Pennsylvania. What do you think of when you hear this state’s name? Its bitter politics? It’s long history? It’s rail and interstate systems? Or maybe its traditional rivalry between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia? The truth is, Pennsylvania is a huge state (or Commonwealth, as many of its residents prefer to call it), and from the ‘burgh to Philly, a visitor can find all walks of life, dozens of languages spoken, and vast cultural differences between its borders.
PA’s history has a lot to do with that. Actually, it has everything to do with it. While Pennsylvania was touted as a ‘second Germany” by William Penn to entice his fellow Germans to cross the Atlantic and away from their depressed country, it was a very tempting land to many other nationalities due to its founding in religious tolerance.
This “melting pot” of religion and heritage is evident in Pittsburgh’s many neighborhoods. Before a network of bridges connected them all together, these peoples tended to stay together. Even though, according to this Post-Gazette article from 2003, that “The ethnic enclaves that are Pittsburgh’s colorful quilt of European nationalities still exist, but their intensity fades with every decade,” you still hear those neighborhoods referred to as such today.
All these people groups brought their histories to Pennsylvania when they immigrated centuries ago, and that’s why I think one could spend a lifetime exploring PA itself. It truly is a bridge itself, bringing peoples of nations from across the seas to begin again in the New World. It’s from them I learned to appreciate the vast histories I now have in my own backyard. Today’s blog post will take a look at seven historical Pennsylvania places I want to visit in the near future.
1. The Penn Museum // Eastern PA, downtown Philadelphia
Due to a post I put up last week, Seven Sites About Pennsylvania, I was afforded the opportunity to visit the Penn Museum at the end of the month. This particular visit will combine two interest of mine: museums and archaeology. If I hadn’t gone to college for media communications, I would’ve elected one of the sciences. Archaeology? Geology? Oceanic archaeology? I would’ve gone into any of those fields.
But, since I did not, learning about it all is kind of a “mini hobby” for me. In fact, my current WIP is based upon archaeological evidence from 1800s England. It’s crazy that, in 2021, the 1980s are considered history. I’ll turn 36 in three weeks – am I considered historical? I certainly hope not! I digress. The Penn Museum itself is quite historical. Founded in1887 for the University of Pennsylvania, the Penn Museum brings history not only to the university’s students, but the general public as well.
In my near 36 years on this Earth, I’ve visited half the US states, Germany, the UK, China, Mexico and Canada. But I’ve never been past Harrisburg or York, PA. All that out-of-state travel made me realize just how little in-state travel I’ve actually done. This visit will happen sooner than you think, and that’s why it’s number one on this list. I also hope to, one day, ride all the steam train trips available near Philadelphia. Let’s move on, for now, to the Carrie Blast Furnaces.
2. The Carrie Blast Furnaces // Southwest PA, Pittsburgh
Initially part of an epic historical adventure WIP (one that now sits, untouched, in an old folder on my laptop), I’ve wanted to visit the Carrie Blast Furnaces the past two years. Places like this have always fascinated me; they provide a glimpse into the past. The fact that these furnaces still stand hundreds of years later is a true testament to the Victorian builders who raised them.
A remnant of the once massive, legendary U.S. Steel Homestead Steel Works, the Carrie Blast Furnaces are a vestige of Pittsburgh’s 20th-century domination of the steel industry.source
Steel was just one of the pieces of the puzzle that made Pittsburgh what it is today. Steel played a pivotal role in the world wars and it’s what directly inspired the team name for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Steel changed Pittsburgh’s landscape – changed it for transportation of the raw materials needed to produce it, changed the thinking of those who worked in the mills to produce it, and dramatically changed the region’s history following the collapse of the industry in the 1980s.
Fourteen at the time, I vaguely remember when the Homestead Works was demolished replaced with The Waterfront – an outdoor shopping center akin to Disney Springs down in Tampa, Florida. Now, as an adult, I wish they’d kept more than the old smokestacks and Blast Furnaces across the river. This is why I’m glad the Carrie Blast Furnaces still survive to this day, and I look forward to a visit in the near future.
