The Square in Carlisle has always been an epicenter of momentous events.
Long before the current trend of rallies and protests, the intersection of High and Hanover streets has been the focal point of gatherings born of controversy, conflict, unity and resolve.
The history of the crossroads goes back to 1749 when Cumberland Valley residents presented a petition to the Pennsylvania provincial assembly asking that land west of the Susquehanna River and north of York County be designated as Cumberland County.
Back then, the valley was under the jurisdiction of Lancaster County, but residents felt the remoteness of that county seat made it easier for criminals to evade justice. The assembly granted the petition on Jan. 27, 1750, and Shippensburg, being the only large settlement in the valley, was designated the temporary Cumberland County seat.
Cumberland County was vast in those early days, stretching as far west as present-day Pittsburgh. But technically, the Pennsylvania colony only owned land as far as the Kittatinny Mountains. Following a review process, the area around LeTort Spring Run was chosen as the permanent county seat.
Local historian James D. Flower wrote about this in his 1983 book “The Planning of Carlisle and Its Center Square.” He wrote that on May 30, 1750, Thomas Penn wrote a letter detailing instructions for laying out a county seat called “Carlisle”. Penn had recommended a grid pattern that would include a square in the center of the layout. The original plan for Carlisle called for a rectangle bounded by North, East, South and West streets.
A county prison was supposed to be the first public building constructed on the Square. But a decision was made in spring 1753 to build the prison at what is now the northwest corner of High and Bedford streets. It was felt the move would allow inmates better access to charitable relief.
Construction on the Square was delayed due to a lack of money and disputes over the site and town layout. Though the plan emphasized the need for both a courthouse and market house, the first building on the Square was a small fort. Starting in 1756, this was replaced by a larger structure that occupied the southern half of the Square and served as headquarters for colonial troops. That fort was dismantled after the French were defeated on the frontier in 1758. Below are details on 10 key events that have taken place on the Square in the course of its history:
History Squared 1845
Oct. 4, 1753: Benjamin Franklin, diplomat
There was fear in Carlisle in September 1753. Rumors abounded that Indians on the western frontier of Pennsylvania would ally themselves with the French invading from Canada to the north. Together, they could drive the English colonists into the Atlantic Ocean.
Benjamin Franklin was in the delegation dispatched by Gov. James Hamilton to negotiate a treaty with tribal leaders in Carlisle. As tensions grew between the European powers over control of North America, it became vital to enlist as many tribes as possible in favor of neutrality or an alliance with England.
On Oct. 3, Oneida chief Sarouady spoke out against the sale of rum to Indians and advocated restraint on westward expansion. He called on the English to have only three trading posts selling cheaper goods. The next day, Oct. 4, Franklin and his fellow diplomats agreed in principle to three trading posts but advised the Indians they needed to talk to the colonial government. That night Franklin saw how the Indians got drunk on rum and concluded the native tendency toward a lack of moderation would work against the tribes. History would prove him right.
July 12, 1774: Show of Unity
Freeholders and freemen from across Cumberland County gathered at the First Presbyterian Church in the northwest corner of the Square. The meeting was called after the British Parliament passed the Coercive or Intolerable Acts that closed the post of Boston in retaliation for the Tea Party.
The county men passed resolutions condemning the British for subverting not only the rights and liberties of Boston and Massachusetts residents but those living in all the colonies. The belief among Pennsylvanians was if one port could be closed, other seaboard cities could be shut down, jeopardizing inland commerce and the overall economy.
Nearly two years later, in mid-June 1776, a challenge was issued to a crowd downtown to show where they stood on independence. Those in favor of separation from England were told to walk to the north side of the Square and those against to move to the south side. History records a great majority picked the north, none went south and only three to four indecisive souls lingered in the center of the crossroads.
History Squared 1845
Dec. 26, 1787: Constitution riot
The courthouse bell rang at 5 p.m. calling supporters of the federal Constitution to assemble at the Square. The event was organized to celebrate Pennsylvania’s ratification of the founding document. A cannon was hauled over from a nearby tavern and material collected for a bonfire to be lit at dusk.
