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October 26, 2013

Shaping history: Ligonier defined by Lincoln Highway

JOHNSTOWN — The Lincoln Highway meanders at times.

There are three generations of official routes, auxiliary roads, detours and bypasses, which often create confusion as to what is part of the actual system and what is not.

In some instances, the highway simply takes a somewhat unexpected turn.

Ligonier Borough is one of the places where it veers off its primary path for a bit. The historic road follows Route 30 throughout most of Pennsylvania. But, in the Westmoreland County community, it separates from the modern four-lane, linking up with the small-town Main Street. Then, in a short distance, it’s right back to Route 30 for any drivers specifically following the Lincoln Highway.

Unknowingly, some drivers might speed by on Route 30 and think they remained on the Lincoln Highway the whole time.

By taking the quick offshoot, though, travelers get to see the town’s quaint shops and bandstand.

The road, with all of its quirky turns, has been an important artery for the Ligonier region even before it officially became part of the Lincoln Highway, which will mark the 100th anniversary of its dedication on Thursday.

“Ligonier Borough, probably, in all likelihood, would not be what it is today without the Lincoln Highway running through it,” said Westmoreland County Commissioner Ted Kopas.

The local road dates back to the 18th century.

In 1799, Phillip Freeman built a rest stop in Laughlintown for wagoners and drovers taking their animals to market. The log structure, later known as the Compass Inn, became a destination point for stagecoach travelers. Now, it is home to the Compass Inn Museum, a location on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Every day, we give tours and we talk about the road and the importance of travel,” said Roberta Smith, the museum’s innkeeper and program coordinator. “That’s an important part of our story.

“The front porch is right on the Lincoln Highway.”

The museum is positioned on the Route 30/Lincoln Highway alignment, as is nearby Idlewild Park, which opened in 1878.

However, the area’s oldest landmark – the site of Fort Ligonier – is not actually on the Lincoln Highway. The two are certainly historically linked, though. Fort Ligonier is on the part of Route 30 that is bypassed by the drive through town.

The century-old road is only a few hundred feet away from what is now a museum with a reconstructed fort. It is a popular local destination for Lincoln Highway travelers, even though getting there requires briefly going off the true path.

“We have a lot of visitation because of this road,” said Annie Urban, executive director of Fort Ligonier.

Without the fort, Ligonier itself might never have come into existence and the Lincoln Highway might have taken a different route.

“The town exists because the fort was here first. A town sort of came up around it. ... I feel – and I know a lot of our residents in the community feel – that Fort Ligonier really is the key to the entire Ligonier Valley,” said Urban.

The fort, originally called the Post at Loyalhanna, was constructed in September 1758. It played an important role in the French and Indian War as a supply depot, staging area and protective covering for the British. George Washington, then a young colonel in the Virginia Regiment, served at the fort for a brief time and survived a harrowing friendly fire incident.

Washington and other soldiers traveled to the fort on Forbes Road, which was built in 1758, and is now mirrored, in long stretches, by the Lincoln Highway.

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at

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