3. Franklin // Northwest PA, north of Pittsburgh
Do you fancy learning about coal and oil history? Or trains? Or love the architecture of old buildings? Would you believe me if I told you John Wilkes Booth expressed interest in Venango, County? Then Franklin in Venango County, PA should be high on your to-visit list. Two summers ago my family and I visited just a small part of Franklin for the 4th of July. If it hadn’t been for the events of 2019, I’m sure taking steam train trips would’ve become our new family tradition. Franklin is home to the Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad, one that still operates for train enthusiasts of any age to this day.
On that particular trip, I was sick as a dog. But my ticket was already paid for, and I wanted to ride a train. It was an incredibly hot, humid day. Not a good combination for someone who had the unfortunate addition of a summer cold. Here’s some images from our adventures in 2018:
So why, if I’ve already been to Franklin, would I want to return? One reason stands out from all the rest: its history and the role it played in Southwestern PA’s oil and coal industry. Franklin is also home to many fantastic Victorian-era buildings, homes and remnants of its past. Including the past of John Wilkes Booth. I’m just sad I never knew about Franklin until I was well into my adult years. It’s time to remedy that!
4. Raystown Lake // Central PA, east of Altoona
You’ve read it before and I’ll say it again: Pennsylvania is a huge state. There’s so much history packed within its borders that one could easily spend a lifetime researching just one corner of PA. So it should come as no surprise that I just learned about Raystown Lake this year. There’s a joke amongst the neighborhoods here in Pittsburgh, that many in one area rarely go through a tunnel or across a bridge unless they absolutely have to. The Allegheny Plateau really plays a huge role in Pennsylvania’s demographics. Unless one purposefully goes out and explores the state, you may not know much about an absolutely gorgeous place in your own backyard.
Every year around this time, “fall foliage reports” come out. This lake was on such a list (one I wish I’d bookmarked), and there’s even an annual Fall Foliage Festival in nearby Bedford! I miss the festivals I attended down in Knoxville, Tennessee. Have I made time to attend many here in PA? Sadly, I haven’t. Life took over and I just haven’t had a chance to get out there like I used to. Hopefully, with my work schedule changing in the next few weeks, I’ll have more time to visit places like Bedford and Raystown Lake. Even though Bedford itself is an hour and a half south of Raystown Lake, they’re definitely destinations worth looking into.
5. Horseshoe Curve // Southwest PA, east of Pittsburgh
Just a two hour drive from Pittsburgh sits the famous Horseshoe Curve. As a lover of trains and rails and the trips they take you on, I was already familiar with Horseshoe Curve. At least, familiar with its history. I don’t know why I always thought the Curve was further East; our current family just haven’t made our way there yet.
Even though my family has a collective love affair with trains, mine didn’t fully develop until later my twenties. In fact, I realized it when my aunt’s family and I visited the Florida Railroad Museum earlier this summer and I bought a book of all the train museums and tours still in operation within the whole United States. Of course Franklin (listed above) and its Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad is in it, as well as the Parrish Railroad in Florida. What makes my heart the happiest is the fact that the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum is featured as well. That’s a blog post for another time.
What’s the craziest thing about the Curve? My novel takes place in 1853, England. The Horseshoe Curve construction was completed in 1854. I promise you that is merely a coincidence, but I love seeing historical parallels not only between nations, but in archaeology as well.
In 1834 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania built the Allegheny Portage Railroad across the Allegheny Mountains to connect Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as part of the Main Line of Public Works. The Portage Railroad was a series of canals and inclined planes and remained in use until the mid-19th century. The Pennsylvania Railroad was incorporated in 1847 to build a railroad from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, replacing the cumbersome Portage Railroad.source: Wikipedia
The first automobiles in America didn’t go into production until c. 1893, and the United States’ Federal Highway Act of 1956 wouldn’t come for another hundred years after the Curve’s completion. As such, the great Horseshoe Curve was, and is still considered, one of the great engineering marvels of its time. To see it in person would be a fascinating experience – if I could only make the time!
Time. Now that I’ll hold two jobs moving forward, I don’t know when I’ll find the time to visit some of these places this year. Of course there’s Penn Museum in two weeks, but then again, I’ll have two weeks off from work during that same time. So perhaps a visit to the blast furnaces or the Horseshoe Curve may happen sooner than I think!