Not to be outdone, Anti-Federalists gathered to harass the Federalists with shouts and insults. They had opposed the ratification of the Constitution until a Bill of Rights was included to preserve individual rights and state sovereignty. The fuse was lit for violence, which ended with the Federalists being forced to retreat clearing the way for the Anti-Federalists to light the bonfire and throw the cannon into the flames. They also burned an almanac that contained a copy of the Constitution.
Debate over the Constitution sparked no less than five public demonstrations on the streets of Carlisle. In one incident, Anti-Federalists burned effigies of Thomas McKean and James Wilson. McKean was a chief justice while Wilson was a leading supporter of the Constitution.
Sept. 11, 1794: Whiskey rebels
On March 3, 1791, Congress levied a tax on distilled spirits to pay off Revolutionary War debt, sustain the government and support an army against the Indians. The tax was opposed by farmers in western Pennsylvania who distilled surpluses of grain into alcohol to make it more profitable and easier to transport in bulk to market.
There were ethnic ties connecting these Scotch-Irish farmers to the Cumberland Valley. So when tempers flared on the frontier, ties of kinship, religion and culture brought the conflict to the Carlisle area. On Sept. 8, 1794, protesters put up a liberty pole on the Square with the words “Liberty and No Excise”. The next morning, “friends of good government” took down this symbol of defiance, setting the stage for an even more dramatic demonstration on the Square.
On Sept. 11, 1794, 200 armed men stormed into Carlisle and put up an even larger pole, this time reading “Liberty and Equality.” This mob then reportedly roamed the streets for several days and nights, as they guarded the pole and kept residents awake by shouting and firing guns at night. There were reports the mob stopped local residents at the point of a bayonet and demanded money to buy whiskey.
History Squared 1845
March 24, 1845: Fire destroys government
Carlisle residents awoke to the cry of “Fire!” about 1 a.m. Flames were seen coming from a shed behind the town hall where local volunteer fire companies kept their apparatus. Whoever set the fire knew how to frustrate the first-responders. The fire engines were tied so tightly together, it was impossible for firemen to pull the equipment from storage. Meanwhile, a violent northwest wind fanned the blaze that would reduce Carlisle government to ash.
Flames from the shed quickly spread to the town hall and then to the county courthouse. The buildings were only separated by a few feet. It soon became obvious both main buildings were a lost cause so local residents rallied instead to save adjoining buildings. They climbed ladders to roofs, carried buckets of water and laid down wet blankets to prevent sparks carried on the wind from touching off more fires.
As the courthouse burned, people ran in to remove vital records. The documents were left in nearby homes to be collected later. Soon the courthouse roof was on fire and the flames consumed the belfry. The bell tumbled down and, by 4 a.m., nothing remained but smoldering ruins.
The bravery of local residents saved the day along with the timely arrival of a fire engine from the artillery company at Carlisle Barracks. The arsonist was never identified. A month later, county officials awarded a $40,000 contract to build the present-day Old Courthouse on the southwest corner of the Square.
June 3, 1847: McClintock slave riot
Mid-19th century Carlisle had more southern leanings than northern. Trade routes through Cumberland County went south and southwest. Southerners spent summers at nearby resorts. Half the Dickinson College student body was from the South along with many of the officers stationed at Carlisle Barracks.
A riot took place in front of the Old Courthouse on June 3, 1847. It started after free blacks made a rush for a woman and a child who had just been released by the court into the custody of two slave owners. The blacks were able to rescue and spirit the fugitives away. In the ensuing brawl, the crowd assaulted one of the slave owners.
College professor John McClintock had a reputation for being an outspoken critic of slavery. He had earlier advised the court of a new state law banning any county official from having a part in the recovery of fugitive slaves. His stance against slavery made McClintock a target of community anger and he was arrested and later acquitted of charges he incited the riot.
