A Salute to the Bicentennial of the Keystone State

The Bicentennial Edition is a special issue of 14 features commemorating the American Revolution Bicentennial in Pennsylvania, published June 1976.

The current Bicentennial celebration commemorates not the birth of the United States, but the proclama­tion of thirteen British-American colonies that were “free and independent states” as of July 4, 17.76. When they formed a loose compact in 1761, their articles of confederation declared that “each state retains its sover­eignty, freedom and independence.” The nation’s birthday came in June, 1788, with the ratification of the Federal Constitution.

The unique contribution which the United States Con­stitution made to world history was not, however, the mere creation of another nation, for that was a commonplace event. Its importance centered on the creation of a federal nation, a nation of nations – E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one.

The idea that federal and state entities possessed sovereignty in a separate sphere and could revolve in their separate orbits without collision around the sun of the system, the Constitution, was then a new and daring idea, and it still is. This experiment in federalism which provided freedom of action within the states combined with security from outside enemies guaranteed by the national govern­ment worked fairly well until the Civil War. After that the states lost much of their co-equal status within the federal system. Their position vis-a-vis the federal government has been weakening ever since until it seems as if the states are in danger of resuming the position they held prior to 1776. Submitting to wide-ranging federal regulation and dependent upon federal funds, the states are drifting into a kind of colonial status under a government in Washington as once they did under a government in London.

Our 1976 Bicentennial celebrates the birthday of the states. As in 1776, the states possessed qualities which the world normally associates with nationhood. Such national attributes as specific geographical boundaries, stable populations, singular traditions, signal contributions to the world’s cultural development, and the continued existence of effective governments are all demonstrated by each of our Union’s fifty states. And among these states, Pennsylvania over two centuries has achieved a stature that would lift it, if outside the Union, to a place of eminence among nations of comparable size in today’s world.

Consider for a moment that Pennsylvania’s 45,000 square miles make it larger in geographical area than 61 of the 138 members of the United Nations. It has a larger territory than almost half 144 percent) of the U.N. membership. Pennsylvania’s physical size places it on a par with Austria, Bulgaria, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Dahomey, East Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras. Liberia, Malawi, North Korea, South Korea, England and Nicaragua.

Pennsylvania’s 12,000,000 people give it a larger population than 107 of the 138 U.N. members, meaning that it has more people than nearly 80 percent of the members of the U.N. In population, Pennsylvania ranks about the same as Algeria, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Chile, Greece, Hungary, Iraq, Malaysia, Portugal, Uganda and Venezuela.

While territory and population are minimum essentials for nationhood, the way in which the people handle their territory provides some indicators of the ingenuity and activity of their society. To examine Pennsylvania from this vantage point reveals some astounding – almost unbelievable – results. Picture in your mind a sixteen-inch terres­trial globe and pick out Pennsylvania upon it. You could cover over the little rectangle it occupies with a single kernel of feed corn. Now let us think about the economic output of this minuscule bit of the earth’s real estate. We might start with a careful survey made in 1968 of the nation’s mineral industries. This published report shows that in the half century between 1911 and 1961, the value per square mile of Pennsylvania’s mineral industries exceeded that of any of the fifty states; and insofar as data was available, exceeded that of any region of comparable size on the face of the earth. The total value of this Pennsylvania production in this one limited field over the half-century covered by the survey amounted to forty-five and a half trillion dollars; and the value per square mile of these Pennsylvania products exceeded one million dollars.

Pennsylvania entered statehood just at the moment when the Industrial Revolution was about to transform the economy of the western world from an age of horsepower and wood into an age of steam and steel. In this new industrial age, Pennsylvania pioneered in the production of iron and steel, of anthracite and bituminous coal, of petroleum, of cement, and of aluminum. Each of these has its own fascinating story which would take too long to tell here; but we can briefly refresh our memories simply by thinking about the hundreds of old charcoal iron furnaces. and the steel mills from Bethlehem to Steelton to Johnstown to Pittsburgh; or the coal mines from Scranton to Shamokin to Tower City, and from Clearfield southwest to Union­town; or the region of the great oil boom of the 1860’s around Titusville, Oil City and Pithole. I will pass by Drake’s well which began the world’s first commercial oil produc­tion in 1859, but I ought to mention another, not so well known. Samuel Van Syckel in 1865 perfected the transport of crude oil out of Pithole by pipeline. I think it both inter­esting and fitting that in our day a Pennsylvanian heads the company charged with building the most recent application of Van Syckel’s invention – the Alaska Pipeline.


