A Town of Trains & Heritage
Though not incorporated until 1816, the first dwellings in Strasburg can be dated to the 1730s. It was a principal stop for Conestoga Wagons along the road between Lancaster and Philadelphia. A remarkably intact village, it boasts a number of buildings constructed before 1815. While many visitors associate railroad attractions with Strasburg, there are many other fascinating people, places, and stories associated with the town…
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The area in which is Strasburg is now located was first settled by Swiss Mennonites (called “Swissers”). For at least a generation they lived in Germany before arriving here because they spoke the German language. After making bargains with William Penn in London, they came directly to Philadelphia, from the Rhineland, arriving September 10, 1710, onboard the ship Maria Hope—combined passenger and crew list 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 familiar names were Martin Kendig, Hacob Miller, John (Hans) Herr, Christian Herr, Hans Graeff, Hans Funk, Martin Oberholtzer, Michael Oberholtzer, Wendel Rauman and Martin Meylin.
French fur traders opened up the first path through this area from Philadelphia to the Susquehanna River—known as “Minqua’s Path”—and later, as early as 1716, when the first wagon was used for hauling goods between Philadelphia and Lancaster County, it became known as the Conestoga Road. 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 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 back yards and spacious and productive flower and vegetable gardens.
Strasburg flourished in the 18th century primarily because of its location along the major wagon routes between Philadelphia, Lancaster, and the Susquehanna River. Strasburg was one of the principal stopping stations and with the heavy wagon traffic it probably also had many rough travelers. At one time there were as many as eight or ten taverns or “ordinaries” here.
No doubt the religious nature of the first settlers was responsible for the village becoming a center for worship and education. In 1816, when the village was incorporated into a Borough, the name Strasburg was selected, undoubtedly named for the Cathedral City from which the “Swissers” came—Strasburg in Alsace.
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. In the early years of its development, the village was blessed with over a half dozen wealthy clergy and physicians, such as Bishop Asbury. Because of their education and religious background, Strasburg 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.” 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 superintendent.
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 its students 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, quite an unusual act for his time.
As Strasburg flourished, so did its neighbor to the east, Philadelphia. The commercial interests of Philadelphia pressurized the State Legislature to improve the transportation network into their city. As a result, an internal improvements bill was passed in 1826 to construct a series of canals. The Philadelphia and Columbia Rail Road was also incorporated with financing provided by the state.
With these undertakings, Strasburg residents became alarmed at the possibility of losing their commercial position, and 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 mainline near Paradise. Due to financial 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.
In recent years, as a visitor attraction, America’s oldest shortline railroad is finally popular and thriving as the Strasburg Rail Road. Young and old alike will enjoy a ride through the Amish Country on the 45-minute, narrated “Road to Paradise.” To learn more about the history of railroading Pennsylvania, visit the Rail Road Museum of Pennsylvania across the street from the Strasburg Rail Road.
Most of the older houses along Main Street were at one-time private schools and academies. 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 Strasburg Heritage Society Center has created a self-guided “Strolling Tour of Strasburg’s Historic District.” The 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.