Pittsburgh History

History of Pittsburgh

The History Of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, also referred to as “Dionde:ga'” in the Seneca language, has a rich history dating back to Native American civilization. European explorers eventually discovered the strategic meeting point of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, which form the Ohio River leading to the Mississippi. This area became a battleground in the 1750s as France and Great Britain fought for control. The British emerged victorious, leading to the French relinquishing control of territories east of the Mississippi.

After the United States gained independence in 1783, the village surrounding Fort Pitt continued to expand. This region experienced a brief period of rebellion called the Whiskey Rebellion, where farmers revolted against taxes on whiskey imposed by the government. The War of 1812 disrupted the supply of British goods, prompting an increase in American manufacturing. By 1815, Pittsburgh had become a major producer of iron, brass, tin, and glass products. In the 1840s, it had become one of the largest cities west of the Allegheny Mountains. Steel production began in 1875. During the 1877 railway riots, Pittsburgh experienced the most violence and destruction out of all the cities affected by the nationwide strikes that summer. Workers protested against wage cuts and burned down buildings at the railyards, destroying 100 train engines and over 1,000 cars. This resulted in the deaths of forty men, mostly strikers. By 1911, Pittsburgh was responsible for producing half of the nation’s steel.

Until 1932, Pittsburgh was known as a stronghold for the Republican Party. However, the city shifted towards liberalism due to the high unemployment rates during the Great Depression, the implementation of New Deal relief programs, and the rise of influential labor unions in the 1930s. This transformation turned Pittsburgh into a liberal stronghold under the leadership of powerful Democratic mayors, as part of the New Deal Coalition. During World War II, the city played a significant role in the “Arsenal of Democracy”, producing weapons and supplies for the Allies as the economy rebounded.

In the wake of World War II, Pittsburgh embarked on a project called the “Renaissance” to improve air quality and revitalize the city. Despite the expansion of its industrial base in the 1960s, the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s due to competition from foreign companies, resulting in widespread job losses and shutdowns of mills. The 1980s saw the relocation of major corporate headquarters. By 2007, Pittsburgh’s status as a major transportation hub had also diminished. The population of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area remains stable at 2.4 million, with 65% of residents being of European descent and 35% belonging to minority groups.

history of pittsburgh

Before Colonization

The area where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio has been occupied by Native Americans for thousands of years. They lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle as early as 19,000 years ago, according to evidence found at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, an archaeological site located west of Pittsburgh, in Washington County, PA. This site also suggests that the first Americans settled in this region from that time. The Adena culture that followed saw the construction of a large Indian Mound by the Mound Builders at the future site of McKees Rocks, about three miles from the head of the Ohio. This mound, used for burials, was later expanded by the Hopewell culture.

Prior to 1700, the Haudenosaunee inhabited the region south of the Great Lakes in present-day New York, known as the Five Nations, and controlled the upper Ohio valley as their hunting grounds. Other tribes in the area included the Lenape, who had been forced out of eastern Pennsylvania due to European settlement, and the Shawnee, who had migrated from the south. However, the arrival of European explorers brought with them various diseases such as smallpox, measles, influenza, and malaria, to which these tribes had no immunity, resulting in devastating consequences.

history of pittsburgh

During his visit to Logstown in 1748, Conrad Weiser noted that there were 789 warriors gathered, including 163 Seneca, 74 Mohawk, 35 Onondaga, 20 Cayuga, and 15 Oneida from the Iroquois tribe. Other tribes present were the Lenape with 165 warriors, Shawnee with 162, Wyandot with 100, Tisagechroami with 40, and Mohican with 15.

Shannopin’s Town, a Lenape (Delaware) village located on the east side of the Allegheny River, was founded during the 1720s but was eventually abandoned in 1758. It is believed that the village was situated in the area where Penn Avenue stands today, between 30th and 39th Streets, below the mouth of Two Mile Run. According to George Croghan, the town was positioned on the southern shore of the Allegheny, near what is now known as Herr’s Island, in the present-day Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Sawcunk, located at the mouth of the Beaver River, served as a settlement for the Lenape people and was the main home of their chief, Shingas.  Chartier’s Town, founded in 1734 by Peter Chartier, was a Shawnee town. The village of Kittanning, situated on the Allegheny River, was home to both the Lenape and Shawnee tribes and had an estimated population of 300-400 residents.

The Colonization of Western Pennsylvania (1747-1763)

Traders from Europe were the first to arrive in the 1710s. In 1717, Michael Bezallion wrote about the forks of the Ohio in a manuscript, and later that year, European traders established posts and settlements in the area. In 1748, Europeans began to settle in the region when the first Ohio Company, a land speculation company from Virginia, received a grant of 200,000 acres in the upper Ohio Valley. From Cumberland, Maryland, the company started building an 80-mile wagon road to the Monongahela River. They enlisted the help of Lenape Indian chief, Nemacolin, and a group of settlers led by Capt. Michael Cresap to widen the track into a road. This road mostly followed the same path as a pre-existing Native American trail. Known as Nemacolin’s Trail, it crossed the river and the flats at Redstone Creek, which was the earliest and shortest route for a wagon road descent. During the war, this site was fortified as Fort Burd (now known as Brownsville), one of several potential destinations. Another route, which eventually became Braddock’s Road, was also considered through present-day New Stanton. However, the colonists were unable to successfully turn the path into a wagon road beyond the Cumberland Narrows pass, as they encountered conflicts with Native Americans. In an attempt to make incremental improvements to the track, the colonists launched a series of expeditions.

