When Thomas Harrison deeded two and a half acres of his land to the public good in 1779 the City of Harrisonburg was born.
Harrison, the son of English immigrants, brought his family to settle in the Shenandoah Valley in 1737. By 1778 the Harrison family had laid claim to land in the area that is now Harrisonburg and part of Rockingham County. Harrison built a home on Bruce Street that is still standing today. The Commonwealth of Virginia officially organized Rockingham County in 1778.
The following year Harrison deeded two and a half acres of his overall holdings to the new county, which used the property to build the first courthouse on what is still Court Square. The next year an additional 50 acres were added from the Harrison holdings to the two and a half acres and Harrisonburg was recognized as the county seat of Rockingham. In 1780, the city limits were Federal Street to the east, Bruce Street to the south, High Street to the west and Wolfe Street to the north.
In 1789 the Masonic Order was formed in the City, making it the oldest organization still in existence in Harrisonburg.
Trustees governed the City of Harrisonburg until 1849 when a new charter instituted a mayor-council form of government and Isaac Hardesty was elected the City’s first mayor. Hardesty’s council consisted of seven men representing the seven hundred citizens of the young city. In that year Harrisonburg had 200 taxpaying residents and a budget of 237 dollars. (View the history of Harrisonburg City Council members.)
War came to the valley and to Harrisonburg between 1861 and 1864. The City was passed through by both Union and Confederate troops. On June 20, 1862 the fence around the courthouse was used as a stockade to hold Union soldiers taken prisoner in the Battle of Cross Keys. The war was a tense time in the City. Turner Ashby, a noted cavalry officer was killed close to the town’s borders. While Harrisonburg and Virginia were part of the Confederacy, the City of Harrisonburg’s representatives in Richmond opposed secession.
Another 1,082 acres were added to the City in 1892 through annexation. The move increased the population of Harrisonburg by three times to about 2,000 total residents. The next year the town elected trustees to work with the Superintendent of Public Instruction to form a public school system.
The Virginia General Assembly established the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Harrisonburg in 1908. The school became the State Teachers College in 1924 and was renamed Madison College in 1938. In 1977 the college took on the name of James Madison University (JMU). Today JMU has over 19,000 students and employs nearly 4,000 faculty and staff members.
1912 saw the founding of Rockingham Memorial Hospital (RMH). The hospital serves a five county area spanning the Shenandoah Valley and parts of West Virginia. In 1994, RMH added a regional cancer center to its list of services to the community.
In 1916, Harrisonburg was incorporated as an independent city. Four years later, the 1920 census recorded the population of Harrisonburg as 5,875.
What would become Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) was founded in 1917 as the Eastern Mennonite School. The school became a four-year degree conferring institution in 1947. EMU now has an active graduate school along with undergraduate and adult degree programs.
Through annexations in 1937, 1938 and 1950 about 320 acres were added to the City and two small annexations in 1965 and 1970 brought the total land in Harrisonburg to 3,828 acres or nearly six square miles. The 1970 census recorded Harrisonburg’s population as 19,700.
The last annexation of land by the City was in 1982 when 11.64 square miles were added, bringing the City to 17.394 square miles or 11,132.16 acres.
Efforts toward the revitalization of downtown Harrisonburg went into high gear in the early 2000’s. Through the work of groups like Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance and with the help of the city government, Harrisonburg is now a Virginia Main Street Community. The City also has a National Historic District and a State Historic District.
According to the US Census, Harrisonburg's population grew from 40,468 in 2000 to 48,914 in 2010, making Harrisonburg the 12th largest city in Virginia.
More resources on the history of Harrisonburg:
For more information about Harrisonburg's rich history, visit our Tourism Office online or in person at the Hardesty Higgins House at 212 S. Main Street, Harrisonburg, VA 22801.
Harrisonburg Downtown Historic Buildings: Interactive map
History of public safety in Harrisonburg: