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An Overview of Pittsburgh History

From the "Forks of the Ohio" to the "Steel City" and Beyond

"I spent some time in viewing the rivers, and the land in the fork; which I think extremely well situated for
a fort, as it has absolute command of both rivers."
-- journal entry by George Washington, November 1753

The rise of an industrious city was inevitable at the confluence of the Monongahela, the Allegheny and the Ohio rivers. Prior to European settlement, many Native American tribes, including the Delaware, the Iroquois and the Shawnee, made their habitation in the area of the three rivers. They recognized the value of the land for its abundant natural resources, strategic location and ease of transportation provided by the water routes.

Western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley became an area of great conflict in the 18th century, especially as the French and the British fought to control the "Forks of the Ohio." In late 1753 Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia dispatched a young major by the name of George Washington on an expedition to investigate French activities in Western Pennsylvania. The importance of the Point and the converging rivers was not lost on the future president. Upon his recommendation, the British sent Captain William Trent to begin the construction of a fort at the Point in early 1754.

The British, however, would not complete the fortification. In April French and Native troops captured it without bloodshed, finished its construction and named it Fort Duquesne in tribute of the French colonial governor. Within a year, the new settlement had 60 residents. Four years later the British regained possession of the Point when General John Forbes drove out the French, destroying their fort. Forbes erected a new fort named Fort Pitt in honor of British Prime Minister William Pitt in September 1759. A brick blockhouse, completed outside the fort's walls, still stands today. Within five years John Campbell produced the first town plan for "Pittsbourgh."

Early efforts by the British to restrict settlement in the region failed as settlers arrived in droves following the Revolutionary War. While many early settlers worked the land, the economy rapidly moved beyond farming to iron, glass and boat manufacturing. Mostly populated by Irish and Scottish immigrants, Pittsburgh became a shipbuilding capital and departure point for people traveling down the Ohio River anxious to explore the lands to the west. Lines of steamboats docked along the Monongahela Wharf delivered people and goods to Cincinnati, St. Louis and even ports as far as New Orleans. It was during this period that Pittsburgh proudly bore the title of "Gateway to the West." Between 1800 and 1816 the population increased from 1,500 to over 10,000 residents.

Pittsburgh's strategic location and wealth of natural resources, combined with a steady flow of immigrant labor, spurred its commercial and industrial success. As early as the 1760s, residents mined coal from the side of Mount Washington and "Coal Hill," now known as the Hill District. The construction of a blast furnace by George Anschutz in 1792 was the forerunner of the iron and steel industry soon to dominate the economy. Between 1763 and 1850, the city became the leading maker of American glassware because of its abundant supply of sand, coal and clay. As many as 62 glass factories sprung up in the City of Birmingham on the south bank of the Monongahela River, later to be known as the South Side neighborhood of Pittsburgh. On the north bank of the Allegheny River, Allegheny City (today known as the North Side) comprised numerous residences, small businesses and breweries.

The city of Pittsburgh continued to grow rapidly as evidenced by its incorporation as a borough in 1794 and then as a city in 1816. This was in addition to being named county seat in 1788. The building of rail lines and a canal connecting Pittsburgh to the eastern seaboards opened up greater opportunities for trade and travel. Not even disasters, such as the annual flooding of the rivers and the great fire of 1845, could halt Pittsburgh's prosperity. The city's population in 1840 more than doubled by 1850 to over 46,600.

By the time of the Civil War, the iron industry in Pittsburgh was thriving with its constant supply of bituminous coal and limestone located throughout the region. The war gave a tremendous boost to the city's economy with increased iron production and a supplier of Union armaments from Lawrenceville's Allegheny Arsenal and the Fort Pitt Foundry. In addition to being dubbed the "Iron City," Pittsburgh also earned the nickname "Arsenal of the Union." By war's end, over one-half of the steel and more than one-third of all U.S. glass was produced in Pittsburgh. The 1860s also marked the beginning of the petroleum industry in America when Edwin L. Drake struck oil near Titusville, a city north of Pittsburgh.

Throughout the 1800s Pittsburgh continued to prosper. By 1870 it had over 86,000 citizens which grew to over 156,000 ten years later. Industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew W. Mellon, and Charles M. Schwab built their fortunes here. George Westinghouse, credited with such advancements as the air brake and alternating current, founded over 60 companies in Pittsburgh, including Westinghouse Air and Brake Co. (1869), Union Switch and Signal (1883), and Westinghouse Electric Co. (1886). Banks played a key role in Pittsburgh's development as these industrialists sought massive loans to upgrade plants and fund technological advances. In particular, Thomas Mellon and Sons Bank, founded in 1869, helped finance an aluminum reduction company owned by Alfred Hunt and Charles Hall, which became known as Alcoa.

by Ed Galloway and Miriam Meislik

Photo Title: Aerial View of the Point, Date: ca. 1930
Available from Historic Pittsburgh, hosted by the University of Pittsburgh's Digital Research Library.