Roadside Pennsylvania

One of my favorite parts about living in Pennsylvania is exploring all the corners of the state. And usually when that happens it is by car. PA is big enough that a road trip is usually required to see cool things, but small enough that it doesn’t require flying. And I’m not an exception here, lots of people have explored the state over the years along Pennsylvania roads. In the 1930s PA Governor Gifford Pinchot challenged Pennsylvanians: “Try mapping out a hundred mile drive for a Sunday afternoon or holiday on these roads. You will get a closer contact with the scenic beauties of Pennsylvania, the most beautiful state anywhere—than the main highways can possibly give you. Try it!”

I was recently looking through the “John Margolies Roadside America Photograph” collection on the Library of Congress website noticed a bunch of the photos are from Pennsylvania. The photo collection depicts thousands of roadside attractions and “vernacular commercial structures” that were built in the early 20th century. After gracing roads and streets for decades, many of them were demolished to make way for new buildings and establishments. Margolies took these photos between 1977 and 1995, mostly in the 1980s, shortly before many of these places vanished forever.

There are over 150 photographs from Pennsylvania roadside structures in the collection, and I’ve gone through and made a short list of my favorite ones. I have them in order of what I think would make for a fun driving trip across Pennsylvania, starting in Warren County’s Youngsville, then making a big loop eastwards and down and then back west to end in Uniontown, Fayette County. If you did this entire drive it would be about 750 miles in total

To add a little more color to these photos, I looked up each town in my copy of the 1940 American Guide Series book for Pennsylvania and copied the entries for each place (not every town on this list is covered in the guidebook but most are). For all their faults, I love these books and one day would like to go on some of the road trips like Sara Goek described in this great blog post on Illinois. If you like this list and the photos, go drive out there! or, as Governor Pinchot said, “Try it!” I’d be curious to see if any of these roadside places are still standing today.

YOUNGSVILLE (1,211 alt., 1,907 pop.), settled in 1795 by John McKinney, is a one-street mountain town. It produces a colored shale brick, furniture, and mirrors.

WELLSBORO (1,308 alt., 3,643 pop.), an old, quiet, and attractive town on a high plateau, is visited summer and winter because of Pine Creek Gorge, and good hunting (small game, some bear and deer) in the environs. The town was laid out in 1806 by Benjamin W. Morris, a land agent who arrived in 1799 and gave the settlement his wife’s maiden name. Income is derived largely from a branch of the Corning Glass Works and neighboring coal mines and gas wells. Its houses, many with columned porticoes in the Greek Revival style, reveal the influence of settlers from New England. The streets are bordered with smooth lawns and lined with aged trees.

MAYFIELD (952 alt., 3,744 pop.), a miniature of Carbondale, with five mines employing 500 workers, largely of Irish and Italian descent, was developed prior to 1840 by John Gibson, who sold out in 1874 to the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. Its wide main street terminates abruptly in shrubless mountainsides, to which grimy shacks, surrounded by grotesque alphabets of endless clotheslines, cling desperately.

SCRANTON (741 alt., 143,433 pop.), capital of the anthracite basin and third largest city in the Commonwealth, lies in the narrow crescent-shaped Lackawanna Valley in northeastern Pennsylvania. Mountains hem in the city- to the north and east the Moosic Mountains, to the west the West Mountains.

Despite the angular skyline formed by coal breakers and factory stacks, despite an occasional building resting askew on sunken foundations, Scranton as a whole is not dull or drab, though at places it is soot-begrimed. Close to the river, which winds in a southwesterly direction through the city, lies the downtown district, brightly lighted at night, as if to relieve the miner’s surfeit of subterranean darkness. East of this is the ‘Hill Section,’ with clapboard and stuccoed dwellings predominating, because brick and mortar are scarce. More imposing housing are found in Green Ridge to the north. Generally, each of the national groups attracted here by the mining industry clings to a particular area: the Welsh concentrate in Hyde Park on the west; Germans and Irish in South Scranton; Poles, Russians, Lithuanians, and Italians in separate outlying sections.

Coal is the theme song of this city in the hills. Coal brought prosperity and also despair. Coal built its mansions, stores, banks, hotels, and hovels; it blackened the beautiful Lackawanna, scarred the mountain sides, made artificial hills of unsightly coal refuse, and undermined the city itself- but it created an anthracite kingdom, the importance of which merits a considerable place in American history. It exalted the hardihood of the Pennsylvania miner and brought into existence one of the most powerful labor unions in the county- the United Mine Workers of America. It did more than any other industry to diversify Pennsylvania’s population and to develop its industry and commerce. Today 30 nationalities are represented in Scranton.

SHARTLESVILLE (310 alt., 200 pop.), is renowned for the Shartlesville Hotel, a ride weather-beaten building, known to few until its table d’hôte dinners were described in a national magazine in 1936. It has since been crowded with trenchermen from distant points. The traditional seven sweets and seven sours greet the arriving guest, who is simultaneously confronted with several varieties of meat, perhaps a fish or two, half a dozen vegetables, pies and cakes of many kinds, ice cream, and coffee, with thick cream. The same type of dinner- a normal Pennsylvania German meal- is also served at Haag’s Hotel, a two-and-a-half story structure with a porch on two sides.

CHADDS FORD (168 alt., 200 pop.), center of the Battle of Brandywine, occupies the east bank of sparkling Brandywine Creek, today a mere trickle; in Colonial times floods and ice rendered the ford here so hazardous that it became necessary in 1737 to provide a ferry service.

