A Town of Trains & Heritage
Though not incorporated as a borough until 1816,
the name Strasburg first appears on land titles in 1711, and the first dwellings
can be dated to the 1730's. (Visitors should note the pronunciation is "Strazz-berg,"
with the "strazz" rhyming with "jazz..") While many visitors associate railroad
attractions with Strasburg, there are many other fascinating people, places, and
stories related to this remarkably intact village.
French Huguenots, Protestants from the Alsace
region of France, were the first European settlers in the area. The settlers
eventually named the town Strasburg after the cathedral city of Strasbourg in
Alsace, from which many had departed. (Alsace had shifted between French and
German control for hundreds of years. Fleeing persecution, many refugees went to
the region, and in time many sought freedom in the New World.) As early as 1693,
the first to hunt in the area and trade with the Delaware Indians was French fur
trader Peter (Pierre) Bezaillion. (Locally, Peters Road is named for him.)
The Swiss Mennonites, called “Swissers,"
followed shortly thereafter. For at least a generation before arriving here,
they had lived in Germany because they spoke the German language, as did many
others from the Alsace region. After making bargains with William Penn in
London, they came directly to Philadelphia, from the Rhineland. Arriving
September 10, 1710, on board the ship Maria Hope, the combined passenger
and crew list consisted of 94 persons.
Anchor was dropped off New Castle, Delaware, and
one week later they sailed into Philadelphia. Thirty-six of the leaders were
granted patent deeds from Penn’s property commissioners for 14,000 acres of land
surrounding Strasburg. Among the names were Martin Kendig, Hacob Miller, John
(Hans) Herr, Christian Herr, Hans Graeff, Hans Funk, Martin Oberholtzer, Michael
Oberholtzer, Wendel Rauman and Martin Meylin. The Kendig family built the first
log cabin in 1717.
Fur traders opened up the first path, known as
“Minqua’s Path,” through this area from Philadelphia to the Susquehanna River.
At least by 1716, when the first wagon was used for hauling goods between
Philadelphia and Lancaster County, it became known as the Conestoga Road,
today's Route 741. The first wagoner was John Miller. By 1717 there were two
more wagons, and the first to be described as a Conestoga Wagon.
During the next half century, traffic on this
road increased considerably, and Main Street Strasburg was developed. The first
buildings appeared in the village about 1733. A traveler, who drove through
during the second half of the 18th century, described it as a village
of log houses.
The Town Grows
Strasburg flourished in the 18th
century primarily because of its location along the major wagon routes between
Philadelphia, Lancaster, and the Susquehanna River. For this reason, the town
and Main Street stretch from east to west, so businesses could maximize the
"traffic" along the wagon routes, including the "Strasburg Road" between West
Chester and York. At one time there were as many as eight or ten taverns or
“ordinaries” here. As one of the principal stopping stations and with the heavy
wagon traffic, it had its share of rough travelers. For a time it was known as
"Hell's Hole." The owner of the Tipling House Tavern (27 E. Main) was indicted
and later acquitted for selling rum to the Indians.
The 1769 tax returns list 19 houses --- 53 log,
29 brick and four stone. About half were 2-story, indicative of the affluence of
Strasburg, which in the late 18th century, was second only to
Lancaster Borough in terms of relative wealth. Generally the oldest houses were
built “on the street,” with almost no setback, but deep backyards and spacious
and productive flower and vegetable gardens.
No doubt the religious nature of the first
settlers was responsible for the village becoming a center for worship. In 1791,
Bishop Francis Asbury preached in a tavern and reportedly said, “I believe we
should have a house of worship and the Lord will have a people in this place.”
Later that year, Bishop Asbury organized the first Methodist congregation in
Strasburg, and St. Michael's Lutheran Church, still on Main Street, was built in
1806, just two years following the creation of a post office for the town.
In the early years of its development, the
village was blessed with over a half dozen wealthy clergy and physicians, such
as Bishop Asbury. This brought more order to the town, reflected in an 1816
odinance imposing a $3 fine on "who shall run any horse or horses through the
streets, lanes, or alleys of the borough."
Because of the education and religious background
of many of its citizens, Strasburg also became a cultural and educational
center. Rev. Nathaniel Sample, a Presbyterian minister, was one such individual.
In 1790 he founded the Strasburg Philosophical Society, and in 1791 was also
active in the creation of the Strasburg Scientific Society, "said to have
aroused the interest of Ben Franklin." As far as is known, Rev. Sample founded
Strasburg’s first formal school in 1790, a classical academy in which he taught
Greek and Latin. Sample also conducted a theological school in the east parlor
of his home.
