- Introduction & Quick Facts
- Government and society
- Cultural life
Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.Join Britannica's Publishing Partner Program and our community of experts to gain a global audience for your work!
Pennsylvania, officially Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, constituent state of the United States of America, one of the original 13 American colonies. The state is approximately rectangular in shape and stretches about 300 miles (480 km) from east to west and 150 miles (240 km) from north to south. It is bounded to the north by Lake Erie and New York state; to the east by New York and New Jersey; to the south by Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia; and to the west by the panhandle of West Virginia and by Ohio. Harrisburg, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, is the capital.
Pennsylvania is classified as a Middle Atlantic state, along with New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Its central location on the Eastern Seaboard is sometimes said to be the source of its nickname, the Keystone State. It does not, however, touch the Atlantic Ocean at any point. Water nonetheless has been nearly as crucial in the state’s growth as the wealth of its earth. The Delaware River forms the boundary between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In the northwest a small panhandle separates Ohio and New York and forms a 40-mile (65-km) waterfront on Lake Erie, giving the state access to the iron ore barges and other commerce of the Great Lakes.
The state has two great metropolitan areas. Philadelphia is a part of the East Coast population belt stretching from Boston to Norfolk, Virginia. It is a major harbour on the Delaware River and one of the world’s busiest shipping centres. In the west, Pittsburgh lies on the eastern edge of the great industrial region extending along the Great Lakes plains to Chicago. Area 46,054 square miles (119,280 square km). Population (2010) 12,702,379; (2019 est.) 12,801,989.
The landforms of Pennsylvania had their origin about 500 million years ago, when a vast interior sea, up to several hundred miles wide, occupied the area from New England to Alabama. For about 250 million years, the rivers originating from an extensive mountain chain on the east poured sediments into the great Appalachian downwarp basin. Great swamps prevailed in southwestern Pennsylvania for millions of years and provided the vegetation that ultimately became the coal beds of the area.
Beginning about 250 million years ago, plate-tectonic movement folded the flat-lying sediment into upwarps and downwarps. The heat created by this pressure also metamorphosed the rocks, changing the sandstone into quartzite, limestone into marble, and granite into gneiss. The pressure from the plate movement was confined to southeastern Pennsylvania, creating the Piedmont and Ridge and Valley provinces. The rocks of the Appalachian Plateau remained essentially flat-lying, and the dissection of the plateau has been created by erosion.
Pennsylvania includes parts of large physiographic regions that extend beyond its borders; those regions crossing the eastern and central parts of the state parallel one another along a sweeping northeast-southwest diagonal orientation. In the southeastern part of the state is a section of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, a narrow strip of sandy low-lying land immediately adjacent to the Delaware River. This region has played a major role in Pennsylvania history. It was the site of William Penn’s settlement and the initial city of Philadelphia. Immediately inland from the Coastal Plain is the Piedmont province, a gently rolling, well-drained plain that is rarely more than 500 feet (150 metres) above sea level; the eastern part is the Piedmont Upland. The boundary between the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain is known as the fall line, with hard rock to the west and soft rock to the east. The Piedmont Lowland parallels the Piedmont Upland to its northwest. It is made of sedimentary rocks into which volcanic rocks have been intruded. Some of these volcanic rocks make ridges. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought there, the Northern army on the high ridges having the advantage over the Southern forces on the plains. The limestone rocks have weathered into fertile lowlands such as the Conestoga Lowlands of Lancaster county. Farther to the northwest lie two segments of a larger mountain range. The southern prong, extending to the Carlisle area, is the northernmost extension of the Blue Ridge system. The northern portion, known as the Reading Prong, is a small section of the larger New England topographic region. There is a major gap between these prongs.
Inland from the Blue Ridge is one of the country’s most distinctive topographic regions, the Ridge and Valley Province. It consists of long, narrow valleys and parallel ridges aligned over a long distance. As seen from space, it appears as if an enormous rake had been dragged along the backbone of the Appalachians from northeast to southwest. None of the ridges rises above the valley floor more than 1,000 feet (300 metres), and nowhere does the elevation reach 3,000 feet (900 metres). On the east is the Great Valley, which stretches more than 1,200 miles (1,930 km) from Pennsylvania to Alabama. To the west and north of the Ridge and Valley Province is the Appalachian Plateau, an area of nearly 30,000 square miles (77,700 square km). The Allegheny Front, more than 1,500 feet (450 metres) high, divides the two provinces. With no passes, it is the most formidable obstacle to east-west transportation in Pennsylvania. Almost everywhere the plateau surface has been dissected by rivers into a chaos of valleys and hills. Mount Davis is the highest point in the state at 3,213 feet (979 metres). However, elevations range from about 1,000 to 3,000 feet. On the northwest is the narrow Lake Erie Plain, which rises in a series of steps from the lakeshore to the high escarpment of the Appalachian Plateau.
Pennsylvania has three major river systems. In the east is the Delaware River, fed mainly by the Lehigh and Schuylkill rivers. In the central part of the state is the Susquehanna, draining the largest section of the state; it is a wide, shallow stream that meanders finally into Maryland and Chesapeake Bay. In the west is the Ohio River—formed by the confluence of the Allegheny (north) and Monongahela (south) rivers at Pittsburgh—from where it flows westward to the Mississippi River. Minor systems lead into Lake Erie in the northwest and the Potomac River from the southwest.