Rural western Pennsylvania, or Westsylvania, as the locals call their corner of the Allegheny Mountains, isn't where you'd expect to find a Stradivarius. But here's a violin, dated 1736, in a display case at the Stone House Restaurant and Country Inn in Farmington, Pa.
The restaurant, on U.S. 40, the National Road, has been serving vittles and spinning tales since 1822. Our waitress tells us that a 22-year-old George Washington fought -- and lost -- his first battle near here during the French and Indian War, and that two duelers gunned each other to death upstairs. To prove her point, she shows us the bloodstained profile of a man on the oak floor, then tells us about ghosts that bedevil the B&B rooms.
The violin, it turns out, may or may not be the Stradivarius lost in the 19th century by a member of the prominent Cabrini family during a trip to western Pennsylvania. Musical instruments and haunted restaurants are only a few of the surprises we discover along the byways of the Path of Progress National Heritage Trail. The 500-mile loop winds along panoramic mountain ridges and drops into valleys with farms and villages reminiscent of past centuries.
The route, with no real beginning or end, incorporates 30 cultural and historical stops along the way. From Colonial forts that protected the area from French conquest to sites where rich coal and iron deposits helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, this region of Pennsylvania played a major role in shaping the destiny of the nation.
"People have the image of southwest Pennsylvania as the Rust Belt with poor mining towns and polluted streams," says Jack York, spokesman for the Westsylvania Heritage Corp., an organization of many groups whose mission is to promote the region. "But we're in the heart of the beautiful Allegheny Mountains and surrounded by history that predates the Revolutionary War."
The Alleghenies dominate the stories that echo through the culture and history of Westsylvania. In Colonial times, the mountains presented a difficult barrier to western expansion. To reach the Ohio River and points west, pioneers had to detour north to Lake Erie or south through Virginia.
"The residents felt so isolated that in 1776 they petitioned the Colonial Congress to become the fourteenth colony," York says. "They wanted to call themselves Westsylvania. However, the delegates had other business on their agenda, like writing the Declaration of Independence."
The mountains blocked eastern access to the coalfields and iron deposits on the western side. Then in 1834, an engineering feat considered one of the wonders of the New World breached the impasse and connected Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.
We visit the Hollidaysburg Canal Basin Park to see the remains of the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal. A horse-drawn canal system ferried passengers and freight west from Philadelphia, then steam engines hoisted the canal boats over the mountain on rails. At Johnstown, the boats were reassembled and floated on to Pittsburgh. The trip was arduous, but it took only four days, a great improvement over the three weeks by wagon. Passengers slept on 14-inch planks that doubled as tables during the day.
The Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historical Site at the 2,340-foot summit of Cresson Mountain preserves an example of one of the 10 inclines that hauled the boats over the mountain. I try to envision hoisting a canal boat piggyback on a railroad car up the slope with a 3.5-inch-thick Russian hemp rope.
With east-west commerce finally possible, the region's economy boomed, but the engineering marvel only lasted 20 years. In 1854, the rails of the Pennsylvania Railroad topped the mountain with a great horseshoe curve and a tunnel. A steam locomotive made the trip in only 13 hours, and passengers rode in the comfort of a rail car.
Altoona, at the edge of the mountains and roughly halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, became the new portal to the West. Pennsylvania Railroad's 26,000 miles of tracks reached from Philadelphia to Chicago with its busy center in Altoona. Each year, the railroad built and repaired 1,600 steam locomotives and 17,000 boxcars in the town. Coal cinders rained down like gold dust.
Volunteer tour guide Al Cellini greets us at the door of the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum. Al worked in the railroad's blacksmith shop until 1953. That's when diesel locomotives ended the era of steam and the last cinders drifted over Altoona. The $12.5-million museum, opened in 1980, tells the story of the people, town and glory days of the steam engine.
"Altoona was called Railroad City," Cellini explains. "The work whistle set the rhythm of daily life. We woke up, ate and went home by the toot of the whistle." He points to a wall-sized photomural of a group of workers. "I worked with these guys," he says, and names them.