What is the Capital of Pennsylvania?

Night falls on the riverfront and capital building of Harrisburg Pennsylvania

Unless you live in Pennsylvania, take some time out of your schedule one day to ask your friends and family members if they know what the capital of Pennsylvania is. Most of them will probably mention “Philadelphia” of “Pittsburgh” and they would be incorrect. 

The capital of Pennsylvania is Harrisburg, which is a pretty small city as far as capital city standards go. Only 50,000 people live there and nearly 25% of the city is water. Harrisburg is an interesting choice, especially considering the history of Philadelphia and Harrisburg wasn’t always the name of the city.

Harrisburg was the original name that lasted only a year before the city was renamed Louisburg because the French king at that time was another Louis and the residents of Harrisburg wanted to honor the French monarch.

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Where is the Capital of Pennsylvania Located?

Where is the Capital of Pennsylvania Located
Where is the Capital of Pennsylvania Located

Harrisburg is sandwiched between two valleys. To the east is the Cumberland Valley and to the west is Lebanon Valley. The Susquehanna River lies just north of Harrisburg, as well as the Blue Mountain Ridge

In other words, Harrisburg is a beautiful place, nestled amongst the majesty and power of natural beauty. Interestingly enough, Northumberland is a nearby county, which goes to show the American attachments to all things English and across the Atlantic at the time. 

Nestled is definitely the most applicable word here, as Harrisburg is only 12 square miles in area, making it a tiny city in comparison to other capitals in other states. 

Brief History of Harrisburg

Afternoon light hits the buildings and downtown city center area in Pennsylvania state capital at Harrisburg
Afternoon light hits the buildings and downtown city center area in Pennsylvania state capital at Harrisburg

The history of Harrisburg is an interesting one, especially in light of Philadelphia being the capital of America at one point. It would seem that all of the stars and planets would have been aligned to make Philadelphia the obvious capital of Pennsylvania and not Harrisburg. 

However, that’s not what took place, in the end. The entire reasoning behind the choice of Harrisburg was simple—geographical location. It sits (more or less) in the center of the state, making it an accessible location for everyone living in Pennsylvania. 

That may not seem like a good enough reason today but horse and buggy was the primary mode of transport when Harrisburg was named. John Harris settled the city and it received its name from John Harris’ son, soon after his father’s passing. 

The name didn’t take and the powers that decided Louisburg was more appropriate, to celebrate and honor the French king at the time. That only lasted 6 years, however, as Harrisburg was reinstated in less than a decade.

Throughout this time frame, Harrisburg wasn’t the capital of Pennsylvania. That honor went to a place called Lancaster, another name culled from English history, from the time of the Tudor reign in England, following the War of the Roses

When Did Harrisburg Become the Capital of Pennsylvania?

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA skyline on the Susquehanna River.
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA skyline on the Susquehanna River.

It wasn’t until 1812 that Harrisburg wrested the capital label from Lancaster. It was decided based on the aforementioned geography, especially considering the primary mode of travel at the time. 

Harrisburg’s strategic location (in terms of trade and state-to-state commerce) was also beneficial, sitting adjacent to the Susquehanna River. Its location near the river and its generally centralized location, made Harrisburg the obvious choice, despite its relatively small size and population. 

Philadelphia easily has the largest population in the state and it was the state capital of Pennsylvania for several years. It wasn’t until 1819 that the cornerstone of the capitol building was first laid. 

Despite being the capital of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg wasn’t even chartered as a city until 1860.

Why is Harrisburg the Capital of Pennsylvania?

Most of the reasons behind the honor are listed above. In those days, it took weeks or months to travel from one city to another, or even from farmland out in the country. Bringing goods and produce to the market was an unenviable task. 

Being the geographical center point of Pennsylvania certainly helped. Harrisburg was also the obvious choice for downriver trade, due to the city’s location against the Susquehanna River. Of course, today, most of the area where the cargo would have been unloaded is a park. 

Harrisburg still had to earn it, however, as it competed heavily with Lancaster and Philadelphia for the eventual honor of being named the capital of Pennsylvania and keeping it. 

At the end of the day, Philadelphia is located in the corner of Pennsylvania, hardly an ideal location for people traveling across the entire state. Pennsylvania isn’t exactly narrow, after all. The central location also ensured that people living in the state would have the opportunity to take part in the governance of the state. 

That may not seem like such a big deal now but it was a big deal then. Erie, Pennsylvania, also competed for “capital status” back then as well. But it simply lacked the geographical advantages of Harrisburg when the final decisions were argued and made. 

Best Places to Visit in Harrisburg

If you want to get a true impression of the history of Harrisburg, the capital building is the palace to start. According to the writings of the time, the architecture of the building was based on St. Peter’s basilica, and it’s an impressive-looking building regardless. 

The Pride of the Susquehanna offers steamboat tours up and down the river and then there is the John Harris Simon Cameron Mansion. Since the city is named after John Harris, it’s an obvious place to start your tour of the city. 

Hersheypark is another popular destination, especially if you like Hershey’s chocolate combined with roller coasters and water parks. Hersheypark isn’t as gigantic and action-packed as Disney World or Universal Studios in Orlando, but it’s still a blast. This is especially true if you have kids along for the ride. 

Final Thoughts

Because Harrisburg is relatively innocuous to those of us that don’t live in Pennsylvania, it doesn’t really get the credit it deserves. However, it’s a beautiful city and one that Forbes listed as one of the top cities in America to raise a family in. If you’re ever in Pennsylvania, Harrisburg is worth a stop. 

See Also

Capital Cities 

Hi and welcome to my travel blog! Based in London, I work in investment banking in a quantitative field and although I am not part of the travel industry, I have a ton of passion for travel. My blog is a reference guide for my fellow travelers with the same passion as me. Hopefully the blog is easy to navigate and my aim is to bring the most relevant and interesting information before you begin your journey!