written by Laura Klotz
Whether this is your first time in the Red Rose City or you’re a return visitor, the home of Zenkaikon has so much to see and explore. This page will tell you about some of the fascinating history to be found here. If you have extra time before, during, or after the convention, we encourage you to venture out into the city to see some of these places for yourself.
Lancaster County was carved out of one of the three original counties planned and named by William Penn, founder of the Providence of Pennsylvania, later to be the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The city of Lancaster was founded in 1729, and Penn Square – home of the Lancaster County Convention Center and Zenkaikon – has been the city’s central hub from the beginning. It was originally called Hickory Town but was renamed Lancaster after the city in England. For nearly three hundred years, Lancaster has continued to grow and be a significant part of the history of both Pennsylvania and the United States.
Speaking of the United States, did you know that Lancaster was once the nation’s capital? For one entire day! During the American Revolution, the British captured the city of Philadelphia, which was then the capital. As soon as they received word that the troops were nearing the city, the Continental Congress fled via a very roundabout route through parts of New Jersey and what today are Northampton and Berks Counties. Then, they reached Lancaster on Saturday, September 27, 1777. They brought the Declaration of Independence with them to keep it from falling into enemy hands. For that single day, Lancaster served as the capital of the newborn United States. However, because they feared pursuit, the Continental Congress decided to put the Susquehanna River between themselves and the Redcoats. They left the following day for York (then called Yorktown), which remained the capital until the following July, when they could return to Philadelphia.
The courthouse where the Continental Congress briefly convened was the original courthouse of the city, and built in 1739. It burned in 1784 and was rebuilt on the same location, and from 1799 to 1812 it served not only as a courthouse but as the Capitol Building of Pennsylvania. That’s right, during those years Lancaster was the capital of the Commonwealth. It was relocated to Harrisburg in 1812 due to that city’s more central location. The courthouse, meanwhile, was demolished in 1852 and replaced by the one in use today, which stands on North Duke Street. If you’re familiar with the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Penn Square, right in front of our hotel, that’s where the courthouse stood in those capital days.
In the 19th century, Lancaster served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and was an instrumental location in helping escaped slaves make their way to freedom. It was home to many notable names in the Civil War era, two in particular. One was President James Buchanan, the first President ever to be born in Pennsylvania. He moved to Lancaster as a young man and, except when in Washington or serving as an ambassador overseas, remained here for the rest of his life. His niece Harriet Lane, whom he adopted after her parents died, was a leading citizen in her own right; she served as First Lady to her bachelor uncle and was actually the first person to bear that title officially. When her beloved uncle passed away, she arranged for him to be buried in Lancaster’s Woodward Hill Cemetery, where the nation performs a wreath-laying ceremony every year on the anniversary of his birth (as they do for all Presidents).
The other famous gentleman of the era was Thaddeus Stevens, the “Great Commoner,” who moved to Lancaster from Gettysburg. Stevens is probably best remembered for having authored the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which grants citizenship to everyone born or naturalized in the United States, including former slaves, and provides them with equal protection under the law. He lived in a house which stands adjacent to the convention center, and is currently being remodeled into a museum. The Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Center for History and Democracy will, it is hoped, open in a few years. In the meantime, however, you can view part of it just by attending Zenkaikon! In the room where you’ll pick up your membership badge, you’ll see large glass windows overlooking a basement cistern. This was part of his home and, it is believed, where he personally concealed runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Like President Buchanan, Stevens is also buried in Lancaster; his tomb is in the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery, on Mulberry and Chestnut Streets, which he specifically chose because they allowed anyone to be buried there regardless of race.
These are just two of the many fascinating figures who called Lancaster home at one time or another. Some of the others whose names you might know include:
- Andrew Ellicott, a master surveyor, who helped Meriwether Lewis prepare for the Lewis & Clark Expedition
- Thomas Mifflin, the first governor of Pennsylvania
- Lydia Hamilton Smith, Thaddeus Stevens’s housekeeper, who was also a freedom fighter and later became one of the city’s prominent female business owners
- John F. Reynolds, a Union army officer who was the highest-ranked casualty in the Battle of Gettysburg
- Blanche Nevin, the first noteworthy female sculptor in America, whose artwork can be seen in the Crypt of the U.S. Capitol building
- Robert Fulton, who designed the first fully-functional steamboat
- Charles Demuth, a world-renowned watercolor artist, whose family owned a cigar shop on King Street for several generations which is now an art museum
In addition to famous people, Lancaster is the origin of many famous items. The Conestoga wagon was designed here, along with the Pennsylvania longrifle and the first battery-powered pocket watch. It’s even the birthplace of marshmallow Peeps; although today they’re manufactured in Bethlehem, they were originally created here.
If you’re not sure where to begin your historical tour of Lancaster, a good place to start is right across Penn Square from the hotel. Next to the Lancaster Central Market, the oldest continuously operating farmers’ market in America since 1730 (which you will also not want to miss) is the Lancaster City Visitor Center. Here you can learn many interesting facts about Lancaster and watch as portraits of famous residents, including Buchanan and Stevens, interact with each other. It’s a bit like Hogwarts for history students! The Lancaster Campus of History on North President Avenue offers even more learning opportunities, including tickets to visit Wheatland, the Georgian-style mansion which was home to President Buchanan and still contains many of his possessions. (You can also take a virtual tour of the house, free of charge, by visiting their website.)
However you plan to spend your time in Lancaster, we hope you enjoy yourself and come back again!
For more information, be sure to check out some of these websites: