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

The country itself, in its soil, air, water, seasons, and produce, both natural and artificial, is not to be despised.
– William Penn

Man is a creative and inventive creature capable of either adapt­ing to the environment, when need be, or adapting the environment to suit his particular needs. In the words of Max Savelle, “the history of the Anglo­American colonies is . . . a history of adaptation writ large.” Dr. Sylvester K. Stevens was undoubtedly of the same opinion when he pointed out that “the history of Pennsylvania has been shaped greatly by its landscape, and by its basic riches in and on the land.” For him, adaptation of the people to the terrain and the utilization of the state’s resources were central to Pennsylvania’s history.

William Penn and his contemporaries were deeply impressed with the potentialities of the terrain and the abundance of natural resources found on the land incorporated in the original grant. In 1681, more than a year before he left England for the Province, Penn wrote a brief description of Pennsylvania in which he listed what he considered to be the important geographical features. Al­though his account rested wholly on ob­servations supplied by others, it is an enlightening document because of the emphasis Penn gave to the geography of the area.

He pointed out that “for Navigation” Pennsylvania enjoyed two conveniences: 1) about 250 miles of waterway from the falls at Trenton to the mouth of the Delaware Bay “where a Vessel of Two hundred Tuns may Sail” and 2) ready access to the Chesapeake Bay. Thus, for Penn, it followed that “for those that will follow Merchandize and Navigation there is conveniency, and Timber suffi­cient for Shipping.” He noted further that, according to his sources, the Prov­ince was thought to be capable of pro­ducing a whole host of agricultural products including silk, hemp, flax; cider, wine and liquor; corn, wheat, bar­ley, rye and tobacco; beef, pork and mutton; furs, hides and tallow; as well as iron and potash. Fowl, fish and deer were also reported to be in plentiful supply.

In 1683, during his first trip to the Province, Penn wrote a letter to the “committee of the Free Society of Traders of that Province, residing in London” describing in detail “its Soil, Air, Water, Seasons and Produce, both Natural and Artificial, and the good En­crease thereof.” His personal observa­tions tended to substantiate those of his friends. He found the “back-lands ” generally to be “three to one Richer than those that lie by Navigable Waters.” The air was “sweet and clear, the Heavens serene.” In his estimation the waters were “generally good.” The natural produce of the land existed in large quantities and in great variety. After reviewing the seasons of the Prov­ince in detail, he concluded that “The Country it self … is not to be despised.”

Over the next two decades many others wrote letters and pamphlets con­firming Penn’s observations about the natural resources – both surface and sub-surface – of Pennsylvania. In the first section of a poem entitled A Short Description of Pennsylvania published by William Bradford in 1692, one Richard Frame wrote:

We that did leave our Country thought it strange,
[T]hat ever we should make so good Exchange:
[I(?)] think ’tis hard for me to ex­press.
[H]ow God provideth in a Wilder­ness…

Thomas Paschall, who came to Pennsyl­vania in 1682, was also greatly pleased with the bounty of the Province. Com­menting on the Swedes and other settlers in the area he wrote: “They are generally very ingeneous people, live well, they have lived here 40 Years, and have lived much at ease, having great plenty of all sorts of provisions …. ” In his extensive Historical and Geographical Account published in 1698, Gabriel Thomas de­scribed not only the plants, animals and fish of the Province but also commented at length on such topics as air, rainfall and the amount of daylight in both sum­mer and winter. Francis Daniel Pastor­ius was also greatly impressed with the colony of Pennsylvania.

As this province is situated like Mompellier [Montpellier, France] and Naples in respect to latitude but is furnished with many more rivers and springs than either of the two, so it is not difficult to comprehend that such a country is well-adapted for many fine crops. The air is clear and pleasant, the summer longer and warmer than in Germany, and we have already in these parts satisfactory supply of all sorts of crops, and our work of cultivation is well rewarded.

Despite the fact that it took 111 years to define the boundaries of Pennsyl­vania, these boundaries, except for the Delaware River and Lake Erie, proved to be artificial, having meaning only in a political framework. Geographic regions based upon terrain and natural resources were to become the dominating factors in Pennsylvania history. Sectionalism of this kind was an operating factor from the very beginning and knowledge of the important regions and natural resources is, therefore, essential to an understand­ing of the history of the state.

