Is Pennsylvania History?

Pennsylvania - 155th LittleRoundTop3085077011_7c3902273f.jpg

On a recent whirlwind through Pennsylvania, I thought of James Carville, who popularized the notion that “It's Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in the middle.” It’s a clever line, but between the Ohio and Delaware rivers he is missing a great American tapestry: the wreck of the Penn-Central, United flight 93’s final frantic moments, the social history of the Johnstown flood, and whether a state of steel and coal is past or present.

Pennsylvania also reflects some broad truths about the nation, in particular, that stimulus plans can take forty years, the Amish have it right, the Civil War remains a personal wound, and Amtrak will never be the agent of high-speed rail.

My first stop was Harrisburg, and I got there on a train that crossed through Amish country. I would imagine that as a community the Amish have the lowest debt-to-equity ratio in the country. There is something timeless and inspiring about their red barns and silos that flickered across the train windows, and no one needs to exhort the Amish to “Go Green.”

In Harrisburg, as if a character in a novel by Theodore Dreiser, I walked with my grip from the station to a restaurant in the shadow of the state capitol. Later that evening I went to a high school graduation in the Concert Forum Hall, an elegant rotunda that was finished in the depths of the Depression.

Around the circular walls are huge maps and timelines of world history. I passed the slow moments of the ceremony following Hadrian on his way into the Syrian desert and Marco Polo to the court of the Great Khan.

Will the current stimulus money produce any buildings of such greatness? Somehow I doubt it. When the train went through Philadelphia, I saw a cheerful sign in an empty rail yard, with wording to the effect that the hot government money would get Americans back to work. The boast sounded unconvincing, as if everyone knows that stimulus money will end up funding deficits, national security advisors, and weapons contractors.

General Robert E. Lee thought so much of Harrisburg and its strategic rail bridges that twice he embarked on campaigns to cut the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and twice he failed, first at Antietam and then Gettysburg. The bridges over the Susquehanna remain, and their stone arches echo Avignon. The downtown — which looks in need of some stimulus — recalls the urban loneliness of Edward Hopper.

From Harrisburg I drove west to Chambersburg and Mercersburg, strategic hamlets in the Civil War, but now a long way from the information superhighway. In 1864 Lee's general, John McCausland, burned Chambersburg to the ground when the citizens failed to post his demanded ransom, which was $100,000 in gold, or $500,000 in currency (even terrorists are leery of inflated money); later, Chambersburg was the only northern town razed during in the war.

President James Buchanan grew up in Mercersburg, a sleepy town notable today for its distinguished prep school. The log cabin in which he was born is now on the campus of Mercersburg Academy, and a nearby plaque notes that Buchanan served as U.S. Senator, ambassador to Russia and Great Britain, and Secretary of State before becoming the fifteenth president, impressive achievements for someone whose presidency is remembered as a failure, ruined by the Dred Scott decision and the drift to Civil War, which he did little to prevent.

In a more recent conflict, United flight 93 crashed west of Mercersburg, near Shanksville, which echos the lonely farmland over which so much of the Civil War was fought. Conspiracy theories (a rare American growth industry) postulate that no plane crashed at Shanksville or that the one that did was destroyed by a missile, perhaps on orders from the trigger-happy Dick Cheney. (President Bush was finishing up My Pet Goat with the school kids.) Other theories claim that engine parts were found eight miles from the crash site and no plane debris larger than small fragments were located.

A visit to the temporary Flight 93 memorial, however, puts to rest these and a number of other 9/11 conspiracy theories. About eighty percent of the plane was found at the site, although much of its was buried in the soft earth that had been strip mined; many local residents saw the plane hurtling intact toward the ground; the only debris found miles from the crash site was paper; and one of the engines flew several hundred yards — not miles — from the impact crater.

The memorial to the victims of Flight 93 is budgeted to cost about $50 million, some of which has been privately raised. In design, it looks like the Vietnam Memorial in the middle of nowhere. No doubt it was a flush Congress that authorized the expenditure, even though the temporary memorial, a simple American flag at the crash site and a makeshift observation deck, looks like a better use of government resources. (Think of American tragedies remembered only with a statue in a traffic circle.)

Forty Americans died at Shanksville. The death toll at Johnstown, just up the road, was more than two thousand when in 1889 a dam above the city broke and a wall of water washed over the gritty mill town. The tragedy is recalled in a series of memorials around the Little Conemaugh River Valley, and at a flood museum in Johnstown, which more recently has lost most of its steel production and its jobs.

Not even the local filming of the 1977 movie Slap Shot with Paul Newman could save the economy of Johnstown, now laced with boarded storefronts, although it’s fun in the main square to imagine the presence of Coach Reggie Dunlop and the Hansons (“They brought their fuckin' TOYS with 'em!”).

A morality tale as well as a local disaster, blame for the Johnstown flood falls on The South Fork Fishing & Hunting Club, a mountain retreat of the super rich — Carnegie and Frick were members — that callously ignored warning signs that its South Fork Dam might give out. No wonder its so hard to win as a Republican in central Pennsylvania.

I spent the night in Pittsburgh, no longer a steel city, but one given over to the service economy: in this case, sports stadiums, universities, finance, and hospitals. Old America made steel rails; new America entertains the masses.

I left Pittsburgh on the The Pennsylvanian, Amtrak’s daily service to Philadelphia and New York, a remnant of the Pennsylvania Railroad, once the largest corporation on earth. After the Pennsylvania Railroad merged with the New York Central in 1968, the combined company failed less than three years later. The writer L.J. Davis said “it was more a death watch than a merger.” Penn-Central was the Enron of the 1970s. When it failed, it was the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Here’s an overlooked cautionary tale about the delayed time reactions of government’s economic interventions: played out over thirty years, the Penn-Central merger was a big success. It took, however, the deregulation of the freight railroad business and the sale of the assets of Conrail (the successor to the bankruptcy) to the Norfolk Southern and CSX. When the dust settled, Penn-Central left the Northeast with two privately-owned railroads that are everything the shareholders had hoped for in 1968.

On my return trip east, the train crossed the Allegheny Mountains on the Horseshoe Curve, ambled through Altoona and Lewistown, and then paused for almost forty-five minutes in Harrisburg and Philadelphia—an odd schedule for a railroad now talking up high-speed rail. Keep in mind that all the rail stimulus billions will bring is a return to the train speeds reached in the 1920s… the perfect metaphor for the illusions of government investment.

What makes me hopeful about Pennsylvania’s future? I see optimism in the Amish red barns, the three rivers in Pittsburgh, the endurance of Johnstown, the four tracks of the main line, the federal-era houses in Harrisburg, the life of the Susquehanna, and the roadside markers like one in Chambersburg that reads: “On June 26, 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee, and staff, entered this square.”

What’s not to admire about a state that keeps its history so alive? I only wish it still had a steel industry and the Broadway Limited.

Flickr Photo by Runner Jenny: 155th Pennsylvania Zouave Monument, Little Round Top, Gettysburg.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, winner of Foreword’s bronze award for best travel essays at this year's BEA. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine. He lives in Switzerland.

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