Western Pennsylvania - Distinctiveness


Western Pennsylvania is distinctive from the rest of the state due to several important and complex factors:

  • The initial difficulty of transportation access from the east across miles of seemingly endless parallel ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, and then the broken hills and valleys of the Allegheny Plateau, all of which were covered in thick forests. Indeed the initial method of access was to go out of Pennsylvania altogether, follow the Potomac River northwest through Maryland and Virginia, and then re-enter the state in its southwest corner. Various methods of more direct transport were later tried, including a canal system over the Appalachians and then, later, the Pennsylvania Railroad which extended the railroad systems of the East Coast west to Pittsburgh and the Ohio Valley. Perhaps the best known transportation innovation to simplify access to this area is the famous Pennsylvania Turnpike, the first modern limited access highway in North America.
  • The initial problem was economic marketing of a limited number of goods that could stand such high freight costs. The insensitivity of the new U.S. Federal Government to the marketing problems in the west led to the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, an event which seriously challenged the political viability of the new American nation. Later marketing arrangements turned to access via the Ohio River, with Pittsburgh a barge and steamboat center of the mid-continent. Today, Pittsburgh is still strongly oriented to the rivers; the port of Pittsburgh ranks No. 13 by tonnage in the USA and even surpasses the Port of Philadelphia in tonnage, due to the heavy shipping of bulk coal by barge inland on the rivers. Locally, a system of agriculture arose suitable to Western Pennsylvania's rugged terrain, emphasizing animal husbandry and dairying but with few exportable vegetable crops. The search for some sort of exportable agricultural specialty perhaps also encouraged the rise of the sauce industry and its first location at Sharpsburg in what was later to become the large H.J. Heinz Company.
  • The search for exploitable resources first resulted with the development of huge bituminous coal or "soft" coal deposits in the area for use in a growing iron foundry sector. However, it was not until the realization by Andrew Carnegie, that Western Pennsylvania possessed an optimum location for a very large scale American steel sector, that this area, especially Pittsburgh, became known for the industrial specialty that characterizes it today. The region also had large glass, pottery, brickmaking, and ceramic industries, which took advantage of the coal and the sand and clay in local soils. The rise and subsequent decline of the American steel industry at Pittsburgh introduces a host of complex economic concepts necessary to understand why that particular activity centered in this particular place, including the notions of classical Weberian location analysis for more than one input, the Pittsburgh Plus system for maintaining advantageous freight costs to ship to the market, vertical integration and supply innovations such as the development of the Mesabi Range, the ore freighter as a transport vehicle, and the construction of the Soo Locks. Other necessary economic concepts for description could well include economies of scale, diseconomies of scale, monopoly (or cartel) price equilibrium, and "dumping". Labor relations problems historically were frequent in the earlier steel sector, and mention should be made of the United Steel Workers of America, as well as the contemporary issue of "legacy costs" arising from heavy entitlements to a large retired labor force after sharply downsizing to today's level of employment.
  • Other exploitable resources in Western Pennsylvania were also distinct. One was the drilling of the first oil well in the world at Titusville and the rise of the US petroleum industry. Another was widespread deforestation of the outlying areas and their subsequent reforestation under Gifford Pinchot, who instituted the first large scale government sponsored timber management effort in the USA. During this time of intensive exploitation of forests a whole new sector, the wood chemistry industry, appeared and then later vanished. Finally, mention should also be made of management in the forested areas of a large animal population which supports the famous "Pennsylvania deer-hunting" cultural ethos. Indeed, the first day of deer-hunting season is a de facto unofficial holiday in much of the central and northern regions of the state, when absence from work or school is generally tolerated with no explanation necessary.
  • Since the early 1950s, a renaissance occurred in the development of cultural institutions and abatement of pollution in Pittsburgh and its surrounding area. The effects of this increase in livability are particularly apparent in the Golden Triangle district of Downtown Pittsburgh, which at one point had been plagued with so much industrial haze that drivers used their headlights in mid-day. However, this social improvement has not always been accompanied by a serious plan of regional economic development to assess what, precisely, should fill the income void after the departure of steel. In addition, the city of Pittsburgh continues to become de-populated and has recently been put under state supervision of its finances.
  • Culturally, the distinctiveness of Western Pennsylvania is underlined by the existence of a unique local dialect called "Pittsburghese" or Pittsburgh English, sometimes affectionately termed the "yinzer" dialect, due to its use of the term "yins" (also spelled "yunz, "yinz", "youns", etc.) as the plural form of "you". This is probably a legacy of Ulster-Scots settlement in the area. Western Pennsylvanians also refer to soft drinks as "pop" while in the eastern half of the state it is referred to as "soda."
  • In Stonycreek Township is the memorial and crash site of United Airlines Flight 93, the "Let's Roll" flight which occurred on 9/11/2001 after passengers attempted to overpower the plane's hijackers. The site is an informal patriotic shrine with many hand-made mementos voluntarily gracing the area. There is a movement to add the site to the National Park System. It is a startling coincidence that the Stoneycreek site is comparatively close to the other centuries-earlier locations of military engagements in Western Pennsylvania, such as Fort Duquesne and the area of the Whiskey Rebellion. This can in part be explained by the fact that all these locations were on a strategic route from eastern settlements in Pennsylvania and Virginia (and, later, Washington, D.C.) to the West.
  • The Erie Triangle and the city of Erie give Pennsylvania a port along the Great Lakes. The Erie region is also known for its distinct agriculture, centered around grapes and other fruit, due to the moderating climatic influence (in summer) from the Lake. (In winter, the area is often inundated with "lake-effect" snow.) There are also small commercial fresh-water fisheries and many streams and smaller lakes with a variety of fish to catch, including yellow perch and walleye.
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