There's remarkable heritage in Harrisburg.
I have to admit, I wasn't sure what to expect when I was approaching the museum. Would it be filled with dusty old uniforms or stacks of old paper logs, the edges curled and yellow? Would it be filled not with artifacts but instead cliches - the handsome, hunky firefighters and their infallible equipment? I wasn't entirely convinced that this would be a good fit for me.
What does it take to keep a small museum thriving? In the case of the Pennsylvania National Fire Museum, you need a little ingenuity, a whole lot of community connections, and an troop of dedicated volunteers, willing to work every day, every week, every month for decades at a time.
Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a beautifully curated, modern museum, complete with interactive soundtracks. The historic equipment and the early artifacts were all meticulously preserved and well labeled. At no point did the museum try to glorify or whitewash the dangers and sacrifices of firefighting. Instead, it took pains to show just how devastating fires had been to early Harrisburg. It was fascinating to learn about the different ways throughout history that fires were called in to the fire department and I began to appreciate the ingenuity in developing more effective systems of communication. Ringing a bell or a wooden clapper certainly had its limitations!
By far, my favourite thing to discover was the animals! No need to be nervous - today these are just well made models but many years ago, much of the success of firefighting rested with the horses that pulled the equipment. Their health and well being was paramount and, in large stations, there might even be a staff veterinarian on call. The horses weren't the only animals who were part of the team. Dogs, especially the iconic Dalmatian, were happy to serve as mascots, while the cats served a more practical purpose as mouse-ers! In the past, the firehouse even served as residence for a bear!
Of course, while I was cooing over animals, Ryan was getting ready to climb some big rigs! The museum houses a huge collection of fire trucks from over the years, some of which you can sit on (under volunteer supervision). With all the equipment gleaming clean and lovingly restored, I had to remind myself yet again that this was a museum entirely run by volunteers. Their work and dedication is truly remarkable.
Obviously anyone who has an interest in the history of firefighting will be flocking to visit the Pennsylvania National Fire Museum but I think it will appeal to a much wider audience than just the fire buffs. Anyone with an interest in history or Americana will love it and it's such a well organized, well preserved collection that I think even lukewarm visitors will be instantly won over!
Like all things in travel, it's the connections you make with others that make all the difference. The passion and knowledge of our tour guide, John, absolutely brought the museum to life and we were also honored to meet a retired fire chief during our visit. We really got the sense of how the one thing that has remained unchanged throughout centuries of development has been the fire department's role in the heart of the community. I would encourage anyone visiting Harrisburg to stop in for a visit - you won't be disappointed!
What museum or attraction has surprised you and exceeded your expectations?
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My visit to Harrisburg was facilitated by the Hershey-Harrisburg Visitor's Bureau. This did not affect my reviews and all opinions remain my own.