Pittsburgh’s Growth During the 19th Century

Pittsburgh, along with all of Western Pennsylvania, has been a vital region of the country since colonization. In the 19th century, it gained prominence as an important manufacturing point and was nicknamed “Iron City.” Proximity to one of the country’s most productive coalfields, and abundant natural gas, farm goods and lumber made commerce and manufacturing easy in this area. Additionally, access to multiple rivers for shipping goods enabled simpler trading.

Growth and Manufacturing

By 1800, Pittsburgh’s population of 1,565 people supported more than 60 shops, including bakeries, hat and shoe shops, general stores, and blacksmiths that forged horseshoes, iron tools and nails. The following decade, the first steamboat was built and launched in Pittsburgh. This allowed commerce to now flow upriver as easily as it did downriver, leading to more demand for products and further growth.

The War of 1812

The biggest catalyst for growth in the Iron City thus far, the war with Great Britain pushed the city of Pittsburgh to produce enough iron, brass, tin and glass to replace what was blockaded from overseas shipments. This massive stimulation of American manufacturing was likely the opposite effect that England wanted, but it proved once again that the American people would not be daunted by overseas forces. The blockade also increased inland trade, and Pittsburgh was at the crux of exchanges that occurred in all directions.

Incorporation of the City of Pittsburgh

By the time Pittsburgh became a city on March 18, 1816, its characteristics were well-ingrained in the landscape; commerce, manufacturing and lots of coal dust were fixtures.

Transportation improvements led to even more growth. Though the first segment of the National Road bypassed the city, it linked Baltimore to nearby Wheeling, West Virginia, and new river bridges were added to the city to make connections less treacherous. By 1840, the original Pennsylvania Turnpike connected Pittsburgh with the ports in Philadelphia, and in 1834, the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal added to a transportation system that included roads, rivers and canals.

By 1857, Pittsburgh was an urban powerhouse, with 939 factories employing over 10,000 workers. These workers produced $12 million in goods annually, and the port was the third busiest in the nation, behind only New York City and New Orleans.

Pittsburgh and the Civil War

As a thriving city during the war between the states, Pittsburgh provided war materials, armaments, supplies, ammunition and personnel to the Union Army. Because the city of Pittsburgh is situated at the confluence of the three rivers – Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny – it was also an important transportation hub for both river and rail transport.

The Civil War boosted the economy of the city with increased productions at the Allegheny Arsenal and the Fort Pitt Foundry. The city manufactured ironclad warships and Howitzer artillery guns, as well as saddles and cavalry equipment. Manufacturing exploded so much that, by the end of the war, more than half of the country’s steel and one-third of glass were produced in Pittsburgh.
Because of its importance to the Union Army, the U.S. government fortified Western Pennsylvania with a standing military presence. Many small forts were built around town, often constructed by employees of the manufacturing companies. Though raids were conceived by the Confederacy, none ever got close enough for real worry.

Pittsburgh and the Underground Railroad

Western PA played a major part in helping enslaved people seeking their freedom. These people traveled mostly by foot, following natural routes along rivers, mountains and streams, and sometimes hidden in the backs of wagons. Additionally, free black people during the Civil War were threatened with the possibility of enslavement, and many fled their homes, while others stayed and became strong voices for social change.

Today, you can explore the Senator John Heinz History Center to find out more about all of the ways Pittsburgh helped to shape our country during the 19th century and beyond.

Our Pittsburgh History Series:

History of Pittsburgh Part 1

History of Pittsburgh Part 2

Pittsburgh and the Whiskey Rebellion

One thought on “Pittsburgh’s Growth During the 19th Century”
  1. My namesake ancestor was the 1st constable in Sharpsburg . He was very active in the. Underground Railroad. He even loafed up some of the slave catchers ! Lots of GREAT faMILY STORIES !

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