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Burning of Chambersburg light show marks the end of ChambersFest

Burning of Chambersburg light show marks the end of ChambersFest

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — One hundred and fifty-five years ago, General John McCausland and 2,800 Confederate cavalrymen entered Chambersburg demanding $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in greenbacks.

When the residents failed to raise the ransom, McCausland ordered the town to be set ablaze.

That fateful night will be recreated for approximately 10,000 people on Saturday, July 20, at 9 p.m.

Janet Pollard, executive director of the Franklin County Visitors Bureau, said the story of the burning is a stellar example of the human spirit.

“It’s almost unbelievable that 11 square blocks were reduced to ashes, 550 structures were destroyed, and 2,000 people were left homeless. To think that now, Chambersburg is the thriving county seat of Franklin County,” she said.

This year’s outdoor light show will take place at the 11/30 Visitors Center, 15 S. Main St., rather than the traditional steps of the Franklin County Courthouse due to renovations.

Pollard promises the same authenticity at the temporary location since the 11/30 building was built in 1865.

“We are very anxious to return to the courthouse steps (for the burning). But until then, we’re fortunate to have the 11/30 Visitors Center to take the place until the courthouse project is finished,” she said.

The “burning” is the culmination of the 33rd annual ChambersFest. The weeklong festival commemorates the town’s rebirth after it was burned by Confederate troops on July 30, 1864.

“This (story) is about the incredible human spirit of ordinary people, in little Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1864 who found that spirit and moved ahead, and we are the lucky recipients of it as people,” Pollard said.

Corey Eslinger, owner of Eslinger Lighting Inc., of Enola, Pa., uses approximately 100 lights, as well as atmospheric and sound effects to create the realistic recreation.

The light show takes about 45 minutes but is a major undertaking, Pollard said.

It takes one full day to setup, Eslinger said. His team arrives on Thursday between 9 and 10 a.m., and sets up everything by 5 p.m.

Then, they do a run through Thursday night to make sure everything works perfectly on Saturday.

“We enjoy it. We look forward to it,” Eslinger said.

This will be the fourth year that Chas. Rittenhouse, Sr., Hagerstown, has portrayed Chambersburg resident Jacob Hoke.

Jacob Hoke was a downtown merchant at the time of the burning.

“I have been recreating historical characters since 1981 … I have a fondness for history. My mother was a historian, and she instilled in me a love of history,” said Rittenhouse.

Hoke, one of the leading citizens in Chambersburg in 1864, was called upon to represent the town in negotiations with McCausland.

“I enjoy portraying Jacob because of his humanity. McCausland is a warrior and this guy is a regular citizen…this is an excellent script that represents history from both sides,” Rittenhouse said.

Just prior to the light show, the final round of the “A Cappella & Unplugged” music competition will begin at 7 p.m. on the steps of the 11/30 Visitors Center.

Pollard said the musical event is the perfect way to celebrate the rebirth of Chambersburg and the irrepressible human spirit.

Earlier on Saturday, thousands of shoppers will pack the streets of downtown Chambersburg for Old Market Day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. More than 100 craft and food vendors, as well as live entertainment and children’s activities are on tap for the day.

There’s a new addition to this year’s list of Old Market Day activities — Downtown Chambersburg Inc. will host a Pop-up Beer Garden from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at The Capitol Theatre Greenway, 159 S. Main St. GearHouse Brewing Co., Roy Pitz Brewing Company – both located in Chambersburg, and Tattered Flag Brewery and Still Works, Middletown (Pa.) will be on hand serving up their signature brews.

On Friday, townspeople can kick off the 1864 weekend with an authentic Civil War Ball at Allison-Antrim Museum from 7 to 9:30 p.m. The event will be held in the historic, bank barn on the property.

Tickets are $15 for singles and $25 for couples. Click here to purchase tickets.

Tours of the Old Jail, 175 E. King St., will be held Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Ann Hull, director of the Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny, said the old jail is a treasure trove of history.

Visitors can see an apothecary, a Civil War gallery, a painting of the Burning of Chambersburg by famous 1800s artist Daniel Ridgway Knight and a temporary World War II display.

On Saturday, Hull and co-author Carlton Bigler will sign copies of their new book, “The Way We Were,” a pictorial look at Chambersburg in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. The cost of the book is $22 plus tax.

Tours are $5 for adults, $4 for children over six and $10 for families.

“We are local history. It’s important that people know their history,” she said. “We have loads of people come from all over, but I see people who live here (Chambersburg) and haven’t a clue what’s inside here.”

Click here for a complete list of ChambersFest activities. 

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