During the 18th century, the neighboring Native American community known as Logstown played a significant role as a hub for trade and meetings in the Ohio Valley. In an effort to reinforce French ownership of the region, an expedition led by French officer Celeron de Bienville traveled down the Allegheny and Ohio rivers from June 15 to November 10, 1749. During this expedition, de Bienville warned British traders to stay away and placed markers to mark French territory.

The Governor of New France, Marquis Duquesne, in 1753, organized a larger expedition and sent it out. An initial group constructed Fort Presque Isle at Erie, Pennsylvania, while another group built Fort Le Boeuf on French Creek, which allowed for travel to the Allegheny River during high water. In the summer, a group of 1,500 French and Native American men traveled down the Allegheny. Some of them stayed at the confluence of French Creek and the Allegheny for the winter. The following year, they established Fort Machault at the same location.

Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia was concerned about the French entering the Ohio Valley. In response, he sent Major George Washington to deliver a warning to the French to retreat. Washington, accompanied by Christopher Gist, reached the Forks of the Ohio on November 25, 1753.

“Upon reaching the Canoe, I took a moment to observe the Rivers and the Land at the Fork. I believe it is an ideal location for a Fort, as it possesses complete control over both Rivers. The land at the Point stands at a height of 20 to 25 feet  above the usual water level, surrounded by a significant expanse of flat, well-wooded land, perfect for construction.”

Traveling up the Allegheny River, Washington delivered Dinwiddie’s letter to the French commanders at Venango and Fort Le Boeuf. The French officers greeted Washington politely and offered him wine, but they did not leave.

Captain William Trent was sent by Governor Dinwiddie to construct a fort at the Forks of the Ohio. Construction of the fort, which was the first European settlement at the present-day location of Pittsburgh, began on February 17, 1754. However, by April 1754, when 500 French troops arrived, the fort, named Fort Prince George, was only half-built. The French ordered the 40 colonials back to Virginia and proceeded to demolish the British fort and build their own, Fort Duquesne.

Another expedition was launched by Governor Dinwiddie, with Colonel Joshua Fry leading the regiment and George Washington as his second-in-command in charge of the advance column. On May 28, 1754, Washington’s unit engaged in the Battle of Jumonville Glen, resulting in the death of 13 French soldiers and the capture of 21 others. After the battle, the Seneca chief, Tanaghrisson, who was an ally of Washington, unexpectedly killed the French commanding officer, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. The French pursued Washington and on July 3, 1754, he surrendered following the Battle of Fort Necessity. These events on the frontier ultimately played a role in the beginning of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), also known as the Seven Years’ War, a global conflict between Britain and France fought on multiple continents.

history of pittsburgh

The Braddock Expedition

The Braddock Expedition, with the accompaniment of George Washington, a Virginia militia officer, was launched in 1755. Two regiments crossed the Allegheny Mountains from Fort Cumberland and reached western Pennsylvania. Following the path surveyed by Washington, a group of over 3,000 men constructed a 12-foot wide wagon road, which became the first road to cross the Appalachian Mountains. Known as Braddock’s Road, it paved the way for the future National Road (US40). On July 9, 1755, the expedition crossed the Monongahela River. However, they were ambushed by French troops from Fort Duquesne at Braddock’s Field, located nine miles away. This event, known as the Battle of the Monongahela, resulted in heavy losses for the British and the mortal wounding of Braddock. The remaining British and colonial forces were forced to retreat, giving the French and their Native American allies control over the upper Ohio valley.

In 1756, a group of 300 militiamen went on a mission to destroy the Shawnee and Lenape village of Kittanning. Following this, in the summer of 1758, John Forbes, a British Army officer, began a campaign to capture Fort Duquesne. He led 7,000 regular and colonial troops and established Fort Ligonier and Fort Bedford. Forbes then made a wagon road known as Forbes’ Road over the Allegheny Mountains. A skirmish occurred on September 13-14, 1758, when Major James Grant’s advance column was defeated in the Battle of Fort Duquesne. The area where the battle took place was named Grant’s Hill in honor of the fallen major. After this defeat, Forbes decided to wait until spring, but news of the French losing Fort Frontenac and evacuating Fort Duquesne prompted him to plan an immediate attack. The French, greatly outnumbered, abandoned and destroyed Fort Duquesne. On November 25, 1758, Forbes took control of the burned fort and ordered the construction of Fort Pitt, which was named after British Secretary of State William Pitt the Elder. Forbes also named the settlement between the rivers “Pittsborough“. Improvements were made to Fort Pitt by the British garrison, and the French did not launch any attacks. The war eventually ended with the Treaty of Paris and the French surrendering their territories east of the Mississippi River.

Pittsburgh’s Beginnings (1763-1799)

The year 1760 marked the start of significant European settlement near Fort Pitt. The “lower town” and “upper town” were constructed by traders and settlers, with the former being close to the fort’s ramparts and the latter along the Monongahela up to present-day Market Street. An official population count was conducted in April 1761 by Colonel Henry Bouquet and William Clapham, revealing 332 individuals and 104 residential buildings.

