Historical Markers
Wilson College Historical Marker
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Wilson College

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
Edgar Ave. near Ramsey Ave., off U.S. 11 at campus

Dedication Date:
October 10, 1952

Behind the Marker

Black and white photograph of a portrait of Sarah Wilson.
Miss Sarah Wilson, circa 1870.
In many respects,markerChambersburg was ground zero in the Civil War-era struggle to define the meaning of freedom and equality. Not only was the town on the edge of slavery and freedom, the proverbial Mason-Dixon Line in antebellum America. It was also the place where John Brown relocated in preparation for his 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry. And, during the Civil War, Confederate troops burned portions of the town to the ground.

Perhaps as a gesture of their faith in Chambersburg's future, elders of the Carlisle Presbytery, the body responsible for so much Presbyterian educational development in the Commonwealth, voted in 1869 to locate a new woman's college in Franklin County. No doubt, Sarah Wilson's $30,000 gift was helpful in the Presbytery's choice. Though never as well known as some all-female colleges, Wilson Female College provided distinctive opportunities to women drawn to its idyllic and tranquil setting.
Black and white photograph of a portrait
Portrait of Reverend Tryon Edwards, first president of Wilson College, circa...

Wilson was also part of a new wave of colleges and normal schools created immediately after the Civil War. Swarthmore, Haverford, Susquehanna and Lincoln were but a few of the new private liberal-arts colleges that opened that chartered in these years, each with their own denominational support.

Chartered in 1869, Wilson Female College opened the next year as one of two Presbyterian women's colleges in the heartland of central Pennsylvania. The other was Chatham College in Pittsburgh. (A third school, Philadelphia Female College, failed to attract students and closed quickly.) Because of its geographic location and early Presbyterian ties, Wilson College enjoined a close relationship to the all-male[[hm] Dickinson Collegein Carlisle.

Wilson was modeled on the older Vassar College in New York State, which provided several of Wilson's early faculty. Echoing Vassar, Wilson's relative isolation reinforced the sense of a distinctive woman's culture on campus. Like Vassar and Chatham, Wilson was licensed to grant baccalaureate (four-year) degrees. The standard course of study included Greek, Latin, calculus, geometry, history, and the sciences.
Exterior, front facade and grounds.
Main Hall, Wilson College, Chambersburg, PA, 1909.

Through much of the twentieth century, Wilson remained an exclusive if somewhat geographically isolated institution. Financial difficulties nearly closed the college in 1979, but a lawsuit filed by students, faculty, and alumni kept the institution open.

Exterior and grounds. Main building of Swarthmore, now known as Parrish Hall, was the  original building when the college opened in 1869. This image is before the fire.
Swarthmore College, Parrish Hall
Wilson trustees approved the new college mascot, the Phoenix, as a symbol of the institution's regeneration in the face of extreme adversity. Even as its Presbyterian affiliation became less prominent, the college's commitment to a strong liberal arts education tailored to women remained intact.

As the financial realities of operating a single-sex liberal arts college became more apparent, Wilson's trustees approved a series of graduate degree and distance education programs to expand college outreach. The college also created one of the nation's first residential programs for single mothers and their children. Today, Wilson admits adult male students to specialized studies.
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