Pittsburgh: A City of Steel and Rivers from a Frontier Trading Post to a Great Inland `Manufactory,' This City Has Always Been in the Business of Building America

By Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 22, 1992 | Go to article overview

Pittsburgh: A City of Steel and Rivers from a Frontier Trading Post to a Great Inland `Manufactory,' This City Has Always Been in the Business of Building America


Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


THE three rivers of Pittsburgh don't flow together, as you might think. Instead, two rivers - the Allegheny and the Monongahela - join to form a third - the Ohio.

Man has harnessed, dirtied, dammed, dredged, and cleaned them over the course of some 250 years. In turn, the rivers have moved people in ways not always obvious. What follows is a journey along the rivers and through time.

George Washington, an early European visitor to the area, noted in his journal on Nov. 23, 1753:

"I spent some time in viewing the rivers, and the land in the Fork; which I think extremely well-situated for a fort.... The rivers are each a quarter of a mile, or more, across, and run here very near at right angles, Aligany bearing N.E. and Monongahela S.E."

British troops who took over the fork in 1758 thought the location would be an excellent base for trade with native Americans. But in a Dec. 17, 1784 journal entry, Dr. Johann Schoepf disagreed with that assessment: "Pittsburgh is inhabited almost entirely by Scots and Irish who live in paltry log-houses.... There is a great deal of small trade carried on.... The place, I believe, will never be very considerable."

As European settlers spread inland from the Atlantic seaboard, however, the cost of transporting goods grew onerous. Centrally located manufacturing facilities became essential to support the country's rapid expansion.

In the book "And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry," John Hoerr said that "in the late 1940s, when I was a teenager, a dozen great steel plants lined the banks of the Monongahela, extending forty-six miles up the valley from Pittsburgh. The mills worked twenty-four hours a day and provided jobs for nearly eighty thousand men and women, not counting employees in the companies' Pittsburgh offices. They were enormous steaming vessels, clanging and banging, spouting great plumes of smoke, and searing the sky with the Bessemer's reddish orange glow.... And, yes, noondays were often as dark as night - as awed visitors usually reported."

"Menaungehilla," the white man's Monongahela, is an Indian name that means "high banks breaking off and falling down at places."

Drive along it today and the highways still climb those banks, exposing long stretches of river and valley and hills that look unspoiled except for the railroad tracks or the smoke of a distant plant.

It's a different story in industrial towns that line the river. The huge walls of the steel mills block the view.

Even where communities have torn down inactive mills and factories, the distance from street to river's edge is so great that the water remains invisible. Only the odd road, ducking under a trestle, will take you there.

A modern-day resident of McKeesport reflects on the same scene, in language almost as poetic:

"When I look at the rivers, I try to see the qualities that Jehovah intended before man messed it up."

Rivers crisscross the city, carving the land into districts and neighborhoods. It was natural for immigrants to settle down together. These insular communities - friendly but parochial - exist cheek by jowl with the rivers that brought ships and goods from western New York to the mouth of the Mississippi.

The Allegheny is a fast-moving river. The Monongahela is slow. In the old days, rivers fluctuated wildly depending on the season and the weather. …

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