History of Highspire
The borough of Highspire was laid out in 1814 by two German settlers, Barnes and Daughterman. There is debate as to whether the town received its name from the settler’s native village of Spire or Speyr, or if the town was named by river men for a church steeple that rose above the town. Before its incorporation as a borough, Highspire was part of Swatara Township. The township split in two in 1840 and what is now Highspire became part of Lower Swatara Township. Highspire was incorporated as a borough in 1867 but this was annulled in 1868. It was not until 1904 that the Legislature formally approved the incorporation of Highspire as a borough.
The first inhabitants in the area are believed to have been the Andaster or Susquehannock Indians. The Susquehannocks dominated the Susquehanna River Valley until they refused to join the Iroquois Confederation and were destroyed.
Following the destruction of the Susquehannock Village, the first record of settlement in the area was in 1763 when Colonel James Burd, an officer in the provincial militia, constructed a large stone house overlooking the southern end of modern day Highspire. The house came to be known as Tinian and still stands today. Colonel Burd played an important role in fortifying the Pennsylvania frontier after Braddock’s Defeat left it unexposed to the depredations of the French and Indians. He initially worked as a road builder in the Braddock’s Expedition and his road building efforts paid off for the Forbes expedition in 1758. He also contributed to the construction of Fort Ligonier.
In 1775, John Hollingsworth constructed a stone grist mill in the borough. This mill was inconstant operation until it was destroyed by fire in 1860; it was eventually rebuilt in 1863. The mill was owned by the Uhlmann Company through 1989 and ran under the names Wheatena Corporation and Maypo Cereal. In 1987, the Uhlmann Company leased the flour milling business in Highspire to ConAgra Foods, but retained ownership of the mill. American Home Foods purchased ownership of the mill in 1988 but the Uhlmann Company retained rights to the Maypo brand under a long term royalty agreement. The brand was sold when International Home Foods acquired American Foods in 1996. In 2000, Conagra Foods acquired International Home Foods and the Maypo brand. On October 31, 2001, the Maypo brand and the Highspire facility were purchased by William Stadtlander, the owner of the newly started company Homestat Farms. In 2008, Wilkin-Rogers began to lease the old mill in hopes of producing flour for baking. Unfortunately, Wilkin-Rogers decided not to renew their lease as of December 31, 2009 and in 2010 parts of the inside of the mill were sold off and the old mill now sits empty. To this day, Maypo is still manufactured, by Homestat farms, in Highspire and there are times when the sweet maple scent can be smelt while walking the streets of the downtown.
Transportation has heavily influenced the growth of the borough. In the latter part of the 18th Century, growth spurred as Highspire became a major port along the Susquehanna River in the lumber industry. Logs from up river saw mils were joined into huge rafts and floated downstream. Because of a series of falls and rapids between Middletown and Marietta, navigation in this area was extremely dangerous. To overcome this obstacle, a group of men were specially trained to steer the rafts through the rapids. Headquarters for these men were formed in Highspire in large white house.
The farmland surrounding the early “port” of Highspire was suitable for cultivating a variety of crops. However, it was difficult and expensive to ship foodstuff to the eastern markets, so the farmers in and around Highspire chose to produce grain for the production of whiskey. The whiskey was shipped by boat to Havres De Grace and Baltimore. This resulted in the establishment of the Highspire Distillery in 1823 by Robert Wilson, who also operated it until 1870. This distillery then changed hands to become the Highspire Distilling Company in 1901 and produced more than 5,500 barrels a year. The 18th Amendment instituting prohibition brought this industry to an end in the Borough.
In the second decade of the 19th Century, the first major east-west road in Pennsylvania was completed connecting Philadelphia to Pittsburg. The “Great Highway” was passed through Highspire in the general location of what is now Second Street.
Also influential in the 19th Century was the Pennsylvania Canal System. The main line of the Pennsylvania Canal System joined with the Union Canal in Middletown and continued through Highspire and Steelton to Harrisburg. This provided an effective source of transportation for freight traffic between Philadelphia and Pittsburg. The development of the Pennsylvania Railroad System eventually led to the abandonment of the Pennsylvania Canal System.
In 1868, the Pennsylvania Steel Company began its operation in Steelton. Most employees chose to reside within Steelton Borough, in the area immediately around the steel works. This provided easy access to their place of work. As the plant expanded, housing opportunities diminished in Steelton and many employees began to look to Highspire as a place to live. In 1893, an electric trolley line was opened, providing Borough residents with convenient transportation to the steel works in Steelton and other employment opportunities in Harrisburg and Middletown. The Trolley line operated until 1939 when the automobile started to take precedence.
Once the automobile was made affordable to the common citizen it offered a level of independence never before experienced. It allowed people to transport themselves great distances and travel further for employment, shopping, or recreational function. The increased use of the automobile and the development of affordable housing in suburbs in the years following WWII led to the construction of an integrated highway system that made all areas of the Harrisburg region easily accessible.
In order to preserve the history of Highspire area residents organized the Highspire Historical Society. Among its accomplishments is the restoration of the Wilson House, located at 273 Second Street. Built in 1824 by Robert Wilson, the Wilson House is listed on the Pennsylvania Registry of Historic Places and serves as the focal point for the Society’s efforts in maintaining the history of Highspire. The Highspire Historical Society is also a co-sponsor for the annual Arbor Day Ceremony, which has been a local tradition since the early 1990’s.