Carlisle Borough “Gateway to the West” – A Vibrant Historic Town In Cumberland County, PA

By Paul Fedorsak

Who would believe that I’m starting my 16th year of writing for Hard Tales… wow! The time has gone so very fast! Every month, as I sit and ponder about where my next story is going to come from, the ideas just bounce around in my brain until I settle on a specific topic. So… this month, I’ve decided to share a travel destination that would be a great weekend trip for those of us living around Western New York. If you like to ride and you’re into American history, a visit to Carlisle, Pennsylvania is just the place for you. This little town is about 5½ hours (290 miles) from Buffalo. It is about a ½ hour west from where Rt. 15 travels through Pennsylvania’s state capital, Harrisburg. It is tucked within the Blue Mountains of Cumberland County, in the heart of south-central Pennsylvania.

The town of Carlisle began in the 1720’s as a trading post at the intersection of several Indian trails by immigrants from Scotland and Ireland. It was named after the town Carlisle, Cumberland in Northern England and the old prison that was built in town (it’s now used as offices for Cumberland County) purposely resembles The Citadel in England. When the settlers voted in 1750 on the location for the county government offices for the newly-formed area, Carlisle was chosen to be the county seat. From 1750 to 1815, Carlisle held the title of “Gateway to the West – the Door to the Frontier”. This prime location was crossed by several crucial roads and routes and therefore, it played a major role in westward expansions. During the American Revolutionary War, Carlisle and Cumberland County played significant roles in contributing supplies, food, weapons, and most importantly, soldiers to the fight for independence. The Carlisle Barracks, the second-oldest Army post in the United States, served as supply headquarters for the Revolutionary War. After the war, Carlisle was actually a contender for the Nation’s Capital. From this time period, Carlisle was home to James Wilson, who was one of three Cumberland County attorneys who proudly signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Statue of Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, aka "Molly Pitcher" in Carlisle, PA
Statue of Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, aka “Molly Pitcher”

To honor another notable person from this era, you will need to stop by and visit the large monument in the Old Graveyard on East South Street . A statue of Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, widely known as “Molly Pitcher” honors this tough woman, and not because she threw a great curveball! She was the wife of an artilleryman fighting in the Battle of Monmouth in 1778 and earned her nickname by running pitchers of water to the soldiers fighting in the battle. It is also said that when Molly’s husband collapsed in this battle, Molly abandoned her water jugs and took up loading the cannon in his place. That’s my kind of girl, doing what needs to be done without a second thought! 

Carlisle also played an important role in the Whiskey Rebellion. In October of 1794, under the leadership of General George Washington, the troops (14,000 militiamen) from Pennsylvania and New Jersey met up at the Carlisle Barracks to put an end to the rebellion. A historical treasure in town includes the First Presbyterian Church that General George Washington worshipped at during all of his time in the area. 

In the years leading up to the American Civil War, Carlisle served as an important stop on the Underground Railroad. As part of the Gettysburg Campaign during the Civil War, the Confederate Army attacked and shelled the County Courthouse during the Battle of Carlisle. Today, you can still see the dent from a cannonball on one of the columns of the historic building.  

In 1907, athletic hero Jim Thorpe entered the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and soon joined the football team. He led the team to startling upset victories over powerhouses Harvard, Army, and the University of Pennsylvania in 1911–12, bringing nationwide attention to the school and he later became an Olympic medalist. The school was located at Carlisle Barracks and sadly (at that time) was an experiment in educating Native Americans by teaching them to reject tribal culture and to adapt to white society. The school was closed down but is now one of the sources of the town’s pride. The old Carlisle Barracks has been repurposed into the home of The U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center. Their website proclaims they “tell the Army story… one soldier at a time” by engaging, inspiring, and informing everyone with a unique and enduring source of knowledge and thought. They have huge collections of books in honor of Soldiers and a massive collection of artifacts from, and photographs of, the American Soldiers (from the mid-eighteenth century on). They sponsor many lectures and host ‘Army Heritage Days’ that include demonstrations, reenactments and meet-and-greet opportunities. They also have a mile-long Heritage Trail which even includes an army obstacle course!  

These days, Carlisle has become quite a center for the arts, education, entertainment, and outdoor recreation. In fact, Carlisle is situated near a busy “out and back” point along the Appalachian Trail. This incredible 2,200 mile hiking trail stretches all the way from the state of Maine down to Georgia. The trail area around Carlisle is surrounded by beautiful, accessible hiking terrain that features a great forest setting and is rated as moderate. 

Carlisle is also putting itself on the map as a go-to food destination with some great microbreweries and flavorful independent restaurants like the Molly Pitcher Brewing Company, 1794 the Whiskey Rebellion, Redds Smokehouse, Middlesex Diner, Hamilton Restaurant, Napoli Pizza & Walnut Bottom Diner. So at every turn, the quaint, historic town of Carlisle invites visitors in for a closer look.   

As you ride into the heart of downtown Carlisle, you will enjoy the tree-lined streets occupied by stately architecture, quaint shops, hidden alleys, and many old homes. Upon first glance, you might think the atmosphere reminds you of a beautiful aging lady… one who is mature and put together, but upon closer inspection, you feel she is just bursting with stories of her vibrant past. You will see that the streets are lined with beautiful brick townhomes, arched doorways and private gardens. If you are able to stroll through the area, you will find the layout of downtown Carlisle is very much the same as the original plan of the town from the 1750’s. It certainly allows the rich and varied history to be easily visualized as it invites you to walk the same paths as the early inhabitants. 

Despite this expansive heritage and multiple attractions, the city is most famous for being Pennsylvania’s “automotive capital,” as it boasted (pre-pandemic) ten annual car, truck, and motorcycle shows that are attended by a half a million people each year! 

Anyways, as you can see by the contents of this article, you have to agree that this just may be one great summer ride. You will need to make it a 2 (maybe 4?…) day trip. So if you’re a history buff, and a true motorcycle rider, this is a trip for you!   Please remember to stay alert and Drive safe this winter, but if for some reason you or someone you know has a vehicle accident, it is extremely important to hire an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible following the accident. The Kantor Law Firm is known for aggressive and effective representation with respect and integrity. We are lawyers that ride and know motorcycle vehicle law.  More information call (716) 626-0404 or Toll Free 1-877-SKANTOR

Related Posts