Transportation Critical

Pennsylvania has loomed large in the history of transportation. Known in colonial days as the home of the Con­estoga Wagon and later as the “State of Bridges,” it became a magnet for inventors of early steam boats – William Henry of Lancaster, who demonstrated his working model on the Conestoga Creek in 1765; John Fitch who ran his steam ferryboat commercially from Philadelphia to Burlington, New Jersey, in the 1790’s; Oliver Evans, who piloted his strange amphibious steam-powered dredge called “Amphibolus” from northern Philadelphia to points on the Delaware in 1804; and finally the man everyone came to know, Robert Fulton, who perfected the earlier efforts in his successful steamboat, “Clermont,” in 1807. But we may not remember that Fulton superintended the construction of the first Mississippi River steamboat, the New Orleans, in Pittsburgh in 1811, making that city the center of manufacture for several thousand of these romantic craft between then and the 1860’s.

After the completed Erie Canal threatened to divert western trade from Pennsylvania to New York state, the legislature at Harrisburg ordained the construction at state expense of “The Pennsylvania State Works,” a railway and canal system connecting Pittsburgh with Philadelphia. Its mechanical devices to carry canal boats over the Allegheny Mountains on a series of inclined planes known as the Portage Railroad were hailed as an engineering marvel; and the total operation gained European publicity as the Eighth Wonder of the World.” I will say no more about this story except to introduce the name of John A. Roebling of Butler County, who tried out his new invention of wire rope on the inclines of the Portage Railroad. The rope proved successful and led to Roebling’ s use of it as the main element of his suspension bridge across the Niagara chasm in 1855 and his Brooklyn Bridge later. But more interesting is the fact that the peculiarly American form known as the sky­scraper could never have progressed beyond modest height without Roebling’s invention. Hempen rope would not safely serve the elevators of a forty-story structure, but wire rope would. It took this invention to remove the ceiling from building height. That is why, when I look at the John Hancock Tower or the Trade Towers, I think of Roebling installing his wire cable for the first time on the windlass drums of the portage inclines at Hollidaysburg and Johns­town.

Of all the many Pennsylvanians who participated in the development of the steam railroad, one particularly demands our special remembrance. From the day when, as a teen­ager, he watched the Stourbridge Lion attempt its run from Carbondale to Honesdale in 1829, he determined to learn how to build these magnificent locomotive machines. And Matthias W. Baldwin did build them until by 1920 locomotives from the Baldwin works in Philadelphia were powering the railways of seventy-eight nations. Since World War II the railroads have fallen upon evil days, but at the turn of the twentieth century, the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest freight carrier in the United States.

Builders of Pennsylvania bridges and highways kept pace with the developers of mechanical transport devices. Some of the graceful stone arch bridges of colonial days still sur­vive; but all of the famous mile-long wooden covered bridges spanning the Susquehanna, crafted by Theodore Burr, have vanished. Many of their smaller counterparts, however, are preserved and lovingly cherished as local his­torical landmarks, an effort given encouragement by the Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society of Pennsylvania, Inc. And people still marvel at Susquehanna County’s massive Starrucca Viaduct, built in 1847–48 for the Erie Railroad and now the oldest stone arch railway bridge still in use in this country – an irony since its builder committed suicide under pressure of bitter accusations that it would quickly fall to the ground. There is the Rockville Bridge of the Pennsylvania Railroad over the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg which is the longest of its kind in the world; and the huge Nicholson Bridge, sometimes called Tunkhannock Viaduct in Wyoming County, which at the time of its con­struction (1912–15) was the largest concrete structure in existence.

