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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Nine
Deluge (continued)


The 1860s

By 1860, Harrisburg had recovered sufficiently from the financial panics of the late 1850s that it could point proudly to a variety of industrial operations. The Eagle Works, located at the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks at the east end of North Street, was a beehive of manufacturing, turning out an amazing variety of business machines, furniture and agricultural devices. Established in 1853 by William O. Hickock, the Eagle Works hired local unskilled workers and trained them to become machinists and cabinetmakers. It employed fifty-eight persons in 1860.

At the other end of North Street, occupying a seven-acre site along the river, was the steam-powered cotton mill. Opened for operation in June 1851, the mill provided work for women and young girls in producing brown shirting and osnaburg from bales of southern cotton. William T. Hildrup’s Harrisburg Car Manufacturing Company, when running at full capacity, turned out nine railroad cars per week. The Pennsylvania Railroad maintained an extensive railroad car and engine repair facility in Harrisburg, and the Central Iron Works of Charles and George Bailey, on Herr Street at the canal competed with the Paxton Furnace, located just south of the city line, which was owned by James McCormick. McCormick bought the West Fairview Nail Works in 1859 and immediately upgraded its operation, so that by 1860 it employed 160 people.69

This blossoming of small industry, in conjunction with the expansion of the railroads and the many small businesses that sprang up to support them, made Harrisburg a very attractive destination for those looking for work. The city—Harrisburg was officially incorporated as a city on 19 March 1860—had 13,400 residents in 1860, an increase of more than 70 percent over the previous decade. Of this population, more than 1300 were African American,70 many of whom had arrived only recently, some as free persons, some as fugitive slaves, from the South.

Although the new manufacturing and industrial base provided many opportunities for employment, these opportunities were not extended to Harrisburg’s African American community. In 1860, no African American industrial workers could be found at the Eagle Works, the Car Works, the Cotton Mill, or the Railroad Maintenance Shops, and only one African American worker was employed at the major iron manufactories.71 Although Harrisburg was brimming with new jobs, the most lucrative employment continued to go to whites.

African Americans were even beginning to lose their hold on the barbering and catering trades. Although racism played the major role in this imbalance, the influx of poor, unskilled, illiterate blacks from the South was also a major factor, and it became even more significant as the newcomers replaced many older African American families who left the area, either due to the Fugitive Slave Law, or for other reasons.

This economic disparity was a result of the same cultural disparity that the leaders of the local African American community had noticed in the mid-1850s, and had taken steps to correct by searching for common cultural ground. It had been hoped that many of the problems associated with this demographic shift—poverty, illiteracy, disease, and crime—would be corrected once the economy improved and good jobs became more readily available. Unfortunately, the jobs that appeared for African Americans in the new decade continued to be that of laborers, porters, and washwomen. For Harrisburg’s African American community, who still had to face the huge beast of slavery a few miles to the South eighty years after passage of the Gradual Abolition Law in the state, this was not a good way to begin a decade.


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69. Eggert, Harrisburg Industrializes, 54-69.

70. Ibid., 346-352.

71. Ibid., 353.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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