Many people, if put on the spot, would probably guess that Philadelphia is the capital of Pennsylvania. It’s not necessarily a bad guess. Philly is the most populous city in the state, after all. But one important thing to remember when it comes to US state capitals is that size often doesn’t really matter. Harrisburg has a population just under 50,000, making it the 10th largest city in the Commonwealth. Harrisburg is also the capital of Pennsylvania. So, why is Harrisburg the capital of Pennsylvania and not a larger city, like say Philadelphia or Pittsburgh? Let’s find out!
A Quick History of Harrisburg
Harrisburg was first settled by John Harris in the early 18th century, and to this day he is buried and memorialized in front of Harris Mansion, located on the Susquehanna River. However, the city wasn’t officially founded or named until 1785 by his son (also John Harris). Strangely, the name lasted less than a year before it was switched to Louisburg in honor of the French king, switching right back again just six years later, in 1791. Harrisburg replaced Lancaster as the capital of Pennsylvania in 1812.
It wasn’t until 1819 that permanent government offices were built, and Harrisburg finally received an official city charter in 1860. In 1906, the capitol offices were built that still exist today, allegedly funded in large part through the bribery and corruption that was a key part of the 1908 Capitol Graft cases.
Why Philadelphia Is NOT Capital of Pennsylvania
To understand why Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania, it helps to first explain why Philadelphia is not. The history of Philadelphia goes way back. It was founded by William Penn, an English Quaker, in 1682. His goal from the beginning was that the city would serve as the capital of the Pennsylvania Colony.
Philadelphia played an instrumental role in the American Revolution, as it was a meeting place for the Founding Fathers, and the site of many important decisions and events. Given this importance, Philadelphia was one of the nation’s capitals during the Revolutionary War, and served as temporary U.S. capital while Washington, D.C., was under construction.
Philadelphia was removed as Pennsylvania state capital in 1799 in favor of Lancaster, at a time when Philadelphia was also serving as the capital of the nation. Having it serve as the seat of both the state and federal government seemed confusing and crowded.
Lancaster was ultimately chosen over Harrisburg as state capital due to its larger population, but that only lasted just over a decade. Eventually, the lure of Harrisburg’s more central location, extremely convenient river access, and the four acres of land donated by John Harris Jr. convinced the powers that be to make another change.
Why is Harrisburg the Capital of Pennsylvania?
At the end of the day, it was geographic factors that led to Harrisburg becoming capital of Pennsylvania. In the minds of politicians and policymakers, it made sense for the capital to be located as close to the center of the state as possible, allowing the easiest access from all areas. There were no planes or cars in those days, so transportation to and from a capital always needed to be a consideration.
Philadelphia may be the largest population center in the state, but it is located in the far southeastern corner, roughly 360 miles from Erie, PA, up in the northwestern corner. It would take close to two weeks to make the journey in the era of the horse-drawn carriage.
Harrisburg, on the other hand, is a full 100 miles west of Philadelphia toward the center of the state, and its location directly on the Susquehanna River made it easily accessible by ship. This meant most were able to reach it in a day or two if necessary.
The Capital of Pennsylvania Today
Despite thirty years of mismanagement and corruption under Mayor Stephen Reed, which led to the city filing for bankruptcy in 2011, Forbes named Harrisburg the 2nd best place in America to raise a family in 2010. Because, while the city itself struggles with debt to this day, its high concentration of state and federal government offices has made it somewhat recession-proof from an employment perspective.
Modern Harrisburg still has a modest population of roughly 50,000, only a fraction the size of Philadelphia’s 1.6 million, but features a wealth of museums and historical attractions to be enjoyed by visitors, as well as a beautiful location on the Susquehanna River.
Think you know a thing or two about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania? Test your skills in the quiz below!