Arts & Life

A Day in Historic Chambersburg - February 2011

Written by Christen Croley | Jan 21, 2011 9:01 PM

At the crossroads of Main Street and Lincoln Way, in Chambersburg's decorated Memorial Square, a Union soldier rests upon his bronze rifle and gazes 13 miles south toward the rolling hills of Maryland. For 132 years and counting, the nameless statue stands guard against Confederate invasion at the core of Franklin County's first community — a hub of 276 years of history, innovation and civic resolve rolled into a seven-mile stretch along the Conococheague Creek deep inside the Cumberland Valley.

Historical Attractions

For devotees of Central PA's role in the story of America, Chambersburg is a gem.

A Scotch-Irish immigrant named Benjamin Chambers settled early Chambersburg in 1734 after a grant from the Penn family funded a 400-acre gristmill and sawmill at the conjunction of the Conococheague Creek and Falling Spring. The Chambers family developed the isolated plantation into a prosperous settlement and reared three generations of war heroes and frontiersmen in the modest log home off West King Street.

During the French and Indian War, Chambers converted his property into a 300-foot fortress outfitted with swivel cannons and blunderbusses. Fort Chambers protected the 300-strong settlement from Indian attack for 10 years until a peace treaty in 1764 ended the war.

Just a few steps off North Main Street, the Chambers' family home and mill stands alongside the tidy sidewalks of Fort Chambers Park. Falling Spring tumbles over rocks behind the park's centerpiece: a bronze statue depicting the homecoming of Col. James Chambers and his son, Benjamin, after six years of fighting in Company A in the Revolutionary War.

The Chambersburg Heritage Center, straddling the corner of Lincoln Way and Main Street in the 1915 Frank Furness bank building, serves as an interactive library of local history. Marble and glass encase the exhibits — including frontier history, Underground Railroad stories and Civil War–era pistols. Housed within the last surviving circular bank vault in the state, the center showcases Franklin County's most notable citizens — from founding father Benjamin Chambers to 19th-century journalist Alexander McClure to Wilson College's most generous supporter, Sarah Wilson.

The Old Franklin County Jail building is distinct in style from the rest of the town's ornate architecture and turn-of-the-century charm. The third-oldest intact structure in town and one of the few that survived the 1864 fire, the Old Jail's role in the Underground Railroad has long been disputed. Legend says the prison's conspicuous brick fireplace acted as a façade for a secret room concealing slaves escaping across the Mason-Dixon line, but no one knows for sure. These days, the Franklin County Historical Society uses the building as a museum and genealogical library — both open to the public with varied seasonal hours.

One block east of the Old Jail, abolitionist John Brown rented a room at the Mary Ritner boarding house and planned the spark that ignited the Civil War — the raid on Harpers Ferry. Restored in 1978 and rededicated on the 150th anniversary of Brown's infamous attack, the Mary Ritner House offers tours Thursday through Sunday.

Shopping

After Union troops ravaged settlements in the Shenandoah Valley, the Confederate Army demanded retaliation. Chambersburg's prime locale along present-day Route 30 — a bustling city located on a Northern supply vein — proved an irresistible target. On July 30, 1864, Gen. John McCausland and his Confederate troops burned Chambersburg to the ground after the town failed to pay a $500,000 ransom. The blaze leveled more than 400 structures and gave Chambersburg the distinction of being the only Northern town destroyed during the Civil War.

Chambersburg, however, proved resilient in the wake of wartime brutality. Today, three-story buildings rise above the street in all directions, with manicured brick storefronts, intricate window frames and stained glass.

Among the thrift shops and used book stores, the Gift Enclosure sells Vera Bradley handbags, Polish pottery, Yankee Candles and other distinctive décor out of a one-room shop near the corner of Main and Queen Streets. A few blocks away, the wide-open space of the Potomac Bead Company offers a large array of beads — from glass to crystal to shells — hung in a color-coded display that wraps around the entire room. The shop offers jewelry-making classes and bead parties for special occasions such as bridal showers and birthday parties.

The Olympia Candy Kitchen on Main Street offers homemade confections such as peanut butter cups, chocolate-covered apricots and raisin clusters. The two-room candy and gift shop also sells a variety of candy classics by the pound, including gummy bears, jellybeans and butter toffee pecans.

A downtown landmark on the first block of South Main Street is the refurbished Capitol Theatre, which opened in 1927 and was renovated starting in 1996. The theater hosts movies, concerts and plays presented by national and local performers, including the resident Chambersburg Community Theatre.

Dining

Chambersburg's downtown dining experiences satisfy a range of appetites. C & C Coffee Company, on the main square, claims "great coffee, great service for a great cause." From the sale of locally roasted blends and homemade pastries — including scones, biscotti and cupcakes — a portion of the shop's proceeds benefits community organizations across the world.

Next door at Café d'Italia, the 200-year-old tin ceilings and Civil War–era bricks bring a historic face to a traditional Italian eatery.

The Main Street Deli offers lighter fare for breakfast and lunch. Although the menu changes its selection of soups and salads daily, the house specialty — cream of crab soup — is a menu mainstay and comes highly recommended.

For an experience in Chambersburg fine dining, The Orchards is located two miles outside downtown. Mood lighting and velvet curtains abound, and the sprawling restaurant offers casual favorites such as chicken salad and French onion soup with an upscale twist.

It's all part of a charming, thriving town that Benjamin Chambers could not have imagined and Rebel flames could not destroy.

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Published in A Day In

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