The town of Chambersburg, PA, was founded in 1764…and was burned to the ground by Rebel forces a century later. But instead of dwelling on this horrible event, the city commemorates it every year in July by staging a massive “Burning of Chambersburg” weekend.
While it may seem odd to celebrate such an ignominious moment in its history, those who put on the event explain that it pays homage to the people of Chambersburg and the resilience that they showed in rebuilding the town after such a tragedy.
The day of the burning, vendors and neighbors meet along the closed downtown streets to shop and socialize, and families also gather in the square to hear historical presentations and to listen to contestants sing in an annual musical competition. However, when night falls, the mood changes.
Standing on the courthouse steps, General “Tiger” John McCausland threatens to burn the town to the ground if its people don’t come up with $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in U.S. currency as ransom. Tension builds as the townspeople decide what to do, and when they don’t pay up he gives the order to torch the buildings.
Chaos fills the town square as the echoing sounds of hoof beats and the desperate calls of the townspeople fill the air. When you start to smell the smoke, you realize just how real this re-enactment is. As ‘flames’ shoot out of windows and women scream, it’s not hard to imagine yourself in a town under siege, especially as you look around the square to see numerous buildings ablaze.
While the ‘burning’ is exciting, the mood turns somber as you learn of the aftermath; more than 2,000 people were left homeless after the fire and over 550 buildings were destroyed. The loss in real estate and personal property equaled $1,628,431—in 1864 dollars.
Yet the city did rise above the ashes and was reborn into what is today a charming Central Pennsylvania town where you can not only explore Civil War history through a walking tour that highlights all of the areas affected by the fire, but enjoy many more modern attractions as well. The Chambersburg Heritage Center, housed in a 1915 bank building, showcases the history of the town as well as of Franklin County. Named after Benjamin Franklin, an 8-foot, gold-leafed statue of the man himself greets visitors to the center where they can learn more about the transportation history of the area, as well as its importance to the Underground Railroad.
Early American history is highlighted at numerous museums and restored homes throughout the county. The Renfrew Museum & Park in Renfrew, PA, the Allison-Antrim Museum in Greencastle, PA, and the Conococheague Institute at Rock Hill Farm in Mercersburg offer visitors a view of frontier and old-time farm life. The Monterey Pass Battlefield Museum highlights the only Civil War battle to be fought on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line, and Fort Loudon, a British fortification built in 1756, stands as the site of a colonial rebellion led by James Smith and the Black Boys 10 years before the onset of the Revolutionary War.
It’s definitely worth it to take a walk through the Old Franklin County Jail located in downtown Chambersburg, which when it closed in 1971 was the oldest continuously operating jail in Pennsylvania. John Cook, one of the abolitionists involved in the raid on Harpers Ferry, was detained here, and it was also used to secure escaping slaves until they could be moved to the next place of safety. Not much has changed about this place, which is now a museum and home to the Franklin County Historical Society; you can still explore the cells where the words of prisoners adorn the walls, including a man who was kept inside for 60 days for what he termed “damn foolishness.”
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