Following the British victory in the French and Indian War, dissatisfaction among Native Americans with British policies escalated, resulting in the outbreak of Pontiac’s War. Pontiac, a leader of the Odawa tribe, launched an attack on British forts in May of 1763. The tribes of the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes successfully took over many British forts, with Fort Pitt being one of their main targets. Captain Simeon Ecuyer, the Swiss commander in charge of the fort, received advance notice of the impending attack and prepared for a siege. He demolished the houses outside the ramparts and ordered all settlers to seek shelter within the fort’s walls. A total of 330 men, 104 women, and 196 children sought refuge there. Captain Ecuyer also collected supplies, including hundreds of barrels of pork and beef. On June 22, 1763, Pontiac’s forces launched their attack on Fort Pitt, resulting in a two-month siege. Despite their continuous but ineffective firing on the fort from July 27 to August 1, 1763, Pontiac’s warriors were eventually defeated by Colonel Bouquet’s relieving party in the Battle of Bushy Run. This victory secured British control over the forks of the Ohio River and possibly the entire Ohio Valley. In 1764, Colonel Bouquet added a redoubt known as the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, which is still standing today and is the only remaining structure from Fort Pitt. It is also the oldest authenticated building west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Pittsburgh Landmarks

In 1768, the Iroquois entered into the Fort Stanwix Treaty of 1768, relinquishing the lands below the Ohio River to the British Crown.  This event led to European expansion into the upper Ohio valley, with an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 families settling in western Pennsylvania between 1768 and 1770. These families were mainly of English, Scotch-Irish, Welsh, German, and other backgrounds.  They tended to form small farming communities, but often their homes were not close to each other. Settler families faced grueling tasks such as clearing forests, cultivating fields, constructing cabins and barns, and tending to crops. They also had to make everything by hand, from furniture and tools to candles, buttons, and needles.  The harsh winters and the presence of dangerous animals like snakes, bears, lions, and wolves made life even more challenging. Due to the threat of Native American attacks, settlers built their cabins near springs or even on top of them to ensure a water source. They also constructed blockhouses where they could gather during conflicts.

The Shawnee, Miami, and Wyandot tribes were responsible for increasing violence that led to the conflict known as Dunmore’s War in 1774. The tension with Native Americans continued during the Revolutionary War, with some hoping that the war would result in the removal of settlers from their land. In 1777, Fort Pitt became a fort for the United States under the command of Brigadier General Edward Hand. In 1779, Colonel Daniel Brodhead led 600 soldiers from Fort Pitt to attack Seneca villages on the upper Allegheny River.

Amidst the ongoing war, an agreement was reached between Virginia and Pennsylvania in 1780 to define their shared borders. This established the present-day state lines and officially declared that the Pittsburgh region fell under the jurisdiction of Pennsylvania. The Revolutionary War came to an end in 1783, leading to a temporary halt in border conflicts. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix was signed in 1784, in which the Iroquois relinquished their claim to the land north of the Purchase Line, effectively ceding it to Pennsylvania.

Following the Revolution, Pittsburgh’s population continued to expand. Boat building was among the first industries to emerge, with flatboats used for transporting pioneers and cargo downstream and keelboats for navigating upstream.

The establishment of crucial institutions in the village commenced when Hugh Henry Brackenridge, who lived in Pittsburgh and served as a state legislator, presented a legislation that led to the donation of land and the granting of a charter for the Pittsburgh Academy on February 28, 1787. This academy eventually evolved into the University of Western Pennsylvania (1819) and has been referred to as the University of Pittsburgh since 1908.

During the frontier era, many farmers would distill their corn harvest into whiskey in order to increase its value and reduce transportation costs. This alcoholic beverage was also commonly used as a form of currency at the time. However, when the federal government implemented an excise tax on whiskey, it caused Western Pennsylvania farmers to feel unfairly targeted. This eventually led to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, where farmers from the region gathered at Braddock’s Field and marched towards Pittsburgh. Despite the short-lived rebellion being put down, President George Washington intervened by sending in militias from multiple states.

The manufacturing capabilities of the town continued to expand. In 1792, a sloop called “Western Experiment” was built by the boatyards in Pittsburgh. Over the following years, the yards also produced other large boats. By the 19th century, they were constructing ships that could travel to Europe to transport goods. The first courthouse in the town was erected in 1794, a wooden structure located on Market Square. The production of glass began in 1797.

The city had a population of 332 in 1761, which increased to 1,395 in 1796 and further to 1,565 in 1800.

Pittsburgh Evolves Into the Industrial Age 1800-1859

During the early days of Pittsburgh, commerce was a crucial part of the economy, but the significance of manufacturing began to increase. Pittsburgh was strategically located in the heart of a highly productive coalfield, and the region was also abundant in natural resources such as petroleum, natural gas, timber, and agricultural products. Blacksmiths were responsible for creating iron tools, ranging from horse shoes to nails. By 1800, the town had a population of 1,565 people and boasted over 60 shops, including general stores, bakeries, and hat and shoe shops.

During the 1810s, Pittsburgh experienced significant growth. The city saw the construction of its first steamboat in 1811, which led to increased commerce up the river. The War of 1812 played a crucial role in the development of Pittsburgh as it cut off the supply of British goods and stimulated American manufacturing. This resulted in an increase in inland trade, with goods being transported through Pittsburgh from all directions. By 1815, the city was producing significant amounts of iron, brass and tin, and glass products. Pittsburgh was formally incorporated as a city on March 18, 1816, with its defining characteristics already present: commerce, manufacturing, and a constant presence of coal dust.

Pittsburgh faced competition from up-and-coming towns. By 1818, the National Road’s first section was finished, linking Baltimore and Wheeling and bypassing Pittsburgh. This posed a threat to the town’s importance in east-west trade. However, over the next decade, significant improvements were made to the transportation system. In 1818, the first bridge over the rivers, the Smithfield Street Bridge, was constructed, marking the beginning of Pittsburgh’s reputation as the “City of Bridges.” On October 1, 1840, the original Pennsylvania Turnpike was completed, connecting Pittsburgh with the eastern port city of Philadelphia. Additionally, in 1834, the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal was finished, incorporating Pittsburgh into a comprehensive transportation network of rivers, roads, and canals.

history of pittsburgh

The growth of manufacturing in Pittsburgh continued, with McClurg, Wade and Co. constructing the first locomotive west of the Alleghenies in 1835. During this time, Pittsburgh had the capability to produce the most crucial machines of the era. By the 1840s, it had become one of the largest cities in the western region. In 1841, the Second Court House, located on Grant’s Hill, was finished. This court house was made of polished gray sandstone and featured a rotunda that was 60 feet in diameter and 80 feet high.

