Lists. They’re popular blog post devices, and today I’m most definitely implementing that tool. Why? Because it felt like the opportune time to do a little research on my own State. The problem with this is I feel like there’s the same information out there. Everywhere. Everyone regurgitates those facts over and over and over again.
I made it my mission to try and find the unique things about my Commonwealth (State) that aren’t widely known. Everyone knows the Big Mac was invented here. Everyone knows where the polio vaccine was developed. And everyone knows Pennsylvania is steel and coal country.
Okay – I admit that some of these facts below may still be well known, but I had loads of fun researching all these little pieces. No matter how many times one looks up stuff in general, you’re gonna learn something new each and every time. So let’s learn something new today with these ten facts about Pennsylvania.
1. Founded by William Penn in 1681 with a land grant from King Charles II
Originally from London, England, William Penn was a huge supporter of religious tolerance. Born in 1644, he was witness to major religious schisms within the Christian churches in England. Religious executions were prominent, and religious participation was highly monitored. He was arrested several times for preaching against what believes were seen as unfavorable by the religious sects at that time. Penn saw growing frustration within the general population, those who simply wanted to practice their faiths without fear of retaliation, and sought to cash in on a favor owed to Penn’s father by King Charles II. He granted Penn his request, and thus the Province of Pennsylvania was founded.
In April, 1687, the king issued a proclamation declaring liberty of conscience to all, and removing tests and penalties, which was largely the result of Penn’s influence.source
The history of William Penn himself really is quite an interesting one, including the fact that he actually lost control and influence over what was to be his own provincial paradise. But Pennsylvania’s foundation most certainly explains why there seems to be a different church on every street corner. Even today many of these communities remain true to their roots while others look to the future.
2. Pennsylvania became the second State to join the Union on December 12th, 1787
One would think that a state as old as Pennsylvania would be the first to join the Union. This, ironically, isn’t what happened. Funnily enough, only one state beat Pennsylvania to the punch by a mere five days. What state was that? Delaware! Three states joined the newly formed Union in December of that year. They were: Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Eight more states joined the new Union in the following year. They are: Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia and New York.
From 1787 to 1797, the Pennsylvanian city of Philadelphia served as the political hub for the new Union. Until Washington D.C. was declared the capital, Congress met in several different cities before the final decision was made. And considering Maryland didn’t join the Union until 1788, the decision on the capital’s location makes total sense in America’s early days.
3. Many Indigenous nations lived on these lands long before European settlement, including Lenape, Susquehannock, Iroguoi, Calicia, Tutelo, Saponi, Piscataway and Nanticoke, just to name a few
When I was deep into reading about archaeology, I was shocked when some people dismissed North America’s prehistory. They’d often state “Oh, it’s not as important as, say, Roman occupied England.” I think they were forgetting the peoples who lived there long before European settlement. No. Prehistory in North America is just as important as it’s seen as everywhere else.
Many towns, boroughs and counties in Pennsylvania are named after the Nations that used to inhabit the land, or whose names were derived from the languages those tribes spoke. This list includes Aliquippa, Catasauqua, Conshohocken, Manayunk, Nemacolin, Punxsutawney, Tulpehocken Creek, and Wissahickon.
4. Before PAT (now PRT) buses and the T, trolleys were widely available for transit
Naturally, I had to mention trolleys. And trolleys are completely synonymous with Louis J. Redman, who happens to be my grandfather. Trolleys, also called streetcars, operated in the Pittsburgh area at first as an easy transit option for the working class.
As more roads and more individuals began owning motor cars, the trolley’s popularity slowly became obsolete. Not only that, but accidents with these extra vehicles on the road (and pedestrians) were becoming more common and costly for the trolley companies. Much like the canals of the past, this form of transit soon saw higher operating costs. By the 1920s they could no longer compete with personal vehicles.
Many museums now operate across the country. Arden eventually became known as the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, and the state boasts several more museums such as The Rockhill Trolley Museum and The Electric City Trolley Museum. Any one of them would be happy to have you as a visitor!
5. German, Welsh, Scots-Irish, French, Dutch and Swedish immigrants all settled here
If you watched the video linked above titled “The Plan for Pennsylvania,” you’ll know that Penn wanted to attract all kinds of settlers to this new kind of colony. As such, many did come, but life in the New World was just as hard as it was in Europe. It was so new that it had not yet gone through its “growing pains” as a nation.
This cultural and national “Melting Pot” is clearly evident in the neighborhoods here in Pittsburgh. We have Deutschtown (German roots), Bloomfield (Italian roots), just to name a few.
So many Germans moved to Pittsburgh that Germany’s famous bier hall, the Hofbräuhaus, saw the city’s potential and opened one on Pittsburgh’s Southside Flats in 2009. As a family with German heritage ourselves, we’ve frequently visited the hall on many an occasion. In fact, my parents went just this week!
6. From 1797 to 1900, canals were built and used by both state and private enterprises for goods transit and transportation. They eventually became obsolete when trains took over, and they became too expensive to maintain
From north to south, east to west, canals crisscrossed the state as a means of transportation for both goods and people. Canals predated state wide use of train tracks by almost a hundred years. While the canal system did extend a bit into Ohio, the Pennsylvania Railroad was able to extend much further inland than canals ever could.
