The Great Debate

If you type in, for example, “West Bank,” Google goes immediately to a landlocked territory that forms the bulk of Palestine. However, when the words, “West Shore,” were typed in, the first three hits were: the West Shore School District, the West Shore Country Club and the West Shore Chamber of Commerce. And, when the words “East Shore” were typed in, the first three hits were: the East Shore YMCA, East Shore vs. West Shore (Harrisburg) and West Shore (Harrisburg) – Wikipedia. They are, at least on my computer, Google’s initial response to a lingering debate that has, seemingly, no resolution.

There’s even a word, “transpontine,” that addresses the dilemma. An adjective, its definition is “across or beyond a bridge.” Since bridges have traditionally linked the East Shore to the West Shore (or vice versa, depending on perspective), referring to the other side as a transpontine destination seems reasonable. However, the West Shore/East Shore divide seems to have its origins shrouded in mystery.

When entering the debate, a champion for each side must be selected. Certainly Harrisburg is the logical choice for the East Shore, and Camp Hill is a compelling candidate for the West Shore. Although the West Shore encompasses the boroughs of Camp Hill, Lemoyne, Mechanicsburg, New Cumberland, Shiremanstown and Wormleysburg, the borough of Camp Hill likely represents the quintessential West Shore community.

Probably the most comprehensive treatise on Camp Hill was written and published by Robert Grant Crist (1924-1995). Camp Hill: A History, published in 1984, provides a thorough accounting of the origins of that West Shore community and concludes with the events of the 1960s. In it, Crist chronicled the work of the West Shore’s first resident, Tobias Hendricks, Jr., who, pretty much, was responsible for eliminating squatters from the 7,587-acre tract he controlled. In a report to Thomas Penn regarding his plans for the West Shore, he said:  “I have taken ye Course and Distance of ye Reiver from Harises landing to Conoughdoguenot up Sd Creek to ye Line and Down ye Line to yeallo Breeches where I leaft of last night very waary hoping this Days reast will give me fresh Correge to proceed down that Crookd trubelsom Creek tomorrow I hop I shall com with my life the new Setlers of the manor Sinse you was hear as not Shoed their heads, they threatened hard befor I cam but now thire names is not to be knowen. I have worked every day with no other Company than my Chain Carriers and as I come to their Irish warrants Shall Commeet then to ye flames…”

Clearly, Mr. Hendricks wouldn’t have been a finalist in the spelling bee, but he was instrumental in establishing the West Shore.

The origin of the name “Camp Hill” is a little obscure, but popular conclusion is that it stems from a split in the congregation of Peace Church, still intact and located on the corner of Trindle and St. Johns Church roads just west of Camp Hill. Apparently the one contingent began to meet outdoors on a nearby hill. Originally, the area comprising what is now Camp Hill was called White Hill. Vestiges of the original name that was abandoned for the current term still exist in the area, including the venerable White Hill Café on Hummel Avenue and the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Camp Hill that was formerly known as White Hill Prison.

Curiously, Robert Grant Crist contended in his book that the original name was White Hall due to the original school of the same name located there. Further confusing the issue was the fact that one of the original settlers of the West Shore was named Whitehill. Nevertheless, Camp Hill, named for the religious camp meetings held there, officially became the name of the borough in 1885.

But what of the rivalry between the East Shore and the West Shore of the Susquehanna?

George Dieffenbach, recently retired from the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, has a singular perspective regarding Pennsylvania rivers and their respective shore lines. Originally from Williamsport, he has spent the majority of his working life in Pittsburgh – both are Pennsylvania cities bound inextricably to rivers. When asked about whether Williamsport had a similar east-west conflict on the same river flowing between Harrisburg and Camp Hill, he replied: “I have never heard of this prejudice. I think it’s cool that Williamsport shares the same river as the capital of Pa.”

He continued, “I will say, when I was growing up, the perception was that Harrisburg had better shopping and better high school sports teams.”

Using U.S. Census Bureau data, it is clear that Harrisburg has the advantage in population, with more than five times the number of people living in Camp Hill, and possesses a larger area with 8.13 square miles to Camp Hill’s 2.12.  Camp Hill leads in per capita income (2013 statistics) at $37,623 versus Harrisburg’s $18,686. Camp Hill real estate also tops Harrisburg with median value of owner-occupied housing at $210,000 as opposed to the capital city’s $87,900.

Given that many area residents cross the divide daily to work, or shop, or dine, or visit friends, the question of whether this xenophobic phenomenon exists elsewhere in America, or even the world, is up for consideration.

Stephanie Ross, a lifelong resident of the Louisville, Ky. area and periodic visitor to Central Pennsylvania, was surprised to learn of the West Shore/East Shore debate. Given that Louisville is the largest city in Kentucky with a population of more than 750,000 and is separated from Jeffersonville, Ind. (population 45,000) by the Ohio River, one might expect a degree of condescension by the Kentuckians for the much smaller Indiana city.

According to Ross, “I have lived in both Louisville and on a farm that we owned across the river in Indiana, and I have never heard of anything like this ‘East Shore-West Shore’ thing that y’all have going on here in Harrisburg.”

She concluded, “I guess the only thing that folks in Louisville have done to Jeffersonville is to shorten the name when we talk about it. Anyone from that area simply calls it ‘Jeff.’”

John Micek likewise poked a stick into the hornets’ nest when he posted, “Sorry Cumberland County, this map just settled the East Shore/West Shore debate once and for all,” this past August on Pennlive.com.

In his article, which included an interactive map from the Washington Post, Micek said, “It might be one of our most enduring regional rivalries: Is life better on the East Shore of the Susquehanna River or the West? Well, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service just went and settled it once and for all. Using a ‘natural amenities index,’ which takes into account ‘six measures of climate, topography and water area,’ we can definitely announce that: Dauphin County is a more desirable place to live than Cumberland County.”

The article prompted 125 comments on the Pennlive site, most of them tongue-in-cheek and some hilarious in their observations, only underscoring the absurdity of the  contention. According to Micek, out of 3,111 counties surveyed, Dauphin County scored a “respectable 785 (for natural amenities); Perry was 1,785 and Cumberland County was 1,860 (yes, behind Perry County – ouch – for ‘low’ natural amenities).” For what it’s worth, Ventura County, California was rated best in the lower 48 states in the survey.

The dialogue remains unsettled, depending upon your position, either physically or philosophically. One can only wonder what sort of confabulations exist on the Right Bank in Paris, or in East St. Louis, or in North Dakota. Certainly North and South Korea have some legitimate historical assertions, but the East Shore/West Shore division, unresolved and ongoing, implausible and inexplicable, seems to be a permanent attribute of the capital region.

Vive la difference!

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