Glory Day: Lancaster's Brief Stint as Our Nation's Capital

Richard T. Nowitz/CORBIS
Richard T. Nowitz/CORBIS

If you’ve visited Lancaster, Penn., you probably remember it as a nice mid-sized city right in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country. What you might not know is that on this date in 1777, it became our young country’s third capital city, a position it held only briefly. Very, very briefly. Let’s take a look at how Lancaster became our capital for a single day.

Get Out of Town

Things began looking grim for Philadelphia, the old capital city, in September 1777.

British forces under General William Howe had been advancing north from the Chesapeake Bay in an effort to capture the revolutionary capital, and American forces led by George Washington had moved south of Philadelphia to intercept the invading force. On September 11, Washington’s men clashed with Howe’s troops in the Battle of Brandywine.

The battle was a catastrophe for the Continental Army. Howe outmaneuvered Washington, and the rebellious colonists had little choice but to retreat after the British appeared on their flank. Although Washington’s forces would sporadically engage the advancing British soldiers over the next two weeks, the loss at Brandywine effectively ended the chances of successfully defending Philadelphia. On September 26, 1777, the British waltzed unopposed into the City of Brotherly Love.

The crushing military defeat was obviously bad news for the colonial cause, but it had political repercussions, too. As the capture of Philadelphia became a foregone conclusion, the Second Continental Congress realized that it needed to find a new revolutionary capital pronto. The delegates packed up their gear and hoofed it 60 miles west of Philly to Lancaster. On September 27, 1777, just one day after the British strolled into Philadelphia, the Continental Congress met in Lancaster’s county courthouse, a building that had been constructed in the town square in 1737.

Just like that, Lancaster became the third capital of the fledgling nation. (Baltimore had also briefly served as the capital between December 20, 1776 and February 27, 1777.) The Continental Congress got some work done that day, including electing Benjamin Franklin as commissioner to negotiate a treaty with France, but the delegates didn’t have much time to get comfortable.

On the Road Again

Even a 60-mile buffer from the British forces in Philadelphia seemed a bit thin given the easy march the red coats had just made into the old capital, so after one day in Lancaster, the Continental Congress again packed its bags. This time the delegates headed to York, Penn., which offered another 20 miles of cushion from the British. Plus, York was nestled on the western side of the Susquehanna River, which made it easier to defend from potential British encroachment.

The Second Continental Congress had a longer stay in York. The delegates met in York’s courthouse from September 30, 1777, all the way through June 27, 1778, at which time the congress moved back to Philadelphia.

Lancaster wasn’t the only unexpected capital in the country’s early days—Princeton, Annapolis, and Trenton all had stints of their own under the Articles of Confederation—but its time at the top was certainly the shortest. Today we tip our caps towards Pennsylvania in honor of the anniversary of Lancaster’s brief moment in the sun.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

On This Day in 1953, Jonas Salk Announced His Polio Vaccine

Getty Images
Getty Images

On March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk went on CBS radio to announce his vaccine for poliomyelitis. He had worked for three years to develop the polio vaccine, attacking a disease that killed 3000 Americans in 1952 alone, along with 58,000 newly reported cases. Polio was a scourge, and had been infecting humans around the world for millennia. Salk's vaccine was the first practical way to fight it, and it worked—polio was officially eliminated in the U.S. in 1979.

Salk's method was to kill various strains of the polio virus, then inject them into a patient. The patient's own immune system would then develop antibodies to the dead virus, preventing future infection by live viruses. Salk's first test subjects were patients who had already had polio ... and then himself and his family. His research was funded by grants, which prompted him to give away the vaccine after it was fully tested.

Clinical trials of Salk's vaccine began in 1954. By 1955 the trials proved it was both safe and effective, and mass vaccinations of American schoolchildren followed. The result was an immediate reduction in new cases. Salk became a celebrity because his vaccine saved so many lives so quickly.

Salk's vaccine required a shot. In 1962, Dr. Albert Sabin unveiled an oral vaccine using attenuated (weakened but not killed) polio virus. Sabin's vaccine was hard to test in America in the late 1950s, because so many people had been inoculated using the Salk vaccine. (Sabin did much of his testing in the Soviet Union.) Oral polio vaccine, whether with attenuated or dead virus, is still the preferred method of vaccination today. Polio isn't entirely eradicated around the world, though we're very close.

Here's a vintage newsreel from the mid 1950s telling the story:

For more information on Dr. Jonas Salk and his work, click here.

Drunken Thieves Tried Stealing Stones From Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame.
Notre-Dame.
Athanasio Gioumpasis, Getty Images

With Paris, France, joining a long list of locales shutting down due to coronavirus, two thieves decided the time was right to attempt a clumsy heist—stealing stones from the Notre-Dame cathedral.

The crime occurred last Tuesday, March 17, and appeared from the start to be ill-conceived. The two intruders entered the cathedral and were immediately spotted by guards, who phoned police. When authorities found them, the trespassers were apparently drunk and attempting to hide under a tarpaulin with a collection of stones they had taken from the premises. Both men were arrested.

It’s believed the offenders intended to sell the material for a profit. Stones from the property sometimes come up for sale on the black market, though most are fake.

The crime comes as Paris is not only dealing with the coronavirus pandemic but a massive effort to restore Notre-Dame after the cathedral was ravaged by a fire in 2019. That work has come to a halt in the wake of the health crisis, though would-be looters should take note that guards still patrol the property.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]

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