History Squared 1963
July 1, 1863: Shelling of Carlisle
The sudden appearance of Confederate cavalry on the edge of downtown Carlisle crashed an impromptu party being held for hungry and tired Union soldiers relaxing in the Square. It was about 7 p.m. on July 1, 1863, and a panic came over the population as the men scrambled to form units and retrieve the weapons they had stacked just west of the Old Courthouse. When the Yankee commander rejected a Rebel demand for unconditional surrender, horse artillery commenced a shelling of Carlisle that struck numerous buildings.
Confusion was the order of the day that summer when the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania with the goal of capturing Harrisburg. But as the campaign developed, the focus turned to Gettysburg, a crossroads town in Adams County. For several days in late June, Confederate forces occupied Carlisle and demanded local civilians deposit food rations and other supplies at the Market House on the Square.
After the Rebels cleared out on June 29-30, Union soldiers moved in on July 1 and grateful residents welcomed them on the Square. They were only there half an hour before the enemy cavalry was spotted at the junction of Trindle Spring and York roads.
March 16, 1867: People vs. Carlisle Barracks
Open hostility once existed between soldiers at Carlisle Barracks and civilians in town. Back then, the post was operated by a small staff. As a result, training was inadequate and discipline poor. Come payday, unsavory soldiers visited the saloons, dancehalls and brothels of Carlisle’s east end where they mixed it up with townsfolk out to cause a ruckus. The lingering frustration exploded on March 16, 1867, which was an election day.
It started early that evening when Augustus Hamill and John Gilmer got into a fight with two soldiers in the Square. The men bested the soldiers who returned to the post. A group of 25 to 50 soldiers assembled at the Barracks around 8 p.m. armed with carbines, sabers and revolvers. They marched to the Square arriving at the railroad tracks facing the north side of the Old Courthouse. There, civilians had gathered to await election returns.
The soldiers were greeted with jeers and insults followed soon after by sticks and stones. The order was given to fire a volley into the crowd who scattered in all directions. But when the civilians reached cover and had access to guns, they returned to the Square from all quarters to fire back at the soldiers who were forced to retreat. The garrison commander responded by dispatching a unit of cavalry to arrest and roundup the wayward soldiers. But this gesture was misinterpreted by the civilians as an attempt to send in reinforcements so the firing continued. In the ensuing violence, Hamill was killed, Gilmer killed a sergeant and more than a dozen people were wounded.
Dec. 27, 1951: Spare the Market House
Carlisle was in an uproar after the borough council on Nov. 28, 1951, decided to close the Market House following an undisclosed order by the Department of Labor and Industry deeming it unsafe. The decision was made without prior public notice, sparking such outrage that about 350 local residents gathered at the Old Courthouse on Dec. 27 to adopt a resolution to force the council to postpone a plan to demolish the Market House.
This set in motion weeks of research by local attorneys looking for any document in support of the opposition. They found plans and letters from the Penn family dating back to when Carlisle was laid out. This research formed the basis of a lawsuit filed against the borough on Feb. 29, 1952.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled in favor of the borough in the action. Demolition of the Market House was completed on or about March 25, 1952. The new courthouse was built on the site
History Squared 1955
Aug. 2, 1955: Courtroom shooting
The heat was oppressive the day local residents heard gunshots through the open windows of the second-floor courtroom of the Old Courthouse on the Square. It was about 12:36 p.m. on Aug. 2, 1955. Within 45 minutes, an attorney would be dead and three other victims hospitalized. Seven weeks later, on Sept. 23, Percy Haines would be tried for murder in the same courtroom where he pulled out a handgun and mortally wounded John D. Faller Jr.
A Newville area farmer, Haines at age 60 was just handed what he called “a raw deal in court.” County Judge Mark Garber had completed a nonsupport hearing during which he ordered Haines to pay his estranged wife Lulu Haines $50 a month. Within minutes, Haines drew a revolver from a pouch he had sewn into his clothing and fired four shots, wounding Faller, Garber, Lulu and her attorney George Black of Chambersburg.
The gunshots from that incident echo to this day in tighter courtroom security and the presence of a metal detector in the courthouse lobby. The irony was Faller had nothing to do with the nonsupport action Lulu had brought against Percy. Court procedure required a local attorney to sit in as an associate counsel when a lawyer from outside the county appears in court.