The borough of Somerset relied solely on Glades Pike (PA 31), a road farther south but nearly parallel to the Lincoln Highway and Forbes Road (U.S. 30), for transportation when the earliest settlers moved here in the 1770s. Somerset became the county seat in 1795. A fire nearly destroyed the town in 1833, and another fire in 1872 consumed 117 buildings. In 1871, the Somerset and Mineral Point (later Rockwood) Railroad arrived in the borough, and, after it extended to Johnstown in the 1880s, business boomed. While few structures built specifically for the railroad survive, several houses date from this period ( SO3). Further growth occurred after 1940, when the Pennsylvania Turnpike passed near the city and U.S. 219 gave easy access to Somerset from the north and south.
The town has two business districts. The first is an older section of two- to four-story brick commercial buildings on Main and Patriot streets, connected by N. Center Street. Beginning in 1994, a Main Street program spurred the renovation of several older buildings, including the brick Vannear building of c. 1900, now Glades Court Mall at 101–109 W. Main Street. The second, more recent, business district stretches along N. Center Street, north of the courthouse, and includes chain stores and motels built after 1960.
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