In physical size Pennsylvania is rather small. Comprising 45,126 square miles, it ranks but thirty-third among the fifty states, measuring 158 miles from north to south and averaging 285 miles from east to west. Except for the Erie Triangle and the Delaware River, the boundaries of Pennsylvania describe a small rectangle. Its relatively small size, however, has not limited the con­siderable impact Pennsylvania has had upon American history; other features of the state’s geography have contrib­uted greatly to its influence – namely the physical character of its terrain and its natural resources.

Pennsylvania may be divided roughly into five regions: the Atlantic Coastal Plain, the Piedmont Plateau, the Ridge and Valley Region, the Allegheny Pla­teau, and the Lake Erie Plain.

The plains lie in opposite corners of the state, the Atlantic Coastal Plain in the southeast and the Lake Erie Plain in the northwest. Despite the fact that both are small in size, each is the site of a major city, Philadelphia and Erie.

Of the five regions, it is the three in the central portion of the state – the Piedmont and Allegheny plateaus and the Ridge and Valley Region – that en­compass the bulk of Pennsylvania’s acreage. The Piedmont Plateau com­prises almost nine-tenths of southeastern Pennsylvania. Beginning at the Dela­ware River it extends to the South Mountains and on to the Maryland border. Adjacent to it is the Ridge and Valley Region which is comprised of two major divisions. The eastern portion is actually a small part of the Great Valley which extends from the St. Lawrence River southward to Alabama. The sec­ond section lies immediately to the west of the Blue Mountains and extends to the Allegheny Mountains. The largest of the regions is the Allegheny Plateau, which covers roughly two-thirds of the state and continues on beyond its borders. Begin­ning in the upper Susquehanna Valley and the Pocono Mountain area, it ex­tends down through and beyond the southwestern boundary of the state.

The five regions of Pennsylvania are drained by three major river systems: the Delaware, the Susquehanna, and the Allegheny-Monongahela-Ohio. The Delaware River begins in the Catskills and flows southward past Easton, Tren­ton and Philadelphia, eventually empty­ing into the Delaware Bay. Its two tribu­taries, the Lehigh and the Schuylkill, both have their sources in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. The Susque­hanna River, which drains most of cen­tral Pennsylvania, has two major branches and two tributaries. The North Branch, like the Delaware, begins in the Catskills in New York. After flowing first in a southeasterly direction to Pitt­ston, it cuts back to the southwest, merges with the West Branch at Sunbury and flows southward past Harrisburg to the Chesapeake Bay. Principal tributar­ies are the Lackawanna and the Juniata rivers. Western Pennsylvania is drained by a system dominated by the Alle­gheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers and their tributaries. The Allegheny, which begins in New York, and the Monongahela, which begins in West Vir­ginia, merge at Pittsburgh to form the Ohio. Two important tributaries con­tribute – the Conemaugh joins the Alle­gheny above Pittsburgh and the Yough­iogheny flows into the Monongahela at McKeesport.

In addition to the three major river systems, there are over four thousand creeks and streams, most of which feed the larger rivers or the approximately 300 lakes which also exist. These rivers, creeks, streams and lakes provide the state with one of the finest drainage sys­tems in the world, a fact which has had a profound economic impact on the course of Pennsylvania history.

Of the original thirteen colonies Penn­sylvania was the one blessed with vast re­serves of coal, both anthracite and bitu­minous, iron ore and oil. The original coal reserves, for instance, have been estimated at almost 100 billion tons, 75 billion tons of bituminous and 23 billion tons of anthracite, most of which has yet to be mined. Extensive deposits of iron ore were also to be found in the moun­tains and furnished much of the ore for the American steel industry until the dis­covery of the reserves in the Mesabi Range in Minnesota. Of the nearly 5 bil­lion barrels of oil estimated to exist in original oil reserves, about 3.5 billion barrels still remain underground. If to these three basic resources are added ap­preciable quantities of natural gas and the limestone, clay and sand necessary to the steel industry, it is easy to see that Pennsylvania was well blessed with the natural resources essential to the development of basic industry. The economic and industrial history of the Commonwealth is in effect the story of the exploration of and adaptation to the salient features of the physical terrain and the discovery and exploitation of the surface agricultural and sub-surface mineral resources.

From the time Penn and his followers first arrived in Pennsylvania until the middle of the nineteenth century, the Keystone State was the leader in Amer­ican agriculture. Between the 1690s and the American Revolution thousands of settlers, particularly members of the various German religious sects, poured into the Province and settled on the Piedmont Plateau and in the fertile val­leys of the Ridge and Valley Region. Although Penn would have liked to see the English village emerge as the domi­nant agricultural unit, such was not to be the case. The German settlers who came were highly independent individ­uals who preferred to go it alone – something which the fertility of the land per­mitted them to do. Instead of villages, the landscape of southeastern Pennsyl­vania was dotted with single farms, ranging from 100 to 500 acres. The im­pact of this type of agricultural unit upon the American political system was enormous. “The typical early Pennsyl­vania farm,” wrote S. K. Stevens,

was a remarkably self-contained and independent economic unit. This stimulated early the generative forces for what is termed agrarian democracy, a term usually applied to later frontier thinking, but not to be ignored in the understanding of the ferment of freedom common to early Pennsylvania. The indepen­dent farmer came naturally by a belief in the natural rights and liber­ties of man.

The dominance of Pennsylvania in American agriculture continued into the middle of the nineteenth century when the state was eclipsed by the newly emerging Midwest. This, however, did not in any way signal the decline of Pennsylvania’s role in the expansion of the American economy. The emphasis had merely shifted, and by 1850 the state had become the center of basic industry in the United States.

The story of adaptation to terrain and environment and the utilization of natural resources to meet human needs is nowhere more effectively revealed than in the development of iron and steel, coal and coke, and transportation. The major accomplishments in these three areas did not occur independently. Rather, advances in one industry were, to a large extent, dependent upon devel­opments in each of the others.

The story of the iron industry is in many ways the fulfillment of the predic­tions made by Richard Frame in his description of the Province:

The Riches of this Land it is not known,
What in the after Ages may be shown …
If men would venture for to dig below,
They might get well by it for ought I know:
Those Treasures in the Earth which hidden be,
They will be good, whoever lives to see.

The people in the “after Ages” referred to by Frame have uncovered resources in quantities far beyond his wildest dreams.

The fact that a successful iron indus­try depends upon the existence of sizable quantities of relatively high-grade ore goes without saying. However, ore alone does not insure a thriving iron industry. Throughout the colonial and early na­tional periods, three other factors were essential: a good source of high-grade limestone, sufficient timber for charcoal (later, sufficient quantities of coal) and streams to supply power to operate the bellows. Southeastern Pennsylvania was abundantly endowed with these three essential elements.

Between 1716 and 1737, fifteen iron mills of various types were built in Penn­sylvania. Five of these were located in what is now Berks County, six in Chester County, two in Montgomery, and one each in Lancaster and Bucks. By 1750 more than twenty-five new mills were erected in the Province and the in­dustry had expanded westward. The development of the iron industry in Penn­sylvania by 1750 was great enough to make its presence felt within the British Empire. Members of Parliament were certainly cognizant of this fact when they passed the Iron Act of 1750, which contained certain restrictions prohibit­ing the construction of new slitting mills, plating miUs and furnaces.

It would appear that the act was by and large ignored, for between 1750 and 1775 nearly forty more mills were erected in Pennsylvania. By 1800 the number had more than doubled the figure for 1775. Of the more than ninety mills erected during the period, half of them were located in central and western Pennsylvania. Although Berks and Chester counties continued to dominate iron production, it was evident that western Pennsylvania was moving into a position of prominence in the industry. The increased use of coal in the form of coke, which replaced charcoal as a fuel for the iron industry during the nine­teenth century, contributed directly to the decline of the industry in southeast­ern Pennsylvania and to its correspond­ing rise to dominance in the west.

