Harrisburg, PA

A Guide to Museums in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

George J. Ziogas

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What kind of museums are there in Harrisburg and what makes them worth visiting?

Let's dive in. This directory will provide the information.

1. Fort Hunter Mansion and Park

Located on a bluff overlooking the Susquehanna River at 5300 North Front Street, this attraction has functioned as a war fort, a center for frontier commerce, and an exclusive private estate. The property was established in 1725 by a Scots-Irish settler named Benjamin Chambers, who also founded the Pennsylvania borough of Chambersburg. Chambers's brother-in-law Samuel Hunter inherited the property, which included grist and saw mills, and it was named Hunter's Mill.

During the French and Indian War, when British colonists fought French colonists in the mid 18th century, Fort Hunter was utilized as an alarm station and supply depot. After the war ended in British victory, the fort was abandoned. In 1787, the property, including the abandoned fort, was purchased by Captain Archibald McAllister, who had distinguished himself in General George Washington's Revolutionary Army. Thanks to McAllister, the land flourished as an independent frontier village with, among other assets and necessities, grist and saw mills, artisan's shops, a school, a tavern, and a distillery.

The community further prospered from river landings that allowed barges and other craft to anchor. In 1834, the Pennsylvania Canal officially opened, resulting in a productive trade. In 1870, a pillar of the Harrisburg community, Daniel Dick Boas, purchased the land which was subsequently inherited by his daughter Helen and her husband John W. Reily. For many years, Reily's family owned the mansion and it was a popular social hub in Harrisburg.

Then a family member, Margaret Wister Meigs, converted the place to a historical museum in the mid 20th century and it remains so today. Tourists can marvel over the Federal style mansion with its impressive entrance hall and its 19th century furnishings. Other aspects of the Fort Hunter Mansion and Park to enjoy are the Tavern House, the Centennial Barn, the Covered Bridge, the 153 acre conservancy of wooded mountain land, the Heckton Church, and the Fort Hunter Service Station.

2. John Harris - Simon Cameron Mansion

This edifice at 219 South Front Street has quite a remarkable history. In the early 18th century a European immigrant named John Harris, Sr. erected a house and trading post on the bank of a river where a railroad bridge stands today. He operated a ferry service to help travelers during times of high water levels in the river. When he passed on in 1748, his son John Harris, Jr. continued to operate the business.

In 1766, he decided to move his family to a larger house and he had that larger house constructed which is now the current historical attraction. John, Jr.'s family remained there until 1835 when his son Robert sold the estate to local attorney Thomas Elder. When Elder died in 1853, the place was purchased by the Reverend Beverly Waugh. The minister and his wife Sarah converted it to a school for young ladies called the Pennsylvania Female College. But Reverend Waugh's death in 1861 along with the social turmoil of the beginning of the U.S. Civil War resulted in the school's bankruptcy.

The house was eventually purchased by Simon Cameron, a prominent and wealthy politician. He lived there until his death in 1889 and his descendants remained there for many years. In 1941, Cameron's granddaughter Elizabeth donated the estate to the Historical Society of Dauphin County. Tourists can feast their eyes on the mansion's impressive sections, including an ornate Victorian parlor, an attractive dining room, and a lovely solarium.

3. National Civil War Museum

As the name indicates, this building at One Lincoln Circle at Reservoir Park examines the Civil War. Harrisburg played an important part in this war, serving as a major rail hub for soldiers and materials. In fact, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia tried to invade the city twice.

The museum's stated mission is to "serve as a national center to inspire lifelong learning of the American Civil War through the preservation and balanced presentation of the American peoples struggles for survival and healing." It fulfills this goal not only by providing information about the war per se but about the national atmosphere and events that led to the conflict in its two exhibits "A House Divided" and "American Slavery: The Peculiar Institution."

The museum houses all kinds of Civil War artifacts like uniforms, weapons, manuscripts, documents, and photographs. One especially fascinating exhibit is an interactive one, Meet Mr. Lincoln. There, visitors can ask the Civil War president about various aspects of the conflict like politics and the slavery.

4. Pennsylvania National Fire Museum

Appropriately enough, this particular museum at 1820 North 4th Street is located in a historic 1899 Victorian firehouse. It focuses on the history of America's fire service from the colonial period to the present. Among the intriguing exhibits in this attraction are a 1792 hand pumper utilized to discharge about 150 gallons of water per minute, an enormous selection of felt hats sported by volunteer firemen at parades, and a 1920s alarm system that still rings. There's also a moving Memorial Wall consisting of plaques in remembrance of firefighters who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.

5. State Museum of Pennsylvania

This museum at 300 North Street is immense, consisting of 80,000 square feet of permanent and revolving exhibits. These exhibits cover the chronology of Pennsylvania from prehistory to the period Native Americans dominated the area to the arrival of European settlers up to the present. Particularly notable is a mural composed by Vincent Maragliotti on the first floor illustrating the region's history up to 1964. Another interesting attraction is the Village Square which showcases historic facades of 19th century Pennsylvania communities, including recreations of a general store, a summer kitchen, and a hardware store. The State Museum also has a planetarium for those interested in astronomy. As for the youngsters, they can enjoy the Curiosity Connection, a hands-on environment where they can engage in activities like gardening, playing house, and running a lemonade stand.

Harrisburg may not be Pennsylvania's largest city, but like Philadelphia, it has stimulating and entertaining museums. People will learn a lot about the history and culture of the Keystone State of Pennsylvania when they visit them. Harrisburg is a place worth traveling to!

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