These academic enterprises near the close of the
18th century were followed during the 19th century by a
flood of schools. On February 13, 1823, by an act of the Legislature of
Pennsylvania, an Academy was established in which “the languages, arts, and
sciences will be taught.” Nathaniel Sample was listed as the first
Rev. David McCarter, minister of the First
Presbyterian Church of Strasburg, also contributed significantly to establishing
Strasburg as a cultural and educational center. In 1839 he founded the Strasburg
Academy on 37 East Main. (The present day Limestone Inn Bed & Breakfast was the
headmaster’s home and housed boarding students.) The Academy gained the
reputation of being one of the best academies in the country for both boarding
and day students, and between 1836 and 1856 young men came from all over the
East Coast and as far away as Cuba and Puerto Rico.
In 1841, Rev. McCarter opened a classical school
for girls, the “Strasburg Female Seminary” at 17 East Main. Establishing a
school for girls was quite an unusual act for the time.
But as Strasburg flourished, so did its neighbor
to the east, Philadelphia. The 1795 Lancaster Turnpike, today's Route 30, was
built just to the north and cut down the traffic through town. The commercial
interests of Philadelphia pressured the State Legislature to improve the
transportation network into their city. As a result, an internal improvements
bill passed in 1826 to construct a series of canals. The Philadelphia and
Columbia Rail Road was also incorporated with financing provided by the state.
Built in the 1830's, it was a further blow when the railroad, too, bypassed the
Strasburg residents became alarmed at the
possibility of losing their commercial position and saw the need to connect to
the rail system. From this concern emerged the Strasburg Rail Road. In 1832 a
charter was secured from the Pennsylvania Legislature to construct a line
connecting Strasburg with the Philadelphia and Columbia Rail Road main line near
Paradise. Due to economical difficulties, the project was delayed, but finally
put in running order in 1852. But this shortline between Strasburg and Paradise
was not financially successful for many reasons.
The year 1901 marked the opening of the trolley
line between Lancaster and Strasburg, but it only lasted until 1932. Hagans
Coach Works on East Main, which had opened in 1891, converted its livery stable
into a showroom for Ford automobiles in 1916, reflecting the changing times.
With these and other changes over the years, the
Strasburg Rail Road was not doing well commercially. All that began to change
when a company was formed in 1957 to preserve and operate it for passenger rides
as a visitor attraction. Now one of the area's top visitor attractions, it is
also America’s oldest shortline railroad and the "oldest continually chartered
public utility in Pennsylvania." It also resulted in many train related
attractions locating nearby, including the building by the state of the
spectacular Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.
Along with preserving the railroad and its
history, resident saw the importance of preserving their buildings as well. Most
of the older houses along Main Street were at one time private schools and
academies. In the square, where Routes 896 and 741 intersect, visitors will also
note the Massasoit Hall, an imposing brick building with belfry constructed in
1856, and named for "an Indian chief who aided the early pilgrims." Reflecting
both the community's power and character, it was also a place to meet and
discuss current news, or to attend an event in the auditorium on the second
With so many of the structures still intact, the
Strasburg Borough Council enacted an ordinance in 1970 that created a Historic
District, in order to maintain the charm and historical significance of the
village. The ordinance prohibits the altering of the façades of structures
without approval by a “Board of Architectural Review.” East Main, West Main and
Miller (a continuation of West Main), plus Decatur Street constitute the
Historic District, which is approximately 2 miles long, comprises 82.5 acres,
and contains 193 buildings.
A significant aspect of the Historic District is
the survival rate of the oldest buildings. At least 12 of the 29 oldest brick
structures survive, all four of the oldest stone houses are still intact, and
there are at least two dozen log houses still standing in the district, putting
the survival rate of pre-1815 houses at approximately 50%. The various buildings
of Swiss, German, Georgian, and Federal architecture make Strasburg a delightful
locale for visitors interested in the region's rich heritage and cultural
Thank you to the Strasburg Heritage Society for extensive assistance in
compiling this Strasburg article. Housed in the 1790 home of poet and educator
John Shroy at 122 S. Decatur Street, the 18th century house is "the only
one-and-a-half story brick structure remaining in the village." The Strasburg
Heritage Society exists to preserve historic buildings, artifacts and documents,
educate local residents, restore historic buildings, and develop a deeper
appreciation of the area’s rich cultural inheritance. They have created a
self-guided "Strolling Tour of Strasburg's Historic District." For more
information on areas like Strasburg, we suggest you purchase a copy of "Historic
Towns & Villages of Lancaster County." The source of additional information for
this article, the book is published by the
Planning Commission (717-299-8333).
Amish Country News Cover
Article by Carla Wolfe (1999, 2003 re-edit)
Return to the Towns page.