During its early days, like other developing cities, Pittsburgh experienced rapid growth that surpassed the capability of its infrastructure, particularly its water supply which lacked reliable pressure. This led to a disastrous event on April 10, 1845, known as the Great Fire of Pittsburgh, which destroyed more than a thousand structures and resulted in damages worth $9 million. As the city recovered from this devastation, it entered the era of rail transportation. The Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad was established in 1851, connecting Cleveland and Allegheny City (now known as North Side). Three years later, the Pennsylvania Railroad began offering services between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Despite facing numerous obstacles, Pittsburgh had become a dominant force in the industrial sector. In 1857, a publication offered a glimpse into the city’s status as an industrial leader, referred to as the Iron City.

In Pittsburgh and Allegheny City, there were 939 factories that employed over 10,000 workers and produced goods worth almost $12 million. These factories utilized 400 steam engines. In terms of coal consumption, the total reached 22 million bushels, while 127,000 tons of iron were also consumed. The port in this area was the third busiest in the nation in terms of steam tonnage, ranking behind only New York City and New Orleans.

Early Scottish Immigration

A 1978 study analyzed the leadership of the iron and steel industry in Pittsburgh, its main hub, as well as in smaller cities. It determined that the nationwide leadership of this industry was primarily of Scotch Irish descent. According to the study, the Scotch Irish remained closely united throughout the 19th century and cultivated a distinct sense of identity.

Pittsburgh became a significant stronghold for Scottish-Irish immigrants after 1800. One of these immigrants was Thomas Mellon, who was born in Ulster in 1813 and emigrated to the United States in 1823. He established the influential Mellon family, which played a significant role in the banking industry and other industries such as aluminum and oil.  James Laughlin, another immigrant from Ulster born in 1806, was part of the “Scots-Irish Presbyterian ruling class of Pittsburgh society,” and was involved in the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company.

Pittsburgh Becomes A Hub for Innovation and Industrialization

The introduction of coke-fired smelting to the region was brought about by the Clinton and Soho iron furnaces in 1859. The economy of the city was greatly boosted by the American Civil War, leading to increased production of iron and armaments at places such as the Allegheny Arsenal and the Fort Pitt Foundry. The manufacturing of arms included the production of iron-clad warships and the world’s first 21″ gun. Pittsburgh was responsible for over half of the steel and more than a third of all glass production in the United States by the end of the war. A significant milestone in steel production was reached in 1875 when the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock began using the new Bessemer process to produce steel rails.

Pittsburgh was the birthplace of the fortunes of notable industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew W. Mellon, and Charles M. Schwab. Another prominent figure in Pittsburgh was George Westinghouse, who is credited with significant advancements such as the air brake and the founder of over 60 companies, including Westinghouse Air and Brake Company (1869), Union Switch & Signal (1881), and Westinghouse Electric Company (1886). The growth of Pittsburgh was also driven by the involvement of banks, as these industrialists sought significant loans to modernize their plants, consolidate industries, and finance technological advancements. For instance, T. Mellon & Sons Bank, which was established in 1869, provided funding for an aluminum reduction company that later became Alcoa.

Small and independent iron and steel manufacturers were able to thrive from the 1870s to the 1950s despite facing competition from larger, standardized production companies. These successful smaller firms were based on a culture that prioritized local markets and the positive impact of business on the community. They specialized in certain products, such as structural steel, which did not require the economies of scale that larger companies relied on. While they did adopt technological advancements, they did so more cautiously compared to their larger counterparts. Additionally, their relationship with workers was less hostile and they employed a larger percentage of highly skilled workers in comparison to mass-production companies.

The Entrepreneurial Nature of Pittsburgh

Entrepreneurs in the 1870s played a major role in transforming the economy of Pittsburgh. They shifted from small, city-based factories to a larger integrated industrial region spanning 50 miles. This new industrial Pittsburgh was centered on integrated mills, mass production, and modern management practices, particularly in the steel and other industries. Manufacturers sought out large land plots with access to railroads and rivers, and some even created towns for their workers. Others invested in new communities that were originally established as industrial real estate ventures. Some owners moved their factories away from the city to avoid labor unions and gain more control over their workers. The region’s rugged terrain and abundant natural resources such as coal and gas contributed to this dispersal. The rapid growth of industries like steel, glass, railroad equipment, and coke led to a mix of both large mass-production plants and smaller firms. As the level of capital investment and interdependence increased, more participants joined in, economies were realized, division of labor became more specialized, and localized production systems developed around these key industries. This growth was made possible by the interconnectedness of transportation, capital, labor markets, and production, which bound the scattered industrial plants and communities together to form a vast metropolitan district. By 1910, the Pittsburgh area had transformed into a complex urban landscape, with a dominant central city surrounded by residential communities, mill towns, satellite cities, and hundreds of mining towns.

