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History of Highspire

 

     The Borough of Highspire was laid out in 1814 by two German settlers, Henry Berentz and Michael Dochterman. There is debate as to whether the town received its name from the settler’s native village of Speyer or Hochspeyer, or if the town was named by river men for a tall structure that rose above the town. Before its founding, 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 by the Legislature in 1868. It was not until Dec. 29, 1903 that the Dauphin County Court of Quarter Sessions formally approved the incorporation of Highspire as a borough.

     The first inhabitants in the area are believed to have been the Susquehannock Indians. The Susquehannocks dominated the Susquehanna River Valley until they refused to join the Iroquois Confederation and were conquered about 1680.

     In 1766 Colonel James Burd, an officer in the Pennsylvania militia during the French and Indian War, purchased 500 acres encompassing most of the eastern end of present day Highspire for £900.  Soon after, he built a large stone house overlooking the south-eastern end of modern day Highspire.  He called the house Tinian; it still stands today on Rosedale Avenue just north of the borough.

     In 1775, John Hollingsworth constructed a stone grist mill in the borough. This mill was in constant operation until it was destroyed by fire in 1860; it was eventually rebuilt by John and Elizabeth Buser in 1863. In 1918 Henry Woolcott purchased the mill, and in 1920 incorporated as Highspire Flour Mills, Inc.  This enabled a major expansion; the capacity of the mill was increased sevenfold.  The mill was acquired by the Wheatena Corporation in 1928.  In 1965 the Standard Milling Company, a subsidiary of the Uhlmann Company purchased the Wheatena Corporation.  Unfortunately, the old mill now sits empty. However, to this day, Maypo, Wheatena and Maltex cereals are still manufactured in Highspire by Homestat Farm, Ltd., and there are times when one can smell the sweet maple scent while walking the streets of Highspire.

     Transportation has heavily influenced the growth of the borough. In the latter part of the 18th Century, growth spurred as Highspire became a port along the Susquehanna River in the lumber industry. Logs from up river saw mills 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 pilots was located at the east end of present day Highspire in a large white house at the foot of White House Lane.  The historic house was razed in the late 1950s to extend the runway for Olmsted Air Force Base.

     The farmland surrounding 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 Central and Western Pennsylvania used their excess grain for the production of whiskey. Whiskey made in Central Pennsylvania was shipped by boat to Havres de Grace and Baltimore. This resulted in the establishment of the Wilson Distillery in 1823 by Scotch-Irish immigrant Robert Wilson, who also operated it until 1863. This distillery then changed hands several times to eventually become the Highspire Distilling Company in 1901. In the early 20th century it produced more than 5,500 barrels a year of Highspire Pure Rye Whiskey that was sold in North and South America and Europe. The 18th Amendment instituting prohibition brought this industry to an end in Highspire.

     In the second decade of the 19th Century, the first major east-west road in Pennsylvania was completed connecting Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. The “Great Highway” passed through Highspire in the general location of what is now Second Street.  From 1810 to 1904 this was a private toll road, the Middletown-Harrisburg Turnpike. 

     Another important 19th Century transportation link 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. It provided an efficient source of transportation for freight traffic between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The development of the Pennsylvania Railroad System eventually led to the abandonment of the Pennsylvania Canal System.  The Eastern Division through Highspire was abandoned in 1901.

     In 1868, the Pennsylvania Steel Company began its operation in Steelton. 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 it was replaced by busses. 

     The increased use of the automobile 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 1949 Second Street was widened to three lanes through Highspire.  In 1950 the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened between Carlisle and Valley Forge.  The Susquehanna River Bridge and its eastern approach were built along the western boundary of Highspire.  This project also cut northern access to Highspire via Vine, Race, and Paxton Streets.  Access to the north and to the new east shore Turnpike interchange was provided by the new Eisenhower Boulevard.  In 1967 Pennsylvania Route 283 was opened between the Eisenhower Boulevard and Lancaster, relieving much of the traffic through Highspire.

     Immediately after incorporation in 1903 the borough established its own school system, assuming ownership of the Lower Swatara Township school building at the corner of Roop and Penn Streets.  The Highspire school system existed as an independent district for 50 years, from 1904 until it joined with Steelton in 1954 to form the Steelton-Highspire School District.  The jointure was fully implemented in fall of 1958 when the new Steelton-Highspire High School opened.       

     In order to preserve the history of Highspire, in 1977 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 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.