At the Concurrency of U.S. Route 45, Illinois Route 13, Illinois Route 145, and Illinois Route 34, Harrisburg is known as the "Gateway To The Shawnee National Forest", and was made famous by the Ohio River flood of 1937, the old Crenshaw House (also known as the Old Slave House), a notorious gangster Charlie Birger, WSIL-TV, and having the largest KFC in America.
The town was named for James Alexander Harris, an early settler and one of four men who donated land for the city to be built on. The current mayor is Valerie Rose Mitchell.
Harrisburg was plotted as a village on 20 acres in 1853. It became the county seat six years later. In 1861, as it approached a population of 500, it became a town. In 1889, with a population of 1,500, Harrisburg became a city, with an aldermanic form of government. It adopted the commission form in 1915.
There are few distinctly prominent surnames in Harrisburg that helped make this little town prosper during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. A few of those names are, Pruett, Gaskins, Seten, Skaggs (Charles Skaggs, second mayor and Illinois state representative who brought electricity to Harrisburg), Mitchell, Harris, Sloan, Dorris, Feazel, Cummins, and Parish. Those family names along with others such as the Grangers, McKinleys, McHaneys, Shaws, Tuttles, Barnetts, and Websters are forever commemorated within the street names and older buildings within the town. Many families within Harrisburg today carry those family names and hardly a single deed within the city changed hands without one of these families being involved.
Coal mining was one of the city's biggest industries. In 1854, the first slope coal mine began operations southeast of the community. At first, the coal was carried by wagon to area homes and businesses and used for heating. After the Civil War, coal production became an important industry in the county. The first shaft mine was sunk in 1873 or 1874. This was followed by the creation of several more shaft mines and by an influx of settlers drawn to the area to work the mines. By 1906, the county was producing more than 500,000 tons of coal annually, with more than 1,000 miners at work.
Early the 1870s, Harrisburg residents raised $100,000 to pay for construction of a railroad through the city. In 1872, the Cairo & Vincennes Railroad, later the New York Central, was completed and provided the means needed to haul coal to distant markets.
Harrisburg was home to prohibition-era bootlegger Charles Birger, and for a time the gangster's prized Tommy gun was displayed in a glass case in the City Hall. In 1915 the Ringling Brothers Circus made an appearance in Harrisburg. * During the first half of the 20th century, Harrisburg was a strategic stop on the presidential campaign trail, seeing figures such as John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Harry Truman during his whistlestop tour in 1948. It was one of the fastest growing cities south of Chicago in the state during that era.
In 1984, a respected local physician, Dr. John Dale Cavaness, was charged with the murder of his two sons. The case was chronicled in the book by Darcy O Brien, "Murder in Little Egypt". Pioneer history is showcased at the Saline County Area Historical Museum on the city's southern edge. The three-acre site includes the three-story high Old Pauper Home, which was once part of the county's poor farm. The site also features a variety of cabins, a one-room school house, a small church and other historic buildings that have been acquired, moved to the site and restored.
It was sold, before its abandonment, to the Central Illinois Public Service Company. The inter-urban line lasted from 1913 to 1933, when it was abandoned. It lasted only 20 years, but was the main mode of transportation between the three largest towns in the county for many miners and the general public. The automobile quickly replaced the street car as the major mode of transportation in 1910. Soon the construction of hard roads was begun in the early 1920s. This was death to the Inter-urban line and eventually the entire railroad itself. The Cairo-Vinceness/Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway system tracks were taken up in the 1980s and replaced by a bike trail in 1996. In central Illinois a vast interurban network went from St. Louis, Missouri to the state capital of Springfield, up to Peoria and eastward to Decatur, Danville and Champaign-Urbana; this system was very similar. Many interurban lines sprawled across the country during that time connecting small towns and major cities with cheap transportation. Ohio and Indiana had the largest amount of tracks of any other state.
After the decommission of the Interurban line in 1933, Harrisburg opened the Harrisburg-Dorrisville Bus Co., which was a private predecessor bus company to the current Rides Mass Transit District which was opened in 1980.
The Saline County courthouse and square have gone through many transformations within the past 100 years. In the 1800s the town had dirt streets with a large grand Greek Revival style court house, which was then replaced at the turn of the 20th century with a larger, grander courthouse with brick streets. Harrisburg had all brick streets, but now only a few are left. Most have been replaced with pavement. The ones that are left are protected by the Harrisburg Brick Streets Committee. A smaller version of the central clock tower of the courthouse, including the original clock was recreated in 1996, and placed in a small lot behind the Clearwave Building's parking lot.
Harrisburg has not yet begun a National Trust for Historic Preservation, Main Street historical preservation program, like Eldorado has. Saline County is within a recognized historical district, the "Ohio River Route Where Illinois Began". Only two buildings in Harrisburg are currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places, those being the City Hall and the Saline County Poor Farm.