Here, on September 11, 1777, the American Revolutionary Army suffered a major defeat when Washington, in an effort to halt the British march on Philadelphia, hurled 12,000 troops against a force of 18,000 British and Hessian soldiers under Generals Howe and Knyphausen. Maneuvering went on in a fog for hours. Finally, late in the afternoon, the British crossed the creek, flanked the Americans, forced them to retreat, and moved on to Philadelphia, as the Colonials withdrew to the northwest of the city and prepared for the Battle of Germantown.

A local barber displays a large sign: “This is where Washington and Lafayette had a close shave.”

In the center of town is the Chadds Ford Inn, a three-story boxlike structure, with white-plastered walls and a mansard roof, built about 1737 by John Chadd, who also owned the first ferry.

READING (264 alt., 111,171 pop.), on the Schuylkill River’s east bank in southeastern Pennsylvania, is known to those who have never visited it as the capital of ‘Pennsylvania German-land’ and the second city in the United States to accept socialism. To the stranger within its gates it seems a place of paradoxes. There is the Chinese pagoda on Mount Penn, over-looking the red roofs of the city, the surrounding hills, and the Schuylkill. The bizarre effect of this celestial watchtower is heightened by the sound of the nasal, singsong intonations of the placid townspeople who plod through a routine existence far beneath it. There are more Pennsylvania Germans concentrated here than in any other part of the State.

The Pennsylvania German makes a fetish out of orderliness and thriftiness, and these traits are reflected in the appearance of Reading. The central section is laid out with gridiron simplicity; urban residential areas area made up of row upon row of red brick houses, and only in the newer suburban districts has complete economy of space been disregarded. The city is bisected from north to south by a belt of large industrial plants, among them the car and locomotive shops of the Reading Company, whose main line tracks cut across the main throughfare, often tying up traffic of the business and shopping district. Despite this encroachment of railroad and industrial activity there is little grime and dirt. And though there are comparatively few mansions in Reading, neither are there slums. A few substandard areas exist along the Schuylkill River, but the worker-home-owner sets the economic and cultural standards of the city.

LANCASTER (357 alt., 59,949 pop.), trading and financial hub of the Nation’s second richest agricultural county, lies in southeastern Pennsylvania about ten miles east of the Susquehanna River.

Penn Square, heart of the two-mile square municipality, might have been designed by some master scenewright. In the background looms Lancaster’s tallest structure, the 14-story headquarters of the power and light company; in its shadow stands the three-and-a-half-story Colonial City Hall; narrow streets opening on the square afford glimpses of other historic buildings; a turreted farmers’ market house of dull red brick squats on one corner. Here three distinct Lancasters meet: the city of trade and industry, of hustling workers and prosperous businessmen; the city of Colonial traditions and influence; the trading post for somber-clad Mennonite and Amish farmers, who bring to town their produce, laden in wagons, or come in horse and buggy to shop.

Red brick streets, laid out around the square like the lines on a chessboard, from which other red brick streets radiate like spokes of a wheel, interlink these three Lancasters: the northern industrial area, and other scattered manufactories; single or double middle-class dwellings, flanked with flowered lawns; the newer residential sections on the outskirts, west and northeast; the crooked alleys and dilapidated houses of the ‘Seventh Ward,’ crowded with [Black residents] and foreign-born whites; ‘Cabbage Hill,’ where the methodical, home-owning artisans descended from the pioneer Germans have their rows of red brick or frame houses and their own business district. In all sections of the city, on the streets, behind shop counters, are seen the ‘plain’ folks, the men distinguished by black beards and black clothes, the women by small white caps or bonnets.

ABBOTSTOWN (544 alt., 457 pop.), a crossroads farming village on Beaver Creek, was formerly a cigarmaking center.

West of Abbottstown are orchards producing apples, pears, and peaches. Largely because of the apple orchards of Adams and York Counties, Pennsylvania ranks fourth among the States in apple production.

CHAMBERSBURG (620 alt., 13,788 pop.), although mainly industrial, lies in the midst of the vast peach and apple section of the Cumberland Valley. Benjamin Chambers settled on this tract as miller, sawyer, trader, physician, militia colonel, judge, and arbitrator. Chambersburg was pillaged and burned by the Confederates under Generals McCausland and Johnson on July 30, 1864, in retaliation for a Federal raid on the Shenandoah Valley. Perhaps the fact that John Brown lived in Chambersburg in 1859, priori to his attack on Harpers Ferry, contributed to the thoroughness of the destruction, which resulted in more than $2,000,00 property damage.

BEDFORD (1,060 alt., 2,953 pop.), surrounded by mountains, was settled about 1750 and first named Raystown for a Scottish trader who had a post here. The town is peopled largely by retired farmers and by those attracted by the nearby Mineral Springs.

UNIONTOWN (1,023 alt., 19,544 pop.), in a wild setting at the foot of the Alleghenies, is one of the bituminous coal centers in Pennsylvania. THe rambling city of narrow streets has an appearance of prosperity. Coal, iron, lumber, natural gas, and glass, radiator, and textile manufacture contribute to its income. Only a few of the once flourishing beehive coke ovens are active.

In 1784, 15 years after the town had been founded by young Henry Beeson, a Quaker, General Ephraim Douglas wrote: ‘This Uniontown is the most obscure spot on the face of the globe…The town and its appurtences consist of…a courthouse and schoolhouse in one, a mill, four taverns, three smith shops, five retail shops, two Tanyards, one saddler’s shop, two hatter’s shops, one mason, one cake woman, two widows and some reputed maids. To which may be added a distillery.’ Uniontown, situated on Redstone Creek, was incorporated as a borough in 1796 and as a city in 1916.

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