Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Documenting Historic Flood-Prone Communities in Central Pennsylvania

| 0 comments

Over the last year, architectural historians and survey engineers with Commonwealth Heritage Group and ASC Group have been documenting historic properties and communities in Dauphin, Cumberland, and Perry Counties.

At the same time, staff from Johnson, Mirmiram, & Thompson have been doing similar work in Juniata County.

Staff from Commonwealth Heritage Group conduct field survey in Dauphin County, 2019. Photo by Don Giles, PHMC.

Disaster Planning Initiative

These survey projects were undertaken as part of PA SHPO’s Disaster Planning for Historic Properties Initiative, which has been funded by a grant from the National Park Service to provide for repairs and address planning deficits following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

PA SHPO has used some of this funding to survey properties at risk of future flooding in a total of eight counties now. However, the Central PA survey projects benefited from lessons learned in earlier survey efforts in one important way: they prioritized a more holistic focus on communities.

Central PA Approach

Rather than simply identifying every building over 50 years old at risk of flooding in the four central counties (which we realistically didn’t have funding for), PA SHPO worked with the consultants to identify the specific communities in each county whose character might most be at risk and for which we had very little information.

For the purpose of these projects, “community” could refer to a small village, a borough, or a neighborhood in Harrisburg.

Previous blog posts have addressed some of these communities: Lykens in Dauphin County; Blain in Perry County, and Mount Holly Springs in Cumberland County.

This post will highlight a few of the other communities we learned about through these projects.

Mexico, Juniata County

Today, Mexico is a village of less than 500 people in Walker Township, one of five communities surveyed in Juniata County.

Settled in the early 19th century, Mexico grew into a small community along the Juniata River and William Penn Highway, which was originally a turnpike road leading to Lewistown. By mid-19th century, the village included between 30 and 40 houses, a few stores, three taverns, two churches, a school and a grist mill, sawmill, and wool factory.[1]

One of the surviving 19th century buildings in Mexico.

Most of the 38 properties surveyed are clustered along the William Penn Highway and date from the early to mid-nineteenth century, though a few were built as late as the 1940s.

Harrisburg’s Riverside neighborhood, Dauphin County

Founded in 1905 north of Harrisburg, Riverside is an economically diverse suburb annexed by the city in 1917.

Advertisement for lots in Riverside (Harrisburg Telegraph, 30 September 1933:1).

Unlike earlier neighborhoods, Riverside is home to a wide array of housing types providing housing for both the working class and wealthier families.

Craftsman style residence at 3318 N. 2nd St. in Riverside. Photo by Commonwealth Heritage Group 2019.

Since this project was specifically focused on communities at risk of flooding, Commonwealth produced maps showing the impact of flooding on the surveyed community.

In Riverside, 101 properties were individually surveyed along the 2nd Street Corridor. Of those, 85 are in the Special Flood Hazard Area (an area with a 1% chance of flooding per year), and 29 have visible openings below the Base Flood Elevation (the height floodwaters are likely to reach in a 1% probability flood), making them particularly susceptible to damage from future flooding.

This graphic illustrates the relationship of the historic district boundary to the 100- and 500-year flood zones.

Harrisburg Area Community College, Dauphin County

The Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) represents a different kind of community and a different period of time than the other surveyed areas.

HACC’s McCormick Hall. Photo by Commonwealth Heritage Group 2019.

Designed by the firm William Lynch Murray and Associates, the first phase of building this mid-century modern campus was completed between 1968 and 1975.

Most of HACC’s campus is within the Special Flood Hazard Area, including the historic core which contains the oldest buildings on campus.

Most of HACC’s campus is within the Special Flood Hazard Area.

The last few months have illustrated for many of us just how valuable dedicated space for education is, but the long-term accessibility and affordability of this campus is at risk from increased flooding in the future.

Context Matters

Our approach in these four counties might sound like a simple change in procedure, but the hope is that a represents a more concerted focus on maintaining and safeguarding a strong sense of place in our historic communities.

Context matters. Understanding risk to a single home or business in the context of what the loss of that home or business might mean to the community it contributes to and the people who value it gives us a better understanding of the true risks of future flooding.


[1] Rupp, I. Daniel. History and topography of Northumberland, Huntingdon, Mifflin, Centre, Union, Columbia, Juniata and Clinton Counties, Pa. (Lancaster, Pa.: G. Hills, 1847), 343.

Author: John Gardosik

John Gardosik manages the Disaster Planning for Historic Properties Initiative for the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.