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3 Mar 2013

Harrisburg, A Capitol City

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March 3, 2013 Category: Travel Posted by:

Renée S. Gordon


“Virtue, Liberty & Independence”

Pennsylvania State Motto


Native Americans inhabited the area they referred to as “Paxtang,” “where the water stands,” more than 4000-years ago because the location was the juncture of several land and water trading routes that connected the Delaware, Ohio, Potomac and Susquehanna Rivers. Captain John Smith is credited as being the first European in Pennsylvania during his journey as 1608 and seven years later explorer and interpreter Etienne Brulé documented sighting the area in 1615. 


In 1705, John Harris, an Englishman by birth, obtained a traders’ license and around 1719 he built a post for trade with the Native Americans on the shore of the Susquehanna River. Fourteen years later, he established a ferry service that was a major transit point for settlers entering the area.  Harris, Sr. died in 1748 and the estate passed to Harris, Jr. Harris’ Ferry was instrumental in supplying arms to the Continental Army.  


After the American Revolution Pennsylvania decided to establish the county seat on land Harris was selling. Their decision to name the county seat Louisburg was met with his refusal to sell the land unless they changed the name to honor his father and his contributions to the area. It was renamed Harrisburg in 1791 and in 1812 it was officially designated the state capital.


In 1754, the British built Fort Hunter on the eastern bank of the Susquehanna River as one of a trio used for protection during the period of the French and Indian War. Initially the area was owned by Benjamin Chambers, founder of Chambersburg, and then inherited by Samuel Hunter who erected a fortified gristmill. By the 1750s, the need for a more substantial fort was apparent. 


On-site archeological excavations have uncovered numerous artifacts as well as traces of structures that existed between 1756-63. Documents describe the fort as being a 10-ft. by 14-ft. blockhouse surrounded by a wall and a trench. 


The 40-acre Fort Hunter Mansion and Park is a complex that features the exteriors of ten historic structures, the Pennsylvania Canal Trail and a Federal mansion with outstanding views of the Blue Mountains and the Susquehanna River. Pennsylvania’s Canal Trail follows the path of the Pennsylvania Canal, operational from 1834-1906, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh over a distance of 300-miles. On display is a canal stone, once used as a mile marker. 


The mansion grew from a wooden two-room cabin built for Archibald McAllister in 1786 to a 20-room, two-story mansion. The front portion of the King of Prussia granite home was built in 1814 and the new owner Dick Boas built the rear addition in 1870. Scheduled guided tours begin with a 10-minute video and proceed through the house. Of particular note is the fact that it is 80% original, the cantilevered staircase and original floors. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places. The park is open year round but mansion tours are seasonal


There were a number of slaves at Fort Hunter and McAllister, one of the last slaveowners in the area, held at least 22. In 1828, McAllister’s fortunes took a turn and he listed his last four slaves for sale in newspapers on December 14th. On December 24th one of his slaves, Sall Crage fled. What makes this story even more compelling is that Sall was a female, running alone and she was 60-years old. Archibald offered a $2.00 reward, about $50.00 today, for her return. History does not record what happened to her. A short, level, walk from Fort Hunter is an African American cemetery. The majority of the people interred there share the last name “Craig” and were probably relatives of Sall. The cemetery is on privately owned land.


Several important sites are located in the National Register Historic Shipoke District where the city began. Visitors can view the place where Harris’ Ferry and Tavern once stood as well as the Harris- Cameron Mansion.


The mansion was constructed for John Harris, Jr., Harrisburg’s founder, in 1766. In this house, the plans for the city, modeled on Philadelphia, were laid out. Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s first Secretary of War and a vocal abolitionist, purchased the home in 1862 and it remained in the Cameron family until 1941. He added on to the Georgian-style farmhouse with Victorian architectural elements. Cameron later served as the Minister to Russia and many of the furnishings and decorative features were obtained in Parisian department stores and other shops in Europe. Indian treaties were signed here, a copy of the Declaration of Independence was read from the front porch and Lincoln visited the mansion for 24 hours in 1861.


Simon Cameron was a longtime advocate of the enlistment of black troops in the Civil War and he and his family watched the Grand Review of Black Troops on November 14, 1865 from the porch of the mansion. In May of 1865, Union veterans of the war marched past President Johnson down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. None of the 180,000 African American veterans were invited. A parade was held in November for the eleven Pennsylvania regiments and all the other US Colored Troops. Simon Cameron personally reviewed the troops and expressed the nation’s gratitude for their service. Speakers included Philadelphia’s O.V. Catto. Only Pennsylvania honored the African American soldiers.


Highlights of a tour of the interior are the personal items, Bavarian stained glass windows, marble fireplaces, French crown molding, Art Deco bathroom, a Victorian Grand Parlor created from two rooms and two exquisite 14-ft. pier mirrors on either side of the parlor. The mirrors were originally too tall to fit into the parlor. Cameron’s solution was to have the floor dropped by 3-ft. to accommodate them.


