The Value of Pennsylvania History

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

George W. Bush won the presidential election of 2000 because the fifty states cast more electoral votes for him, even though more people actually voted for his opponent, Albert A. Gore Jr. The election reminded Americans about a curious institution called the Electoral College, and an equally peculiar system known as federalism in which each state conducts elections according to distinct laws and procedures. The daily news contains dozens of stories that underline this basic but often overlooked fact of our national experience: what happens in the individual states that make up our nation is of critical importance. Despite the greatly increased power of the national government in Washington, D.C., each state still controls its own destiny – and that of its citizens-in many ways. Whether the issue is utility regulation, abortion rights, welfare reform, education initiatives, or environmental protection, the states serve as “laboratories of democracy” much in the way the founders envisioned. The history of each state is a narrative that both reflects its own political, social, economic, and cultural traditions and at the same time intersects and shapes the national story.

The history of Pennsylvania, perhaps more than any other state, reveals the complex relationship between state history and national history. From its origins as a colony with a special sense of mission – to show that peoples of diverse religions and nationalities could live in peace – to its emergence as a political and economic power, to its struggle to compete in the global marketplace, Pennsylvania and its history contain almost all the principal elements found in the history of the United States. One way to understand the meaning of Pennsylvania’s past is to examine certain places around the state that are recognized for their significance in the entire nation. These icons of state history also illustrate that every chapter of American history has at least a few pages written in Pennsylvania.

Meadowcroft Rockshelter. Human occupation of what we now call Pennsylvania began more than sixteen thousand years ago. Evidence of the earliest peoples yet found is at Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Washington County, a site that is important for its well-preserved artifacts of prehistoric times and that reveals that the region – indeed, the entire North American continent – was inhabited much earlier than previously thought. By the time Europeans moved into Pennsylvania in the mid-seventeenth century, several native groups, such as the Monongahelas and the Eries, had already vacated the area, and Delawares, Susquehannocks, and Senecas lived in small villages like Kittanning, Shamokin, Logstown, and Wyoming. William Penn sought to coex­ist peacefully with these Native Americans, and the treaty he signed in 1682 instantly became a symbol of a new philosophy and attitude in the New World. Unfortunately, in an action that foreshadowed deteriorating relations between whites and natives throughout American history, his sons ended a long era of peace and trust by the infamous Walking Purchase of 1737, acquiring through deception a large portion of the northeastern part of the colony.

Liberty Bell. A popular belief holds that the idea to cast the Liberty Bell in 1751 began as a way to honor the fiftieth anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, a remarkable constitution that guaranteed religious freedom and defined the political framework of the new colony. In the decades preceding the American Revolution, other colonies followed Pennsylvania’s model of religious toleration. During this period, Philadelphia blossomed as a major urban center led by Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues, who created educational, commercial, and social institutions such as the Library Company of Philadelphia, the first banks in the British colonies, and the University of Pennsylvania. The Liberty Bell became a symbol of the revolution against Britain and later came to be seen as a touchstone of democracy in a new republic. In the nineteenth century, abolitionists adopted the Liberty Bell as the universal symbol of freedom and justice. Pennsylvania, with the Mason-Dixon Line forming its southern boundary, became a major destination on the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves. In the final decades of the twentieth century, the Liberty Bell has been the center-piece of Independence National Historic Park. Enshrined in a specially designed pavilion, it beckons millions of visitors from every corner of the world.

Forks of the Ohio. In western Pennsylvania the Forks of the Ohio achieved international fame even before it became the site of Pittsburgh, the Commonwealth’s second largest city. The strategic importance of that location attracted George Washington to the region on behalf of the Virginia colony, which claimed the region along with Pennsylvania and French Canada. Washington’s aggressive push to remove the French and their Indian allies from western Pennsylvania sparked a decade of conflict that spread worldwide. British forces gained control of the Forks of the Ohio in 1758 and established Fort Pitt – an important step contributing to the removal of the French from the North American continent.

The city of Pittsburgh grew from this colonial fortification into one of America’s greatest industrial centers, the hub of the nation’s crucial steel industry. Railroads and warehouses buried the old fort at the Forks in mounds of dirt and coal ash. Remarkably, the old block­house of Fort Pitt survived all this development, and the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution successfully challenged the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad to preserve it. After World War II, Pittsburgh embarked on its famous Renaissance that transformed the blockhouse and fifty acres of industrial blight into a state park and museum commemorating the epic struggles for empire in the eighteenth century.