But the canal system was still a genius solution. They came before roads were common, and were often built off existing rivers and creeks. Intricate locks and dams moved boats up and down the canals, and manpower was often contracted to keep everything running.
In places like Johnstown and Lancaster, short railroad lines were used to move boats from one canal to another, often going up mountains where it was illogical – and often impossible – to build an actual canal.
The coolest thing, in my opinion, about the Pennsylvania canal system is that no single entity held a conglomerate on the waterways. Many were regionally built, operated and maintained. For a complete list and histories, please see this page over on the American Canal Society’s website.
7. The first American piano was built in Philadelphia in 1775 – one year before the Declaration of Independence was signed
I must admit, this fact is a brand new one for me. You’d think I’d remember something like this, considering the fact that at least four or five members of my own family are prolific pianists. In 1775, John Behrent built the first American piano in Philadelphia. To put it into perspective: this was just one year before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
According to American Heritage, the piano was one of the first “luxury” items to become commonplace in the home. “The sale of twenty-five thousand pianos a year at the time, not counting imported ones, clearly indicated that the piano was the basic instrument for introducing musical knowledge to the new country.” source
It should come as no surprise that many piano manufacturers soon found their “home bases” in Philadelphia, including Charles Albrecht, Cunningham Piano Company, and the Loud Brothers. Sadly, none of these companies survived past the second World War.
8. Shibe Park, built in 1909 in Philadelphia, was the first baseball stadium in the United States
While many firsts happened in Pittsburgh, we shouldn’t forget the opposite end of the state, though many residents of Southwestern PA would have visitors think otherwise. While Forbes Field is often lauded as one of the greatest ballparks in Pirates history, we can’t ignore the fact that Shibe Park in Philadelphia came long before it.
From `1909 to 1970, Shibe Park – later known as Connie Mack Stadium – was one of the first of its kind, being built of concrete steel rather than wood. Its facade, made of arches, columns and a centered tower, made the park look like a building rather than, well, a park. This idea inspired the construction of many other parks, including that of Pittsburgh’s own PNC Park.
Today, ballparks of all different kinds of designs can be seen across the country. Some completely deviate from Shibe’s model, and others have actual roofs. And, for a time, many were concrete monstrosities like Pittsburgh’s own Three Rivers Stadium. If the Connie Mack Stadium hadn’t been damaged by fire in the 70s, this baseball fan would’ve loved to have taken a weekend trip to visit the first steel and concrete ballpark in the US.
9. In Chester County, they produce over 500 million pounds of mushrooms every year, earning it the title: “The Mushroom Capital of the World”
If you’ve seen any of my social media profiles, you would know my tagline: “Fan of mushrooms, libraries, chocolate, books and research.” In no particular order, it’s a short, sweet and simple statement about who I am. And, in Chester County, Pennsylvania, they are all about all the mushrooms, too.
Why do all the cool things have to be on the opposite end of the State? Why can’t the “Mushroom Capital of the World” be a bit closer to home? Chester County is one of the eastern most areas of the State, sharing borders with both Maryland and New Jersey.
Directly established by William Penn himself, Chester County saw its first mushroom cultivators in the 1890s. By the 20th century, mushrooms were the number one crop grown in the region. There’s even an annual Mushroom Festival (sorry, but that’s so much better than Picklesburgh) that’s taken place every year in Kennett Square for the past 35 years. Let’s go!
10. The coal mine fires of Centralia, PA have been burning continuously since 1962. And yes, some people still live in the condemned town!
Since the 1960s, Centralia has fascinated many who stumble upon its history. YouTube videos feature folks exploring it, songs have been written about it, and even a local musical group called Squonk Opera did a whole production back in the 90s(?). My aunt was in that production, and I was very young. So my memory of the exact year is a bit fuzzy!
In 1962, a routine trash pit fire burning worked its way down into an abandoned mine. From there it grew, releasing massive amounts of carbon monoxide into the air and even homes of the residents. There were other theories on how the fire started, including:
Another theory proposes that the Bast Colliery fire of 1932 was never fully extinguished, and that fire reached the landfill area by 1962; however, a miner named Frank Jurgill Sr. disputes that theory. Jurgill claims he operated a bootleg mine with his brother near the landfill from 1960 to 1962. If the Bast Colliery fire had not been extinguished, the brothers would likely have been overcome or killed by the noxious gases via many interconnected tunnels in the area.source
Before that point, it was a quaint mining community, the epitome of small town America. The problem continued to grow due to indecision by the city, including buckling roads, sinkholes, carbon monoxide poisoning and plumes of hot steam visibly coming from underground.
As with many a disaster in Pennsylvania, the government ended up stepping in after the fire gained national attention. Against the wishes of many Centrailia’s residents, services to their town were cut off one by one, essentially forcing them to relocate. While some folks do still remain, they do so at risk to their own health and safety. As of 2010, ten residents remained, and by 2020, five remained.
From mushrooms to coal fires, pianos to baseball parks, I hope you enjoyed these ten facts about Pennsylvania. The history wasn’t so weird after all – maybe with the exception of no. ten, but I hope you learned something new along the way just like I did.
This project began as an ambitious fifty point list, but after a bit more research and formatting, I realized I would’ve lost even myself in a list that huge. So maybe, in the future, I’ll put together several more Ten Facts lists, and continue our exploration of the state of Pennsylvania in smaller chunks than a colossal list.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll see you next time!