Events That Shaped Western Pennsylvania

By Karlovits, Bob | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 2, 2009 | Go to article overview

Events That Shaped Western Pennsylvania


Karlovits, Bob, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


From glaciers to steel, the history of Pittsburgh is built on a solid base.

There are many big events in the story of this area: George Washington's military defeat in 1754 to the emergence of commercial radio in 1920.

Historians and observers of the past listed below offered thoughts and discussions on the 20 top events in that development.

Perry Blatz, associate professor of history, Duquesne University

Ron Barafft, director of museum and archives, Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

Carmen DiCiccio, a Pittsburgh history expert at the University of Pittsburgh.

John A. Harper, a geologist with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Andy Masich, CEO of the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society and the Senator John Heinz History Center.

Anne Madarasz, museum division director at the history center.

Albert M. Tannler, historical collections director of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Valleys not hills

Between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago, the first glaciation in what is now Western Pennsylvania stopped what was then a northwesterly flow of rivers and began the shaping of this corner of the state, Harper says

The geologist maintains this really is an area of "valleys, not hills." When the glaciers stopped the ancestral flow of the rivers, they created a great pond that overflowed and cut the riverbeds.

The result was the modern Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, all the other waterways, and the hillsides leading to them. It became an area that seemed like home for Scottish and Irish settlers, and had rivers that were the backbone of industry.

The first home

If glaciers shaped the area, the oldest settlers in North America took advantage by settling under what has become known as the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter.

The site, near Avella, Washington County, about 35 miles from Pittsburgh, bears archaeological signs of settlement dating back 16,000 -- and perhaps 19,000 -- years ago. That makes it the oldest site of settlement in North America.

It is a National Historic Landmark and the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter and Museum of Rural Life is open for visits. Details: 724- 587-3412.

Raising the flag

On Nov. 25, 1758, Gen. John Forbes raised the British flag over the ruins of Fort Duquesne and began work on its successor, Fort Pitt.

It marked the establishment of Pittsburgh as an English-speaking town at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.

Its placement at the western reaches of colonial development also served to make Pittsburgh a gateway to the west.

A place for learning

On Feb. 28, 1787, the Pittsburgh Academy was founded to give the growing residential area a site for higher education. That school became the University of Pittsburgh.

That action led to the institution of other colleges and universities, which employ more than 25,000 people and serve 55,000 students in the city and its nearby suburbs, according to the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education.

When the steel industry died in the 1970s and '80s, the city became dominated by the work of its education and medical-care industries, the "eds and meds," as Masich calls them.

The beginning of industrial might

The foundation of the Pittsburgh Glass Works in 1797 was the first hint of the industry that was to emerge from this outpost.

Maderasz says it was the first factory west of the Allegheny Mountains and was fueled by coal from the Pittsburgh seam, later to have a different, and equally huge role in the steel industry.

The mill began shipping glass down the Ohio River, helping to establish settlements there and onto the Mississippi River. Pittsburgh became more than an outpost town; it was a supplier for the westward movement.

The Gateway to the West

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark used Pittsburgh as the beginning of their exploration of the continent in 1803, but on April 3, 1807, James Fleming Sr. …

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