Amish Farm. An Amish farm in Lancaster County reflects both the state’s religious heritage and its agricultural heritage. Known as “the best poor man’s country” in the eighteenth century, Pennsylvania’s farms earned a reputation for productivity and quality. Places like the Oley Valley in Berks County, where stone bank barns and timbered covered bridges have withstood the challenges of a changing landscape, carry a rich architectural legacy. The annual Pennsylvania State Farm Show in Harrisburg – sixteen acres of indoor displays and attractions – is perhaps the greatest evidence of the variety and vitality of agriculture’s place as the state’s largest industry. Although the Amish refuse to drive cars or use electric appliances, they actively participate in the Farm Show. Their presence is a reminder of the tradition of religious freedom that made Pennsylvania unique among the American colonies. The Quakers in Philadelphia established this tradition, and William Penn gave voice to this ideal in his writings and policies. Groups that fled persecution in Europe – among them Moravians, Schwenkfelders, Mennonites, and Harmonists – sought and found refuge and isolation in Pennsylvania. Ironically, these communities of faith have now become some of the state’s leading tourist attractions, and they are so popular that commercial development threatens to destroy their integrity and authenticity.

Eastern State Penitentiary. In the nineteenth century, Pennsylvania became a center for a variety of reforms. Concern for individual rights, plus the need for social change, brought about important initiatives in criminal justice, public education, care for the mentally ill, social welfare, and the abolition of slavery. For example, the construction of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadel­phia (1829) introduced a new system of criminal justice that became a model throughout the world. The building itself expressed a new philosophy, that prisoners should be rehabilitated and become “penitent” rather than merely suffer for their crimes. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Pennsylvanians continued to challenge the status quo. Ida Tarbell, reared in the state’s oil region, wrote a pathbreaking study of the Standard Oil Company and exposed the abuses of unregulated capitalism. John Mitchell and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, well known in the coal fields, led a protracted struggle for the rights of workers to organize. The violence in the anthracite region associated with the Molly Maguires, and the bloody events at Homestead and Lattimer in the 1890s, kept Pennsylvania at the forefront of an epic conflict between management and labor. In the same period, progressives such as Gifford Pinchot, J. Horace McFarland, and Mira Lloyd Dock introduced the concepts of conservation and pushed for public improvements to promote health, recreation, and the scenic beauty of cities.

Horseshoe Curve. By the time the Horseshoe Curve near Altoona was completed in 1854, Pennsylvania had emerged as a major hub of transportation and commerce. The roads, canals, bridges, and railroads that crisscrossed the state reflected an engineering daring and genius that literally overpowered its rugged topography. The National Road, the Allegheny Portage Railroad, the Rockville Bridge, and the Tunkhannock Viaduct are just a few of the landmarks associated with the transportation revolution that culminated in 1941 in the first limited-access highway – the Pennsylvania Turnpike – and in many of the milestones of early aviation history. The nation’s first modern corporation, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, developed into an economic and political force during the latter half of the nineteenth century, employing more than one hundred and twenty-five thousand workers at its peak. Building and operating the transportation infrastructure required the skills and sacrifice of thousands of workers, many of them immigrants. At one point, nearly every family in Pennsylvania included someone who was “workin’ on the railroad.” The dramatic decline of railroading in the twentieth century became a case study in corporate mismanagement. Only at museums in Altoona, Strasburg, and Scranton can visitors begin to understand the enormous scope and impact of this vital industry.

Gettysburg Battlefield. The Gettysburg Battlefield represents more than the defining moment in the American Civil War. A century before the conflict, Pennsylvania’s strategic importance resulted in decisive military actions that began with the French and Indian War and included major engagements in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Capturing Philadelphia in 1777 became the overarching goal of the British high command and led to battles at Brandy­wine, Paoli, Fort Mifflin, and German­town, as well as to George Washington’s winter retreat to Valley Forge. In the War of 1812, control of the Great Lakes was a key objective that encouraged the United States to build a small fleet in the remote town of Erie. The naval victory on September 10, 1813, brought fame to Oliver Hazard Perry and his flagship, the Nia­gara, and to his victory message, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Monuments and memorials to these events stand throughout Pennsylvania. But nowhere is the glory and pain of battle more poignantly remembered than at Gettysburg, where the nation’s future literally hung in the balance and where Abraham Lincoln spoke in November 1863 and gave new meaning to the national experience.

