Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Pennsylvania's Emergency Men

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mechanicsburg's Irving Female College

When the 2nd Pennsylvania Emergency Militia left Harrisburg for the "seat of war", they, like other regiments, were speedily transported along the Cumberland Valley Railroad.  At each of the small towns along the route, hordes of townspeople turned out to cheer on the defenders of the Commonwealth.  Located about 8 miles west of Harrisburg, the small town of Mechanicsburg (originally named for the abundant amount of mechanics and machinists who lived in the area) turned out at the railroad station, and along the tracks, in droves that mid September in 1862.  The sights of their journey would be forever etched into the "green" soldiers' minds.  Louis Richards, a Reading militiaman in Co. G, remembered one particularly pleasing sight for the young men while passing through Mechanicsburg:

Crowds of people came out to the stations to meet us, and black and white, old and young, all joined in the heartiest demonstrations of welcome.  Were also greeted from the houses and roadsides all along the line by people waving their handkerchiefs and swinging their hats.  At Mechanicsburg a whole girls' school was out to see us.  This was a specially engaging sight to some of our number, who thought that that village would be a good place to camp.  The elite of the town were at the station, and S. pointed out to me the leading beauties of the place - I mean the ladies.  Soldiers of a day, we already began, in the midst of these inspiring scenes, to feel like real veterans.

An Illustrated History of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Founded in 1856, the Irving Female College was named for famed author Washington Irving, who served on the board of trustees until his death in 1859.  It became the first female college in the nation to grant degrees in arts and science.  Irving Hall, a large Italianate building, was soon constructed, "amongst a beautiful grove and grounds" located along the Cumberland Valley Railroad tracks, and on the eastern end of town (an area soon known as Irvington).  Irving Hall could house "forty students, as well as supply the classroom, the parlor, the library, and the college offices."  In the early days of the school, the average enrollment was 91 students (many of which were day students who lived in the surrounding region).

By the end of the 19th Century, the College was prospering; a second building was needed.  Known as Columbian Hall, the new building, "contained 40 additional dormitory rooms on the upper floors and a large auditorium on the first floor."  In 1901, an expanded wing was constructed onto the eastern wing of Irving Hall, creating rooms for music, a kitchen, a cafeteria, and a gymnasium.  In it's hey-day, Irving Female College had buildings that were, "...imposing in appearance, substantially built of brick, conveniently arranged, and comfortably fitted up with the modern conveniences, and every thing calculated to make it an attractive and safe home, with full and thorough educational advantages for young ladies."  Some of Irving's "young ladies" would go on to be accomplished alumnae, including Ida Kast, Cumberland County's first female attorney, and Jane Deeter Ripon, President of the Girl Scouts of America. 

postcard of Irving Female College ca. 1901. Columbian Hall is located on the right.

postcard of Irving Female College ca. 1901. Expansion can be seen at left-rear of Irving Hall.

The presence of Irving was not just enjoyed by the young men of the Emergency Militia, but by the town itself, as it, "...provided Mechanicsburg with a source of culture, music, great literature and drama that the rural town would not have experienced otherwise."  An alumna later said "The college meant a great deal to the community.  It was a social center."

Sadly, the College's brighter days would soon be behind it. Suffering from a combination of the economic downturn due to the Great Depression, and increased competition from larger private universities and state funded colleges, the College was closed and its buildings sold off by 1937.  Irving and Columbian Halls would soon be renovated on the interior, and converted into apartment space, which they still remain as to this day. 

President's Hall ca. 1982 (built 1911, since demolished)

In 1954, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission placed a historical marker in front of the College along Main St., and in 1983, Irving Female College was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Through adaptive reuse and historic preservation, these historic buildings have stood, and continue to stand, as silent observers of our past. 

Irving Hall as seen today - Dave Maher

Egle, M.D., William H. An Illustrated History of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Civil, Political, and Military, From it's Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Including Historical Descriptions of Each County in the State, Their Towns, and Industrial Resources. Harrisburg, PA: De Witt C. Goodrich & Co., 1876.

Richards, Louis. Eleven Days in the Militia During the War of the Rebellion; Being a Journal of the "Emergency" Campaign of 1862. Philadelphia: Collins, Printer, 1883.

Rose, Sarah, "Irving Female College National Register of Historic Places nomination form", 1982.  on file at the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, or online through the Cultural Resource GIS.

No comments: