product on trains. Stacks from these factories constantly belched smoke. With housing and a small downtown area within walking distance, these were the sights and smells that most Steelton residents saw every day.
The rail yard was another area of Harrisburg that saw rapid and thorough change during the years of industrialization. This was a wide expanse of about two dozen railroad tracks that grew from the single track of the early 1850s. By the late 19th century, this area was the width of about two city blocks and formed what amounted to a barrier along the eastern edge of the city: passable only by bridge. Three large and ornately embellished passenger depots were built by as many rail lines. Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest rail line in Harrisburg. It built huge repair facilities and two large roundhouses in the 1860s and 1870s to handle its enormous freight and passenger traffic and to maintain its colossal infrastructure. Its rails ran the length of Harrisburg, along its eastern border. It had a succession of three passenger depots, each built on the site of the predecessor, and each of high style architecture, including a train shed to protect passengers from inclement weather. At its peak in 1904, it made 100 passenger stops per day. It extended westward to Pittsburgh; across the entire state. It also went eastward to Philadelphia, serving Steelton in route. The vital anthracite coal mines in the Allegheny Mountains were reached by the Northern Central Railroad. The Lebanon Valley Railroad extended eastward to Philadelphia with spurs to New York City. Another rail line was the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad which provided service to Philadelphia and other points east.
Industrial decline 1920-70
The decades between 1920 and 1970 were characterized by industrial decline and population shift from the city to the suburbs. Like most other cities which faced a loss of their industrial base, Harrisburg shifted to a service-oriented base, with industries such as health care and convention centers playing a big role. Harrisburg’s greatest problem was a shrinking city population after 1950. This loss in population followed a national trend and was a delayed result of the decline of Harrisburg’s steel industry. This decline began almost imperceptibly in the late 1880s, but did not become evident until the early 20th century.
After being held in place for about 5 years by WWII armament production, the population peaked shortly after the war, but then took a long-overdue dive as people fled from the city. Hastening the flight to the suburbs were the cheap and available houses being built away from the crime and deteriorating situation of the city. The reduction in city population coincided with the rise in population of the Metropolitan Statistical Area. The trend continued until the 1990s.
Beginning of Harrisburg's suburbs: 1880s
The gradual loss of industry, especially after WWII, coupled with the proliferation of the street car and later the automobile, led to urban flight to the suburbs. Allison Hill was Harrisburg’s first suburb. It was located east of the city on a prominent bluff, accessed by bridges across a wide swath of train tracks. It was developed in the late 19th century and offered affluent Harrisburgers the opportunity to live in the suburbs only a few hundred yards from their jobs in the City. Easy access was achieved via the State Street Bridge leading east from the Capitol complex and the Market Street Bridge leading from the City’s prominent business district. In 1886 a single horse trolley line was established from the city to Allison Hill. The most desirable section of Allison Hill was Mount Pleasant, which was characterized by large Colonial Revival style houses with yards for the very wealthy and smaller but still well-built row houses lining the main street for the moderately wealthy. State Street, leading from the Capitol directly toward Allison Hill, was planned to provide a grand view of the Capitol dome for those approaching the City from Allison Hill. This trend towards outlying residential areas began slowly in the late 19th century and was largely confined to the trolley line, but the growth of automobile ownership quickened the trend and spread out the population.
Early to late 20th century
In the early 20th century, several Harrisburg residents became involved in the City Beautiful movement. Mira Lloyd Dock and Horace McFarland advocated urban improvements which were influenced by European urban planning design and the World's Columbian Exposition. Specifically, their efforts greatly enlarged the Harrisburg park system, creating Riverfront Park, Reservoir Park, the Italian Lake and Wildwood Park. In addition, schemes were undertaken for the burial of electric wires, the creation of a modern sanitary sewer system, and the beautification of an expanded Capitol complex.
The Pennsylvania Farm Show, the largest indoor agriculture exposition in the United States, was first held in 1917 and has been held every January since then. The present location of the Show is the Pennsylvania State Farm Show Arena, located at the corner of Maclay and Cameron streets.
In June 1972, Harrisburg was hit by a major flood from the remnants of hurricane Agnes.
On March 28, 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, along the Susquehanna River located in Londonderry Township which is south of Harrisburg, suffered a partial meltdown. Although the meltdown was contained and radiation leakages were minimal, there were still worries that an evacuation would be necessary. Governor Dick Thornburgh, on the advice of Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Joseph Hendrie, advised the evacuation "of pregnant women and pre-school age children ... within a five-mile radius of the Three Mile Island facility." Within days, 140,000 people had left the area.
Stephen R. Reed was elected mayor in 1981 and served until 2009, making him the city's longest serving mayor. In an effort to end the city's long period of economic troubles, he initiated several projects to attract new business and tourism to the city. Several museums and hotels such as Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, the National Civil War Museum and the Hilton Harrisburg and Towers were built during his term, along with many office buildings and residential structures. Several semi-professional sports franchises, including the Harrisburg Senators of the Eastern League, the defunct Harrisburg Heat indoor soccer club and the Harrisburg City Islanders of the USL Second Division began operations in the city during his tenure as mayor. While praised for the vast number of economic improvements, Reed has also been criticized for population loss and mounting debt. For example, during a budget crisis the city was forced to sell $8 million worth of Western and American-Indian artifacts collected by Mayor Reed for a never-realized museum celebrating the American West.
21st century fiscal difficulties and receivership
Missing audits, convoluted transactions, including swap agreements make it difficult to state how much debt the city owes. Some estimates put total debt over $1.5 billion which would mean that every resident would owe $30,285. These numbers do not reflect the school system deficit nor the school district's $437 million long term debt, nor unfunded pension and healthcare obligations.
The heart of the city’s financial woes is the trash to electricity plant, the Harrisburg incinerator that was supposed to generate income but instead, because of increased borrowing, has a debt of $320 million.
Harrisburg was the first municipality ever in the history of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to be charged with securities fraud, for misleading statements about its financial health. The city agreed to a plea bargain to settle the case.
In October 2011, Harrisburg filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy when four members of the seven-member City Council voted to file a bankruptcy petition in order to prevent the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from taking over the city's finances. Bankruptcy Judge Mary France dismissed the petition on the grounds that the City Council majority had filed it over the objection of Mayor Linda Thompson, reasoning that the filing not only required the mayor's approval but had circumvented state laws concerning financially distressed cities.
Instead, a state appointed receiver took charge of the city's finances. Governor Tom Corbett appointed bond attorney David Unkovic as the city's receiver, but Unkovic resigned after only four months. Unkovic blamed disdain for legal restraints on contracts and debt for creating Harrisburg's intractable financial problem, and said the corrupt influence of creditors and political cronies prevented fixing it.
As creditors began to file lawsuits to seize and sell off city assets, a new receiver, William Lynch, was appointed. The City Council opposed the new receiver's plans for tax increases and advocated a stay of the creditor lawsuits with a bankruptcy filing, while Mayor Thompson continued to oppose bankruptcy. State legislators crafted a moratorium to prevent Harrisburg from declaring bankruptcy, and after the moratorium expired, the law stripped the city government of the authority to file for bankruptcy and conferred it on the state receiver.
Harrisburg's City Council and the state Commonwealth Court have now approved the plan, and it is in the process of implementation.