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Pennsylvania has sixty-six counties with county seats plus the combination county-city of Philadelphia. This section includes a map of each county seat and a view of the courthouse, or in Philadelphia's case, City Hall.
The maps are a diverse collection of different eras and types: most are street maps from the classic county atlases of the nineteenth century, also lithograph bird's eye views mostly by T. M. Fowler, maps from general atlases, road maps, and tourist brochures. A couple are not maps at all, but panoramic photographs. Some of the county seats are small towns off the beaten path and few large scale maps have been made of them. The county seat name is a link to a modern Internet street and aerial map from MapQuest.Com for a contemporary view. For orientation, the circa 1880 Pennsylvania map below shows the counties with the county seat names in bolder type.
The 2000 population of each county seat is given as a guide to relative size. The five largest cities are Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, and Reading; all are county seats. At the other end of the scale, the borough of Laporte in Sullivan County has around 300 people. Twenty-three county seats are cities, the rest are boroughs. An 1874 act created "classes" for Pennsylvania cities. Philadelphia, as one could guess, is the only First Class city and Pittsburgh is the only Second Class city. Scranton is the only Second Class A city; this peculiar designation was created in 1927 to separate it from Pittsburgh. All other cities are Third Class. These are legal designations allowing legislation affecting only certain places (usually Philadelphia or Pittsburgh) without having to name them. This contrivance (apparently) meets the constitutional requirement that all laws be general. Being a city is not a good indicator of population in this suburban age; boroughs and townships in built-up areas can have larger populations than the smaller cities, sometimes much larger.
Pennsylvania is fortunate in having a book written about its courthouses: County Courthouses of Pennsylvania - A Guide, by Oliver P. Williams. It is now slightly dated as new courthouses have appeared and renovations done on some others; however, this is an excellent guide for visiting the county seats, viewing the courthouses and learning about their architecture and history. For the western counties, Smith & Swetnam is a handy guide with information on many interesting sites within each county besides the courthouses, though also now dated. The county name is a link to a county website, some of which lead to further information on their courthouse. Links to local government websites can be found at Government in Pennsylvania. The State Library maintains a list of county historical societies and another information source is List of Pennsylvania County Seats - Wikipedia .
The oldest courthouse in Pennsylvania still extant (perhaps the oldest in the country, and shown at left in an old woodcut) is a stone and rubble building in Chester, Delaware County, built in 1724 and now a museum. In many counties, particularly in the west, the first courthouse was made of logs. The only surviving example is in Waynesburg, Greene County, dating from 1796. The oldest relatively unaltered courthouse still in use as such is in Bedford County, built in 1828. Courthouses are often amalgamations of different buildings and rebuildings as the need for space grew and modern utilities were added, and dating them becomes conjectural. Views of long departed courthouses shown here come from the classic county atlases and old history books by Day and Egle.
Courthouses represent a continuum of civic mood from secular temple to utilitarian tool. A temple is worthy of decoration and investment, and projects a sense of pride, for example, the Luzerne County courthouse. A utilitarian tool should be sturdy and functional, with little sense of show. Courthouses of the latter twentieth century, as in Indiana County, reflect this view. Some exceptional buildings, such as the Allegheny County courthouse, encompass both approaches, being utterly functional while still presenting a sense of purpose and achievement to the community.
The simple days of yesteryear when all the functions of a courthouse could be accomodated in one building are long gone for most counties. Some of the functions to be expected today are displayed on this sign from outside the (very large) Delaware County courthouse. Although an older courthouse may exist, its function can be spread through additions, annexes, and complexes of buildings, usually in the neighborhood but not always adjacent. Many county courthouses are the dominant building in the downtown of the county seat and easy to find. Even in Philadelphia, the enormous City Hall is hard to miss. However, in some of the larger towns inquiries may be necessary for tourists. The location of the present courthouse is shown on the historical maps by a red dot , and the Internet maps mentioned above are centered on them. A quick tour of courthouse views alphabetically by county can be made in this slideshow. Courthouses are public buildings and can be visited during normal working hours, although nowadays a search procedure must be endured and photos are seldom allowed inside.
There are six pages covering the county seats and courthouses, arranged alphabetically by county. Corrections and further information on county seats and courthouses is welcome and can be sent to the address on the home page. This site may be searched using the search engine below.
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