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
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
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. …