The house, currently the Dauphin County Historical Society is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The mansion can be rented for special occasions and tours are available.


Directly across Front Street from the mansion is the gravesite of John Harris, Sr. By his request he was buried beneath a tree where a plaque indicates the location. In this same area, Indians accosted Harris, Sr. and a dispute ensued. Hercules, his slave, managed to escape and, along with friendly natives, saved his life. In gratitude Harris freed Hercules. 


The Capitol City Complex consists of fifteen sites including buildings, statuary, parks and fountains. The State Museum of Pennsylvania, one of the gems of the complex, has a permanent collection of more than 4-million objects that interpret PA’s history. Four floors of the 6-floor circular museum consist of galleries with an 18-ft. bronze sculpture of young William Penn by Janet DeCoux in the Memorial Hall. Visitors enter on the ground floor but tours should begin on the 3rd-level with the planetarium and the natural and geologic history of the state. The second-floor features a walk-thru Delaware Indian Village and the Civil War Gallery showcasing “The Battle of Gettysburg” by Peter Rothermel, the world’s largest, single canvas, framed painting.


I hate to admit it but I had not toured the State Capitol since a school trip. Upon stepping inside, I immediately felt as Teddy Roosevelt did when he stated,” This is the handsomest building I ever saw.” More than 100,000 people visit the building inspired by St. Peter’s in Rome annually and I strongly suggest that you count yourself among that number. Tours are free and you will not be disappointed.


The two-acre, 651 room American Renaissance building cost $13-million and is a virtual history of architectural styles with its combination of Italian, French and English Renaissance design coupled with Greek, Roman and Victorian elements. The exterior is Vermont granite with a green terracotta tile roof and a magnificent, Beaux Arts Renaissance revival, 272-ft., 52-million pound dome. Atop the dome is the 14.6-ft. gilt statue of “Commonwealth.” Each 17-ft. bronze entrance door weighs one ton. 


Tours begin in the Rotunda where the floor is noteworthy for the Moravian tiles with nearly 400 mosaics that depict history, animals, industries and people from Pennsylvania history. Tours continue through the Senate, the House and the Supreme Court. Guides point out the individual features and visitors should play close attention to the types of wood, the stained glass windows, the murals and the manner in which the décor reflects the highest ideals of those elected to serve the state. Do not miss this tour!


The country’s largest museum portraying an unbiased viewpoint of the Civil War is Harrisburg’s National Civil War Museum. The state-of-the-art, $16-million facility opened on Lincoln’s birthday in 2001. The museum’s 24,000 artifacts include a comprehensive collection of documents, memorabilia, uniforms, arms and photographs augmented with dioramas, videos and interactive stations. A highlight of the collection is a Ford Theater ticket from the night of Lincoln’s assassination. The museum is two-stories with 10-galleries and an excellent museum shop.


The largest Union military training camp was the 80-acre Camp Curtin. More than 300,000 men passed through its gates between 1861 and 1865. A plaque indicates its former location. 


Broad Street Market, the oldest continually operated market house in the country, was founded the year before the Civil War began. You can still purchase locally grown produce as well as prepared meals. 


Harrisburg has a number of inviting restaurants along Restaurant Row. Two that rate a really special mention are Café Fresco and Bricco.


Café Fresco is noted for its casual breakfast and lunch menus and its gourmet dinner menu. Fresco is a local favorite and winner of many awards including “Best Cocktails & Martinis.” 


Bricco’s pairing with the Olewine School of Culinary Arts at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) and the Harrisburg Hotel Corporation has resulted in a unique restaurant that is featured in “Distinguished Restaurants of North America”, “Wine Spectator” and “Santé” magazines. The Art-Deco restaurant opened in 2006 showcasing Tuscan-inspired menus featuring locally grown fresh produce, artisan breads and specialty wines. The food is spectacular and the service impeccable. I suggest the Chef’s Tasting Menu and Bricco’s signature dish short ribs and horseradish potatoes. 


The Hilton Harrisburg Hotel provides the perfect accommodations for your Harrisburg visit. It is centrally located and within walking distance of all the major historic sites and restaurants and entertainment venues.  The onsite gourmet restaurant is AAA four-diamond rated.


Often travelers overlook the treasures in their own backyard. Harrisburg is only a two-hour drive west on the PA Turnpike. It is a great, affordable, family destination, weekend getaway and step back into history. Detailed information is available at and


“I never doubted that the people of African descent would play a great part in this struggle, and am proud to say, that all my anticipations have been more than realized. Your services, offered in the early part of the war, were refused; but when the struggle became one of life and death, then the country gladly received you, and, thank God, you nobly redeemed all you promised.”   

Simon Cameron


I wish you smooth travels!


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