Pennsylvania also exerted its influence on building high­ways. The Philadelphia-Lancaster turnpike, initially called the Conestoga Road, became the first hard-surface, all­-weather road in the Nation when, in the 1790’s, the principles of Macadam were applied to its former earthen surface. The canals carried most of the heavy traffic of the mid-nineteenth century, but with the coming of the automobile in the twentieth century. Pennsylvania pioneered the concrete road; and in the 1830’s built America’s first multiple-lane, limited access highway – the still operating Pennsylvania Turnpike.

As Pennsylvania became a home of big business, it was natural that the commonwealth should also become the birthplace of big labor. William H. Sylvis, organizer and president of the National Labor Union, the first to bring local trade unions into a viable national organization, was born in Armagh, Pennsylvania. Uriah S. Stephens, a Philadelphia tailor, founded the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor in 1869 and became its first president. Terence V. Powderly of Scranton succeeded him. This Pennsylvania-based industrial-type union achieved a national membership of three-fourths of a million members by 1886. Another labor leader, John Mitchell, organized bituminous coal miners, then came east to bring anthracite miners into the United Mine Workers. Mitchell was the man who, with President Theodore Roosevelt’s cooperation, first brought mine owners to the same bargaining table with union spokes­men. The Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, and the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee, both based around Pittsburgh, proved to be the forerunners of the C.I.O., the major national industrial union between the two world wars. With such a union history, it was no accident that Pennsylvania should become the scene of the four major strikes between the Civil War and World War I: the great railroad strike of 1877, the Homestead strike of 1892, the anthracite strike of 1902, and the steel strike of 1919.

Pennsylvania played a leading role in all the main aspects of American economic life. Her farms were as rich as her mines and made her the granary of the colonies and later the breadbasket of the eastern seaboard. After the Civil War it was to Harrisburg that Oliver H. Kelley came to found the first chapter of the National Grange which he had just organized. The first District Grange, as far as we know, was set up in 1875 to serve Pennsylvania’s Dauphin and Perry Counties. By the 1880’s Pennsylvania was one of the strongest grange states in the Union.

The Keystone State bred a remarkable group of finan­ciers. Robert Morris and Haym Salomon provided the main domestic money-pool for the American Revolution. Stephen Girard single-handedly bought an entire U.S. Treasury bond issue during the War of 1812 when others refused to touch it. Jay Cooke undertook to sell U.S. gov­ernment bonds during the Civil War when the Treasury Department could not move them, and succeeded in his effort by devising a new idea that we have used ever since of mak­ing the bonds available in small denominations for purchase by the entire population as an expression of loyalty instead of offering only high denomination bonds to the large banking houses. In addition to these Philadelphia financiers, there was Andrew W. Mellon of Pittsburgh, Secretary of the Treasury during the 1920’s, who performed a feat never since duplicated. He reduced the national debt by one-third while cutting taxes at the same time. Pennsylvania’s stature in finance during the first half of the nineteenth century is established by the fact that in the nine presidential administrations from Jefferson to Taylor, eight Secretaries of the Treasury were Pennsylvanians: Albert Gallatin, Alexander J. Dallas, Richard Rush, Samuel D. Ingham, William J. Duane, Walter Forward, Robert J. Walker, and William M. Meredith – five of them Democrats and three Whigs.

Natural resources and people with the initiative and inventiveness to mold them to human use form two important elements of any nation. Pennsylvania’s achievements in in­dustry, transportation, labor, agriculture and banking gave it power and international eminence in these fields. Pennsyl­vanians also gave leadership in science and in the arts. Benjamin Franklin not only personified American science during his lifetime, but he institutionalized his search for prag­matic ways to benefit mankind in the American Phil­osophical Society, the Pennsylvania Hospital, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the school that ultimately became the University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia became the center of medical activity with the development of the Jefferson and Hahnemann medical schools, and the Women’s Medical College established in 1850, the first of its kind. Almost everyone knows of the versatile Dr. Benjamin Rush, often called the “father of American psychiatry,” and of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the equally versatile neurologist of a century later. We may not recall Philadelphia’s Dr. Nathaniel Chapman, first president of the American Medical Association, newly formed in 1847. In modern times we think of Dr. Jonas Salk of Pittsburgh, perhaps the best known of scores of Pennsylvania physicians and medical researchers who achieved renown among the colleagues of their day.