The town of Vandergrift, which was designed as a model town by Pittsburgh steelmaker George McMurtry in 1895, represented the new industrial suburbs. McMurtry, caught in the midst of industrial restructuring and labor conflict, hired Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape architectural firm to create a town that reflected his belief in welfare capitalism. This philosophy went beyond just providing paychecks, and instead focused on meeting the social needs of workers through a pleasant physical environment. The decision to build Vandergrift was prompted by a strike and lockout at McMurtry’s steelworks in Apollo, Pennsylvania. In order to cultivate a loyal workforce, McMurtry developed an agenda that incorporated environmentalism and popular attitudes towards the treatment of labor by capital. The Olmsted firm translated this agenda into an urban design that included elements of social reform, infrastructure planning, and private homeownership. The high rates of homeownership and positive relationships between the steel company and Vandergrift residents fostered loyalty among McMurtry’s skilled workers, leading to his greatest success in 1901 when he used them to break the first major strike against the United States Steel Corporation.

Pittsburgh’s Early Politics

Christopher Magee and William Flinn were influential figures in the Republican party who held significant control over local politics from 1880 onwards. As business owners, their interests aligned with those of the business community. Flinn was also a prominent advocate for the Progressive movement at the state level and threw his support behind Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 presidential election.

German Immigration to Pittsburgh

In the mid-19th century, Pittsburgh experienced a significant increase in the number of German immigrants, one of whom was a brick mason. His son, Henry J. Heinz, established the H.J. Heinz Company in 1869. Heinz played a leading role in efforts to reform food purity, as well as working conditions, hours, and wages, but the company strongly opposed the creation of a separate labor union.

Unions and The Steel City

Pittsburgh, known as a hub for manufacturing, was also a site of intense labor disputes. In the midst of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, workers in Pittsburgh demonstrated and engaged in widespread violence, which became known as the Pittsburgh Railway Riots. To suppress the strike, the city called upon both militia and federal troops. The violence resulted in the deaths of forty individuals, mostly workers, and the destruction of over forty buildings, including the Union Depot of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Additionally, strikers burned and destroyed numerous train engines and railcars, totaling over 100 and 1000 respectively. This city experienced the most violence out of all those affected by the strikes.

The steel industry witnessed a violent clash in 1892 which resulted in the deaths of 3 detectives and 7 workers, when Henry Clay Frick, the manager of Carnegie Steel Company, called in Pinkertons to suppress the Homestead Strike. As the Great Depression hit, workers continued to fight for their job security and better working conditions. The Catholic Radical Alliance aided in the organization of H.J. Heinz workers.

Andrew Carnegie

A Scottish immigrant named Andrew Carnegie, who previously worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, became a prominent figure in the steel industry when he founded the Carnegie Steel Company. He later became a philanthropist, establishing the first Carnegie Library in 1890 and continuing to establish libraries in different cities and towns through matching funds. In 1895, he also founded the Carnegie Institute and in 1901, he sold his mills to J.P. Morgan for $250 million when the U.S. Steel Corporation was formed, making him one of the wealthiest individuals in the world. Despite his wealth, Carnegie believed that dying rich was a disgrace and dedicated the rest of his life to public service by establishing libraries, trusts, and foundations. In Pittsburgh, he also founded the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now known as Carnegie Mellon University) and the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

The completion of the third Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail in 1886 coincided with the start of operation of trolleys in 1890. In 1907, Pittsburgh annexed Allegheny City, which is currently referred to as the North Shore.

Pittsburgh in the Early 20th Century

history of pittsburgh

The year 1911 marked the rise of Pittsburgh as a dominant force in both industry and commerce.

Pittsburgh is a major hub for the railway system, equipped with freight yards capable of handling up to 60,000 cars. Its harbor spans 27.2 miles and sees an annual river traffic of over 9 million tons. The total value of factory products in Pittsburgh, including Allegheny City, is more than $211 million. In terms of national output, Allegheny County produces approximately: 24% of pig iron, 34% of Bessemer steel, 44% of open hearth steel, 53% of crucible steel, 24% of steel rails, and 59% of structural shapes.

The Prohibition Era in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh played a major role in bootlegging and illegal alcohol consumption during the Prohibition era (1920-1933). The city’s large immigrant community, long-standing anti-establishment sentiment stemming from the Whiskey Rebellion, fragmented local government, and widespread corruption all contributed to the resistance against Prohibition. Additionally, the Pittsburgh crime family held considerable power in the illegal alcohol trade.

Throughout that period, John Pennington, the Prohibition Administrator, and his team of federal agents carried out approximately 15,000 raids, arrested more than 18,000 individuals, and shut down over 3,000 distilleries, 16 regular breweries, and 400 ‘wildcat’ breweries. The term “Speakeasy,” which refers to an illegal drinking establishment, is believed to have originated at the Blind Pig located in the nearby town of McKeesport, Pennsylvania.

In the 1920s, the only remaining distillery in Pittsburgh, owned by Joseph S. Finch, shut down at the intersection of South Second and McKean streets. In 2012, Wigle Whiskey was established, breaking the long dry spell since the closure of Finch’s distillery.

history of pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s Modernization into A City

During the late 19th century, there was a discussion among city officials regarding the cost and duty of implementing a waterworks system and managing sewage disposal. The dumping of sewage into the Ohio River by Pittsburgh was met with complaints from downstream users. It wasn’t until 1939 that cities in Allegheny County stopped releasing untreated sewage into the rivers. The smoke pollution in Pittsburgh, which was initially viewed as a sign of prosperity in the 1890s, was acknowledged as a concern during the Progressive Era and was eventually resolved in the 1930s-1940s. The steel plants continued to pile up slag until 1972, particularly in the Nine Mile Run Valley.

The explosion of a gas tank in November 1927 resulted in the death of 28 individuals and injuries to numerous others. This tragic event occurred in Pittsburgh and is documented in the 1927 Pittsburgh gas explosion.

