Colonial meets modern in southwestern Pa.

Area is where the young George Washington was tested in battle

Short Hop

October 31, 2004|By Margo Wilson | Margo Wilson,Special to the Sun

Bold settlers crossing the Allegheny Mountains and heading west nearly two centuries ago pushed through 90 miles of nearly im- penetrable southwestern Pennsylvania backwoods on a ribbon of gravel and stone -- the Cumberland Road -- linking Cumberland and Wheeling, W.Va.

Those Pennsylvania woods and adjacent small towns, where the French and Indian War broke out, are tamer these days, and the region is a bit more sophisticated.

But residents in this area, about an hour south of Pittsburgh, skirting what is now U.S. 40 -- the National Road -- retain their independent spirit as they borrow what's useful from the 21st century while cherishing their ties to America's beginnings.

And in the fall, the region is truly in fine feather. The maples, beeches and oaks along the National Road and its arteries -- highways 381 and 281, or the equally scenic U.S. 30 -- flaunt their foliage like brilliantly plumed cardinals, goldfinches and orioles.

Two years ago, my job brought me to the area, and I wanted to get to know my new home, so last fall I became a tourist in my own back yard, trying local hotels, sampling the homespun restaurants and poking about historic sites, nature trails and other delights.

Washington fought here

One of the first places I visited was Fort Necessity, the only national park dedicated to the French and Indian War. Lt. Col. George Washington and his regiment of Virginians surprised the French at Jumonville Glen, near the fort, on May 28, 1754.

Ten Frenchmen died, one was wounded and 21 were captured. One of Washington's men was killed and two were wounded. On July 3, the French got their revenge when they and their Indian allies attacked the fort. By the end of the day, Washington and British Capt. James Mackay had surrendered.

The battle was the only time Washington was forced to surrender. The Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity skirmishes were the opening volleys leading to Britain, not France, gaining control over North America.

Fort Necessity is a reconstructed circle of white oak boards, 53 feet in diameter, with a 14-foot square log storehouse in the center. Volunteers dressed as soldiers demonstrate how to fire muskets and tell visitors that the only requirement to join the Virginia militia was to have opposing teeth so soldiers could bite cartridges while loading guns.

When I returned to the fort a few months ago, Steve Waite, 57, and his wife, Judy, 54, of Chittenango, N.Y., were leaving the nearby Mount Washington Tavern, built in 1828 on land that Washington had owned until his death in 1799.

Steve said he likes touring national battlefields because "I feel the spirit of the people who fought there."

Not far from the fort, the Lone Star Restaurant attracts locals and tourists with its big portions and diminutive prices. The '50s motif of the smoking section features black and white floor tiles and padded red chairs. The nonsmoking section offers a country cottage theme, with green carpet, green flowered wallpaper and mauve oilcloth on the table tops.

The Lone Star is a good place to experience Pennsylvania-style sandwiches. In our local establishments, customers often have to specify everything they want on sandwiches, which I frequently forget.

When I ordered a five-ounce fish sandwich, I got a toasted bun and two large chunks of fish for $3.75. (It's since gone up to $3.85.) I also got tartar sauce on the side, but that appeared only because my quick-thinking waitress asked if I wanted some. She didn't ask if I wanted lettuce, tomato, butter, mayonnaise, cheese or other enhancements, and I didn't think to ask.

Luxury resort

Not far from Fort Necessity is a fortress for luxury, Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. This upscale retreat features, among other things, two golf courses (along with a PGA tour event), clay shooting, paintball, swimming, tennis and equestrian activities, and a hangar for vintage planes.

The resort also offers an off-road Humvee driving academy, and the Woodlands Spa, which features more than 60 treatments. Falling Rock, a 42-bed, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired hotel, opened on the 18th green of the Mystic Rock golf course this summer and has a pool with a vanishing edge and rooms angled for golf course views. Guests at the new facility get their own butler.

About 10 miles from Nemacolin, Frank Lloyd Wright's residential triumph of indoor-outdoor architecture, Fallingwater, spreads its cantilevered concrete terraces over a waterfall tumbling from swift-moving Bear Run. Wright designed the sandstone home, complete with guesthouse, as a weekend retreat for Pittsburgh department-store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann.

Work was completed in 1939 for about $155,000. A recent $5 million restoration and weatherproofing project included shor-ing up the once-sagging main terrace and strengthening the adjoining living room floor. In any season, the modernist-style home blends into its woodland setting beautifully.

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