In a culture early dominated by the charity-minded Quakers and the farm-oriented Pennsylvania Germans, one would not expect to find an artistic community developing. Yet that did happen, initiated by one we might least have expected to embark on the career of an artist: the Quaker, Benjamin West. After training himself at home he went to Europe, was lionized in Italy, became a court favorite in London and succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as president of the British Royal Academy. In his London studio he trained most of the American artists of the succeeding generation­ – Copely, Stuart, Peale, Pratt, Fulton, Allston, Trumbull, Dunlap, Morse and others. Following their footsteps came Thomas Eakins and Mary Cassatt; and at the turn of the century, the Pennsylvania quartette of realists: John Sloan, William Glackens, Benjamin Luks and Everett Shinn. In re­cent times we think of Charles Demuth, Henry O. Tanner, and the Wyeths.

Space prevents continuing on to the lawyers, the scholars, the churchmen, the playwrights, poets and novelists, the musicians, the sculptors, the architects and the engineers. The list in each category would be long and the names dis­tinguished.

How do we explain such an outpouring of activity, such a flood of invention and production from such a tiny space on the surface of the globe? It cannot all be a lucky accident of local natural resources, for other regions have been blessed with fertile soil and underlain with coal, iron and oil. The people certainly have something to do with it, but others as intelligent have lived in the midst of comparable resources without producing such an explosion of achievement.

I think that the most important factor in energizing the rapid growth of experimental ideas and useful knowledge in Pennsylvania has been the pervasive influence of the Quaker concepts of tolerance, equality, and political freedom on which the colony was initially founded. Tolerance opened the colony and the Commonwealth to the widest variety of immigrants. Once here, these people did not merge into a homogeneous society. Tolerance permitted these newcomers to live alongside each other without the necessity of abandoning their customs. Pennsylvanians became a heterogeneous lot; they formed an ethnographic mosaic, a patchwork crazy-quilt of displaced nationalities. This congeries of self-perpetuating minorities created a cultural pluralism in the state which the government never seriously tried to inhibit by any program of forced acculturation.

The ensuing lack of a singular social identity discouraged the emergence of any political figure of heroic stature, for no political figure could ever appeal very strongly to very many Pennsylvanians for very long, and the Commonwealth produced no God-like Websters, Clays or Calhouns. But the intermixture of all these different citizens on the informal local plane created a rapid interchange of thoughts and the sparking of new ideas, and at length the fantastic flowering of practical achievements of the sort I have just called to your attention.

Pennsylvanians do not seem to have very much concern about their state as a whole, but do have a strong attachment to the local and discrete parts of it to which they be­long. During World War II I used to ask new acquaintances in the Navy where they hailed from. Most answered with the name of their state – a Texan or a Buckeye – but if they were from Pennsylvania they gave the name of their home town. “I’m from Jim Thorpe” – or ” Emporium” – or “Womelsdorf” – and that seemed all sufficient, as if anyone with any sense would know in what state these towns were. But everybody doesn’t know. The Keystone State has played a powerful role in national affairs, and it needs to keep its identity sharp and the loyalties of its citizens keen. Perhaps knowing a little more about our state would help to achieve that end before the remainder of the old federal system is finally compromised by national control of our institutions. Walt Whitman wrote his fears about this over a century ago in his Leaves of Grass:

To the States

To the States, or any one of them, or any city of the States Resist much, obey little, once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty.


Dr. Philip S. Klein is professor emeritus of history at The Pennsylvania Stale University. He has written several books including A History of Pennsylvania (with Ari Hoogenboom.) A charter member of the Pennsylvania Historical Association, Dr. Klein now serves on the PHMC.