Somerset County lies north of the Maryland border between Laurel Ridge and a line that loosely follows the crest of the Little Allegheny Mountain and the Allegheny Ridge. Formed from the western half of Bedford County in 1795, Somerset County is dominated by ridge and valley topography. It is also the highest county and county seat in the commonwealth (the city of Somerset is 2,190 feet above sea level and Mount Davis is the highest peak at 3,213 feet above sea level). The wide valleys running north to south provide the best farmland. Building stock consists mainly of late-nineteenth-century farm houses, either frame or brick, often with distinctive double-decker porches on the facade and occasionally on both the front and rear elevations. The regional distinction of these porches is that they are incorporated under the roofline: the gable roof continues over them unbroken, so that the porch itself is integral to the mass of the house. In western Pennsylvania, this feature is found primarily in Somerset and Bedford counties.
A handful of roads in the county (named after English military men, including Edward Braddock, James Burd, and John Forbes) crossed the county in the mid-eighteenth century, and settlement expanded from there. Military camps along Forbes Road (present-day U.S. 30) eventually developed into a number of towns, among them Stoystown, Buckstown, and Jennerstown. The county's natural resources are timber and bituminous coal (North Fork, Elk Lick, and Buffalo veins), and Somerset is one of the top ten bituminous coal-producing counties in Pennsylvania. But the extractive industries did not grow beyond local use until the county was connected by rail to Pittsburgh, Cumberland, Wheeling, and other towns in 1871. The Pittsburgh and Connellsville Railroad (later a subsidiary of the Baltimore and Ohio) was the first line in Somerset. Other lines quickly followed, most of them controlled by the Baltimore and Ohio. Mining towns such as Boswell and Windber were built by the coal companies for their miners.
In 1934, a Works Progress Administration project to build a highway across Pennsylvania chose the route of the never-completed South Pennsylvania Railroad, constructed in the 1880s. The Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76) (see BD14) gave cars and trucks access to both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in the 1950s. The highway is a boon to tourism and has opened the county to weekend homes and skiers using resorts like Seven Springs ( SO19) and Hidden Valley.
Somerset County has entered the national spotlight several times in the twenty-first century. Since 2000, wind farms have been built to take advantage of the county's high elevation and harness energy using wind turbines. Many of these enormous sleek white windmills placed along ridges are visible from the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
On September 11, 2001, United Flight 93 crashed into a strip-mined field outside of Shanksville, foiling a terrorist attack planned for the Capitol in Washington, D.C. In 2005, the National Park Service held an international design competition for a permanent memorial, and chose a design by Paul Murdoch Architects of Los Angeles, with landscape architects Nelson Byrd Woltz of Charlottesville, Virginia. A chapel, interpretive center, forty groves of maple trees, and a tower with forty wind chimes, commemorating the forty crew and passengers killed that day, will grace the site scheduled to open on September 11, 2011.
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