Chambersburg Historic District
The Chambersburg Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document as submitted to the National Park Service. Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The development of Chambersburg, known earlier as Chambers, Chamberstown, and Chambers Fort, coincided with the construction of roads, and later, the railroads. The Harris Ferry Road, or Great Road was opened in 1744 from Harrisburg by way of Carlisle, Shippensburg, and Chambersburg to the Potomac and, with the passage of Braddock-Forbes Road begun in 1755, Chambersburg became an important stopping place for travellers going west to Pittsburgh. In the late 1780's the first wagon train passed through, and in 1814, the first turnpike opened. The advent of rail travel by way of the Cumberland Valley Railroad from Harrisburg to Chambersburg in 1837 contributed significantly to growth in Chambersburg.
Shortly after the ending of the French and Indian War, Colonel Chambers, having received a warrant for his land, advertised for settlers in a Philadelphia newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, published by Benjamin Franklin. In the issue of July 19, 1764 appeared the following advertisement:
"Notice is hereby given to the public, that there is a town laid out on Conegogig creek, on both sides of the Great Falling Spring, where it falls into said creek, by Benjamin Chambers of Cumberland county. Lots may be had on reasonable terms and Firm Deeds granted for them by said Chambers; the day appointed for drawing said lots is the 28th day of June inst., being Thursday. The situation of this town is very good for water and stone, both free and marble, and sand all handy to the spot, and a well timbered part of the county adjoining it; within said town is a good grist mill, saw mill and grindstones going by water. The articles of the town shall be read on the day appointed for the drawing of the lots, and the terms of the sale published."
The advertisement, which appeared after the lottery, drew few purchasers. Only five lots were sold before 1775, and not until 1778-9 were there enough settled lots to constitute a Village. The original plot of Chambersburg was south of the Falling Spring, east of the Conocheague, to a point marked by an alley 256 feet east of Third Street, and south to Liberty Street. At the time of the advertisement, Chambersburg was part of Cumberland County, which had been established from York County in 1759. Five more expansions of the boundaries took place before the beginning of the 19th century:
By the end of the first third of the 19th century, the town had steadily grown with the limits extended to the north near the intersection of Second Street and Philadelphia Avenue, east almost to Third Street, to the south beyond Catherine, and west to Franklin Street.
The rapid expansion that took place towards the end of the 18th Century followed the creation of Franklin County in 1784 when Franklin Township became the county seat. Franklin Township was made up of the Chambersburg town plot plus seven tracts of land adjacent. The business of the courts and the importance of the town as being the only voting place in the county during the first year of its existence added a great stimulus to business which was already thriving on the travel through the town to and from the frontier. One of the travellers included George Washington with the military expedition to quell the Whiskey Rebellion.
In 1784, the name Chamberstown was changed to Chambersburg. In 1788, a year after the Northwest Ordinance was enacted;by resolution of Congress, Chambersburg was placed on the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh post route. The first courthouse was finished in 1794, built on land given to the town by Colonel Chambers. At this time the town contained about 200 buildings, including mills and a market. In 1803, the town of Chambersburg was erected into a Borough.
The population growth, slow at the beginning, expanded rapidly with the creation of the town as the county seat, and by 1786 there were 576 residents with 96 improved lots and 40 unimproved lots. By 1788, there were 806 residents with 134 improved lots and 24 unimproved lots, and by 1790, the population had increased to 900. From 1840 to 1940, the population grew from 3,239 to 14,852. The latest figures show Chambersburg with approximately 15,700 people.
In the early period of the settlement the population was predominantly Scotch- Irish and agriculturally-based. As a result of Penn's generous land policies, a great number of Germans eventually settled in Franklin County, where they primarily became fanners. Some Germans settled in the Borough and their broad central-chinmeyed structures still can be found in the western and southern parts of the district. Nearly all the earliest structures were 1 or 14 -story log, with a few stone and brick structures. As the town developed and small industries, such as hat-making and tool-making, and support services for the many passers-through grew, the initial small log houses were replaced with 2 or 2 1/2-story brick or frame buildings, many handsomely carrying second-story side porches, a typical feature in the town. Small stables and dwellings remained on the alleys bisecting the squares.
By the time of the Great Fire, Chambersburg was busy with shop-industries and larger industries of milling, paper-making, iron work, brewing and distilling. The streets of the downtown area were lined with 2% story brick and frame structures, with smaller log and frame interspersed.
The burning of Chambersburg on Saturday, July 30, 1864 was accomplished by General John A. McCausland under order of General Jubal A. Early who commanded him to capture the town, levy a tribute upon it of $100,000.00 in gold or $500,000.00 in U.S. currency and in default of the payment to burn the town. The burning began at 8 a.m. before many were aware of the invasion and was completed by 11:OO a.m., leaving parts of 11 squares of Chambersburg in flames. 2,000 people were made homeless and 537 buildings burned with a value of real estate of $713,294.34. After the fire, rebuilding began at once, resulting in a uniform streetscape still to be seen in the greater part of the burned area.
