Pennsylvania 9th District
The old towns of south central Pennsylvania look much as they did 60 years ago: farmhouses and red barns set amidst rolling hills in the shadow of mountain ridges, seemingly isolated from the pulsing rhythms of 21st century America. But this tranquility was shattered on September 11, 2001, when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into an empty former coalfield near Shanksville in Somerset County, killing all 40 passengers and crew on board. To Americans, the crash site became a symbol of both sadness and pride at the passengers’ effort to wrest back control of the plane, initiated by the now-famous cry of “Let’s roll!” The bravery of the passengers prevented the plane from reaching the hijackers’ target, probably the Capitol or perhaps the White House. The National Park Service is racing to complete a permanent memorial to Flight 93 by the tenth anniversary of the attacks. In 2002, Somerset County was struck by another bolt of lightning when nine miners at the Quecreek coal mine were trapped by rising waters 240 feet underground. As a breathless nation looked on, rescuers strained to dig rescue shafts, and this time, the outcome was happy. After 77 hours in confinement, the miners were lifted one by one to safety.
2008 Presidential Vote
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The Appalachian Mountains run like a series of vertebrae up and down central Pennsylvania, long posing a formidable barrier. Up close, the mountains look tantalizingly low; you imagine that you could hike over them in an hour or so. But they are much more daunting. During the 18th century, the mountains provided Quaker Pennsylvania with a rampart against Indian attacks, and allowed the Commonwealth to become the richest and most populous of the colonies. But the colonials led by Gen. Edward Braddock to defeat near Pittsburgh in 1754 found the mountains hard-going, despite guidance from George Washington. Nineteenth century pioneers in Conestoga wagons found it not much easier, for there are few gaps in the ridges. Later, the mountains proved to be a barrier to commerce, and people flocked to the easier routes through New York: the Erie Canal and the New York Central Railroad. It took the aggressive capitalists who built the Pennsylvania Railroad to get trains over these ridges. Conquering the mountains near Altoona required the work of several hundred Irish laborers, equipped with hand tools, gunpowder and pack animals. They built Horseshoe Curve between 1851 and 1854, one of the finest examples of railroad engineering anywhere. The local AA baseball team is called the Altoona Curve. Though Pennsylvania’s rail links remained important—the Nazis considered them key sabotage targets during World War II—the war-bound nation in 1940 opened the road of the future here: the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the first highway in America that was able to move vehicles dependably at high speeds over long distances. “The Pennsylvania Turnpike is a triumph of engineering,” wrote Tom Lewis in Divided Highways, a study of the Interstate highway system. “The road tunnels under the Allegheny Mountains and cuts about five hours off the journey between the cities.
Pennsylvania’s 9th Congressional District takes in a wide swath of south and central Pennsylvania, including six full counties and parts of eight others. Most of the 9th is not coal country and was thus spared the boom-bust cycles of northeastern Pennsylvania and West Virginia. But this is a slow-growth, low-income area today. The largest city is Altoona, which withered from 82,000 people in 1930 to 46,000 in 2007 as the once-prosperous Pennsylvania Railroad succumbed to competition from truck traffic. One bright spot economically is the resort in Bedford Springs, which was reopened in 2007 after being shut for 21 years with a $120 million refurbishing. A century earlier, it was a magnet for captains of business and government. Politically, this part of Pennsylvania has been solidly Republican since 1860, when Mercersburg native James Buchanan left the White House, and has not come close to electing a Democrat to Congress for decades. George W. Bush won 64% of the vote here in 2000 and 67% in 2004. John McCain won the district with 63% in 2008, his best performance in the Northeast.