Originally called Hickory Town, the city was renamed after the English city of Lancaster by native John Wright. Its symbol, the red rose, is from the House of Lancaster. Lancaster was part of the 1681 Penn’s Woods Charter of William Penn, and was laid out by James Hamilton in 1734. It was incorporated as a borough in 1742 and incorporated as a city in 1818.
During the American Revolution, Lancaster was the capital of the United States for one day, on September 27, 1777, after the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia, which had been captured by the British. The revolutionary government then moved still farther away to York, Pennsylvania.
Lancaster was capital of Pennsylvania from 1799 to 1812, after which the capital was moved to Harrisburg.
In 1851, the current Lancaster County Prison was built in the city, styled after Lancaster Castle in England. The prison remains in use, and was used for public hangings until 1912. It replaced a 1737 structure on a different site.
The first paved road in the United States was the former Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike, which makes up part of the present-day U.S. Route 30. Opened in 1795, the Turnpike connected the cities of Lancaster and Philadelphia, and was designed by a Scottish engineer named John Loudon McAdam. Lancaster residents are known to use the word "macadam" in lieu of pavement or asphalt. This name is a reference to the paving process named for McAdam.
The city of Lancaster was home to several important figures in American history. Wheatland, the estate of James Buchanan, the fifteenth President of the United States, is one of Lancaster’s most popular attractions. Thaddeus Stevens, considered among the most powerful members of the United States House of Representatives, lived in Lancaster as an attorney. Stevens gained notoriety as a Radical Republican and for his abolitionism. The Fulton Opera House in the city was named for Lancaster native Robert Fulton, a renaissance man who created the first fully functional steamboat. All of these individuals have had local schools named after them.
After the American Revolution, the city of Lancaster became an iron-foundry center. Two of the most common products needed by pioneers to settle the Frontier were manufactured in Lancaster: the Conestoga wagon and the Pennsylvania long rifle. The Conestoga wagon was named after the Conestoga River, which runs through the city. The innovative gunsmith William Henry lived in Lancaster and was a U.S. congressman and leader during and after the American Revolution.
In 1803, Meriwether Lewis visited Lancaster to be educated in survey methods by the well-known surveyor Andrew Ellicott. During his visit, Lewis learned to plot latitude and longitude as part of his overall training needed to lead the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
In 1879, Franklin Winfield Woolworth opened his first successful "five and dime" store in the city of Lancaster, the F. W. Woolworth Company.
Lancaster was one of the winning communities for the All-America City award in 2000
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