Equally important as iron ore to the development of basic industry was the mining of anthracite and bituminous coal, and Pennsylvania had large deposits of both. Anthracite is found in a 480-square-mile area of northeastern Pennsylvania, including sections of eleven counties, with Luzerne, Lacka­wanna and Schuylkill mining eighty-four percent of the total. Although discov­ered in 1762, it was not until 1820 that anthracite was mined and burned in any quantity. Between 1834 and 1860, an­nual production jumped from 376,000 to 8,500,000 tons. By 1918, the most productive year for both anthracite and bituminous, 98,826,084 tons of anthra­cite were mined. From that date until the beginning of World War II, production steadily declined.

Reserves of bituminous coal were even more extensive than those of anthracite. The extent of these deposits embraced 15,800 square miles of land in twenty­-five central and western counties. Ninety percent has been produced in thirteen counties, with more than half of that coming from Washington, Fayette and Westmoreland. The presence of bitumi­nous coal in the Pittsburgh area was known as early as 1759 and, by 1800, it was in general use in other sections of the state. By 1840 more than 415,000 tons were being produced annually. The production of bituminous, like anthra­cite, peaked in 1918 at 178,550,741 tons and declined steadily until World War II.

The development of coke from bitum­inous coal was a great boon to the steel industry. First produced at Plumcock, Pennsylvania in 1817, coke was not man­ufactured commercially until 1841. Be­tween that date and 1859, coke was in­creasingly used to fuel forges and blast furnaces, alone and in combination with charcoal. By 1870 coke usage outdis­tanced charcoal in the production of pig iron, and by 1875 it had surpassed an­thracite as well. By 1907, Pennsylvania was producing 70.3 percent of the total coke output of the United States.

The cultivation of the iron and coal industries was closely aligned to the development of canals. Initially, the cheapest means of transporting goods, particularly grain, coal, iron ore, etc., was by water. It followed, therefore, that the mining and transportation of coal increased in direct proportion to the expansion of the canal system.

The geographical pattern of canal development is similar to that of the iron and coal industries. Construction of canals began in the eastern part of the state and spread into central and western Pennsylvania. As originally conceived, canals were seen as a means of linking river systems to transport staple prod­ucts from the interior to the port cities. The idea goes back to Penn himself, who envisioned a waterway that would even­tually join the Schuylkill and Susque­hanna rivers. It was not, however, until 1770 that a survey was made for such a canal.

In 1791 the state legislature chartered the Schuylkill & Susquehanna Naviga­tion Company to connect the two rivers by means of canal and slack-water navi­gation. The following year the Delaware & Schuylkill Navigation Company was formed to construct a canal from Phila­delphia to Norristown, thus connecting the Delaware and Susquehanna. Not until 1811, however. when the two com­panies were merged into the Union Canal Company did work actually begin, and not until 1827 was the Union Canal completed between Middletown on the Susquehanna and Reading on the Schuylkill.

Three other major canals, as well as a number of smaller ones, were con­structed by private companies during the early years of the nineteenth century. In 1815, the Schuylkill Navigation Com­pany was chartered to construct a canal from Philadelphia to Pottsville in Schuylkill County. The completed waterway was 108 miles in length – 58 miles of canal and 50 miles of slack­water navigation. Twelve years later the Lehigh Navigation Company began con­struction of an 84-mile canal and slack­water navigation system between Easton and Stoddardsville. The last major canal constructed by private enterprise, the Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal, was begun in 1835 to connect Havre de Grace, Maryland with Wrightsville.

Due to tremendous political pressure for internal improvements during the 1820s, the state itself was forced to em­bark upon an extensive canal-building program, complete with connecting rail­roads. The improvements, known as the State Works of Pennsylvania, eventually covered 907 miles, 790 by canal and 117 via railroad. The most important of these works was the main line of the Pennsylvania Canal, comprising two connecting railroads and three canal divisions. Branching out from this main line were a number of other divisions, the most important being the Sus­quehanna Division, North and West branches; the Delaware Division; the Beaver Division and the Erie Extension. The State Works were fourteen years in the process of construction and cost the citizens of the state a total of $33,464,975. The Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the main line in 1857.

Like the canals, the great majority of the railroads in Pennsylvania were located along major rivers. Although seventy-nine companies operated 10,324 miles of track in Pennsylvania by 1938, the history of railroad transportation in the state is, for the most part, the story of three major systems: the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Lehigh Valley Rail­road. Chartered in 1833 and organized the following year, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad was the first of these to go under construction. Begun in 1835, it was completed from Philadelphia to Mount Carbon in 1842 and within five years tonnage carried over the road ex­ceeded that of the Erie Canal. The Penn­sylvania Railroad, the largest of the three, was chartered in 1846 and com­pleted to Holidaysburg in 1850. With the completion of the mountain division in 1854, trains could run non-stop from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. By 1938 this great railroad system had a main-track mileage of 10,286 miles of which 4,103 were in Pennsylvania. The Lehigh Valley Railroad Company was chartered the same year as the Pennsylvania, 1846, and was reincorporated in 1853. Two years after reincorporation the line con­nected Philipsburg, New Jersey and Wilkes-Barre. By 1938 the company had 1,282 miles of track, almost half of which was located in the state.

Since World War II, the railroads have been in a continuous state of decline having been largely replaced by buses and heavy trucks which travel the interstate highways. Nevertheless, rail­roads still carry a considerable volume of coal, iron ore and steel products and recent efforts have been made to revitalize them.

Geography and natural resources have had a tremendous impact on the de­velopment of centers of population as well. From the founding of the colony down until the middle of the nineteenth century, cities and towns in the Prov­ince, and later the Commonwealth, were generally the outgrowth of trade and commerce. Most were strategically located on waterways or at important points along land routes over which the state’s commerce traveled. According to Surveyor General of the Province, Capt. Thomas Holme, Philadelphia in 1683 was “placed and modelled between two Navigable Rivers upon a Neck of Land.” After noting that ships could easily “ride in good Anchorage” in six to eight fathoms of water and that the land on which the city was located was “level, dry and wholsom,” he concluded that “such a Scituation is scarce to be parallel’d.”

Unbeknownst to Holme, the situation was in fact paralleled to the west. Pitts­burgh, the state’s second largest city, grew at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers where, since its settlement, the city has lived up to its billing as “The Gateway to the West” and “The Steel Capital of the United States.” Situated on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains, Pittsburgh was not forced to rely on eastern mar­kets. Instead, the Mississippi River sys­tem bound the city and much of western Pennsylvania to the West. This attach­ment persisted until internal improve­ments made transportation eastward possible.

Because of its location Reading, like Pittsburgh, has also played a dual role in the economic history of the Common­wealth. From the time of its founding in 1748 until the nineteenth century, Read­ing was the center of the Berks County iron industry. With the opening of both the Union and the Schuylkill canals it soon became the hub in a major trans­portation network and a center of trade and commerce. It continued to hold this position even after the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad replaced the canals as the principal means of transportation. Reading became the crossroads of lines connecting Harrisburg with New York, and Shamokin and Pottsville with Phila­delphia.

Erie has always been an important point of entry into western Pennsyl­vania. During the 1740s and 50s, it served as a beachhead for the French in their exploration and occupation of the Allegheny, Ohio and Mississippi valleys. During the War of 1812, it was the place where Perry built and launched his fleet against the British. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Erie gained promi­nence as a major Great Lake port through which large quantities of iron ore passed enroute to serve the steel mills of western Pennsylvania.

A second group of cities which emerged in Pennsylvania during the nineteenth century owe their growth to the development of basic industry. An­thracite coal mining sired such major centers as Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Hazleton and Pottsville as well as a host of smaller towns such as Tamaqua, Ma­hanoy City, Frackville, Ashland, Mt. Carmel, Shamokin, Nanticoke, King­ston, Plymouth, Pittston and Carbon­dale. Since the state’s bituminous de­posits cover an even larger area, cities associated with it are, if anything, more numerous, including Johnstown, Con­nellsville, Uniontown, Washington and Windber, to mention but a few.

During the greater part of the eighteenth century, iron plantations of sizable proportions blossomed. Because of the difficulty associated with the transportation of materials, it was im­portant that iron ore, limestone and sources of charcoal be located in close proximity to each other. Water power was also necessary for the operation of the bellows, so the mill had to be located near a stream as well. For these reasons, iron manufacturing was initially an iso­lated, rural operation. The development of railroads, on the one hand, and the introduction of such technological inventions as the Bessemer and Kelly converters revolutionized the iron and steel industry and to a great extent al­lowed new centers to develop. Pitts­burgh and the surrounding communities along the Allegheny and Monongahela came to dominate the industry, but new centers emerged throughout the state. Bethlehem, Steelton, Johnstown, Greens­burg, Aliquippa, Butler, New Castle and Sharon are but a few of the towns and cities that owe their existence to the steel industry which mushroomed during the last half of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries.

Mention should also be made of sev­eral other towns and cities that grew around major industries. The first that comes to mind is Altoona, whose econ­omy depended largely upon the Baldwin Locomotive Works which was located there. Williamsport, during its early years, thrived as the lumber industry of north central Pennsylvania boomed. Such towns as Oil City and Titusville became the centers of the rapidly devel­oping petroleum industry in the years immediately following the Civil War.

Although geographic features and greatest impact on the economic and in­dustrial development of Pennsylvania, they have also bad a powerful, if some­what indirect, effect on the state’s political history. Both have contributed measurably to the tensions which have, from time to time, been a part of the scene. Throughout the colonial period there was a continuous struggle between the citizens of Philadelphia and the people of the interior for control and domination over the legislature. The cre­ation of new counties and the movement of the capital to Harrisburg were part of this struggle. As people moved over the mountains into western Pennsylvania, farther and farther away from the center of political activity, the terrain led them to play a greater role in the economic life of the Ohio River Valley and the Great Lakes Region and, correspondingly, a lesser role in the economy of eastern Pennsylvania. The Whiskey Rebellion was an early reflection of this dichotomy.

With the rise of basic industries, the impact of geography on politics mani­fested itself in the debate over a protec­tive tariff. In Pennsylvania, the drive to protect industry from foreign competi­tion was so strong that it received bipar­tisan support. Democrats, Whigs and Republicans alike were, throughout the nineteenth century, strongly supportive of the protective tariff. Only in certain areas of central and southeastern Penn­sylvania did the people elect representa­tives to the state and national legislatures who supported an ad valorum tax.

Geography has also had an important but indirect impact upon Pennsylvania’s ethnic history. Reference has already been made to the German influence in the development of large independent farms as opposed to rural villages. While German influence has continued to be felt in Pennsylvania agriculture down into the twentieth century, the various ethnic groups from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean who immigrated into the United States in the post-Civil War period for the most part settled in the mining areas and in the emerging indus­trial centers. Here they frequently became part of urban political machines which eventually channeled these new­comers into the Democratic party. The German farmer, on the other hand, re­mained independent and conservative, generally aligning himself with the Republican party. This has created a re­gional tension which continues to this day.

The indirect impact of geography could also be pointed out in numerous other branches of Pennsylvania history. Any enumeration of the various facets of such impact, however, would merely tend to support the conclusion already abundantly evident – that the history of Pennsylvania is the story of the adapta­tion to the geographical terrain and the utilization of the vast resources for the benefit of the state and nation. This story will continue to unfold as the state is called upon to make a greater con­tribution toward solving the nation’s energy crisis.


For Further Reading

Bining, Arthur C. Pennsylvania Iron Manufacture in the Eigh­teenth Century. Harrisburg: PHMC, 1973.

Fletcher, Stevenson W. Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, 1640-1840. Harrisburg: PHMC, 1950.

Murphy, Raymond E. and Marion. Pennsylvania, A Regional Geography. State College: Penns Valley Publishers, 1937.

Myers, Albert Cook, ed. Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, West New Jersey and Delaware, 1603-1707. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912.

Stevens, Sylvester K. Pennsylvania: Birthplace of a Nation. New York: Random House, 1964.

____. Pennsylvania, Titan of Industry. 3 vols. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1948.


William W. Hummel, a professor of his­tory and director of American Studies at Albright College, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. He is co­author of The Growth of Industrial Medicine in Western Pennsylvania, 1850-1950, and has a particular interest in American social and cultural history.