Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Swimming Lesson: A brief history of Harrisburg’s public pools.


Screenshot 2014-07-30 21.14.24“My hungry body’s burning for a swim,” the Jamaican-born Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay wrote in his poem “Thirst,” from his 1922 collection “Harlem Shadows.” For city dwellers in the midst of a hot summer, there’s no relief quite as sweet as jumping into a pool. And yet, for the past few summers, Harrisburg residents have had only one city pool in which to swim.

That’s expected to change this month, as the city plans to reopen the pool at Hall Manor after making some short-term repairs. The Hall Manor pool, at the end of S. 18th Street in south Harrisburg, was closed in 2012 due to leaks, and, according to city engineer Wayne Martin, it will also require extensive concrete work and a new paint job before it can be used. The necessary repairs, which began in July, represent part of an estimated $210,000 in renovations to both pools planned over the next year, to be paid for out of federal community development funds.

The administration of Mayor Eric Papenfuse announced the renovations in late June, shortly after the launch of its “Summer in the City” promotional campaign. “We chose the pools because we consider them critical to our public safety strategy as well as our summer enrichment strategy,” Papenfuse said, when asked about the project at a press conference in July. “We need two pools just to handle the demand. But also, we want to give kids and families something productive and happy to do.”

The other city pool is on N. 6th Street in Midtown, located behind the Jackson Lick public housing apartment towers and the Ben Franklin School. Both pools were substantially renovated in the late ‘90s. The initial investment will yield scant returns this year, as the Hall Manor opening, expected to be around Aug. 15, will only provide for two weeks of swimming before the summer ends. But, according to Martin, the repairs planned over the next year should extend the pools’ useful life by between 10 and 15 years.

“The Hall Manor pool has been closed for years, just neglected and forgotten about, and we said, ‘No, we’re gonna make fixing it a real priority.’ And it looks like we’re going to be able to get it up and running,” Papenfuse said. “We think that’s a wise investment of city dollars.”


Harrisburg undertook the construction of its two pools in the spring of 1968, under Republican Mayor Albert Straub.

“Big Al” Straub, whom the journalist Paul Beers, in a column in the Patriot-News, once described as “a senior-citizen sex symbol with a square jaw and a silver mane,” had taken office that January. Not unlike the current mayor’s initiative, the Straub administration’s efforts formed part of a citywide investment in recreation. Over the next year, the city would pledge more than $1 million—including $150,000 from a private donor—towards constructing the pools and developing playgrounds at seven city locations.

The recreation project came at a time of change and unrest. The city itself was shrinking: the U.S. census reported a loss of nearly 10,000 residents in the 1950s, and another 11,000 in the 1960s. On April 4, three months into Straub’s term, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. That summer, the school district, having been cited for “racial imbalance” by the state Human Relations Commission, drafted a plan to bus black students into three predominantly white schools. Less than a year later, pupils at John Harris High would boycott an afternoon assembly on the basis of, as Beers later wrote, “inadequate recognition of the recent Black History Week.” Harrisburg’s race riot flared only a few months afterwards.

The Hall Manor pool’s construction was delayed one year, but the Jackson Lick pool opened on Aug. 9, 1968, a Friday morning. At the time, the Jackson Lick apartment towers housed families with children, and in the days leading up to the opening, a residents’ association had raised safety questions in connection with the pool’s chain link fences, which some parents worried could be hopped by children. The association was also irked over a “complete lack of communication between the city and the tenants,” according to its president, Helen Moore. By opening day, the city had assuaged Moore by promising to post a night watchman at the pool and by inviting association leaders to sit with other city officials on opening day.

According to a report the next day in the Patriot, Straub led a 20-minute ceremony under a “hot noonday sun.” Perhaps in apology for construction delays, he announced that the public could use the pool free of charge for the remainder of the season. (Full admission prices would take effect the following summer—25 cents per visitor, or $8 for a family season pass.) While the mayor spoke, “kids and some parents stood impatiently by in swimming togs waiting for the program to end.” When it did, the report adds, “approximately 300 children entered the pool in 10 minutes.” Moore, of the residents’ association, remarked that she’d “never seen a happier bunch of children.”


On a recent weekday, during a few days’ break from summer temperatures, the men’s locker room at the Jackson Lick pool was empty. An inch-deep pool of standing water sat at the feet of a row of stalls. Outside, on the walk to the pool, a man named Andre sold sno-cones and candy out of a small garage. Andre owns a furniture store on S. Cameron Street, one of several businesses displaced by the massive fire at a nearby vehicle salvage business in May. At the snack stand, he said, he was merely standing in for the head of the operation—his 10-year-old daughter.

The Jackson Lick pool sits on a sloping rectangle of scrabbly grass in the shadow of the tinted-glass PHEEA building. On the other side is the Ben Franklin School, whose windows face directly onto the pool. In May, you would think this would prove a form of torture for the middle-school students, except that the pool isn’t filled until the school year ends. (Maybe it’s a form of torture anyway.) A pair of managers watched from under a sun umbrella, while perhaps 20 or 30 children, many from a nearby daycare, splashed around, tossed Nerf footballs, or dove from the boards. Behind them, a smaller, circular wading pool, filled, but with a broken pump, sat unused, its floor growing a brown-green fuzz.

It was a peaceful day, with lifeguards lazing at their posts and objects on the periphery—a crumpled stretch of fence, a dusty picnic table—looking quaintly timeworn. Nonetheless, the pool has seen its share of excitement over the years. Across the street, Keith Myers, a maintenance supervisor for the Harrisburg Housing Authority, reminisced about some of the wilder times. “Kids would sneak in at midnight, throw their towels over the fence,” he said. He recalled the discovery, several years back, of large bags of marijuana in the attic of the bathhouse, a gun battle that left bullets in the side of one of the apartment towers, and, most peculiarly, a deer bolting out from what used to be a woodsy patch adjacent to the parking lot.

Myers started with the housing authority in 1982. A year or two before, the organization had removed families from the southern tower, named for Alton W. Lick, and converted the building into apartments for people over 55. Before then, the tower had attracted gang activity. “Mayor Reed was calling us ‘Hall Manor in the sky,’” Myers said. The northern tower, named for C. Sylvester Jackson, was vacated in 2004 and is currently under renovation. Both of the buildings have 13 floors, which, in defiance of the superstition, are labeled 1 through 13 in the elevators. For the convenience of residents, many of whom are disabled, a wheelchair ramp was added to the Jackson Lick pool during a renovation in the 1990s.

In 1998, the city introduced a pool program that had nothing to do with swimming. Called the “Get Hooked on Fishing Derby,” it involved filling the pool with striped bass after it had closed for the season in September. In 2006, according to a press release from the office of former Mayor Stephen Reed, the city dumped in 1,100 12-inch stripers, 30 of which had been tagged with the names of various city celebrities. Anglers who hooked them would receive a special prize.

Bob Herman, the president of Capital City Bassmasters, the local BassPro Shop’s house fishing club, recalled that his members would team up with the city to help young fishermen manage their rods. “It was a mess,” he said. “You can imagine, kids around a swimming pool…we’d have, like, 20 kids at a time all tangled up.” The event was abandoned in later years, as the city’s deepening fiscal crisis led to a budgetary clampdown.

The present-day pool prices—$5 per visitor, $150 for a family of six—can make the city pools’ early years seem like ancient history. And, as far as I know, Harrisburg has no imminent plans to fill the Jackson Lick pool with stripers. But, for the first summer in a while, if only for a few weeks, it should once again have a second pool.

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