From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

Historical geography is the study of how geology, landforms and waterways have shaped the human experience. Is there a better place to demonstrate the power of geography in molding our history than in Pennsylvania? Our unique location linking the original 13 colonies in fact is how we came to be known as the Keystone State. But our history has been defined by more than location. It’s also been shaped by the mountains, rivers, mineral deposits and natural resources within our borders.

Much of the story of Pennsylvania is explained by the extraction, cultivation or harvesting of our rich resources and the effort to transport them to market. A number of Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) sites illustrate pieces of this scenario and the differing impact of geography in various parts of the state. These include Cornwall Iron Furnace, Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, Drake Well Museum near Titusville, Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum in Lancaster and Pennsylvania Lumber Museum in Galeton. Other PHMC sites, such as Erie Maritime Museum and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, stress the transportation side of the story.

This year The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg began upgrading its Industry and Transportation Gallery, which brings many of these stories together in one place to demonstrate the critical role that geography has played in shaping the commonwealth’s history. The renovation of the second-floor gallery will take several years to complete, so we’re starting with one of Pennsylvania’s most significant transportation stories.

For centuries the only efficient way to transport people and goods was by water. Pennsylvania was well-situated to benefit: Philadelphia provided access to the Atlantic Ocean and the world, and Pittsburgh with the forks of the Ohio River served as a gateway to the country’s interior. Developing the quickest and most economical transportation routes by land, however, has been a challenge for each successive generation. For centuries the only connections were Native American trails. In the 18th century wagon and coach roads followed those paths. By the 19th century canals and railroads made the trip easier, faster and cheaper. The 20th-century story has been all about automobiles and highways, including the National Road, the Lincoln Highway and, more recently, the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The first new exhibit in the renovated gallery focuses on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this October. This limited-access superhighway was not only a milestone for Pennsylvania, but it became a model for the interstate highway system we know today. (See exhibit curator Curtis Miner’s article, “The Pennsylvania Turnpike, From Tollbooths to Tunnels: Rediscovering America’s First Superhighway at 75.”)

I invite you to visit the museums and sites mentioned above because each contributes an important segment to Pennsylvania’s industry and transportation narrative. I also hope you will visit The State Museum frequently over the next few years as we add more and more components of the story on how the commonwealth’s geography has shaped its history.

James M. Vaughan
Executive Director, PHMC