Washington County was part of the land granted to the Plymouth Land Company by James I of England in 1606. Virginia claimed jurisdiction over it from 1752 to 1783, even after it became a Pennsylvania county in 1781, the first county in the United States named after George Washington. The boundary dispute caused confusion over property rights, and anger among the settlers delayed development. The county's earliest industry was the processing of grains milled for flour and whiskey, and by 1817, there were more than one hundred mills along the streams of Washington County. Streams supplied power and a means of shipping the finished products to outside markets via the Monongahela River. During this early period (1818–1850), the National Road was a major factor in the county's economy; its route was altered to pass through Washington County. Centerville, Hootman, and Malden grew as pike towns along the road's original path. Larger pike towns such as Scenery Hill and West Alexander now attract tourists. Sheep farming was introduced in 1820, and the county continued to have the largest number of sheep of any Pennsylvania county as late as 1997. Several large, handsome, brick, pre–Civil War farmhouses are indicative of this industry's early success. The county also hosts the largest number of covered bridges in the state, with twenty-four kingpost or queenpost bridges spanning local creeks.
Washington County residents rebuffed the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's (B&O) proposal in 1828 to bring a rail connection, fearing it would cut into commerce along the National Road. By spurning these early advances, the town of Washington missed its chance to compete with Pittsburgh in having the shortest link to the East Coast. Washington connected to Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1857, but the Pennsylvania Railroad fought a rail connection to Baltimore and denied the B&O a direct connection. Further isolating Washington was its relatively late connection to Pittsburgh; they were finally linked in 1871 by the Chartiers Valley Railroad. Nevertheless, mine operators understood the advantage of shipping coal by rail rather than by riverboat, and specialized coal-hauling rail lines were established throughout the region as early as 1865.
Washington County is characterized by its many farms set among picturesque rolling hills. The southwestern section of the county features forested state game lands, and the southeastern section, away from the industrialized riverbanks, has preserved its rural landscapes along scenic winding roads. Interspersed with the many farms are coal patches that are so compact and isolated that they do not affect the general rural appearance of the county. Since the coal in Washington County is deep, strip mining, which mars surfaces and rural ambience, is not usually practical, except in the county's northwest corner. The larger mining towns are located along the Pigeon Creek Railroad, southwest of the town of Monongahela.
In the 1880s and 1890s, oil and gas deposits were discovered in northern Washington County. The result of this oil boom is visible in the superb collection of frame Queen Anne houses throughout the city of Washington. Because of the intersection of two major highways—I-70 and I-79—Washington County is easily accessible from all directions by car and is rapidly suburbanizing on the northern border between McDonald and McMurray. The impact of such development on the many older buildings farther south remains to be seen. One example of compatible development is the town of Charleroi, which built a mall adjacent to the original main street. In this way, both the mall and the main street were strengthened. Charleroi is one of several industrial towns along the Monongahela River that are now discovering the recreational value of their beautiful riverfronts.
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