Westsylvania: Attractions highlight its history

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HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. -- The concept of Westsylvania, a region covering 11,000 square miles in southwestern Pennsylvania, is as old as our country itself, tracing to an unsuccessful attempt by settlers in 1776 to have the Continental Congress incorporate the region as the 14th colony.

It was not to be. The founding fathers had a war to fight, after all, and the push to create Westsylvania as a political entity eventually lost its fervor.

Today, the area that lies roughly between the Blue Mountains and the valley of the Ohio River is experiencing a renaissance under the direction of the Westsylvania Heritage Corp., which is marketing the region as a tourism destination rich in attractions fundamental to the cultural and industrial heritage of the U.S.

Among the historical attractions in Westsylvania are:

• Johnstown Flood Museum. Located in the former Carnegie Library in Johnstown, the museum features a three-dimensional slide show that dramatizes the impact of the 1889 flood that killed 2,209 people (one out of 10 Johnstown inhabitants). An hour after a dam broke 14 miles outside town, a 40-foot-high wall of water and debris (including four locomotives) roared into town, destroying 1,600 structures. Artifacts and mementos tell the story of one of the darkest events in U.S. history. Call (888) 222-1889 or visit www.jaha.org.

• Allegheny Portage Railroad (Cresson). To link canal traffic that carried goods and people between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the early 19th century, a way had to be found to surmount the Allegheny Mountains. The solution: rail cars were floated on barges that were hauled out of the water and up the mountain by locomotives to a series of inclines, where a steam-driven, continuous cable lugged them up and over in stages. The site, run by the National Park Service, includes a visitor center; an engine center; a rest stop and tavern, and hiking trails. Call (814) 886-6150.

• Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum. Three floors of memorabilia tell the story of the U.S.'s push west by rail, powered by steam engines built and maintained in Altoona for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Call (814) 946-0834, or visit www.railroadcity.com.

• Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. Frank Lloyd Wright designed both homes, each considered an architectural gem. Fallingwater, which was constructed in Mill Run in 1935 for the family of department store owner Edgar Kauffmann, is the better known of the two and is undergoing repairs to correct a tilt that threatens to send it crumbling into the waterfall over which it is built (and named). Call (724) 329-8501 for the visitation schedule.

Kentuck Knob, in Chalk Hill, is dramatically integrated into the mountains overlooking the Youghiogheny River Gorge. Constructed entirely of red cypress and native fieldstone, the home was designed in 1953. Call (724) 329-1901.

• Heritage Discovery Center (Johnstown). Interactive displays enable visitors to assume the personas of job-seeking immigrants who became the coal miners, steel workers and railroaders of 19th and early 20th century America. Call (888) 222-1889.

• Coal Heritage Center (Windber). Coal and Pennsylvania -- at least western Pennsylvania -- are all but synonymous, and this museum tells you why. The Berwind-White complex in Windber not only was a major coal company but a mining community that traces its roots to 1897. This center digs deep (excuse the pun) into the life of the miners, including exhibits of the gear and grit that characterized lives of the "underground farmers" who harvested the bituminous coal that powered the Mauritania, the Lusitania and the Queen Mary. Call (800) 898-3636.

For more on Westsylvania, call (814) 696-9380, or visit www.westsylvania.org.

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