Friday, February 03, 2012

There Were Good Times When Republicans Ruled Harrisburg

Paul Beers. Michael Barton (ed.) City Contented: City Discontented: A History of Modern Harrisburg. Harrisburg, Pa.: Midtown Scholar Press, 2011.

This book is a collection of newspaper column written by Paul Beers that provides us with a history of 20th century Harrisburg.  Harrisburg is a city that, from 1900 to 1905, saw 2,500 new buildings costing over $5 million.  Seven banks arose in Harrisburg from 1903 to 1910.  Harrisburg’s population was 10,000 in 1900 growing to 50,000 in 1910.  An increase in railroad, steel, and government jobs fueled growth with Harrisburg reaching 75,000 in 1920.

A new Capitol building was dedicated in 1906. 27 nude statutes depicting unbroken and broken laws were placed in front in 1911.  The nude sculptures caused controversy.  The sculptor, George Grey Barnard, expected $700,000 for them,  The legislature, some of whom wanted the sculptures discarded, paid him $180,000.

The new 633 room Capitol as 23 times than was the burned Capitol it replaced.  It was built with 1,100 carloads of Vermont granite. In 1906, the Capitol had the world’s most expensive lighting system, costing $4 million.  Half those costs, though, were illegal payments to contractors.

In 1900, the Capitol had 300 employees working for 11 departments plus 14 boards and commissions for a state government budget of $17 million.  By 1920, there were 1,400 working for 20 department and 15 boards with a state government budget.

By comparison, in 1812, there were 50 state employees working for a state government budget of $336,819.15.  Governor Simon Snyder didn’t have an office and all his work was kept in his pocket.

 An Executive House for the Governor was created in 1858.  Harrisburg has an agreement that if the Capitol ever leaves Harrisburg, it will be given $20,000.  This would repay $20,000 Harrisburg paid for the Governor’s Mansion in an effort to keep the Capitol in Harrisburg.

People then drank water from the river which they also dumped their waste.  One year, 27 died from typhoid and 13 from diphtheria in Harrisburg.  Vance McCormick, Chairman of the Municipal League and a City Councilman, led a successful effort for a $1.1 million bond issue for public facilities for clean water.  $1.1 million was about what all homes in Harrisburg were worth.  The drive lasted nine months and helped elect McCormick Mayor on his “Anti-Typhoid Ticket”.  At the same time, the blond issue was approved by 7,319 to 3,739.  The Municipal League spent over $10,000 and printed over 200,000 flyers in support of the bond issue.

Mayor McCormick instituted street sweepers, a new practice that continued until the 1950s.  Many city streets were also paved for the first time during McCormick’s term.

Harrisburg had a zoo from 1927 to 1945 with as many as four lions, four bears, one tiger, and others. 

Harrisburg was a mixture of neighborhoods.  Social events happened in neighborhoods and were most self-contained.  The entire neighborhood thrived or declined.

African Americans lived in segregated neighborhoods.  William Howard Day, an Auditor General clerk, was probably the first African American state employee in 1872.  Day later became the first African American School Board President in a Northern state.  In 1925, 13% of African Americans in Harrisburg and Steelton owned their own homes.

Sibletown in Harrisburg is the oldest African American neighborhood in Pennsylvania.  It was the only African American community in the nation carried by Barry Goldwater over Lyndon Johnson by 378 to 303.  Pearl Bailey lived in Sibletown.

Over 30 people used to drown annually in the Susquehanna River.

Harrisburg once reached over 40 million cigars manufactured in the King Oscar, Sweet Girl, and Owl brands.

Railroads were an important business. Political boss Harvey Taylor supported railroad interests.  The Republican Senate President Pro Tem once, perhaps jokingly announced “The Pennsylvania Railroad having no most business in this chamber, we stand adjourned.”

There is no 8th Street in Harrisburg.  It is now a rail line.  As many as 15,000 Harrisburg residents worked for the railroads.  Most jobs began early in the day.  Nightlight past 9 pm was minimum in Harrisburg.  Railroad people traditionally went straight home to get up early and did not drink as much as others did.  Many joined the Prohibition Party and followed Harrisburg’s Rev. Silas Comfort Swallows, who ran for Governor, coming in second, and for President as the Prohibition Party nominee.

Railroads jobs then were not available to African Americans.

Ed Beidelman was Harrisburg’s Republican laeder from 1912 to 1929.  Beidelman was a railroad counsel who also had labor interests as he helped create laws establishing workers compensation, protecting street car motormen, and requiring a full crew complement on trains.  Beidelman also served as Lieutenant Governor.

The Depression claimed the Harrisburg Cigar Company and its 900 jobs as well as the Harrisburg Shoe Manufacturing Company and its 500 jobs. There were 12,000 steel workers employed in Steelton and only Pittsburgh then produced more steel.

Harrisburg used to have a trolley system with 130 trolleys serving the area.  The rise of automobiles killed the trollies.

The rate of Harrisburg high school graduates going to post high school education did not rise above 30% in 1937.

Harrisburg schools were then so segregated that a Mississippi member of Congress noted that his states’ schools were more integrated.

The Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association, the older state government press association, began in 1895.  Reporters have a Capitol office on the E (Enteral) floor.  In the 1880s, several state legislators doused a Patriot report with water from a fire hose as they believed him drunk. 

In the 1860s, Simon Cameron, a political boss, was upset that the Patriot had written that African Americans should join the Union Army.  Cameron had four Patriot editors illegally imprisoned for 16 days.

The Patriot deemphasized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and gave more prominence to other stories, such as a drunken brawl between friends.  Lincoln would lose Adams and Cumberland Counties in the 1864 election.

In the 1970s, Speaker Jack Seltzer claimed the press made “the public image of the legislature lower than whale manure.”

Fiction works based upon Harrisburg include “A Rage to Live” and “Ourselves to Know”, both written by John O’Hara and James Boyd’s “Roll River.”

Harrisburg, along with other Pennsylvania cities, lost about one fifth of their population to suburbs from the 1960s to the 1970s.  This shifted political, economic, and social power towards the suburbs.  The State Senator representing Harrisburg from 1964 on did not live in Harrisburg.  By the 1980s, only one county judge was from Harrisburg.

There was a riot in Harrisburg in 1969, resulting in one death, eight arsons, and 103 arrests.  That year marked the last time Harrisburg schools had more white students than African American students.

As population shifted to the suburbs, an economic plan was offered to help the declining city.  The Greater Harrisburg Movement attempted a response by forming in 1972.  William Keisling was its Executive Directdor.  Harrisburg formed in 1972 to develop Strawberry Square shopping and office space as well as City Towers residences.

Harristown was developed according to the philosophy of Elenezer Howard that a public authority with the ability to plan and own land for public purposes is necessary.  The state government leased offices from Harristown worth $480 million in obligations.  State Sen. Richard Tilghman sued to prevent the state form doing this, yet his suit was unsuccessful.

From 1956 to 1975, Harrisburg lost 700 businesses. Retail was 70% of Harrisburg businesses in 1950 and 11% in 1975.

17,000 pounds of untreated mine acid went into the Susquehanna River in 1970.  Governor Raymond Shafer and Attorney General Fred Speaker quickly provided $1 million in response to this environmental disaster.

Hurricane Agnes hit in 1972, flooding 6,000 Harrisburg homes, destroying 83 of them.  616 businesses were destroyed.  There were $200 million in damages, of which insurance covered $5 million.

The flood cost Harrisburg city government $3 million.  The Federal government did not act to provide flood protection.  A future flood will likely take the same path as happened during Agnes.

Harrisburg built a “Rolls Royce” incinerator that cost $1 million in annual mortgage payments, even before it began operating.  Harrisburg offered “maid service” trash collection where garbage collectors went up driveways for up to 40 feet to collect trash.

Municipal debt increased from $8.8 million in 1965 to $25.18 million in 1979.  Harristown had $150 million debt yet had almost $500 million in long term lease commitments.  In 1977         , the per capita local debt of a Pennsylvanian was $330 while this per capita debt for a Harrisburg resident was $3,185.

Harrisburg has one water filtration plant providing 15 million gallons of water per day. It has not been updated much since it opened in 1940.  The Agnes flood destroyed Harrisburg’s other filtration plant.

The “Rolls Royce” incinerator would financially succeed only if more affluent suburban communities joined in using it.  They declined to do so, opting to send their trash to distant landfills.  In 1969, the incinerator had $20 million in amortized bonds.  Operational difficulties drove the bond costs to $20 million.  The incinerator has the capacity to handle 720 tons of trash daily.  To be financially successful, the incinerator needs to operate at 85% capacity.  It generally runs at 60% capacity.

In 1958, there were 98 African Americans employed in state government.

The Republican Party, through the days of Harvey Taylor, engaged in “400 votes of six pages of the calendar” voting in the African American precincts.  This was a process where a voter would put a calendar page into the ballot box.  Inside the calendar was 400 ballots all marked for Republican candidates.  City Sanitation Inspector Charles Franklin was indicted in 1965 for voter tampering in the predominantly African American 7th Ward.  This was a precinct that produced a 400-0 vote in 1947 when Franklin worked at the polls.  In 1963, all of the 12 candidates Franklin supported received exactly 627 votes with the 12 challenges getting 52 to 54 votes.  In 1964, Harvey Taylor won Franklin’s precinct  by 640-4 while Goldwater carried it by 378-303.  This was the only African American Goldwater won in the nation.