The square itself held several business, grocery and department stores, pharmacies and bars. During the closing of the coal mining era most of the businesses left the square and moved to the main drag of Rt. 45. The court house was replaced with a modern, more efficient building in the 1970s after the older court house was condemned. Over the years, the brilliantly built architecture that graced Harrisburg square has slowly turned to rotting older structures mixed in with a hodge-podge of newer updated buildings. Currently there are a few privately owned downtown renovation projects under way on and around the square.
Besides buildings around the square, there were several mills and factories that no longer exist, such as the Woolcot mill, C.V. Parker mill, several planning mills, and saw mills, Harrisburg Ice packing plant, Coke plant, brick factory and the candy making factory on Jackson St. As expected, the area surrounding downtown Harrisburg is spotted with elegant old homes. On and around Poplar, Main, Church, and Granger Streets there are Victorian, Greek Revival, Federal, and Tudor designs, all carefully preserved and maintained. In some areas, these streets are still paved with hand-laid brick. Around these are the Cape Cods, American Foursquares, and bungalows from the 1920s and 1930s. Modern ranch, raised ranch, and split-level designs extend from these to near the edges of the community.
The Harrisburg-Raleigh Airport is located approximately four miles north of Harrisburg on Highway 34. The Harrisburg-Raleigh Airport Authority operates the airport. The Airport has two runways—32/14 and 6/24. Runway 24 includes a new, extension, bringing the runway to , and a GPS-RNAV approach.
Harrisburg has one television station licensed directly to the city; WSIL-TV. Broadcasting on channel 3, it is the ABC affiliate for a wide area of southern Illinois, western Kentucky and southeastern Missouri. The station's studios reside in nearby Carterville.
The major employers in Harrisburg are as of 2007 are, American Coal Corporation, Nationwide Glove, Illinois Youth Center, ARCLAR Coal, Southern Truss, Harrisburg Medical Center, Harrisburg Truss, and Harrisburg School District Unit3. The City encourages expansion or relocation of business by providing infrastructure needs, access to utilities and land acquisition at a competitive price in its TIF District, in the northern corner of the community off Route 45 on Veterns Dr. and Small st (The old Railroad yard). The City received a $375,900 EDA Public works Project grant for infrastructure developed in the Small Street area, and a $161,100 from the TIF Redevelopment Fund.
2007 brought forth a serious construction boom in Harrisburg. In January of 2007 construction on the (Rt. 13). bypass around Harrisburg started with the destruction of several abandoned homes in the Wilmoth Addition. Casey's General Store on Main St. was shut down in March after refusing to cooperate with the city, and new water lines were laid to make way for the new highway. Walgreens built a new pharmacy on the southeast corner of Commercial (Rt. 45) and Poplar (Rt. 13). Parker Plaza, the oldest shopping center in Harrisburg is expected to be remolded and expand in 2008 in response to the Wal-Mart Super Center store being built in the area southeast of the intersection of Sloan and Commercial streets, extending to state routes 34 and 145. Kroger remodeled in 2008. Other business construction areas are on the northwest corner of Sloan and Main Streets where People's Bank has moved, and Banterra Bank moved its headquarters from the Clearwave Communications building to a newer building that was constructed on Poplar St.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 6.4 square miles (16.5 km²), of which, 6.2 square miles (16.2 km²) of it is land and 0.1 square miles (0.4 km²) of it (2.19%) is water.
The square in the center of town, as well as Dorrisville, and Gaskins City stand on top of a series of hills that used to be islands in the middle of natural lowlands dug out by the middle fork of the Saline River, that flooded every spring. The locals called the island "Crusoe's Island". When the area was drained, and homes were built, it became prone to flooding for years to come. The town square in the center of town is more like a bluff, one of the first that start the Shawnee Hills to the south. This topographic map shows the bluffs that rise from the bottoms surrounding town.
More than 270,000 acres (1100 km²) of Shawnee National Forest lie to the south of Harrisburg, drawing thousands of visitors annually to the Saline County area and the gateway community. The Shawnee National Forest offers much to see and do. The national forest has of roadways, some of streams and frequent waterfalls, numerous ponds and lakes as large as 2,700 acres (11 km²) (some with swimming beaches), 13 campgrounds, many picnicking sites, and seven wilderness areas where trails are designed for hiking and horseback riding.
There are many great places to hike among interesting rock formations, including Stone Face, south of Harrisburg on Illinois Route 34; Garden of the Gods and Bell Smith Springs, south of Harrisburg off US Route 45.
There were 4,093 households out of which 27.1% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 44.0% were married couples living together, 13.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 39.0% were non-families. 35.7% of all households were made up of individuals and 17.7% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.22 and the average family size was 2.85.
In the city the population was spread out with 25.0% under the age of 18, 9.4% from 18 to 24, 24.6% from 25 to 44, 22.3% from 45 to 64, and 18.7% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 38 years. For every 100 females there were 93.2 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 82.9 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $26,507, and the median income for a family was $35,667. Males had a median income of $29,086 versus $19,013 for females. The per capita income for the city was $15,005. About 10.1% of families and 13.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 16.5% of those under age 18 and 7.6% of those age 65 or over.