Harrisburg’s Debt History Concluding Chapters – Carpet baggers, politicians, muted media and compulsive borrowing
A List of Harrisburg Bond Issues 1902 to 1926
“Harrisburg was a cool place to live 100 years ago,” the librarian at the Historical Society of Dauphin County told me one day not long ago.
I’d wandered into the library of the Historical Society to dig up information on the City Beautiful Movement, and Harrisburg’s water supply at DeHart Dam, opened in the late 1940s.
Today, many of the assets created in this time period are at risk of being sold off to help pay Harrisburg’s crippling $1 billion-plus bond debt accumulated from the 1980s to the present.
The Historical Society librarian was a cheerful, middle-aged fellow.
He says to me, “If the governor sells the water supply and DeHart Dam I’m going to move away. The water supply is what made Harrisburg. It made the city grow. All the surrounding boroughs wanted in to Harrisburg after the water supply was built. Plentiful water made planning and growth possible.”
The library and archives of the Historical Society is housed in a reconverted livery stable behind the old John Harris / Simon Cameron Mansion on Front Street in Harrisburg, not far from the hospital.
Across the street from the mansion, overlooking a pretty bend in the slow moving Susquehanna, is the grave of the founder of Harrisburg, John Harris.
Today when you walk past Harris’s grave you can see the Dock Street Dam, named for Mira Lloyd Dock’s family, and financed by the first city beautiful bond issue of 1902.
As you stand and face the river the Dock Street Dam is to the left of City Island, where the water filtration plant was built, and then destroyed in the flood of 1972.
All around is a great depth of history. The history unfortunately is not always apparent to the naked eye. For the most part unaware of the rich legacy of their history, today’s citizens of Harrisburg may be about to lose everything.
Their city and its history are about to be eaten alive by bond industry carpetbaggers, the uncaring politicians in their employ, and myopic media.
The day I visited the Historical Society I sat for a while along the riverbank reading Dr. Donehoo’s 1927 commemorative book “Harrisburg The City Beautiful, Romantic and Historic”.
Dr. Donehoo’s little book reads like a testament to the forgotten history of Harrisburg.
“The author does not know of any city of the size of Harrisburg in the entire country which made as complete a plan of improvement and then carried it out to the letter. Every step was intelligently taken,” Dr. Donehoo boasts.
“With this era of civic improvement, carried on by the city and all of the organizations in the city, there also was commenced an era of improvement in the homes of the people,” Donehoo continues.
“The epidemic of betterment became contagious. It not only infected the homes of the people, but it also affected every corporation in the city and its vicinity. The Pennsylvania and Reading railways tore down the old bridges over the Susquehanna and erected the beautiful bridges which add to the marvelous view presented along the river front. Each of these new bridges cost about two and a quarter millions of dollars.
“New bank, office and hotel buildings have taken the place of the old. The Masons, the Odd Fellows, the Moose and other organizations of a secret and fraternal nature have erected beautiful and costly buildings. Some of the largest and most ornate church buildings in the city of all denominations have been erected since 1901.”
(It would be this same Moose Lodge, here mentioned by Dr. Donehoo, on State Street in 1970, in the shadow of today’s capitol building, where future state House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis would be denied service because he was a black man. -ed.)
“But perhaps of more interest to the people at large are the improvements which have been made in the school facilities of the city since the commencement of this period of improvement. No finer schools can be found in any city than are the Camp Curtin, the Edison, and the William Penn and the John Harris High Schools. Any city, however large it may be, could well be proud to possess such splendid public school buildings as Harrisburg has erected for the education of its children and young people during the past twenty-five years. The William Penn and John Harris High School buildings were dedicated in the same week in 1926.
Once, it’s worth remembering, Harrisburg’s John Harris and William Penn High Schools were models of modern education.
By the late-1960s these same school buildings would be weakened and blighted by urban decay, and soon mortally wounded by white flight
Dr. Donehoo goes on to clearly and succinctly summarizethe eleven bond issues, and loans from city council, approved by Harrisburgers from 1902 to 1926.
These bond issues are easily explained by Donehoo in a way that is impossible to do with the tangle of bonds and swaps issued at the end of the century by the administration of Mayor Reed.
“The City of Harrisburg has issued a number of municipal loans for the purpose of carrying out the plans suggested by the experts who made the survey in 1901, and other purposes. These loans are as follows:
“First (1902), $1,090,000 for improvement of the water supply, the sewerage system, the construction of a dam in the Susquehanna River, parks and park improvement, and paving the intersections of streets.
“Second (1906), for $400,000; for reconstruction of the Mulberry Street viaduct, extension and improvement of the sewerage system, paving of street intersections and paving of non-assessable property.
“Third (1910), $641,000 for improvement of the sanitary condition of Paxtang Creek, sewers, for paving intersections of streets, an intercepting sewer along the Susquehanna River and the construction of a bridge across the Reading R. R. on Thirteenth Street.
“Fourth (1914), $300,000 for sewers, bridges, foot walk on Market Street, comfort station in Market Square, apparatus for fire department, municipal asphalt repair plant, playgrounds, park improvements, etc.
“Fifth (1917), $60,000 for improving fire department by purchase of motor-driven apparatus and remodeling fire houses for housing of these.
“Sixth (1920), $190,000 for improving the sewers, street paving and for a municipal bathing beach.
“Councilmanic loan (1921), $250,000 for purpose of rearranging Third and Walnut Streets in order that they might conform to the plan adopted by the State for Capitol Park, and for opening of Front Street, Herr to Calder Streets.
“Seventh (1921-23), $800,000 for each year, or $1,600,000 of a total, to be used for the extension, improvement and enlargement of the water supply third reservoir etc.
