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Pennsylvania Cultural and Historic Resources

Sampling of Resources [1]

Pennsylvania's historic and cultural resources are many. They are scattered across the Commonwealth, touching every county, city, town, village, borough, and municipality. In one way or another, they touch the lives of each resident.

Inventory of National Register and National Historic Landmark Properties

Pennsylvanians have benefited by having 170 sites designated as National Historic Landmarks, 3,148 properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and an additional 5,166 properties determined to be eligible for listing in the National Register. About sixty new properties in the Commonwealth are listed in or determined eligible for the National Register each year. The State Historic Preservation Board meets quarterly to consider National Register nominations and eligibility. [see: Select Pennsylvania National Register Historic Districts.

Among the National Historic Landmarks are the Mercer Museum in Bucks County; the U.S.S. Olympia in Philadelphia; Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Washington County; and Cornwall Iron Furnace Historic District in Lebanon County. National Register properties include the Wellsboro Historic District in Wellsboro Borough, Tioga County; Jefferson School in Pottstown, Montgomery County; and the Shenk's Ferry Site in Martic Township, Lancaster County. Among the locations determined to be eligible for the National Register are Clemson's Island in Dauphin County; the Northern Adams County Fruitbelt Historic District; and McConnell's Mill, Slippery Rock Township, Lawrence County.

To be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, sites must be significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, and culture. Districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects must possess integrity in terms of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association, and meet at least one of the following criteria:

  1. Associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or
  2. Associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or
  3. Embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or
  4. Have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.

Historic Neighborhoods, Downtowns, Houses, and Public Buildings

Pennsylvania abounds with historic neighborhoods, downtowns, houses, and public buildings. Philadelphia's historic districts and special places like Elfreth's Alley resonate with American colonial history. The borough of Gettysburg and its historic battlefields, buildings, and monuments serve as a continuing reminder of the era of the American Civil War. Pittsburgh's South Side, along with neighborhoods in Scranton and "patch towns" such as Eckley Miners' Village, echo Pennsylvania's industrial and working class heritage along with locales like Vandergrift and Moon-crest that are prime examples of planned industrial communities. Impressive dwellings such as Frank Lloyd Wright's internationally acclaimed Fallingwater and Henry Clay Frick's Pittsburgh mansion, Clayton, capture the imagination. Spectacular public buildings—among them the Pennsylvania State Capitol, the Civil War-era structures on the grounds of the Harrisburg State Hospital, the Mercer and Blair County Courthouses, and Philadelphia's City Hall—demonstrate the relevance of state and local governments. Impressive theaters, schoolhouses, college campus structures, places of worship, industrial sites, landscapes, and cemeteries punctuate Pennsylvania cultural panorama.

Pennsylvanians benefit by participating in the National Park Service's Certified Local Governments (CLG) program created by Congress in 1980 as an amendment to the National Historic Preservation Act to protect local historic resources. A state preservation tool is the Historic District Act 167 of 1961 that provides similar protections. Many historic sites are protected through the grassroots efforts of citizens, community groups, and municipalities which are responsible stewards of historic resources.

Property owners in historic districts and neighborhoods benefit by enjoying

  1. Faster and more substantial increases in property values over time
  2. Virtually assured "investment protection" by enhanced resale value
  3. Eligibility for financial incentives such as grants, loans, and tax abatements
  4. Enhanced "curb appeal"

Sources: Forum Journal, Spring 2000; Heritage Tourism in Pennsylvania, June 1999; Better Models for Development in Pennsylvania, April 2005.

Archaeological Sites

Archaeology is the study of past human behavior which explains the present and provides future insight. Archaeology in Pennsylvania has focused on evolution of cultural adaptations. The Commonwealth is fortunate to have sites such as the Meadowcroft Rock-shelter and a number of important early Holocene period sites that document a broad spectrum of foraging adaptation and a more specialized highly migratory adaptation. Dating from more than ten thousand years ago, there are a number of sites that document the transition of human cultural adaptations from an ancient to a deciduous forest. Then there is a period that culminates about five thousand years ago in what appears to be a very different type of adaptation including trade, a more intensive use of floodplain areas, the use of stone bowls, changes in social organization, and processing of food resources.

Archaeology also informs us that approximately 2500 years BC, the cultural adaptation included a foraging economy with new technology such as clay pottery and increasing use of plant foods and fishing. By 1000 BC another major change occurs when domesticated plants begin to appear and farming hamlets arise first in the Ohio Valley and, later, in the Susquehanna Valley. Villages begin to appear by 1600 AD.

After 1500 AD, interactions between Native Americans and Europeans become common, though life on the frontier is not well recorded. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, farming is common in Pennsylvania and several archaeological sites from this era have been excavated, documenting the complexities of the rural adaptation. Several excavations have also documented ethnic diversity. Archaeology has documented numerous industrialization and transportation changes as these became more common in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Pennsylvania has more than 20,500 identified archaeological sites. Many are incorporated into the newly launched Cultural Resources Geographic Information System2 (CRGIS), a highly relevant source of data on pre-history, human settlement patterns, migration, and life archetypes. CRGIS is a map-based inventory of the historic and archaeological sites and surveys stored in the files of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. PHMC has been collecting information concerning archaeological sites and historic resources for the greater part of a century. Currently there are approximately 20,000 archaeological sites and 113,000 historic properties in these files. Access to these paper records is free and open to the public by appointment at the BHP office in Harrisburg. CRGIS is a means of accessing some of these data without a trip to Harrisburg. Web access to all of the historic resource data is open to the public. Access to archaeological site locations and detailed site information is restricted but will be granted to qualified individuals on a need to know basis. CRGIS is a partnership between the PHMC and Penn-DOT, with financial support from the Federal Highway Administration, the Baltimore District of the Army Corp of Engineers, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The historical importance of these sites is seldom understood and typically undocumented in the historical record. Some examples of the types of sites include Native American camps; settlements and quarry sites from more than twelve thousand years ago to the eighteenth century; military and related sites of the French and Indian, Revolutionary, and Civil Wars; and various farmsteads, urban sites, and areas that demonstrate activities of early settlers and later European and African American migrants.

A small sample of prominent archaeological sites include many deeply buried prehistoric occupation zones along the mainland and prominent islands of the major watercourses such as the Delaware, Susquehanna, and Ohio Rivers; Clemson's Island in Dauphin County; the Oscar Leiphart and Byrd Leiphart sites in south central Pennsylvania which contain the last villages of the Susquehannock Indians; the twelve thousand-year-old Shoop Paleoindian site; the King's Quarry site, with its astounding record of prehistoric mining activities; the Murry and Quaker Hills quarry sites, two late pre-contact Indian villages of the "Shenks Ferry" culture; Queen Esther's Flats, the site of both pre-contact and historic Indian towns; and Camp Security, an extraordinary prisoner-of-war camp from the American Revolution. Unlike Meadowcroft, which is protected as a National Historic Landmark, numerous sites are lost every day to land development, mining, and construction.

Archaeological remains are usually hidden and, as a consequence, most citizens are unaware of their presence and their significance. Such sites are vulnerable to either intentional or unintended destruction unless they are identified. For the last twenty years, most of the identification, evaluation, and appropriate treatment of such sites has been undertaken during the course of archaeological studies required by federal and state laws.


Agriculture has remained a leading industry in the Commonwealth. Each of our sixty-seven counties can lay claim to some agricultural activities; even the more urbanized settings of the Commonwealth at one point or another in history claimed farms and mills. Testimony to the importance of the state's agricultural industry can be found every January at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, which is approaching its centennial anniversary and is one of the oldest and largest events of its type in the world. In addition, Pennsylvania lays claim to some of the most historic barns and agricultural structures found anywhere in the United States.

So significant is agriculture to Pennsylvania's past, present, and future, that the PHMC declared agricultural and rural landscapes as the theme for historic preservation in 2004. In recent decades, farmland and entire ways of agricultural and rural life have become vulnerable to suburban and rural growth and development. While growth and development are important to the nation's economic future, preserving and caring for farmland and historic agricultural structures provide tangible aesthetic and economic benefits.

  1. Wolensky, Kenneth C., editor, Honoring the Past, Planning for the Future: Pennsylvania's Historic Preservation Plan 2006-2011, 2006, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg

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