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Ridge and Valley

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This region (Cambria, Blair, Centre, Huntingdon, Fulton, Bedford, and Somerset counties) encompasses the south-central portion of Pennsylvania west of Blue Mountain. It includes the geographic center of the commonwealth, in the appropriately named Centre County. The region's eastern section is characterized by valleys embedded with limestone or shale and surrounded by sandstone ridges that curve gently from southwest to northeast; from the air, the ridges appear as frozen waves of land. The western area is considered part of the Allegheny Plateau landform. However, unlike the area around Pittsburgh, it belongs to the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains and has higher altitudes and cooler temperatures. Laurel Hill marks the western boundary of this region. Mount Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania at 3,213 feet, is in Somerset County. The Juniata River and its branches flow through most of the region, heading eastward into the Susquehanna River. This riverine system provided the earliest transportation routes.

Much of the region has remained largely rural despite the early development of iron plantations and coal mining. Remains of many iron plantations survive, especially in Centre and Blair counties. They were rural industrial villages where an iron furnace and those who worked it lived self-sufficiently by integrating agriculture and industry. Coal was an important part of later iron making, and though it continues to be mined here, increased mechanization has reduced the labor force, resulting in fewer human employees. Networks of abandoned coal mine tunnels lie beneath the surface, their presence only apparent when a stream turns orange as rainwater leeches minerals exposed by the mines into the ground water. A model reclamation program designed by D.I.R.T. Studio, a team consisting of an artist, a historian, a landscape designer, and a hydrogeologist, has addressed the acid mine drainage from the former Blacklick Creek Mine No. 6 at Vintondale in Cambria County (see CA29). A series of bioengineered settling ponds and cleansing marshes has changed what was once an ecotragedy into a community-building, waterrestoring ideal.

Farming remains important in this region. The fertile farm valleys, each slightly different from the next, offer a secure feeling, as they are sheltered by ridges on the east and west. Because of the relatively high elevation, there is a short growing season here. Dairy farms dominate, although their number is constantly dwindling. Local farmers are often aided by scientists from the Pennsylvania State University (PSU) who experiment with new agricultural and animal husbandry techniques. Farms in this region are generally larger than elsewhere in western Pennsylvania, and focus on a single crop or animal. Increasingly, farms closest to the cities are giving way to residential development and mining interests.

Several early Native American tribes, such as the Shenks Ferry people from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, lived throughout the lower Susquehanna. By 1600, they were overrun by the Susquehannocks, who migrated from southern New York and lived in settlements with as many as 3,000 people. Nothing aboveground remains of these cultures. The Iroquois defeated the Susquehannocks, and European contact brought permanent settlers and disease. By the 1770s, Scots-Irish and German settlers moved into the territory. The architecture in this part of Pennsylvania shows two major external influences. In the southern halves of Somerset, Bedford, and Fulton counties, red brick construction and full-facade porches were inspired by Marylanders. Eastern Pennsylvania influences, seen in the stone ironmasters houses and farmhouses in Centre and Blair counties, were brought by immigrants traveling along the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers.

Traversed by the Pennsylvania Canal, Railroad, and Turnpike during the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these counties stayed generally rural and forested. The growth of PSU and the suburban growth between State College in Centre County and Altoona in Blair County are increasing at such a rate in the early-twenty-first century that it is beginning to rival Pittsburgh in the west. Late-twentieth-century construction in this I-99 corridor includes housing, commercial developments, shopping centers, a convention center, and stadium.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Lu Donnelly et al.

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