A Mid-19th-Century View of Harrisburg

While poking around on the Internet this afternoon, I found something that would excite me — a bird’s eye view painting of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, done by an artist for Edward Sachse’s company in 1855.

Bird's Eye View of Harrisburg, J.T. Williams, 1855
Source: Library of Congress

Sasche is an artist I’ve mentioned before in conjunction with my family genealogy — he did bird’s eye view maps of Baltimore and Washington that I’ve delved into — and I use his 1852 panorama of Washington as my desktop wallpaper at work.

I downloaded the TIFF from the Library of Congress website and spent two hours cleaning up the image and adjusting the colors.

It’s an interesting painting. Harrisburg doesn’t look anything like that, though some of the buildings remain. The state capitol burned down and was rebuilt at the beginning of the 20th-century. The Episcopalian cathedral on Front Street looks exactly the same as it did in 1855, but I don’t know that I recognize any of the other churches. The Catholic cathedral today, for instance, looks quite different from the church third down on the right side. I had no idea there was a canal to the east of the city that ran parallel to the river, and some research tells me that was the Pennsylvania Canal Eastern Division.

The bottom panel in the painting is quite interesting to me — it depicts City Island, home of the Harrisburg Senators!

City Island, as depicted in JT Williams' 1855 painting of Harrisburg
Detail of bottom center panel, showing City Island

No baseball field yet. Even the bridges I know today aren’t there yet. But I know those mountains to the north. I’ve looked upon them many times from FNB Field on City Island or from Front Street along the Harrisburg side of the Susquehanna.

It’s educational to compare this to a turn of the century photograph of City Island and Harrisburg. A lot changed in 50 years — a new capitol was built, St. Patrick’s gained its green dome, the Walnut Street bridge as I now know it spans the Susquehanna, a ballpark and houses occupy City Island.

I took it a step further, to clip the center image, center that, keep the signatures and caption, and reformat it as a single image, along the lines of Sachse’s panoramic views of Washington and Baltimore. It works quite well, looking like it was always meant to be that way..

Harrisburg, 1855, looking south, formatted as a single image

When I get my cleaned up version of the painting developed at Walgreen’s or CVS, I’ll have a nice piece of wall art for my apartment or office. I only have to decide which version I want — the cleaned up original with the various panels (which I’m leaning toward) or the single panoramic view. 🙂

Published by Allyn Gibson

A writer, editor, journalist, sometimes coder, occasional historian, and all-around scholar, Allyn Gibson is the writer for Diamond Comic Distributors' monthly PREVIEWS catalog, used by comic book shops and throughout the comics industry, and the editor for its monthly order forms. In his over ten years in the industry, Allyn has interviewed comics creators and pop culture celebrities, covered conventions, analyzed industry revenue trends, and written copy for comics, toys, and other pop culture merchandise. Allyn is also known for his short fiction (including the Star Trek story "Make-Believe,"the Doctor Who short story "The Spindle of Necessity," and the ReDeus story "The Ginger Kid"). Allyn has been blogging regularly with WordPress since 2004.

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