by Rick Dapp
A feature in the September 2017 issue of Harrisburg Magazine by author Angelique Caffrey triggered some thought regarding the Shipoke neighborhood and its impact on the City of Harrisburg. Certainly the oldest, and by popular definition, the quaintest neighborhood of the city, it has a problematic appeal that defies logic. Given the adjacent Susquehanna River’s penchant for flooding, and flooding that particular neighborhood first – every time – why do people continue to move into it?
Perhaps it’s the mystique engendered by its location and history.
Certainly it appears to be the only neighborhood of that name in the country, with the origins of that name appearing to be somewhat debatable. According to the Shipoke Neighborhood Association the name is a corruption of the word “shitepoke” that is a synonym for the American bittern, a streaked brown and buff species of wading bird in the heron family of the pelican order of birds. Another explanation of the origin of the name suggests that it is a derivation of the combination of Anglo-Saxon and Pennsylvania German phrases that translate to mean either “dirty bird” or “dirt bag.” Yet another definition of the word “shipoke” comes from the Urban Dictionary that defines it as “a person who sticks his nose into other people’s business just looking for trouble.”
It’s a perplexing and thoroughly unique set of characterizations for a lovely and singular neighborhood in the capital city. It can lay claim to being the oldest section of Harrisburg, settled in 1710 as a small trading post and home to the Harris Ferry established by Harrisburg’s founder, John Harris. The John Harris Trading Post of 1734 gave rise to the early sections of the John Harris mansion, as well as livestock pens, horse yards and a livery stable. The Harris Ferry House, where travelers could lodge and find food and drink was located at the site where the houses at 331-333 South Front Street now stand. The trading post existed until 1830.
The Shipoke neighborhood had its beginnings in 1842 when Robert Harris, the son of John Harris, Jr. and grandson of city founder John Harris, Sr., laid out the community in lots. Most of the original houses were of log construction that eventually gave way to homes constructed of wood frame or brick. Most of the older homes in the present neighborhood were built between 1850 and 1900, and were constructed to accommodate employees of local mills. From its origins and into the 1900s the neighborhood was referred to as South Harrisburg. Curiously, the name “Shipoke” appears to have evolved later in its development and does not appear in local newspaper accounts until after WWII. An appurtenance to the rise of industry in Harrisburg, Shipoke was a working class neighborhood of approximately 500 homes where employees of firms like the Chesapeake Nail Works (later a steel mill and located at what is now the site of the PennDOT building), and the Susquehanna Planing Mill, located at 500 Race Street, lived.
It was a community punctuated by taverns, most notably the Black Horse Tavern that stood at the north end and is now the site of the Comfort Inn Riverfront motel at 525 South Front Street. Many residents of the Shipoke/South Harrisburg neighborhood enjoyed steady employment at the Central Iron and Steel Company, later the Phoenix Steel Mill. Despite a major flood in 1936, the community flourished until the mid-1950s when the steel mill closed, leading to the deterioration of many of the structures due to neglect.
The reference to the major flood in 1936 is significant to the history of Shipoke. Since record-keeping began 200 years ago, the Susquehanna River Basin has proven one of the most flood-prone watersheds in the United States. The Susquehanna and its tributaries drain 27,500 square miles of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The main stem of the Susquehanna has flooded 14 times since 1810, about every fifteen years, on average. Major floods occurred in 1810, 1865, 1889, 1894, 1935, 1936, 1946, 1955, 1964, 1972, 1975, 1996, 2004 and 2006. The present flood stage of the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg is seventeen feet..
The worst recorded flooding occurred during Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. The flood levels in Harrisburg during Agnes exceeded the record levels of the 1936 flood by as much as six feet in some places. It was the nation’s most costly natural disaster until Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Katrina in 2004. At seventeen feet, basements of residences and businesses on both banks of the Susquehanna begin to flood and the parking lot on City Island begins to take on water, and when it hits 23 feet evacuations are necessary in Shipoke. Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011 provided the most recent flood, cresting at more than 25 feet, the fifth-worst flood in Harrisburg history and the worst since Tropical Storm Agnes.
Curt Melick, a former resident of Shipoke, remembers his time in Harrisburg’s most historic district. “… It’s a great neighborhood with loads of charm and a great river view. Unfortunately, it’s a love-hate relationship. You love where you’re living but hate the inevitable flooding. In 1996, we were flooded out and it took six months before we were back in the house. On the positive side, a major flooding brings the folks of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to your rescue. We listed every loss we had incurred and it was accounted for in the report. Those FEMA folks are a true blessing when you think that you’ve just had the worst day of your life. We hated to leave Shipoke, but the experience made us realize that it would happen again and we grudgingly made the decision to move to higher ground on the west shore.”
Despite the inevitability of flooding, Shipoke remains a vibrant and popular community. An incongruous counterpoint to the distinctive name for this neighborhood is the fact that the term “Shipoke” also refers to an eighteen-foot craft esteemed by Florida fishermen in the salt water flats of that state that are renowned for fly fishing. It’s a shallow draft boat that allows anglers to fish in water as thin as ten inches. And, given the normal depth of the Susquehanna, it sounds like an ideal boat for the river.
Perhaps a Shipoke tied up on the river might just be the ideal accessory for a homeowner in in the neighborhood that shares a name.