In order to avoid the pollution of the urban area, a large number of affluent individuals resided in the Shadyside and East End neighborhoods, located several miles east of the city center. The street known as Fifth Avenue was nicknamed “Millionaire’s Row” due to the abundance of opulent mansions along its route.

From March 17 to 18, 1936, Pittsburgh was struck by its most devastating flood to date, reaching a record-high level of 46 feet. This disaster claimed the lives of 69 individuals, decimated numerous structures, resulted in $3 billion in damages (adjusted for value), and rendered over 60,000 steelworkers unemployed.

Education and Culture Expand in Pittsburgh

The neighborhood of Oakland emerged as the primary hub for culture and education in the area, boasting three universities, several museums, a library, a music hall, and a botanical conservatory. One of these universities, University of Pittsburgh, constructed what is now known as the fourth-tallest educational building in the world, the 42-story Cathedral of Learning. This structure loomed over Forbes Field, the former home of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1909 to 1970.

The City of Pittsburgh and It’s Growth with Immigration

From 1870 to 1920, the population of Pittsburgh experienced a significant growth of almost seven times, due in part to the influx of European immigrants. While immigrants from Britain, Ireland, and Germany continued to arrive, the majority after 1870 came from impoverished rural regions in southern and eastern Europe, including Italy, the Balkans, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Russian Empire. These newcomers, mostly unskilled, were able to find employment in various industries such as construction, mining, steel mills, and factories. As a result, the city began to see the introduction of new traditions, languages, and cultures, leading to a more diverse society. This diversity was evident in the development of ethnic neighborhoods in working-class areas, often situated on densely populated hillsides and valleys, including South Side, Polish Hill, Bloomfield, and Squirrel Hill, which was home to nearly 28% of the city’s 21,000 Jewish households. The Strip District, which served as the city’s main produce distribution center, still remains a hub of multiculturalism, with its many restaurants and clubs showcasing the traditions of Pittsburghers.

The Great Migration and It’s Effects on Pittsburgh

From 1916 to 1940, there was a significant influx of African Americans migrating to Pittsburgh as part of the Great Migration from the rural South to industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest. The reasons for their migration included seeking industrial jobs, education, political and social freedom, and escaping racial oppression and violence in the South. However, these migrants faced racial discrimination and limited opportunities for housing and employment in Pittsburgh and surrounding mill towns. The black population in Pittsburgh grew from 6,000 in 1880 to 27,000 in 1910, with many securing well-paying skilled positions in the steel mills. By 1920, the black population in Pittsburgh had increased to 37,700, accounting for 6.4% of the total population, and the black communities in neighboring areas such as Homestead, Rankin, and Braddock also experienced a significant rise. Despite the challenges, these migrants were able to establish strong community networks and overcome obstacles to establish new thriving communities.

African-Americans frequently used biblical language when discussing the Great Migration and received support from northern black newspapers, railroad companies, and industrial labor agents. However, they also relied on their family and friends to assist in their relocation to Western Pennsylvania. This involved forming migration clubs, pooling resources, purchasing discounted tickets, and often moving in groups. Prior to making the decision to move, they would gather information and engage in discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of the process. These discussions took place in various settings such as barbershops, poolrooms, grocery stores, churches, lodge halls, clubhouses, and private homes. Southern blacks would debate and deliberate on the merits and drawbacks of moving to the urban North.

The African American community in Pittsburgh had a strong presence in various institutions such as churches, fraternal orders, and newspapers, particularly the Pittsburgh Courier. Organizations like the NAACP, Urban League, and Garvey Movement also played a significant role, along with social clubs, restaurants, baseball teams, hotels, beauty shops, barber shops, and taverns, which were all abundant in the city.

Wylie Avenue in the Hill District was the central hub of Black Pittsburgh’s culture. This area gained recognition as a prominent destination for jazz music due to its popularity among renowned jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and local artists Billy Strayhorn and Earl Hines. The Hill District also saw fierce competition between two top Negro League baseball teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. These teams dominated the Negro National League during the 1930s and 1940s.

Politics And Pittsburgh

In the 1880s, Pittsburgh was known as a strong Republican area, according to historical records. The Republican government offered employment opportunities and aid to the newly arrived immigrants in exchange for their votes. However, the Republican party’s influence in the city was greatly affected by the Great Depression of 1929. The Democratic victory in 1932 led to the end of Republican patronage jobs and support. As the economic crisis deepened, the ethnic communities in Pittsburgh heavily supported the Democratic party, especially in 1934, making it a stronghold of the New Deal Coalition. By 1936, the Democrats’ relief and employment programs, particularly the WPA, gained immense popularity among the ethnic groups, resulting in a significant majority of votes for the Democratic party.

After the overwhelming success of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential win in 1932 and the election of a Democratic mayor in 1933, Joseph Guffey, a prominent figure in the state’s Democratic party, along with his ally David Lawrence, took control of all federal patronage in Pittsburgh. They utilized the various programs of the New Deal to expand their political influence and establish a dominant Democratic machine that surpassed the declining Republican machine. Guffey even saw the high number of people relying on government assistance as both a challenge and an opportunity, using every relief job as a means to reward loyal Democrats.


During World War II, Pittsburgh played a significant role as the hub of the “Arsenal of Democracy” by supplying steel, aluminum, munitions and machinery to the U.S. In fact, the city’s mills produced a whopping 95 million tons of steel for the war effort. This surge in production led to a shortage of workers, prompting large numbers of African Americans to migrate from the South to Pittsburgh in search of employment opportunities.

