Records show the origins of Shipoke go back to the John Harris Trading Post of 1734 and that the early sections of the John Harris mansion were constructed in 1766. John Harris Sr. and Jr. had several outbuildings, used for grain storage, in the area which is now Shipoke. There were also livestock pens, horse yards and a livery stable. The Harris Ferry House, located where today’s 331-333 South Front Street houses stand, was still in business in 1830.
In 1842, Robert Harris, the son of John Jr., and the grandson of John Sr., laid out the Shipoke community in lots. Much of the initial housing was of log construction. By contrast, most of the older homes still standing today were built between 1850 and 1900 of wood frame or brick. Most of the original housing was constructed to accommodate employees of the local mills. The original neighborhood extended from the John Harris mansion on the north to below what is now Sycamore Street on the south, and from the Susquehanna River east to Cameron (formerly 11th) Street.
The Name: Shipoke
Throughout the 1800’s and well into the 1900’s, this area included Victorian dwellings and was referred to as South Harrisburg, as it was then in the old South Ward. The area abutting the park north of Paxton Street was also known as Harris Park. The name Shipoke seems to have evolved later, and did not appear in newspaper accounts until after World War II.
According to Paul Beers, local historian and former columnist for the Harrisburg Patriot News, the word “Shipoke” is probably a corruption of the word “shitepoke,” a synonym for a long-legged, pigeon-like bird known as the American Bittern. Apparently a bird of this variety — or one similar to it — enjoyed the marsh areas around Paxton Creek, and roosted in the Shipoke area. (Another and somewhat more controversial explanation suggests the term Shipoke is derived from a combination of Anglo/Saxon/Pennsylvania German phrases, translated to mean “dirt bag” or “dirty bird.”)
A Working Class Neighborhood
Throughout the Industrial Revolution and until the 1972 flood, Shipoke was a “gritty” working-class neighborhood of approximately 500 homes, many of them heated by kitchen coal stoves. The neighborhood stretched north from what was the Chesapeake Nail Works (which later became a steel mill) located at what is now the site of the PennDOT building. Many taverns dotted the busy area near a ferry dock. The Black Horse Tavern, where locals gathered for a pint of ale, stood in the early 19th century at the north end of the neighborhood where the motel sits today. When the tavern was demolished, a cigar factory was built on the site, followed by the Harris Park Elementary School, built in 1873. In 1870 the Susquehanna Planing Mill — which produced moldings, sashes, wooden scrolls and other components for houses — was located at 500 Race Street.
Despite the Depression and a major flood in 1936, the Central Iron and Steel Company, employing as many as 1,800 people, flourished in the 1940s and ‘50s. Reportedly, by 1950 the Shipoke population — many of them workers at the by-then Phoenix Steel mill — had climbed to nearly 3,000, residing in some 500 houses.
Things began to change significantly in the mid-1950s. The steel mill closed, which led to the eventual deterioration of much of the housing. Some 150 structures were leveled to build the I-83 on-ramp and the South Bridge, which opened on January 22, 1960. Demolition efforts included the Harris Park Elementary School, and Race Street log houses once owned by the Harrises, one of which was relocated and can now be seen in Royalton Park. This led to the construction of the present motel in April 1962.
100-116 Conoy Street
Pancake Row is now part of the Harrisburg History Project Commissioned by former Mayor Stephen Reed. The Historical marker at the end of Conoy Street reads as follows:
“The Historic District of Shipoke’s unique setting as a quaint neighborhood along the Susquehanna is particularly enhanced by one of the most unique rows of houses in Harrisburg. Robust in Carpenter Gothic architectural styling where decorative moldings and the jigsaw were not spared are 100-114 Conoy Street, commonly known as Pancake Row. Shipoke, as far south as Tuscarora Street, was included in the Borough’s original corporate boundaries of 1791. By the early 19th century, a sizable lumber business, known as Trullinger & Company, had been established at South Front Street near Paxton Street. George Trullinger and Jacob Pancake owned the firm. Pancake had two sons, Alfred and George, who took over the business after the elder Pancake and Trullinger passed away. The Firm, under the younger Pancake’s ownership, supplied much of the lumber for the construction of many frame houses in South Harrisburg. Shipoke in general was part of the farm owned by Robert Harris, son of John Harris Jr. Harris laid out building lots in Shipoke in 1842, however, the lots at 100-114 Conoy Street were retained by the Harris Family until acquired by Alfred Pancake in 1870. Thereon, Pancake erected his distinctive row of townhouses circa 1888 as rental units for, it is surmised, employees of his lumber mill. The row remained rental housing throughout much of the 20th century until water inundation from the 1972 Agnes Flood resulted in its sale for rehabilitation. The row again almost met its demise during the Ice Flood of 1996 when a faulty wire caused a fire and major damage. However, the coming together of the City with the neighborhood and property owners effectuated a thorough restoration and reconstruction initiative, which now symbolizes the survival of the enduring Shipoke Community.”
Following the devastation of Tropical Storm Agnes in June 1972, forty Shipoke homes were bought up and demolished by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of the clean-up effort. The Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority subsequently auctioned off forty of the remaining homes, resulting in bargains for “back-to-the-city” enthusiasts who were willing to invest sweat-equity, and reportedly making this the only Redevelopment Project in Pennsylvania which recovered more than it spent. The flood that devastated Shipoke was also the catalyst to the most intensive rehabilitation effort in any neighborhood in Harrisburg’s history. The 1972 flood cut the size of Shipoke by twenty percent but the resulting years transformed the neighborhood from one of Harrisburg’s most rundown areas to a historic district filled with brightly painted Victorian town houses with Williamsburg-style gardens and court yards. While the property-owner renaissance of Shipoke had early beginnings in the 1960s, it was flood recovery that spurred the current enthusiasm. Between 1975 and 1988, more structures were rehabilitated and new ones added; the latter having carports on the ground level and living quarters at second-floor level and above, to mitigate future flood damage. This design proved its worth in the 1996 and 2004 floods.