“Eighth (1923), $285,000 for building a municipal incineration plant, for sewers, paving streets, etc.
“Second Councilmanic loan (1923) $35,000 for the purpose of making necessary repairs on the Mulberry Street viaduct.
“Ninth(1925), $330,000 for walls at Island Park, improvement of bathing beach, opening highways, paving intersections, etc.
“Tenth (1926), $300,000 for the erection of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Bridge at State Street and the Capitol Park. [In 1916 a loan of $300,000 was passed for the erection of a bridge over Paxton Creek, at Walnut Street. This amount was transferred to the Memorial Bridge fund; $300,000 was the City's part for the erection of this bridge, the State, by an appropriation, paying the balance.]
“Third Councilmanic loan (1925), $104,000 for stables, garbage and ash bureau, purchase of land for water works, improving Italian Lake and Park, repairs on State Street bridge, riprap work along River Front Park and new asphalt repair shop.
“Eleventh (1926), authorized but not issued, total $1,274,400, which was overwhelmingly approved by the taxpayers, providing for widening the Market Street subway under the Pennsylvania railroad ($637,400), construction of a bridge with necessary approaches on the line of Paxton Street at the intersection of Second, providing for abolition of certain grade crossings ($287,000), street paving in front of non-assessable property ($200,000), and construction of sewers ($150,000).”
“The author has mentioned these various details concerning the Harrisburg plans for municipal improvement and the various loans for the carrying out of these plans because they are most illuminating as to just what Harrisburg has been doing to make this capital of Pennsylvania a “City Beautiful” in every possible way.
“When all of the plans are fully carried out in the erection of the Memorial Bridge, the new Market Street subway, the improvement of Italian Park and Lake and other proposed works, the dream of 1901 will be fully realized.
“Truly, the ‘Harrisburg Plan’ is an example for the State.”
8. The ‘quality of permanence’: DeHart Dam and the water supply
Improvements to Harrisburg’s water supply began in earnest in the early 1900s, with bond issues funding a Susquehanna River water filtration plant on City Island, and the laying of water pipes in the city.
“As most of the city streets were unpaved,” writes Paul Beers in City Contented, City Discontented, “it wasn’t inconvenient to lay 95 miles of new water line, so vastly improving a system that went back to 1841 that citizens quickly tapped into spigot water (that) the city’s water department was realizing a profit by 1906 — politically a bad omen, because City Hall started its tradition of dipping into the water surpluses to balance its budgets.”
“The 295,000 (Susquehanna River) filtration plant was built by engineer James Fuertes as the most modern of its kind in the nation,” Beers continues. “Opened in 1907, it never failed unless it was flooded out. By 1948, however, Harrisburg had its gravity-fed DeHart Reservoir in Clarks Valley in full operation and stopped using the Susquehanna for other than emergencies. Finally the 1972 flood knocked out the filtration plant completely.”
As Beers mentions, the last of the great improvements to Harrisburg’s public works was the 7 billion gallon reservoir and dam carved out of pristine woodlands in Clarks Valley, some 20 miles north of the city, in the 1930s and 40s.
Harrisburg’s gigantic dam and its reservoir, stretching for miles into the wooded hills, likely could not be built today, for a myriad of environmental and economic reasons.
To seek funding to build the water supply, town fathers again turned to a public referendum. In November 1937, by a margin of more than seven to one, city voters approved the $1.6 million bond issue. This amount was supplemented in March 1938 by a $1.2 million grant from the Public Works Administration.
It would take ten years to build and open what was then called the Mountain Water System. Harrisburg city councilman and public works director William DeHart championed the project. After his death in 1947, the dam would eventually be named for him.
DeHart Dam and the Harrisburg water supply would become the city’s crown jewel.
The water supply would provide the city with seemingly endless amounts of clean mountain water, which for decades allowed Harrisburg and surrounding communities to plan and grow, unencumbered by the whims of private water companies.
“After the turn of the century,” Paul Beers summarizes, “impressive landmarks like the Capitol, St. Patrick Cathedral and the Rockville Bridge went up. They had stateliness, massiveness and grandeur, and would last for generations.”
These projects were built right, and built to last. Redundant features were built in, to ward off failure. For example, one city consultant pointed out to me, the City Island filtration plant on the Susquehanna remained in service as a backup for Dehart Dam, should it fail.
Engineers further added formidable features into the river filtration plant on City Island to protect it. The north end of City Island, for example, facing the flow of the Susquehanna, was fortified by ballast stone pulled from the old cobble stone streets of Harrisburg and implanted as a shield to ward off flood waters and ice floes.
All told, it was a well-planned system designed to keep working into the next century. It all was a legacy and a gift to today’s citizens of Harrisburg, from past generations.
Those who sacrificed and planned to build all this could not have suspected that a decade or two of fast and loose financial schemes would place this hard-won legacy at risk.
Today, Harrisburg is more than $1 billion in debt from ill-conceived bond deals issued after 1985.
Today, Harrisburg risks losing its rich legacy to private interests at bargain-basement prices to pay off the foolish debt created by a single mayor over a few years’ time.
Today, a century of solid building and construction are placed at risk by a few decades of ill-conceived financial bond schemes.
Permanence, thanks to these latter-day bad financial deals, might not be so permanent, after all.
Amazingly, Harrisburg Mayor Steve Reed almost single-handedly mortgaged the city’s rich and solid heritage, its financial independence and self-determination, in exchange for a secret Wild West museum, a broken incinerator retrofit, and other flimsy schemes.
For earlier chapters and other article by Bill Keisling, see A Museum of Harrisburg’s Debt History