Cumberland County was created in 1750, and for a time it spanned from the western edge of Bucks County to the farthest western end of the Penn family's claim, incorporating what are now Berks and Dauphin counties, and as far west as Washington County in a region described as the “end of the Nittany Mountain.” Before the Revolution, that vast terrain had been reduced to the present area plus Franklin County and was reduced to its present limits in 1784. English and Scots-Irish had reached the region by 1730 when Shippensburg, named for Philadelphia land speculator Edward Shippen, was established. Shippensburg vied with Benjamin Chambers's town (Chambersburg in present-day Franklin County) for the county seat, but the proprietors eventually recognized Carlisle's centrality in the Kittatinny Valley and repurchased those lands for their county seat. The Widow Piper's Tavern (CU13) in Shippensburg was the first courthouse until the new county town was ready.
The ridges of the Appalachian foothills separated Cumberland County from the major east–west route of the Lancaster Pike. Instead, the county is centered along the Native Americans’ South Mountain Trail that became the second important east–west route, following the base of the Blue Mountain to a ferry across the Susquehanna and then along the present route of U.S. 22 and I-78 toward Easton and New York. This placed the county's principal towns on the national course to the west. The county has continued as an important transportation node, evident by the array of trucking and distribution structures, the largest of which is the U.S. Army's New Cumberland Depot just west of the Susquehanna River. Significantly, the relatively narrow valley and the mountainous landscape to the north constricted its trade area; York, Lancaster, and Reading took that regional role. Carlisle, like similarly situated Lebanon, remained smaller with its principal trade area in a southerly arc, but it is an important architectural center, nonetheless. Whereas Lancaster and York developed as centers supporting significant architects with important regional careers, Carlisle did not. From the beginning it retained connections with the rising national culture by maintaining links first to Philadelphia, later to Baltimore, and then to Harrisburg. The colony's most accomplished architect, Robert Smith, designer of Philadelphia's Anglican and Presbyterian churches, received the commission for the First Presbyterian Church (CU5) in Carlisle before the town was twenty years old. Simultaneously, Cumberland County developed an interesting architectural character with several houses in the Greek Revival manner as well as unusual wood-sided buildings where the wood is sawn and planed to look like ashlar with massive quoins at the corners.
When Dickinson College's (CU10) new building burned, Carlisle again turned to the leading architect of the land, this time Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Later, John C. Trautwein, William Strickland's assistant, designed the Second Presbyterian Church in 1833, now demolished, with an Ionic portico shortly before he designed Pennsylvania (now Gettysburg) College's main building (AD10.1). When Dickinson became affiliated with the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Church, it drew on Baltimore architects for its Victorian buildings, while Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan designed the new building for the Cumberland Valley State Normal School (now Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania; CU14) and simultaneously remodeled the First Presbyterian Church (CU5) in Carlisle. And at the end of the century, Baltimore's erstwhile Victorians Baldwin and Pennington shifted to the Beaux-Arts for their Bosler Memorial Library (CU9). For most of the twentieth century, Carlisle depended on middle Pennsylvania architects, John A. Dempwolf and Harry Yessler of York, Miller I. Kast of Harrisburg, and, later, Elmer Adams of Reading, with provincial results. Ironically, when Dickinson shifted toward modern architecture in the 1960s, it commissioned architects long past their prime. More recently it has begun the complex interweaving of modern in its historic campus. As the twenty-first century began, Dickinson College and the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle are the county's principal links to the wider world.
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