Lancaster (population 56,438) was founded in 1730, following Lancaster County’s establishment in 1729. Lancaster was incorporated as a borough in 1742, and by 1760 was the largest inland town in America. On September 27, 1777, Lancaster was the nation’s capital for one day, as the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia. The town also served as Pennsylvania’s capital from 1799 to 1812. Lancaster was incorporated as a city in 1818, and the population of 6,000 grew nine-fold over the next century.
From its founding until the beginning of suburban sprawl after World War II, Lancaster grew and flourished economically. Ground was broken in 1792 for America’s first long distance, engineered paved road, the Lancaster-Philadelphia Turnpike. Its opening in 1795 strengthened Lancaster’s commercial importance as a marketplace in the county’s rural center. The connection to Philadelphia by highway, and later by rail in 1834, contributed to tremendous commercial and manufacturing growth during the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Lancaster’s position as the county’s center of government, finance, and culture also contributed to Lancaster’s rich history and architectural heritage.
From 1842 onward Lancaster served as home to Thaddeus Stevens, U. S. Congressman from 1849-1853 and from 1859 until his death in 1868. Champion of public education, ardent abolitionist, and advocate of religious liberty, Stevens worked tirelessly against inequality and injustice. Stevens helped draft the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which outlawed slavery, extended equal protection to all citizens, and provided voting rights to all males.
In 1847, Stevens met Lydia Hamilton Smith, a biracial widow with two children, and invited her to be his business manager. Eventually, Lydia Smith purchased her own properties and established her own business, unheard of at the time for a woman or an African American individual.
Under the auspices of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, the Stevens-Smith Historic Site, located within the home and law office of Stevens and encompassing properties owned by Smith, is being developed as a heritage site adjacent to Lancaster’s new hotel and convention center. This educational and interpretive complex, which will include an Underground Railroad exhibit, is expected to draw many thousands of new visitors each year and provide them with a greater understanding of Lancaster’s role in this pivotal time in our nation’s history.
Lancaster is a Certified Local Government and has received CLG grants for 19 consecutive years. A comprehensive Architectural Heritage page on the city’s Web site includes guidance for historic property owners, walking tours, and resources for teachers and students. A model Architectural Treasure Hunt familiarizes students with local history while teaching architectural terms.
Many ongoing public-private efforts promote heritage tourism in downtown Lancaster. Key attractions are the Heritage Center Museum, the Lancaster Quilt and Textile Museum, the historic Central Market (1889), and a wealth of other nationally significant historic buildings.
Designated a Preserve America Community in January 2009.