The first African American firefighter in Harrisburg was hired in 1973.  The first integrate public housing was Morrison Tower which opened in 1976.

Several state legislators went to Moose Lodge 107, a few blocks from the Capitol, in 1969.  An African American legislator, Leroy Irvis, was denied service.  He sued.  The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Moose, a private lodge, had a right to restrict service to members.

Harrisburg remained mostly racially segregated.  It was called the “Mississippi of the North”.

In 1969, Central Dauphin passed Harrisburg as Dauphin County’s largest school district.  Harrisburg’s school budges tripled from 1968 to 1983 to $30 million. From 1980 on, the state government ended its commitment that it had done to provide half of local school costs.  City schools like Harrisburg require more spending on special programs, truancy, etc.  Harrisburg hit its debt limit in 1973 and received court permission to go $1.6 million further in debt in order to pay expenses.  A Middle School was building under the “classroom without walls” philosophy that later was shown as a failure.  The school soon needed walls and a new roof.

In 1969, 16 of Harrisburg’s 18 grammar schools were racially segregated, with schools having from 95% to 99% African American pupils.  Harrisburg’s schools were desegregated in 1970.  43% of pupils were transported to schools.

The new Harrisburg High School lost its only 1971 football game at the predominately white Cedar Cliff High School.  A Confederate flag flew on the Cedar Cliff side. Racial agitation resulted.  Only African American students were arrested with three given of them prison terms.  The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association did not reprimand Cedar Cliff but placed Harrisburg on two years of probation with limited practices.  A District Justice from near Cedar Cliff observed the penalties appeared one sided based on the events observed.

The United Republicans, also called the United Arabs, unsuccessfully tried to defeat Harvey Taylor for control of the local Republican Party.  One of the members of the insurgent group, John Shumaker, would return 21 years later and be elected to the State Senate.

Harvey Taylor was 88 years old and was Senate President Pro Tem when he faced reelection in 1964.  The long-time local political boss had successfully helped guide much of Governor Bill Scranton’s agenda through the legislature.  Taylor even helped pass a $5 commute tax that upset some constituents.  He also tried unsuccessfully to defeat an old ally Blaine Hocker for reelection to the state legislature.  Taylor did not bother to fill the League of Women Voters questionnaire, assuming his reelection was assured.  Taylor was upset by William Lentz by 3,249 votes.  Taylor would later be defeated running as a Nixon delegate in the 1968 Republican Primary.  Taylor lived to be 106.

Mayor Nolan Ziegler in 1957 had the foresight to realize what Harrisburg needed to survive.  He urged the legislature to either allow Harrisburg to annex its suburbs or that it receives payments from tax exempt properties.  The legislature did not agree.

Harrisburg reportedly had 38 houses of prostitution during World War II. Author John Gunther quipped that Harrisburg was the only cith both the Army and Navy wanted quashed.

An independent audit of city finances in 1967 discovered numerous irregularities.  The Police Chief pled guilty to larceny.  A Charter Commission was formed and John Lynch, a Democrat, received the most votes to serve on the commission.  In 1969, Democrat Harold Swenson defeated incumbent Mayor Al Straub by 50 votes.

Mayor Swenson produced the city’s first capital budget in 1972, which was $3.6 million for public service upgrades.  When Harrisburg Railways began planning closing its local rail lines, Swenson created local bus service with the Capitol Area Transit  Authority in 1973.  Harrisburg began fluoridating its water in 1970.

In 1978, in his third week in office, Mayor Tim Doutrich faced a $300,000 in emergency snow removal costs when up to 20 inches of snow hit Harrisburg’s 450 miles of streets.  This caused the city’s Moody’s bond rating to be lowered.  Harrisburg had $30 million in needed water system repairs but no means to obtain the funds.  A third mill special property tax was approved for two new fire stations.  Meanwhile, the city incinerator was losing about a million dollars a year.  The city budget was underfinanced and unable to meet bond payments. It was a budget Doutrich refused to sign.  Doutrich was defeated for reelection by Stephen Reed.

Democrat Reed defeated Republican Doutrich by 8,782 to 3,731.  Reed earlier won a primary over Councilman Earl Gohl by 292 votes.

Mayor Reed and Council President Gohl quarreled for two years.

Harrisburg has received various visitors throughout its history. Oscar Wilde described hotel sofas in Harrisburg as “hideous”.  John O’Hara also wrote about disgraceful hotels in Harrisburg. Charles Dickens was upset in 1842 when observing state legislators in Harrisburg spitting tobacco juice onto the House floor.


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