The Old Jail in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, stands as a silent witness to the past, where it played a pivotal role in the history of the region. This architectural gem, built in 1818, is steeped in fascinating tales of crime, punishment, and local history. Today, the Old Jail has been repurposed as the home of the Franklin County Historical Society – Kittochtinny, where it serves as a museum and research center. In this article, we will explore the captivating history of the Old Jail and discover the stories that lie within its ancient walls.
The Construction and Design of the Old Jail
The Old Jail was built in response to the need for a more secure and humane facility for prisoners in Chambersburg. Prior to its construction, prisoners were held in a small log structure that proved to be inadequate for the growing population. The jail was possibly designed by John Haviland, a prominent architect of the time, who is also known for designing the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
Editors Note: The original story credited John Haviland with the design, but unfortunately there is no documentation to officially give him credit, likely due to the confederates burning the courthouse in 1864. We at the Free Press feel that it was fairly likely that he is the designer, but it will likely remain a mystery.
Constructed from local limestone, the Old Jail features Gothic Revival and Greek Revival architectural elements. The structure consists of a central block with two wings, housing cells for men, women, and debtors. The imposing façade of the building, with its heavy doors and arched windows, was designed to intimidate and convey the authority of the law.
The Civil War Era and Beyond
During the Civil War, the Old Jail played a crucial role in the region. In 1863, as Confederate forces approached Chambersburg, Union soldiers were temporarily held at the jail before being moved to a more secure location. Just a year later, in 1864, the Confederate troops burned Chambersburg to the ground, but the Old Jail was one of the few buildings left standing.
After the Civil War, the Old Jail continued to serve as a prison until 1971. Over the years, the building underwent several expansions and renovations to accommodate the needs of the growing community. Notably, in 1880, a three-story brick addition was built to house the warden’s family, and in the early 20th century, the building was outfitted with modern plumbing and heating systems.
Preservation and the Franklin County Historical Society
In 1970, as plans were being made to construct a new county jail, the Franklin County Historical Society stepped in to save the Old Jail from demolition. Recognizing its historical significance and architectural value, the Society purchased the building and embarked on a journey to restore and preserve it.
Today, the Old Jail serves as the headquarters of the Franklin County Historical Society – Kittochtinny. It houses a museum that showcases the rich history of the region, with exhibits featuring artifacts, photographs, and documents dating back to the 18th century. The building also contains a research library and archives, which are invaluable resources for historians and genealogists alike.