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The After-Effects of World War II on Pittsburgh

David Lawrence, a member of the Democratic Party, held the position of mayor in Pittsburgh from 1946 to 1959 and then went on to serve as governor of Pennsylvania from 1959 to 1963. During his time in office, Lawrence utilized his political influence to modernize the city’s political machine and promote honest governance. One of his notable actions was the enforcement of the Smoke Control Ordinance of 1941, which he believed was necessary for the economic progress of Pittsburgh. However, this move had a significant impact on the working-class population as it increased their cost of living and endangered the jobs of those employed in the nearby bituminous coal mines. This sparked protests from Italian-American groups who called for a delay in the enforcement of the ordinance. Despite this opposition, Lawrence was reelected in 1949, with strong support from the Italian-American community, many of whom were employed by the city.

The First Renaissance of Pittsburgh (1946-1973)

history of pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, despite being a thriving and productive city, was also known as the “Smoky City” due to the presence of heavy smog, resulting in streetlights being lit during the day. Additionally, the rivers in the city were often compared to open sewers. In 1945, Mayor David L. Lawrence and Richard K. Mellon, chairman of Mellon Bank, along with John P. Robin, took charge and implemented measures to control air pollution and revitalize the city through various projects, commonly referred to as Urban Renewal. These efforts resulted in unexpected and significant transformations in the city’s landscape.

The period known as “Renaissance I” commenced in 1946 with the implementation of Title One of the Housing Act of 1949. This allowed for the beginning of major changes. By 1950, a significant portion of buildings and land near the Point were removed to make way for the construction of Gateway Center. In 1953, the (now demolished) Greater Pittsburgh Municipal Airport terminal was opened, showcasing the growth of Pittsburgh as a major airport.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the lower Hill District, a predominantly Black area with a large population of poor residents, was completely demolished. The lower Hill District, which covered an area of ninety-five acres, was cleared using eminent domain, forcibly displacing over 8,000 people and hundreds of small businesses. This was done to make way for a cultural center that included the Civic Arena, which opened in 1961. However, despite plans for additional buildings, only one apartment building was actually constructed as part of the cultural center.

During the 1960s, the urban renewal plans of Renaissance I included the neighborhood of East Liberty, resulting in the demolition of more than 125 acres (0.51 km2) of the area. This was replaced with garden apartments, three 20-story public housing buildings, and a complex network of roads that encircled a shopping district for pedestrians. Within a short period in the mid-1960s, East Liberty became a neglected community. In 1959, there were around 575 establishments in East Liberty, but by 1970, the number had dropped to 292, and by 1979, it had further declined to only 98.

The demolition plans were resisted by both the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and various community neighborhood groups, leading to preservation efforts. Fortunately, the demolition was prevented in neighborhoods that held significant architectural heritage such as the Mexican War Streets, Allegheny West, and Manchester. However, the culturally and socially important buildings in the center of Allegheny City were not as fortunate and were all replaced, with the exception of the Old U.S. Post Office, the Carnegie Library, and the Buhl Planetarium. These buildings were destroyed and replaced by the “pedestrianized” Allegheny Center Mall and apartment complexes.

After World War II, the city’s industrial sector continued to expand, with assistance from the first agency focused solely on industrial development in the region, the RIDC. Jones and Laughlin Steel Company also grew their plant in the Southside, while companies like H.J. Heinz, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Alcoa, Westinghouse, and U.S. Steel and its new division, the Pittsburgh Chemical Company, maintained strong operations into the 1960s. The 1970s saw the completion of Renaissance I’s final building projects: the U.S. Steel Tower and Three Rivers Stadium. Point State Park was fully completed in 1974 with the addition of a fountain at the tip of the Golden Triangle. Even though air quality had significantly improved and Pittsburgh’s manufacturing base was stable, concerns were raised about the negative impact of Urban Renewal on the city’s social fabric. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh was about to undergo a major transformation.

In April 1968, Pittsburgh, like many other large cities, saw a series of riots in response to the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. Despite persistent tension in the inner-city black neighborhoods, there were no significant riots after this initial outbreak.

Pittsburgh’s Evolution Into the 2nd Half of the 20th Century (1973-present)

Foreign competition and American mini-mills, which utilized salvaged steel and had lower overhead, put increasing pressure on the U.S. steel industry during the 1970s and 1980s. Germany and Japan experienced a boom in manufacturing, aided by advanced technology and government-corporate partnerships that allowed them to gain a larger share of the steel and steel products market. Demand for steel also decreased due to economic downturns, the 1973 oil crisis, and the use of alternative materials. The period was marked by the publication of the “Building on Basics” report by RIDC in 1974.

The Steel Industry Begins To Fade

The issues within the U.S. steel industry were brought to light by the pressures of the free market. These problems included an outdated manufacturing base that had been expanded excessively in the 1950s and 1960s, strained relationships between management and labor, the United Steelworkers’ inflexibility in regards to wage cuts and work-rule reforms, oligarchic management styles, and inadequate strategic planning by both unions and management. These challenges were particularly prominent in Pittsburgh, where local resources such as coke and iron ore were depleted, resulting in higher material costs. The large mills in the Pittsburgh area also faced competition from newer and more profitable “mini-mills” and non-union mills with lower labor expenses.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the steel industry in Pittsburgh experienced a decline as part of the deindustrialization of the United States. This was evident in the shutdown of steel mills and the subsequent layoffs of 153,000 workers following the 1981-1982 recession. The impact of these closures was felt across the region, leading to the closure of railroads, mines, and other factories. As a result, the local economy suffered from high unemployment and underemployment, forcing laid-off workers to take lower-paying jobs outside of the union. Pittsburgh, like other cities in the Rust Belt, faced a decrease in population and saw an increase in white flight to the suburbs.

