PENNSYLVANIA is a place with character, a "there." That's not a boast, it's a demonstrable fact. It's a there--to turn Gertrude Stein's aphorism around--because it's a place where things have really happened. Character didn't come to this Commonwealth like a period costume in a box. It came the hard way with events--battles and floods and discoveries--that changed us or that earned the status of legend.
As a matter of fact--and probably it's a matter of character, too--the places have survived. You can travel right there and stand on the very ground you always heard about. Because that is so, Pennsylvania is a place that rewards the act of exploring. Seek here, and you'll find something.
I wasn't seeking any more than a break from the books one warm afternoon in April years ago when I bolted from the Johns Hopkins campus and steered north into Pennsylvania. I doubt I knew where Gettysburg was, in reality. The way I knew of it, it was located on pages, in chapters, between hard covers. Then there it was. I saw the sign and I was there.
I circled slowly, looking at the clean white grave markers and the dark statues. I stopped to read the signs and the plaques. A battle like the one that exploded there in the summer of 1863 is impossibly complex; and it's only the compressive economy of language that permits us to describe all this as one event. Still, some things came clear enough.
It was too early in the season and too late in a cooling day for crowds. So I had the place to myself when I walked to the very ground where Lee's army had reached its farthest against the Union. In what Bruce Catton called "that terrible unforgettable moment of truth that would symbolize inexpressible things" Pickett's Virginians and other young men of the Confederacy--some 15,000 of them--marched across the smoking plain and up the slope of Cemetery Ridge to meet McGilvery's cannoneers, the 20th Massachusetts, the 7th Michigan, the 1st Minnesota, and the Vermonters, New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians, and did not reach the top. Later, when Lincoln came there, he spoke the words that have stood up as the explanation of what happened and what it meant.
I stood in the fading light and looked over the neat fields and low ridges where the Confederate wave broke. The contour of the land where it happened hasn't changed much. You go stand in a place like that with the darkness rising up from the hollows, you hear things. And understand some things.
Once I heard Pennsylvania described as "Philadelphia at one end and Pittsburgh at the other end and nothing much in between." It is true that the country took national root in Philadelphia and reached full industrial flower in Pittsburgh.
Jefferson et al. at one end and Carnegie at the other. But a great many legendary matters, profound and otherwise, have unfolded in between those polar cities: Pennsylvania is a place where people have felt free enough--and strongly enough--about their ideas to erect whole towns that still mirror those ideas: Ephrata. Harmony. Economy. Or Hershey. It began with chocolate, but Mr. Hershey's ideas about things have led to parks, vocational schools, sports teams, resorts--a staggering array of assets and attractions. A long-ago family excursion through Pennsylvania included a stopover at Hershey. To my 10-year-old eyes, this was a combined revelation and pilgrimage. I never considered that those brown-and-silver wrapped treats came from anywhere. They just were in my world and I was glad of it. You mean, this is where they make those chocolate bars? This is the source? I reeled. Lourdes could scarcely have matched the place.
Other legendary episodes are still unfolding. Hard by Harrisburg, the capital, lies Three Mile Island, where we passed within minutes of a disaster that could have, it was noted with prescience, "rendered uninhabitable an area the size of Pennsylvania."
Citizens of the Commonwealth were not always so lucky. About two hours west of Harrisburg, on the Conemaugh River, nestles the old steel town of Johnstown.
At the time, I chanced to be driving up U.S. 219, I had already read David McCullough's spellbinding book, "The Johnstown Flood," consuming it at once while standing in a bookstore. I saw a marker and glanced out the window at a deep green gully and realized in a flash I was looking at the split remainder of the dam that failed in 1889 and killed 2,000 inhabitants of Johnstown.
Out of the car, I remembered McCullough's account of the worried men who stood helpless in the downpour on the morning of May 31 and watched the runoff water rise to the top and then over the top of the 900-foot-long South Fork Dam. I stood opposite the very gap the water had punched. Downstream, 15 miles of narrow valley had focused the entire contents of the 3-mile-long lake on the town--which lay about 500 feet lower than the dam. The Johnstown Flood . . . there really was such a thing. There really is such a place.
However bloody history is, it's not all heartache, disaster, death. Way up in the northwest corner of the Commonwealth in 1859, Col. Edwin Drake was one of a small group of men who thought money could be made refining and selling the rusty, smelly "rock oil" that kept seeping into the springs and ponds along Oil Creek. If only it could be reliably gathered, in quantity. Drake believed he knew how. "Drill for oil? Something's wrong with that man." Experienced salt-and-water well drillers mostly refused to work for "lunatic" Drake. But a maverick blacksmith named Uncle Billy Smith agreed to help. They drove iron pipe to bedrock and began drilling. At 69 feet they stopped for the Sabbath. Later when Smith checked, their well was full of black oil. They'd hit it. It didn't gush out and rain black gold on the colonel's top hat like in the movies. It just welled up, and Drake pumped out 25 barrels a day.
The locals knew you could burn it like whale oil or glop it around your sawmill as a lubricant, but most of the world didn't know whether to drink it or rub it on your horse or what. That was before anyone heard of Rockefeller or Ford or Getty. Before interstates, spills, Houston or OPEC.
Drake's first well--the first in the world--is marked by a stone and park. But to sense the full shock of how little time it has taken for oil to shrink and reorganize our world, drive down Rte. 8 to Rouseville and you'll be right across from McClintock No. 1, the oldest operating oil well in the world. It came in during August of 1861 and it's still pumping. Its 122-year life pretty well measures the modern age.
Pennsylvania is home to legends large and small, epic and comic, home to firsts and mosts and biggests in their time: bridges and tunnels, arches and curves. It's the place where America first flexed its muscles: rolling mill, hard rock mine, inclined plane. The true rifle. The westering wagon. It's also home to the pretzel factory, the mousetrap factory, the mushroom caves, virgin pines and the best herd of elk east of the Rockies.
Start with a road map, and wonder: Menges Mill, Martic Forge, Bedford Springs, Clark's Ferry. Or try Red Lion, Blue Ball, Yellow House. Who was born there? What did they make there? What was said there?
A road map of Pennsylvania is a match-up game. Pin the event on the place. Or go to the place and learn the legend.
I keep finding places. The Commonwealth has more blue highways than my life has weekends. Go see for yourself: character.