Drake Well. Pennsylvania’s central place in the industrial revolution is evident in so many places, but perhaps Drake Well near Titusville is the most enduring icon of that extraordinary period. The discovery of oil near that community in 1859, and the commercial exploitation of oil, and later natural gas, triggered a boom that created tremendous wealth – and spectacular failures. An abundance of other natural resources – ­coal, timber, and iron ore-coupled with entrepreneurial leadership in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and several other cities, made Pennsylvania an industrial behemoth for more than a century. Processing industries like textiles, leather, and food, and fabricating plants for steel rails and bridges, locomotives and railroad cars, metal products, and electrical equipment, flourished, attracting a huge number of workers from southern and eastern Europe and the rural South. In 1919, Pennsylvania’s major industries employed more than 1.6 million workers. Industry titans Andrew Carnegie, George Westinghouse, Andrew Mellon, Milton S. Hershey, and Walter H. Annenberg amassed some of the nation’s greatest fortunes, and products like Heinz Ketchup, Hershey’s Kisses, Crayola Crayons, Slinkies, and TV Guide became national icons of a consumer society. The legacy of discovery and innovation is evident in the twentieth-century mile­stones in research and technology – for instance, polio vaccine, artificial intelligence, and the computer – that were reached in Pennsylvania’s laboratories.

State Capitol. As Pennsylvania approached the pinnacle of its prestige and power as a state, President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Harrisburg in 1906 to dedicate the State Capitol, a monument to America’s Gilded Age. The art of the Capitol impresses visitors with the significance of Pennsylvania’s history and the importance of the several branches of government that labor under its great dome. Completion of this remarkable public building inspired civic leaders in Harrisburg to undertake a series of public works that made the capital city a center for the national City Beautiful movement. Over the next thirty years, new buildings in the Capitol Complex reinforced the connections between government, art, history, and progress. Notwithstanding epochal scandals and withering partisanship, the State Capitol endures as a unique forum of democracy. In a timeless routine that resembles an elaborate stage production, advocates on every issue lobby in its corridors and rally in its ornate rotunda with the murals of Edwin Austin Abbey looming overhead and the Moravian tiles of Henry C. Mercer underfoot. After generations of neglect and careless modernization that destroyed priceless decorations and irreplaceable furnishings, a new preservation ethic emerged to save the artwork of the Capitol and its neighboring state office buildings. Nearby, an impressive complex housing The State Museum of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State Archives documents, interprets, and exhibits the Commonwealth’s past.

Fallingwater. If the State Capitol ranks high among Pennsylvania’s most dominant public buildings, architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (1937) has earned the status of a modern icon and become among the best known and most admired American buildings of the twentieth century. Wright designed this summer retreat for the Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh to coexist in harmony with its natural setting. In the process, he created a new artistic standard. Several other architectural trends also took shape in Pennsylvania including Nicholas Biddle’s promotion of Greek Revival at Andalusia, Henry Hobson Richardson’s Romanesque Allegheny County Courthouse, the rich Victorian gems of Frank Furness, the influential philosophy of Louis I. Kahn, and the witty and controversial postmodernism of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Pennsylvania’s contribution to the arts extends to literature, painting, and music. Institutions like Carnegie Mellon University, the Curtis Institute of Music, and the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts offer superb training for the young. The individual achievements of the Calders, Horace Pippin, the Wyeths, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, Violet Oakley, John Updike, John O’Hara, James A. Michener, August Wilson, Eugene Ormandy, Martha Graham, Conrad Richter, and Andy Warhol demonstrate the state’s remarkable artistic range and diversity.

Huber Breaker. Not far from the ceaseless traffic of Interstate 81 south of Wilkes-Barre, rises the hulking ruin of the Huber Breaker, a decaying monument to Pennsylvania’s industrial past, and to the anthracite industry in particular. Abandonment and disinvestment, especially in the major industries of coal, steel, railroads, and textiles, are the unpleasant realities df the last quarter of the twentieth century, when Pennsylvania became part of America’s “rust belt.” The decline was most dramatic in the coal industry. Three hundred thousand miners, equally divided between the bituminous coal and anthracite fields, were at work in 1919, but by the 1980s their numbers had plummeted by ninety percent. As many as six thousand workers processed seven hundred tons of coal each day at the Huber Breaker from 1939 until 1966. Today, the breaker and dozens of abandoned operations throughout the state form a surreal landscape of iron, steel, and concrete. Occasionally, a plan to recycle these “brownfields” emerges: an industrial park in Homestead; an industrial museum in Bethlehem; offices and apartments in Phoenixville. Whether this massive infrastructure will rise as part of Pennsylvania’s new economy in the twenty-first century remains an unanswered question for the future.