In 1991, the Homestead Works was torn down and replaced by The Waterfront shopping mall in 1999. This led to a decrease in the population of Homestead due to the loss of mill jobs. As a result, the borough’s population was reduced to 3,569 by the 2000 census. However, the financial situation of the borough started to improve in 2002, thanks to the expansion of the retail sector and its contribution to the tax base.

Big Business And The Corporate Climate in Pittsburgh

Several major corporate headquarters, including Gulf Oil (1985), Koppers (1987), Westinghouse (1996), and Rockwell International (1989), were acquired by larger companies. This resulted in the displacement of well-paid white collar employees and research personnel (known as the “brain drain”), as well as significant donations to local cultural and educational institutions by the original companies. The merger between Gulf Oil and another company in 1985 was the largest in history at the time, involving a company that ranked 7th on the Fortune 500 just six years prior. This single event led to the loss of over 1,000 high-paying white collar and PhD research jobs.

Currently, Pittsburgh does not have any steel mills within its city boundaries. However, manufacturing still takes place at nearby regional mills, like the Edgar Thomson Works in the neighboring town of Braddock.

Pittsburgh as an Educational Hub

Cathedral of Learning

In the rankings for both undergraduate and graduate schools, Pittsburgh is home to three universities: The University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and Duquesne University. These universities, particularly Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, were established in the mid-20th century to meet the demands of the heavy industries that provided funding and direction. However, with the decline of the steel industry, these universities had to adapt and transform into research centers for science and technology, which ultimately helped drive the regional economy towards high-tech fields. Other notable higher education institutions in the region include Robert Morris University, Chatham University, Carlow University, Point Park University, La Roche College, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Trinity School for Ministry, and the Community College of Allegheny County.

Pittsburgh’s economy underwent a transformation in the 1980s, shifting from a focus on heavy industry to a more diverse range of sectors including services, healthcare, education, tourism, finance, and technology. Presently, the two primary employers in the city are the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center with 26,000 workers and the West Penn Allegheny Health System with 13,000 employees.

The City Begins To Rebound

In spite of the challenging economic situation, there were still efforts made to improve the city. In the mid-1970s, Arthur P. Ziegler, Jr. and the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (Landmarks) aimed to prove that preserving historical buildings could contribute to economic growth without the need for eminent domain or public funding. Landmarks bought the former terminal buildings and yards of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, which was a 1-mile long property situated at the foot of Mt. Washington, facing the City of Pittsburgh. In 1976, Landmarks transformed the site into a mixed-use development, utilizing adaptive reuse, to demonstrate their urban planning principles. With initial support from the Allegheny Foundation, Landmarks repurposed five historic Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad structures and added a hotel, a dock for the Gateway Clipper fleet, and parking spaces. Now, the area boasts a variety of shops, offices, restaurants, and entertainment options along the historic riverfront of the Monongahela River, across from the Golden Triangle. Station Square is a popular attraction, drawing in over 3,500,000 visitors annually. This project required a $100 million investment from various sources, with minimal public funding and the highest return on investment for taxpayers in the Pittsburgh region since the 1950s. In 1994, Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation sold Station Square to Forest City Enterprises, creating an endowment to support their ongoing restoration efforts and educational programs. Each year, the staff and docents at Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation educate over 10,000 individuals, including teachers, students, adults, and tourists, about the architectural heritage of the region and the value of preserving historical sites.

In this era, Pittsburgh gained recognition as a leading example for community development thanks to the efforts of individuals like Dorothy Mae Richardson. In 1968, Richardson established Neighborhood Housing Services, an organization that served as a blueprint for the nationwide NeighborWorks America. Richardson and other activists aligned with Landmarks’ goal of revitalizing Pittsburgh’s existing structures instead of tearing them down for redevelopment.

The High Technology Center, which was built with public subsidies, was constructed on the north side of the Monongahela river after the clearance of the J & L Steel site in 1985. The Pittsburgh Technology Center, known as the base for several major technology companies, is preparing for a significant expansion in the near future. During the “Renaissance II” urban revitalization in the 1980s, numerous new structures were erected, including PPG Place. The sites of the former J&L mills in Homestead, Duquesne, and the South Side were cleared in the 1990s. The new terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport was opened in 1992 and in 2022 further expansion of the airport was planned. Despite being rejected by voter referendum, the aging Three Rivers Stadium was replaced by Heinz Field (now Acrisure Stadium) and PNC Park in 2001. And in 2010, PPG Paints Arena became the new home of the Pittsburgh Penguins, replacing the Civic Arena, which was at the time the oldest arena.

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Pittsburgh of Today and Tomorrow

Pittsburgh, in the present, has a diverse economy, low cost of living, and well-developed infrastructure for medicine, education, and culture. It has been recognized as one of the most livable cities in the world. The city has experienced a significant increase in tourism, with over 3,000 new hotel rooms built since 2004, resulting in a consistently higher occupancy rate compared to similar cities. The medical industry has taken over as the leading industry, replacing steel. Additionally, major technology companies like Apple, Google, IBM Watson, Facebook, and Intel have chosen to operate in Pittsburgh, joining the 1,600 technology firms already established there. The city’s proximity to CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) has led to a rise in companies specializing in autonomous vehicles. Pittsburgh has also become a leader in green environmental design, as exemplified by the city’s convention center. In the last two decades, a small but noteworthy group of Asian immigrants, including those from the Indian sub-continent, have made their home in Pittsburgh. It is widely regarded as the most recovered city from the rust belt.

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