If you live in Pennsylvania long enough, at some point you would’ve heard the names Frick, Carnegie, Cook and Wright. But did you also know there’s a vast network of canals which have been buried under decades of growth and construction? Or that steam train culture and riding the rails is still a thing in the twenty-first century? Or that Pittsburgh’s intricate system of neighborhood steps follows old Indian trails along the banks of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers?
Today’s blog post comes from the information found in Dave Hurst’s book, PENNSYLVANIA’S ALLEGHENY MOUNTAINS: THE FIRST FRONTIER. As a long time viewer of Star Trek, I, of course, giggled over the tagline. Why? Because The Original Series’ opening montage includes the line: “Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.” It’s safe to say this is the number one reason I purchased this book to begin with – the word play in my head between two different frontiers.
Pennsylvania is still quite the frontier, especially if one lives at either end of the state. From Pittsburgh and Erie to Philadelphia and Susquehanna, the other end of the state may look daunting. Unless you actually enjoy traveling the I-80 corridor! Okay: hilarious moment here. I looked up directions from Erie, PA to Susquehanna, PA, and Google Maps has you travel the entire lower length of the state of New York and would take under five hours. If you choose to go via PA-59, US-6 E and PA-92, it’ll take you nearly seven hours. Would you believe Pennsylvania isn’t the flattest state in the world?
And this fact finally brings us to today’s topic: Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains. I don’t know why, but I absolutely love looking at topographical maps of my Commonwealth. Not only has so much history happened within our dips and hills and mountains, but its geological makeup is quite interesting as well. Except:
From north-west Pennsylvania down to Virginia, the Alleghenies played, and continue to play, an incredibly important role in how the both the state and our country was formed. More on that in a future blog post. And I’m not saying these things because I’m biased. Clearly, I am. However, I know that there are many things that can, need, and should change about Pennsylvania’s current infrastructure, leadership and more. No way am I looking at this through rose-colored glasses. For today’s post, we’ll be taking a look at three fascinating items from columns published into a book by Dave Hurst. This is a sister post to the one titled Four Things Everyone Gets Wrong About Pennsylvania.
1. There was once a petition to form “Westsylvania.”
It’s crazy to think that I, as a Pittsburgh native, could be living in a state called “Westsylvania.” Proposed state lines are all over the place, according to a quick Google search on the matter. In 1776 it was already spoken of in the context of a colony, so statehood, to the residents at the time, seemed like the next logical course of action.
The colonies themselves were in a constant state of flux at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, so such a concept wouldn’t have been a foreign idea. It’s definitely, however, a foreign idea to this twenty-first century Pennsylvanian! An ancestor of mine once ran an established bakery on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, an area that was once Allegheny City. My church is there now – not in the same exact location – and it’s hard to picture the area without its current wide streets and turn of the century homes.
[…] the notion survived into the early 1790s when farmers in the west balked at a new tax on the whiskey they often used instead of cash. Egged on by Alexander Hamilton, a founding father of the financialized economy, the budding federal government intended to use the revenue to pay off debt from the war with the British Empire.source: The forgotten history of Westsylvania
This brings to mind the time the city of Pittsburgh went without its iconic “h.” The late 1890s was a huge period of change for southwestern Pennsylvania as a whole, and the city didn’t come out of it untouched. For a twenty-one year period, the city was named Pittsburg, with evidence remaining on old buildings to this day.
The point is this: many things didn’t pan out in the early history of Pennsylvania, Westsylvania and Pittsburg included. While their histories certainly are interesting to learn about, I don’t think I’ll ever want to be from a place called Pittsburg, Westsylvania. That just looks so wrong.
2. The Allegheny Portage Railroad Once Ran Through Here
“During leaf-off, though, we can easily see how men working only with black powder, muscle and horses, leveled valleys and split ridge ribs for the Portage Railroad. We can see the small, cut-stone retaining walls, foundations and ground depressions that hint of engine houses, hitching sheds and other structures.”Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Mountains, pg. 30
You know the mantra “planes, trains and automobiles,” right? Well, the Portage Railroad wasn’t the only train system operating in Pennsylvania in the 1800s. Nor was it the first travel system. Wagon roads and foot trails guided many of the earliest. Then came an elaborate canal system that was destined to become ruins from the very beginning. The map pictured left is one of my very favorites of Pennsylvania.
You can see how the budding railroads actually aided travelers along the canal system and, while I know the Portage Railroad isn’t represented here, one can absolutely see how all these systems were important to how Pennsylvania was shaped.
In fact, The Allegheny Portage Railroad was the first central PA railroad to be constructed in the state. It’s an incredibly important representation of the Industrial Revolution in Pennsylvania because it once connected Hollidaysburg to Johnstown – the site of a major flood which took place in 1889. As with all things, the Portage Railroad was, too, left to fail when advancements in train travel called for new rails:
In the 1850s, the Main Line of Public Works and its portage railroad was rendered obsolete by the advance of railway technology and railroad engineering. Early in 1846 the Legislature chartered the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) to cross the entire state in response to plans by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to reach the Ohio Valley through Virginia. In December 1852 trains started to run between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh shortening the travel time from 4 days to 13 hours.source – Wikipedia
The Allegheny Portage Railroad, much like the canals, was always meant to be a temporary solution. Mr. Hurst writes, “This is the time when you can read the stories of you rlocal landscape. Meander along a river bank and look for canal traces. Wander the site of a frontier fort, an abandoned coal patch or a tumbled-down gristmill. Use your imagination, pictures or memories to visualize what once stood there. […] Respect private property, of course, and revere the resource. Leave no trace of your time spent there and leave with nothing that you didn’t bring with you. Leaf-off reconnaissance offers something far more valuable than some interesting artifact that quickly becomes clutter. Its prizes are lessons about time and place – and an injection of spring for your soul.”
3. There Was Once Disagreement Over The Etymology Of The Southwest Region
“As a writer, I know the importance of proper vocabulary, grammar and syntax. They are tools of my trade. But as a heritage writer, I also appreciate the way our unique words and phrases enrich our lives and reflect who we are. Yes, I can spell ‘hiking,’ but I can still say I’m going hikin’. I can write about our slippery winter roads yet caution someone to be careful walking because the sidewalks are “slippy.”Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains, pg. 44-45
Okay, I’ll fold. There’s still disagreement over this region’s etymology. Especially when it comes to words like “yinz,” “jagoff,” “nebby” and “chipped ham.” The thing is, so many nationalities settled here all the way up to the 1900s. Many of these nationalities were hired to work in the mines of Frick and Carnegie, so this very relaxed way of speaking was born.
When it comes to regions, language doesn’t always “cross the valley.” For example: I live to the northwest of Pittsburgh. As far as I know, no one in my neighborhood speaks full on “Pittsburghese.” In fact, when I attended college down in Knoxville, Tennessee, I’d say certain “Pittsburgh words” just to throw people off. Tennesseans use “y’all,” “cart” and “rubber band.” As a twenty-something college kid, I got a big kick out of confusing my southern counterparts.
All in good fun, of course. All in good fun.