A Brief History of Strasburg

For more than 5,000 years, Native Americans lived and hunted in the area around Strasburg. In fact, the layout of present day Main and Miller Streets follows the route of an ancient Indian path that eventually became the Great Conestoga Road, so named because it terminated at the Conestoga Indian town located near the confluence of the Susquehanna and Conestoga rivers.

The first Europeans to permanently settle in what is now Strasburg arrived in 1729. On April 21 in that year Edward Dougharty purchased an undeveloped tract of 150 acres that included almost all of present day Strasburg east of Jackson Street. On August 5, 1729, Dougharty was one of nine individuals who successfully petitioned the court of Lancaster County for a tavern license.  Thus, the first of Strasburg’s many taverns was built between April and August of 1729.

Edward Dougharty died in 1736, and an inventory of his possessions suggests that he was operating a trading post as well as a tavern out of a small two-story building that also served as home for himself, his wife, and son. 1736 was also the year when Mary Kendig Herr and Christian Herr inherited from Mary’s father 150 acres of “uncultivated” land—land that comprised almost all of present day Strasburg west of Jackson Street. There is no evidence of further development on these two tracts of land until 1751 when both the Dougharty and Herr families decided to subdivide their properties. Between April 1 and June 1 of that year, 210 of the 300 acres changed hands. 

With the subdivision of this 300 acres in 1751, a village was born. Construction of new houses began almost immediately, and by 1759 the village was home to 23 taxable individuals.  Occupations included one shopkeeper, two innkeepers, two blacksmiths, one cooper, and one weaver. This tax list provides us with our first glimpse of the new village. At least three of the houses built during this first decade of the town’s existence survive—the log house at 18 West Main Street built by William and Abigail Phillips in 1751, the half-timbered house at 15 Miller Street built in 1757 by Frederick Klingel, and the Sandstone House at 27 East Main Street, built by Jacob Pfoutz in 1758.

The village continued to grow apace during the 1760s. Brick buildings became part of the mix with the construction the Miller/Weaver House, 12 East Main (c.1760) and the Everard Gruber House, 23 East Main (c.1766), both substantial two-story structures. Like the George and Catharine Barge Tavern, 138 East Main (c.1762) and the Christopher Speck House, 106 East Main (c.1764), the remainder of the houses standing in 1771 were probably built of logs.  However, other than Lancaster itself, no other town in Lancaster County had a higher percentage of masonry buildings at that time. And the fact that at least three of the wooden houses still stand after more than 250 years is testimony to the care with which they were constructed. 

Strasburg continued to grow throughout the remaining years of the 18th century, particularly in the years following the American Revolution. During the 1780s and 1790s, the town grew at a rate not seen before or since. Between 1788 and 1798, fifteen 2-story brick buildings were constructed, thirteen of them within a one block radius of the square. In addition, eight one-story brick buildings were built during this same time span. These brick buildings are significant social and economic indicators. At the end of the 18th century not only was Strasburg the second largest town in Lancaster County, it was also the most urban and English in feeling outside of the county seat.

The source of Strasburg’s prosperity was the road that ran through it, or more accurately, it was the people, wagons, freight, and animals that daily traveled upon that road who fueled Strasburg’s economy. Lining the Main Street were taverns, blacksmith shops, wheelwrights, carriage and wagon makers, coopers, saddle and harness makers, stables for horses, and pens in which drovers could secure their animals overnight. While most of these businesses also provided services to the local population, it was the traffic passing through town that kept them going in large numbers. With the completion of the Philadelphia to Lancaster Turnpike (present-day Route 30) in 1794, traffic through Strasburg began to decline. Not precipitously at first, but increasingly more drivers opted for the paved surface of the turnpike, even if it came at the price of paying a toll. From the second-largest town in the county in 1798, Strasburg dropped to fifth-largest by 1815.

If the Turnpike was the first blow to the town’s economic prosperity, construction of the Philadelphia and Columbia railroad was the second.  The Strasburg Railroad, chartered in 1832, was an attempt to minimize the negative impact that the Philadelphia and Columbia RR might have had on Strasburg. And it seems to have worked because Strasburg experienced another renaissance of sorts in the decades just prior to and following the Civil War. Large three-story brick buildings were constructed along Main Street, as were buildings in the Italianate and Second Empire styles. The Strasburg Academy and Massasoit Hall were also built at this time.

Strasburg would never regain its status as one of the largest and most urbane towns in Lancaster County, but because it was bypassed by both the turnpike and the main line of the Railroad it can lay claim to being one of the best-preserved historic towns, not only in Lancaster County but in all of Pennsylvania.