After the Great Fire, Chambersburg's economy boomed with the development of foundries such as T. B. Wood's & Sons and the Wolf Company, both of which drew on local supplies of iron ore and charcoal from South Mountain. Chambersburg also became a major railroad repair and marshalling yard of the Cumberland Valley Railroad, later purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Associated with this industrial growth was a proliferation of single-family detached and semi-detached structures, marked by Street-facing gable ends, first-floor porches with Eastlake decoration and entryways off the long end. It is this type of housing which characterizes most of the housing built after the burning of Chambersburg.
The national significance of Chambersburg relates primarily to the Borough's civil war history. Given its location in the Great Valley, the Borough was occupied by Confederate soldiers in 1862, 1863, and 1864, and it was the only major northern city burned by Confederate forces. As a result of the burning, Chambersburg's downtown streetscapes offer the opportunity for visual comparisons of a rapidly reconstructed area to those areas resulting from the first occupation as well as to later 19th century growth. Moreover, these comparisons are easily made because 20th century growth in Chambersburg has not been accompanied by mass demolition, and therefore the architectural assemblage not only reflects its civil war heritage, but also contains significant vestiges of a major 18th century agricultural community and a post-civil war industrial town based upon supplies of charcoal and iron ore. Remains of 18th century and early 19th century agriculturally-based occupation can be seen in the mill assemblages along the Conococheague & Falling Spring and the prosperous townhouses of merchants in the area just outside the burned portion. The primary remnants of the industrial period are the housing elements of the workers, in particular the gable end street-facing structures listed above.
More specifically, the district contains four distinct historical architectural areas: first, the commercial core which was rebuilt after the burning; second, the downtown residential district which is exclusively brick in construction and both predates and postdates the fire; third, the southern residential area which has been occupied since the early 19th century and is characterized by less substantial log dwellings of the early period as well as late 19th century clapboard and brick infill; and finally, the fourth region is the blue collar section to the northeast which is almost universally made up of clapboard duplexes of late 19th century origin.
The Commercial Central Area, which was laid out in 1764, and which was with few exceptions leveled by General McCausland, Confederate States of America, in 1864, is characterized by a sequence of three-story brick Italianate-appointed commercial/ residential structures built between 1864 and 1870. The heart of the district, The Diamond, is dominated by the Greek Revival Courthouse and a fine cast iron fountain, both of which were constructed after the fire. As a whole, the district is intact and contains less than 5 percent intrusions. The most notable structures within this area are the Courthouse, the Cumberland Valley Bank, the sequence of storefronts between King and the Diamond on the west side of the street, the neoclassical Coyle Library, and the Queen Anne apartment structure on the corner of King and Main Streets.
Surrounding the commercial core in a doughnut-like configuration is a residential area, over half of which was built prior to the burning. The most notable pre-fire structures are two-story Flemish-bonded dwellings. Those constructed just following the fire are distinguished by a three-story common bonded facade with corbeled brick panels and corbeled brick or wood cornices. In addition, the wood cornices on these new structures are heavily decorated with Italianate brackets and intervening applied Panels. Although there are few intrusions, less than 5 percent, the area has suffered most from demolition for parking lots which are intended to serve the commercial district. Therefore, a situation has been created where sequences are difficult to identify. Some of the most noteworthy structures within this area are the old market house and town hall, now the City Hall, the Federal townhouse sequence between 153 and 157 South Second Street, the old jail building at the corner of Second and King Streets, the early 19th century Presbyterian Church complex on North Philadelphia Street, and the William Chambers house on Chambers Street. In addition, a series of street-facing gable end buildings appear in this area, many with side porches; this style became a predominant house type in Chambersburg.
Adjoining this area on the south is a series of blocks which were set out and occupied prior to 1850. Although there have been some late 19th century intrusions, most of which are two-story clapboard, there are a significant number of log and brick structures which predate the burning of Chambersburg, and actually reflect the early 19th century settlement. Originally occupied by artisans and lower middle class workers, the district has remained of the same socio-economic character even until today. Log and brick structures still characterize the district as it did 125 years ago, and although there are no dominate structures within this area, over 95 percent of the area is residential and free of intrusion excepting -on the southern- most edge where as much as 25 percent is intrusions.
The last area is also the latest section to have been built; it was constructed at the end of the 19th century as housing for the industrialized area in the northern portion of the community. The industrial area was generally dominated by the Cumberland Valley Railroad. The dominant house type is a two-story clapboard duplex with a street-facing gable end central mass flanked by an "L wing". Most of the district is intact. There are less than 5 percent intrusions which take away from the ambience of the district. Of detriment to the district is the almost continuous use of either aluminum or vinyl siding as a skin on these structures. Demolition has been at a minimum and the area definitely represents the industrialization of Chambersburg in the area in which these workers resided.
In conclusion, the significance of the Borough of Chambersburg rests in the effects of the civil war and the architectural and economical developments of the area as they are expressed in the built environment. The district which represents this environment is primarily that part of Chambersburg that was settled by 1850 (pre-fire) and that settlement almost exclusively fell within the natural bounds created by the Conococheague and the Falling-Spring as well as within the area marked by the readily-identifiable railbeds of the Western Maryland Railway and the Penn Central Railroad. A small area west of the creek that was developed by 1850 and was burned is also included. The boundary basically follows the Falling Spring to the north and the Conococheague to the west with an extension from the Conococheague south along the railroad adjacent to Water Street. To the east the boundary follows the Perm Central railroad and to the south the end of the pre-civil war dwellings marks the limits of the district.