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Pittsburgh: History


Early History

The first humans to live in what is now southwestern Pennsylvania were descendants of Asians who had crossed the Bering Straight and spread down through North America, hunting, gathering, and migrating, around 12 to 18 thousand years ago. About six thousand years ago, these Native Americans developed canoes and better tools for hunting and fishing; three thousand years ago, they learned to cultivate maize (corn), an agricultural revolution which led from a nomadic life to permanent villages. In another thousand years, agriculture was thriving and so was trade between villages and even tribes. Trade was carried out via either individuals carrying goods over a complex system of footpaths throughout densely forested Pennsylvania, or by canoes up and down rivers.

The coming of Europeans is what is likely to have wiped out the original native tribe of the Pittsburgh region, the Monongahela. Spread of European diseases to which the natives had no resistance, plus the fur trade resulting in depleted game supply, are theorized to have contributed to the disappearance of all humans from vast sections of western Pennsylvania in the 1600s. Soon, however, other displaced tribes from the south and east of Iroquois and Algonquian origins, especially the Shawnee, Seneca, Susquehannock, and the Lenni Lenape (Delaware), moved in to take their place.

French And British Vie For Strategic Location

Even in these early days, both British and French realized the strategic value of the wilderness location at the forks of the Ohio, a meeting place to trade for furs with the Indians. The French saw the Ohio River Valley as the only way to connect New France (Canada) with their Louisiana Territory. They claimed the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, and any river that flowed into it. The British had colonized the East Coast and were now hungry to push westward. A young Colonel George Washington, sent on a surveying mission to the area in 1755, observed that it was "extremely well situated for a fort, having command of both rivers." Wash-ington's party left a tiny group of men to build Fort Prince George for the British, which the French easily outnumbered and captured without bloodshed later that same year. The French troops built a stronger Fort Duquesne there at "the Point," and held it for three years. Again without bloodshed, the English took back control in 1758 as the treaty ending the French and Indian War was signed in Europe. The French simply burnt down the fort and vacated the region. The English then built Fort Pitt, in honor of William Pitt, their Prime Minister; Fort Pitt was the largest and most elaborate fort in the colonies at that time. A small village that was first known as "Pittsborough" sprouted up around the fort. A 1763 addition, the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, still stands as the oldest building in Pittsburgh today.

The Whiskey Rebellion

The Pittsburgh region's economy was largely agricultural through most of the 1700s, growing from mere subsistence to having a surplus, especially in grains. Farmers found they could make better profits, especially in shipping, by turning their surplus grain into alcohol and bartering it. President George Washington, who had at age 23 noted the importance of Pittsburgh, had to face his first real challenge as President and the first challenge to the new country's Constitution, in a conflict over that alcohol that became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. The fledgling Federal government had decided to levy its first tax against whiskey, but the farmers argued they didn't have cash to pay taxes on bartered goods, and marched in protest. Washington had to send troops to squelch the protest and enforce the tax laws.

Gateway to the West

Because travel was quite difficult over the Allegheny Mountains, Pittsburghers learned it was better to produce goods themselves rather than pay and wait for items to be shipped from the east. The city's population was only about 300 by the 1790s, but many were skilled craftsmen such as blacksmiths, weavers, shoemakers, saddlers, tanners, brewers, cabinet makers, tinsmiths, and other artisans who could transform the region's agricultural products into goods that could be used or easily shipped and sold downriver. The first and largest industry emerging in the 1800s was boat building—both flatboats to transport waves of pioneers and goods downriver, and keelboats, which a strong crew could propel upstream as well.

In 1795 James O'Hara and Isaac Craig started a glass factory, an important development since glass was the hardest material to transport. Its success prompted other glass factories to crop up around the area, becoming its second biggest industry.

Pittsburgh increasingly became known as the "Gateway to the West," a jumping-off point for people to more easily continue down the river after the arduous crossing of the mountains. Travel both ways on the rivers became easier in 1811 when Robert Fulton, with Nicholas Roosevelt, launched his first steamboat on western waters, the Pittsburgh-built New Orleans. The 116-foot vessel reached its self-named destination safely, then continued to run regularly between New Orleans and Natchez. The amazing Pennsylvania Mainline Canal reached its terminus in Pittsburgh in 1830, further facilitating migration from Philadelphia westward by offering an easier alternative to crossing the daunting Allegheny Ridge. Plentiful natural resources of the region were constantly shipped in to the city, including enormous lumber rafts from northern forests, and barge after barge of coal pushed by steamboats up and down the Monongahela. In addition to being situated on one of the world's biggest coal deposits, Pittsburgh was also surrounded with oil, clay, limestone, natural gas, and sand suitable for glass. To supply iron needs for the War of 1812, foundries, rolling mills, machine shops, and forges sprang up on flat land along the rivers. With the growth of these factories and improved transportation, the population grew to allow Pittsburgh to incorporate as a city in 1816. Although Brownsville, Pennsylvania and Wheeling, West Virginia were early rivals to Pittsburgh's "Gateway to the West" title, Pittsburgh clinched it with the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1852.

