Carlisle, ‘Gateway to the West’

A vibrant historic town in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania
February 2, 2021 Updated: February 2, 2021

The heart of downtown Carlisle, Pennsylvania, marked with stately architecture, hidden alleys, and old homes, is akin to that of an elderly great lady: mature and put together at first glance, but, upon closer inspection, privately bursting with stories of her vibrant past.

The streets, lined with austere brick townhomes, arched doorways that lead to small alleyways, and private gardens, largely reflect the original plan of the town from the 1750s. Plaques nailed into plaster siding or erected as wayside markers along the main sidewalk are etched with details that offer a window into Carlisle’s rich and varied history.

Tucked between the Blue Mountains of Cumberland County, in the heart of south-central Pennsylvania, the town of Carlisle began as a trading post in the 1720s. Named after the town in the north of England, Carlisle was elected county seat of the newly formed county in the 1750s.

The early years of Carlisle were tumultuous and rocky, marked by skirmishes, negotiations, sieges, and warfare. Just a few years after its founding, Carlisle found itself at continuous odds with the Native American Iroquois Confederacy. Benjamin Franklin arrived to negotiate a treaty in 1753, one that was albeit short-lived, as a year later, the French and Indian War began. He stayed at a tavern which, until its demise in 1906, was marked as the Franklin House.

From 1750 to 1815, Carlisle held the title of Gateway to the West, the door to the frontier. Crossed by major roads and routes, Carlisle played a key role in westward expansion. Today, the town still sits at the intersection of two major trucking routes.

During the Revolutionary War, the town became a munitions supply line, offering much needed logistical support through the Carlisle Barracks, the second-oldest Army post in the United States. For a short time, Maj. John Andre of the British forces was held prisoner in Carlisle.

The statue of Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, widely known as “Molly Pitcher,” is located in the Old Public Graveyard in Carlisle. Molly is said to have earned her fame by bringing pitchers of water to soldiers fighting at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1778, and then bravely fighting in her husband’s place after he was wounded in battle. A brewery in her name on High Street honors her heroic actions and patriotic spirit.

After the Revolutionary War, Carlisle was a contender for the nation’s capital. In 1794, George Washington spent a week in Carlisle, reviewing and organizing and reviewing his troops before heading west to quell the Whiskey Rebellion.

Carlisle was no less active in the years leading up to and including the Civil War. After abolishing slavery in 1847, many counties in Pennsylvania became routes for the Underground Railroad, leading fugitive slaves from southern states to freedom in the North or Canada. A few routes ran through Carlisle and its surrounding towns. The Old Courthouse, an impressive brick structure with a bell and clock tower, was the stage for two runaway slave cases, the ruling of one sparking a riot that resulted in the death of a slaveholder.

In 1861, Carlisle came under siege by Gen. Jeb Stuart. The Union militia, led by Maj. Gen. William Smith, refused to surrender, famously replying, “Shell away, and be damned.”

Carlisle Today

In the years since the Civil War, Carlisle has become a center for arts, education, entertainment, and outdoor recreation. Home to Dickinson College, the Army War College, and the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Carlisle attracts students and visitors from all over the region and world.

Situated near the midway point of the Appalachian Trail, the 2,200-mile hiking trail that stretches from Maine to Georgia, Carlisle is surrounded by beautiful, accessible hikes. The town of Carlisle is bike-friendly, encouraging its residents and visitors alike to explore its corners on two wheels.

Carlisle is perhaps most famous for its annual car shows, put on regularly at the Carlisle Fairgrounds.

Where to Eat

With the addition of microbreweries and flavorful independent restaurants, Carlisle is putting itself on the map as a food destination. Denim Coffee Shop, a specialty coffee shop and roaster near the square in Carlisle, provides smooth, unique roasts, carefully sourced with deep care and respect for the farmer who grows the bean.

Issei Noodle and 1794 The Whiskey Rebellion serve unique foods with fresh, local ingredients. Molly Pitcher Brewing Company and Desperate Times Brewery stock their menus with craft beers and flavorful food, perfect for enjoying after a day of exploring Carlisle’s history.

At every turn, the quaint, historic town of Carlisle invites visitors and residents in for a closer look. Brimming with far more stories and anecdotes than a single article can contain, Carlisle beckons lovers of nature and history to explore its streets, squares, and trails, uncovering what lies beneath its picturesque façade.

Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com