History & Heritage
Timeless beauty filled with American history
Author and historian Christine H. O’Toole has described the Laurel Highlands as a wilderness of “wild silence.” And, most of the time, that’s a perfect description. For vast stretches of our landscape, few sounds interrupt the singing of birds, the breezy rustle of branches and the soft murmur of streams and creeks.
But over the last few centuries, there have been places where that wild silence has been shattered by the cries of Indian war parties… the sharp crack of muskets… the blast of mortars and cannon… the rumbling of heavily laden wagons on stone roads… the thud of mining equipment… the rhythmic pounding of trains full of coal and freight… and the drone of harvesting equipment.
The history lover has lots to discover here. And a good portion of it dates back to before there even was a “United States of America.”
The French. The Indians. And a young officer named Washington.
The historic significance of the Laurel Highlands was cemented by the French & Indian War, a conflict that, to some historians, signifies the actual beginning of the American Revolution. Essentially a dispute of trade and territory between the French and the British, with various Indian tribes aligned with one side or the other, it raged throughout the 1750’s and early 1760’s.
Key Battle Sites
During that time, several key battles were fought in the Laurel Highlands. One, at Fort Necessity in July, 1754, led to a major defeat of British forces under the command of a 22-year-old colonel named George Washington. Having lost a third of his troops, Washington was forced to surrender—the only time he did so in his entire military career. This stinging loss helped steel him for the challenges of the not-too-distant future.
Other notable French and Indian War sites in our region include Fort Ligonier, site of a bloody skirmish in November, 1758, and the grave of British General Edward Braddock—a mentor of Washington—located outside the Fort Necessity National Battlefield.
All of these places, and more, are open to visitors. Make sure your historic itinerary includes stops at the Fort Ligonier Museum, The Fort Necessity Interpretive and Education Center, and one or more of the stirring battle reenactments that happen throughout the year.
See our calendar for what is going on when you are planning to visit.
The National Road
A wilderness transformed into a wonder of agriculture
The basic needs of the Laurel Highlands’ pioneer settlers led to the establishment of the area’s first Western-style farms in the 1700’s. Focused mainly on crops of necessity, including wheat, corn and soybeans, these farms prospered, and a new-to-the area enterprise literally took root.
Today’s Laurel Highlands farms and wineries are as picturesque as they are productive. And, far from mere farming “basics,” they now burst forth with a cornucopia of delicacies—everything from culinary herbs, heirloom vegetables and berries to chanterelle mushrooms and flowers (some of them edible). Raising livestock is also important, with a proliferation of dairy farms, as well as herds of goats, sheep and, more recently, alpacas.
As you might expect, the direct results of all this successful farming are weekly farmers’ markets. They can be found in many of our cities, towns and villages. You’ll also discover farm stands along quite a few of our rural roads. Whichever you choose, they offer you the freshest possible taste of the Laurel Highlands—a taste you can savor long after you return home. And many of our local restaurateurs agree, being very faithful purchasers of locally sourced foods. Even our regional Eat ‘n’Parks buy them.
Popular Farming Attractions
While you’re visiting us, make sure you stop at some of our popular farming attractions. At Sand Hill Berries and Greendance Winery near Mt. Pleasant, you can taste the freshest regional fruits any way you like them: raw, baked into pies, pastries and cookies, or transformed into full-bodied wines. Picturesque Friendship Farms, located between Stahlstown and Lycippus, recalls a time when you could buy your meat directly from a farmer and smell homemade bread baking in a hearth oven. During your visit to this working farm, you’ll see cows grazing peacefully in the fields with their calves. Acres of hay and grain, grown with sustainable methods, stretch across the landscape. You can also stroll through the farm’s native plant nursery and learn about trees, shrubs, and grasses native to Southwestern Pennsylvania.
You can also savor the historical perspectives of our agricultural past at places like the Somerset Historical Center and the Springs Museum & Cultural Center (featuring antique farming implements and related equipment). And as you travel, note all the covered bridges you encounter. There are ten of them in Somerset County alone, and each is an artifact of our history as farmers and merchants of farm goods.
The wonder of the Industrial Revolution—fueled by coal
Throughout the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and 19th Centuries, coal was king…and one of the seats of its power was right here, deep inside the mountains of the Laurel Highlands. The discovery of rich veins here transformed our corner of Pennsylvania into something of an industrial hub. Mining the coal and producing coke (a key fuel in the steelmaking process) became central; getting those materials to manufacturing centers led to the creation of a web of rail lines—many miles of them carved arduously out of our mountainsides, or tunneled laboriously beneath them.
Today, most of the coal mines are closed, although a few remain operational and productive. One of the last—the Quecreek mine near Somerset—was the site of the dramatic “9 of 9” rescue that captured the world’s attention in 2002. A Monument for Life now stands there and is available to visitors who want to personally commemorate this miracle rescue.
Then, too, keep in mind that one of our most popular year-round attractions, the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage, exists because of the Industrial Revolution. This resource for bikers and hikers of all ages is, in fact, one of our Nation’s best-known and most-honored unpaved rail trails. Dedicated exclusively to non-motorized vehicles and walkers, it twists and turns south/southeast through some of our most picturesque and dramatic scenery—all the while presenting users with grades no greater than 2%—the maximum permissible for the heavy coal and freight trains that used to rumble along this route.
Just south of the Mason-Dixon Line, in Cumberland, Maryland, the Great Allegheny Passage joins with the C&O Canal Towpath. The result is a trail totaling 320 miles in length and effectively connecting Pittsburgh and Washington, DC.
Commemorating a flight into history and human courage
The horror of September 11, 2001 was keenly felt here in the Laurel Highlands.
While heroic jetliner passengers were engaged in hand-to-hand combat against their terrorist hijackers, United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in an open field near Shanksville.
This location is now under the control of the National Park Service. It has been declared a National Memorial, and it already hosts thousands of solemn visitors each year.
The Flight 93 National Memorial has a place on the nation's honor roll of iconic places with Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor. Here you will discover a story of courage, action, and honor. Plan a visit to the new Flight 93 National Memorial which honors the forty passengers and crew of Flight 93 who perished when their hijacked plane crashed into a field in rural Somerset County. National Park Service Rangers and volunteer Ambassadors staff the site year-round which is open daily 9:00 am – 7:00 pm.
Nine for Nine
July 2012 marked the 10th anniversary of the successful Quecreek Mine Rescue. See the new Visitors Center that holds the real rescue capsule that carried nine trapped miners to safety after a 72-hour underground ordeal. Hear the compelling story of the rescue that has been proclaimed “nothing short of a miracle,” by former Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker.