Harrisburg’s debt history Chapter Three: Fire and Water

By Bill Keisling

By 1900, Harrisburg, in fact, was a hell hole of dirty, unpaved streets and untreated sewage that was pumped from the Susquehanna River into residents’ spigots, by way of a gravity fed reservoir built in 1862 in Reservoir Park.

“Many streets were poorly paved or unpaved, even at intersections,” writes Wilson in The City Beautiful Movement. “The riverfront, saved from railroad tracks by its abrupt banks, was defiled instead by sewage spewing at its base, and by trash dumps cascading down its bluffs.” Raw sewage “poured into the Pennsylvania Canal and Paxtang Creek. The city pumped its unfiltered and untreated water from a Susquehanna laden with sewage from upstream cities and towns with Culm washed down from anthracite mines. Low water in the river brought murky, foul-smelling liquid to spigots in Harrisburg’s homes and businesses.

Harrisburg residents literally were drinking the sewage from hundreds of thousands of people upriver.

“Moonshine from Perry County was safer to drink than the piped-in Susquehanna,” writes Paul Beers in his book “City Contented, City Discontented: A History of Modern Harrisburg” (Midtown Scholar Press 2011).

“While health statistical reporting was new and inexact at the time, Harrisburg one year had known 27 death from typhoid fever and 13 from diphtheria,” Beers reports.

“It didn’t surprise Harrisburgers that its epidemics seemed to be a constant, not just periodic occurrence,” he continues. “A half-million people upstream dumped their untreated waste into the Susquehanna, and Harrisburgers drank the unfiltered water. Of Harrisburg’s own sewage, what garbage that wasn’t discarded along the river bank, 60 percent went into the Susquehanna and 40 percent into Paxtang Creek. During summer droughts, the foul-smelling river produced odoriferous ‘Susquehanna Punch’ that rivaled the ‘Schuylkill Punch’ which gave Philadelphians diarrhea and worse.”

Change came a few days before Christmas 1900, with a slide show presentation by a stocky yet vivacious Harrisburg spinster in her late forties named Mira Lloyd Dock.

By all account Miss Dock gave one hell of a slide show.

“Mira Lloyd Dock was born in 1853 into an old, financially comfortable Pennsylvania family,” writes Wilson. “She epitomized the energetic ‘new woman,’ who was abandoning parlor studies for practical civics. …Dock believed that Harrisburg should enjoy the rural delights of parks, landscaped views, and pure water.

“Mira was a superb clubwoman in an age when towns like Harrisburg had serious women’s organizations with assertive grand dames to lead them,” Beers adds. Dock would go on to found the Civic Club of Harrisburg.

Dock’s uncle, Dr. George Dock, as far back as the 1960s and 1870s, fought futilely for pure drinking water in Harrisburg.

In 1899 Mira Lloyd Dock had been invited to travel to London to attend the International Congress of Women. The Federation of Pennsylvania Women and the Parks Association of Philadelphia appointed Dock to represent them in London.

“European travel broadened Dock’s knowledge of forestry and heightened her concern for civic beautification,” writes Wilson. “A first-rate amateur photographer, she returned with dozens of negative plates of urban parks, squares, and riverine improvements. …Dock prepared lantern-slide talk, comparing the manicured parks and riverbanks of European cities and the natural beauties of the Harrisburg area with Harrisburg’s trash-strewn bluffs, foul sewers, and generally unkempt appearance. Slides of improvements in other American cities heaped more humiliation on the smug little city alongside the Susquehanna.

Wilson continues:

“By December 1900, Dock was ready for a major appearance. On the twentieth of that month she spoke on ‘The City Beautiful’ to a ‘large audience’ composed of members of the city’s elite Board of Trade and their guests. Her graphic descriptions, her more than one hundred striking slides, and her ‘graces that gave so much charm to the successful public speaker,’ compelled her audience’s attention. The talk, stripped of her vibrant animation, consisted of well-worn, but well-preserved, arguments for the City Beautiful. Harrisburg, Dock averred, was blessed with a beautiful setting but it had abused some of its natural beauty spots and had failed to preserve others. Some cities with fewer natural advantages had achieved more beauty. Her ‘vivid description of the roughness, slime and filth we create for ourselves, caused applause and then the hush of full comprehension.’

“She appealed to civic pride and to interurban competitive spirit but also played on the theme of organic social unity. She reminded her audience that classes were interdependent and that working-class people and their children needed beauty spots and recreation areas as much or more than anyone else. The city should build playgrounds, parks, and public baths (swimming pools with tubs, showers, soap, and towels available in the dressing rooms) for those citizens who lacked the means to provide for themselves.

“Dock insisted that parks, recreation, clean streets, and clean inhabitants were compatible with a city’s business success, denouncing the idea that such improvements had ‘no place in a busy manufacturing town.’ She made deft comparisons between local ‘hideous conditions’ and attractive scenes in Milwaukee, Boston, Hartford, Dayton, and European cities. Through her slides of progressive communities ‘the cash value of cleanliness and beauty in busy places was strongly shown.’ She praised voluntary ameliorative work but urged more citizens to take an interest in Harrisburg’s development.

“The success of Dock’s address suggested that some members of the elite had already begun to worry about the city’s situation and prospects.”

Paul Beers, in his book, makes the point that Mira Lloyd Dock’s arguments, particularly about cleanliness, resonated with a broader audience than just the elite slide show viewers on the Board of Trade.

Beers, in his other books about Pennsylvania history, loves to write about what he calls Pennsylvania Dutch cheapness. Pennsylvania German, he likes to say, are simply tight with a buck.

But Pennsylvania Germans also admire cleanliness, he points out, and the idea of cleaning up the sewage in Harrisburg’s taps and the garbage in its streets won the day and quickly opened the pocketbooks of the broad citizenry. The broad public stood ready and prepared to accept the municipal debt required to clean up their city. And they clearly understood why it should be done.

“German Harrisburg, with its certainty that cleanliness is next to godliness and almost as important as material comfort, was especially susceptible to the arguments of Miss Dock,” Beers notes.

Dock’s slide show address was all the more remarkable, Beers writes, “because it was the first known incident of a woman in male-dominated Harrisburg influencing public policy.”

Still, we should note, there were power centers and spheres of influence in Harrisburg, by the rules of polite Victorian and Edwardian society, where Dock and other women were excluded.

“With verve and skill she exploited the two means of gaining a beautiful city that were available to the leisured, middle class women of her day, organization and publicity,” Wilson writes.

Still, “Teas, polite conversation, and literary exegesis were not, for her, the proper ends for the women’s club.”

Dock’s “role and the role of (her) Civic Club were different from those of men’s organizations,” Wilson continues. “The distinction can be laid in part to late Victorian ideas about the separate spheres of women and men, for participation in formal decision-making and leadership in major public meetings were closed to females.”

She and other women, then, would focus on publicity, while the men folk handled the details of the politics and finances.

And as for the involvement of minorities – forgetaboutit

As we’ll see, it would take another four score of years, until about 1980, when women and minorities in Harrisburg finally gained a measure of admittance to the hallways of power.

We should keep this in mind: leadership requires exposure to leadership, and practice.

To be continued

Updated: June 27, 2012 — 9:54 am
Newslanc.com © 2015