Levittown. Community building has been a consistent feature of Pennsylvania’s history from the time Thomas Holme first surveyed and plotted Penn’s “greene country towne” of Philadelphia. The New England-style villages of the northern tier, the Ephrata Cloister and the utopian communities of the Moravians and Har­monists, and model industrial towns like Vandergrift in Westmoreland County reflected a persistent belief in the benefits of planning and order. A very different kind of community emerged in Levittown (1952) in Bucks County, exemplifying the growth of suburbs that became a major trend in the post-World War II era. Attracted by the promise of guaranteed loans, good schools, and low crime rates, thousands of young families left Pennsyl­vania’s cities. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Pennsylvania developed interstate highways, shopping malls, and residential subdivisions to make suburban life attractive. The urban centers could not replace the people and businesses lured away by the promising prospects of the suburbs. Between 1950 and 2000, Philadelphia’s population declined by nearly five hundred thousand residents, from more than two million, and Pittsburgh had lost almost half its population, from a high of nearly eight hundred thousand. The social and economic challenge of urban blight was a dominant issue throughout this period. By the 1990s, Pennsylvania also faced the consequences of suburban sprawl, uncontrolled growth that placed an enormous strain on transplantation, schools, water resources, public services, and natural habitats.

Three Mile Island. Like most states in America, Pennsylvania often managed its affairs in reaction to crises and catastrophes. The silent towers of the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg became an international symbol of the human and environmental risks inherent in the promise of technology. Although a nuclear meltdown did not occur, the accident there in 1979 focused attention on the issues of corporate responsibility as well as the regulatory and emergency response role of government. These issues have deep roots in Pennsylvania going back perhaps as far as the Johnstown Flood in 1889, a disastrous fire in the Avon­dale Mine in 1869, and a catastrophic explosion at the Darr Mine in 1907. An estimated fifty-­five thousand men lost their lives in the Commonwealth’s coal mines between 1870 and 1999. The Dono­ra smog of 1948 killed twenty-two people. As a result of the Knox Mine disaster in 1959, more than ten billion gallons of water from the Susquehanna River perma­nently closed a large portion of the northern anthracite region’s mining operations, killing twelve miners and putting thousands more out of work. This bleak story of death and desolation spawned an aggressive policy of government regulation in the last decades of the twentieth century that included the environmental rights amendment to the state constitution – the first of its kind in the nation. In Harrisburg, state agencies that regulate and protect the environment and manage the state’s parks and forests work in a building named for Rachel Carson, a Pennsylvanian whose writings, especially Silent Spring (1962), directly led to the modern environmental movement.

This baker’s dozen of icons reflects both the wide range and depth of Pennsylvania’s past. The point of this exercise is that we care about the places of Pennsylvania’s past – and the people and events of our past – because they define who we are as residents of this state. Pennsylvania’s history is at once a source of identity and pride as well as a resource in helping us live and understand our lives. Each place connects us to stories that bear witness to the triumphs and failures of extraordinary and ordinary men and women. We must preserve these places and the stories they represent because they are our collective memory. The loss of memory for any of us is catastrophic. For a society or a state, the impact of such a loss is equally devastating.

Writing a history of a state as complex and diverse as Pennsylvania is, by necessity, a highly impressionistic exercise. A trained historian depends on evidence – written, oral, physical – to reach conclusions about the meaning of events and the significance of people and places. However, the context of the times in which this history is written also has a strong influence on the interpretation of this evidence. This is not a scientific or absolutist endeavor. The historian’s authority is constrained by competing opinions of colleagues who also are armed with compelling and often contradictory evidence. Readers of history bring their own collective perspectives and critical faculties to the task of making sense of Pennsylvania’s past. Regardless of the point of view of the historian or of the reader, the best history contains a sense of passion, an emotional charge that provokes a response and inspires further research and writing.


This article serves as the foreword to Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth, the first comprehensive history of the Keystone State published in the last twenty-five years. The book is a joint publication of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Pennsylvania State University Press.

Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth offers fresh perspectives on the Keystone State from an array of distinguished scholars who view the Commonwealth critically and honestly, using lire latest and best scholarship to give a modern assessment of its past. The book – numbering almost seven hundred pages – sets the Pennsylvania story in the larger context of national social, cultural, economic, and political development.


For Further Reading

Beyer, George R. Guide to State Historical Markers of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2000.

Federal Writers’ Project. WPA Guide to Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1988.

Klein, Philip S., and Ari Hoogenboom. A History of Pennsylvania. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.

Miller, Randall M., and William Pencak, eds. Pennsylva­nia: A History of the Commonwealth. University Park and Harrisburg: The Pennsylvania State University Press and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2002.

Root, Douglas L. Compass American Guide: Pennsylvania. New York: Fodor’s Travel Publications, Inc., 2000.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. St. Clair: A Nineteenth-Century Coal Town’s Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Yergin, Daniel. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.


Brent D. Glass has served as executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) since 1987. He earned a doctorate in history from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and his written about the history of gold mining and textile manufacturing in North Carolina. He has contributed several articles and interviews to Pennsylvania Heritage on various topics, including public history, historic preservation, and labor history.