"Hell With The Lid Off"

As the 1800s wore on, Pittsburgh became known as the "Smoky City" due to manufacturing, steamboats, and household heating, all fueled with coal. The continued growth of the railroads plus demands of the Civil War increased the need for manufacturing. Earlier, iron furnaces had been run by charcoal, and thus were mostly located in rural places where wood was plentiful. However, when the coke-fueled blast furnace was invented, factory owners could consolidate and move their operations right to the riversides where coal, of which coke is a purified byproduct, could be conveniently delivered. This consolidation allowed them to keep prices down and remain competetive, even though iron making was still a small business of master craftsmen and not yet the huge operations of later years. Near the end of the 1800s, Birmingham, now Pittsburgh's South Side, had about 70 glass factories and was the world's largest supplier of glass. With railroad and river transportation boosting industry, other types of factories flourished as well, including five large and several small textile mills which employed about 3,000 workers in the late 1850s. In the 1860's, Pittsburgh was the world's largest refiner of petroleum products. The oil lamp, which in pre-electricity days was standard wherever gas lighting was unavailable, had been powered by increasingly rare and expensive whale oil, until it was found that the petroleum in the ground in western Pennsylvania could be put to similar uses. The refinery boom was brief, ending when John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil attracted the business to Cleveland.

Steel City

With the invention of the Bessemer Converter, the making of steel changed from an expensive, high quality metal worked by a skilled artisan to being mass produced by relatively unskilled labor. Andrew Carnegie opened the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock in 1875 and brought inexpensive, mass-produced steel to the Pittsburgh area. Carnegie had been an executive with the Pennsylvania Railroad, but quit to take the opportunity to manufacture the stronger Bessemer steel rails he knew the railroad intended to use. He hired engineers to further streamline and mechanize the steel making process so as to maximize the profits of mass production.

Carnegie's meeting and dealing with another major entrepreneur of the day, Henry Clay Frick, etched an important page in history. Frick was a self-made millionaire before he turned 30; he had formed a company to buy land rich in coal, which he processed into industrial coke, an essential steel making ingredient. Frick managed to buy out many of his competitors and became a major supplier to the burgeoning steel industry. The two formed a union that soured, ending in what is called the Homestead Strike, a lockout that ended in 10 deaths and many injuries, even necessitating intervention by the Pennsylvania National Guard. Carnegie and Frick became bitter enemies over the episode, a feud they took to their graves. Still, the Carnegie and Frick names are nearly synonymous with philanthropic causes in Pittsburgh today; their legacies bestowed priceless gifts to the city in the form of libraries, schools, parks, and museums, in addition to bridges, railroads, and factories. Somewhat less prominent but equally important, other local employers such as Westinghouse, Alcoa, and Heinz were also on the forefront of improving working conditions and of supporting cultural life in the community.

A Modern Pittsburgh Emerges

From the late 1800s, Pittsburgh's population more than doubled to more than a million people in the metropolitan area by 1910, and the character of its downtown began to change from factories and residences to more office buildings. Banking activity increased so much to keep up with the booming economy that a section along Fourth Avenue became known as Pittsburgh's Wall Street. This period also saw great progress in public works, as water filtration and sewer systems were completed and electric lines and pipes for natural gas installed. Because commuting was still a luxury most mill workers could not afford, people continued to live, shop, and worship in the same self-sufficient communities where they worked. Pittsburgh today remains a city of neighborhoods, many of which still strongly reflect varied ethnic roots.

The coming of the trolleys in the late 1890s and of the automobile soon after helped to connect neighborhoods a bit more, and allowed some of the white collar manager's families to begin to populate the city's first middle class suburbs such as Shadyside, Dormont, and West View. Some were concerned about this city that held such great wealth for some, yet squalid conditions for many others. A boom in social programs, instituting hospitals and other services and general cleaning up of the city began, but was hindered by local events such as a devastating flood in 1936, and national events including the Great Depression and World Wars I and II.

After World War II, Pittsburgh began to concentrate on giving itself a make-over, including river clean-up and air pollution controls, and new building projects under the umbrella heading Renaissance I. Democrats and Republicans, led by Mayor David Lawrence and banker Richard King Mellon, actually worked together on the face-lift. Some of the Renaissance projects were successful, such as Gateway Center, an office tower complex completed in the 1950s; and Point State Park at the end of Downtown's "Golden Triangle," officially opened in 1974, with a fountain foaming high into the air at the very point where the rivers join. Others were considered less successful, such as the razing of the Lower Hill District in order to build the Civic Arena, which was highly criticized for breaking up a tightly knit and artistically thriving African American community and leaving the neighborhood far worse off than it had been. Throughout the 1960s many major construction projects continued to revamp the city in East Liberty and Allegheny Center neighborhoods as well as downtown. In 1970, the last game was played at the Pittsburgh Pirate's Forbes Field, and Three Rivers Stadium, along with the U.S. Steel Building, (later changed to USX Tower) were the last buildings to be completed under Renaissance I.

By the late 1970s to the early 1980s, Pittsburgh's reign as one of the titans in the world of Big Steel had neared its end. The number of steel workers in the Pittsburgh area dropped from 90,000 in 1980 to 44,000 in just four years. U.S. Steel, formed when Elbert Gary and J.P. Morgan bought Carnegie Steel, lost $561 million in only one quarter in 1980. The city's population, which had peaked in 1950 at over 676,000, dropped to about 423,000 by 1980. Unemployment rates soared as the city's leaders scrambled to reinvent the local economy on a new base of service, health, and education fields; high tech industries; riverfront development; and regional tourism. Despite fluctuations in the economy, Renaissance II forged ahead through the 1980s, giving the city many of its signature skyline buildings such as Mellon Bank Center, One Oxford Center, PPG Plaza, Fifth Avenue Place, and the USX (U.S. Steel) Building. Through the 1990s, the transition from heavy manufacturing to new, mostly high tech industries took place, as Pittsburgh today stands at the forefront of medical research and computer and robotics technologies, as well as a center for arts and culture.

Historical Information: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1212 Smallman St., Pittsburgh, PA 15222; telephone (412)454-6000


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