Like other Midwest towns in the late 1800s, Harrisburg owes much of its existence to the railroad. Pembina division of the Dakota Southern Railroad passed through the Harrisburg territory August 1, 1879, and a post office was established at the depot. Throughout the early years of Harrisburg’s territory, the post office went through a few names: Saline, Springdale, and finally in 1890, the post office was named Harrisburg and the city was born. The original plat for the town of Harrisburg was recorded on September 26, 1892 with Thomas and Jessie Thorson listed as owners of the land.
Even as far back as 1904 Harrisburg was known for having an independent school district with two substantial school buildings already erected - something to which no other South Dakota town this size or larger came close. Already engrained in 1904 was the fact that Harrisburg had nothing more to be proud of than their schools and churches, which remains true today with an exemplary education system. The first school built was a small white schoolhouse in 1894 with Miss Maude Brown as teacher.
Throughout history, farming and grain export have been the backbone of Harrisburg. Becuase of this, the town has depended on the railway system with main connections in Sioux City and Sioux Falls. In the early years, the main exports consisted of: cattle, hogs, horses, hay, seeds, wheat, corn, oats, barley, flax, potatoes, cheese, butter, eggs, and poultry. In 1905, Harrisburg was seen as the main grain and livestock market producer, far advanced than most of its competition, with 240 cars per year.
One of the early businesses in Harrisburg was the State Bank, circa 1901-1945. The bank’s building is still located in its original spot at 101 Railroad Avenue. Over the years, restorations have taken place in this building with careful consideration to restore the north section of the original bank building to remain as it was in the 1940s. Three vaults, night deposit box, and safety deposit boxes remain in the original spots.
There is much mystery surrounding the bank building, including whether or not the infamous bandit, John Dillinger, robbed it. According to the popular legend, after Dillinger robbed the bank, he fired a round into the teller counter as a reminder not to follow him. That bullet hole remains there today. However, this story has been disputed and it is said that one of John Dillinger’s gang, Baby Face Nelson, was the gunman in the bank. No one knows if it was Dillinger or Nelson who shot the bullet into the teller counter; but the bullet hole remains proof and is part of Harrisburg’s history.
Information from Harrisburg Community Guide 1890-2015 publication, Harrisburg Centennial calendar 2006 copyright, publication “Progress and Resources of Harrisburg, South Dakota” Compiled by J.F. Cooley, 1904-1905.