WORDS BY RICK DAPP
On a thoroughfare connecting the brash commercialism of Paxton Street to the more subdued tone of Derry Street exists a building, and the site of a park steeped in history that goes virtually unnoticed by those hustling from one side to the other. The Rutherford House and Paxtang Park serenely regard the passing traffic, secure in their respective places in Harrisburg’s history.
Built originally in 1858, the mansion now known as the Rutherford House, located at 330 Parkview Lane was the Rutherford family’s home until 1920 when it was sold to Dauphin County for $20,000. The mansion then became the county’s new juvenile detention center and remained so for a period of time. It eventually evolved into its present use as a senior center in 1978 and had an addition made to the original structure in 1985.
The Rutherford family was instrumental in the growth of Harrisburg and Paxtang in the 18th and 19th centuries and played a major role in the Underground Railroad, conveying escaped slaves to freedom. Principal in this effort were Dr. William Wilson Rutherford and Samuel S. Rutherford. Dr. Rutherford served as surgeon to the Pennsylvania Railroad and was director and later president of the Harrisburg Gas Company. Dr. Rutherford was vice president of the Harrisburg Antislavery Society in 1847 and provided a station for escaped slaves at his home at 11 South Front Street in Harrisburg. From here, he conveyed them to Samuel Rutherford’s where they were hidden in a barn that stood near the spring next to the present Paxtang Park.
Samuel Rutherford operated a dairy farm on part of an original tract owned by the Rutherford family that, amazingly, encompassed nearly half of present-day Dauphin County. Of Caucasian Dauphin County residents, only the Rutherford family was active in the Underground Railroad prior to the 1840s when other local antislavery advocates became involved in the effort. After reaching the Rutherford “station” the slaves were then transported to Harper’s Tavern, Lickdale, Pine Grove, Pottsville, and then north to Canada and safety. As a leader in the Harrisburg Antislavery Society, Dr. Rutherford arranged for abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass to speak in Harrisburg.
The spring house on the Rutherford property is probably the oldest structure, dating to 1740-1755. Built over a natural spring, it was used for storage and to keep milk, butter, cheese, meat, vegetables and fruit cool and to extend what is now considered “shelf life.” The building is a typical two-story type, with living quarters above the ground floor. The upper floor also provided a dry storage area for items that could not tolerate the dampness of the lower floor.
Although another portion of the Rutherford property doesn’t presently appear to be a major area attraction, a century-and-a-quarter ago it became the progenitor of another area attraction existing to this day. Paxtang Park, 40 acres in size, was leased to the East Harrisburg Street Electric Railway Company on July 19, 1893 for a ten-year duration. Their plan was to create a “trolley park,” where riders could dismount from the trolley car right at the park.
They constructed a pavilion capable of holding several hundred people with benches and shaded areas for picnics. In 1905 the park operators added their first roller coaster, the Coaster Flyer, a figure-eight roller coaster that operated on the site until 1922. A second roller coaster. The Jack Rabbit, was added later.
Oh, and that other area attraction, an amusement park built by Milton Hershey, was second out of the starting blocks, opening on May 30, 1906 with its first roller coaster not built until 1923.
At Paxtang Park, the original pavilion, built in 1896, was expanded in 1903, and the trolley line that went through the park was moved underground in 1906. They also added a 50’ x 150’ swimming pool, a miniature railroad (1907), a restaurant (1909) and an athletic field with a baseball diamond in 1912. A funhouse, called “the Giggler” was opened in 1914, and a new and improved version of the Coaster Flyer was opened in 1915. Yet another swimming pool was added in 1916 to replace the original pool constructed ten years before. Additional rides were added in 1918, the year the United States’ entered WWI, which included the “Whip” and the “Submarine Swings.”
Despite their significant investment, the trolley company, now called the Central Pennsylvania Traction Company, announced in May 1922 that they would be closing the park at the end of the season. In August of 1922, Thomas Kerstetter of Newark, New Jersey, doing business as the Kerstetter Amusement Company, obtained the option to continue operating the park and tried valiantly to increase the business, announcing in 1923 that the park would be enlarged and several new rides added. Among the new rides that included another roller coaster, an airplane swing, a new carousel, was a new Ferris wheel. What makes this bit of information interesting is that the “Big Eli” wheel (manufactured by the Eli Bridge Company) still exists. Possibly because it was still fairly new, it was relocated to Prell’s Broadway Shows in Newark, New Jersey and eventually found its way into the hands of a fire department in Maryland that still uses it for carnivals.
Apparently the Kerstetter management did not prevail and by 1924 the park was being operated by the Standard Amusement Company of Newark, New Jersey. The new management invested in a few more new rides, but they would be the last installed at the park as the curtain began to draw to a close. The park soldiered on until the conclusion of the 1929 season and abruptly ceased operations prior to its customary start in 1930. Assuming control of the once-popular venue, the Steelton Bank & Trust Company formally closed the park on April 21, 1930. Various reasons for Paxtang Park’s demise have been put forward but a combination of three are likely the raison d’etre: the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression; what was once a rural spot at the edge of Harrisburg was fast-becoming a suburb; and competition from that upstart amusement park in nearby Hershey.
Today, the property remains a part of the Capital Area Greenbelt and will likely remain a haven for those enjoying this portion of the Greenbelt’s twenty-mile loop. Fortunately, the trolley entrances on both Paxton and Derry Streets formed a conduit connecting both that includes a dark, faintly mysterious underpass beneath I-83. Perhaps this ambiance is what inspired the director of the senior center at the Rutherford House to invite the Capital Ghost Forum in 2001 to investigate evidence of paranormal activity in the house. John and Kelly Weaver, who still run the Forum, now called the Spirit Society of Pennsylvania, conducted a formal investigation of the Rutherford House on February 2, 2002 .
After an exhaustive effort by three teams of investigators, one assigned to each floor of the building, the results showed a number of anomalies. Despite the fifteen years that have passed since that investigation, John Weaver remembers clearly the results of the day:
“We concluded that most of the activity here was ‘residual’ – meaning that the old stone structure held energies from the past. The stones are like a repository of human emotions, and one era she (the director, ed.) felt was particularly relevant was the time it was used as a detention center. However, there were also reports of doors closing/opening on their own, interference with electronics, objects being moved and other such activity that suggests this is also an ‘intelligent’ haunting (where a spirit presence can attempt to interact with the living).
We obtained elevated EM readings in several areas, evidently from old wiring – one theory is elevated EM fields can attract and stimulate spirit activity. We also obtained several EVPs (electronic voice phenomenon) that suggested both random (residual) voices and responses to our questions. Unfortunately, I do not have these readily available.
Perhaps the most interesting thing we observed was the rattling of a 3rd floor window. (Several of us saw and filmed it) There was no rational explanation – when it subsided, we tried jumping and moving around near it, and also waited to see if traffic moving on the nearby highway may have been the cause, which it was not. The window was solidly secured, and the rattling/vibration could only be considered paranormal in nature.
Kelly, as a medium, felt that none of the spirits or energy here posed any harm. (Contrary to the sensationalized ‘para-reality’ shows, ‘negative’ or demonic hauntings are extremely rare) Like many old structures with a long history – particularly of stone construction – the Rutherford House simply is a repository of a lot of residual and spirit energy.”
Although most of it exists only in memory – and in historical accounts – the Rutherford House and Paxtang Park endure. A tranquil spot amidst ever-encroaching progress.