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

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 plum es 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. The Ohio River at Sewickley has recorded from as little as 1,800 cubic feet per second to as much as 574,000 cubic feet per second when the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936 hit Pittsburgh.

That flood, the equivalent of 61 modern-day Niagara Falls, prompted a get-tough attitude toward flood control. Today, the rivers are really a series of pools - tightly regulated by an extensive system of dams, locks, and holding reservoirs.

According to Dale Moore, assistant lockmaster of Dashields Lock and Dam in Glenwillard, "Anything and everything passes through here.... A guy carried a baseball from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati on a jet ski.... People kayak the length of the Ohio.... Once we had a beaver. A tow was coming and we were afraid he'd get crushed. The tow was far enough away so we drained the channel and he went swimming on through."

American Rivers does not list the Ohio as one of the 10 most endangered and threatened rivers of 1992 (although it's still threatened, the conservation group says).

Walk up to Ed, the parking lot attendant just across the Allegheny from downtown Pittsburgh, and he'll tell you about feeding the ducks. "You can look down the side and see the bottom of the river," he says. "You couldn't do that before." Upriver, the Three Rivers Rowing Association is reviving a sport that flourished in the second half of the 19th century.

"Once a river becomes a working river, it's devil-take-the-hindmost, really," says Joel Tarr, professor of urban studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

"You had a combination of acid mine drainage with municipal wastes and industrial waste.... The rivers were probably at their worst from the period of 1890 up until after the period of the Second World War."

In his 1836 book "A Pleasant Peregrination through the Prettiest Parts of Pennsylvania," Philip Nicklin complained about Pittsburgh's disruption of the natural landscape:

"The Pittsburghers have committed an error in not rescuing from the service of Mammon, a triangle of thirty or forty acres at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela, and devoting it to the purposes of recreation."

That idea didn't take hold until after World War II. In two dramatic leaps of urban renewal, known as Renaissance I and II, the city rebuilt its downtown and cut down its pollution. As steelmaking and manufacturing declined, the air and rivers got cleaner. Pittsburgh is still the nation's largest inland harbor. (Chicago and other deep-draft ports are in a different category.) The city finally got around to dedicating a park on the point where the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers meet in 1974.

Jake Haulk, senior vice president of Mellon Bank, says that from his old 52nd-story office overlooking the point, "I remember seeing my first 18-barge tow hook up and wondering how in the heck they could maneuver those things. I remember watching my first boat-plane landing on the river, coming up over the West End bridge. I remember the day it [the river] had the whole Point State Park under water.... Over a period of seven years you are going to see every condition of the rivers.... They have a certain

rhythm. The seasons come and go and the river keeps moving out to sea." Some of the quotes used above come from two books: Robert C. Alberts's "The Shaping of the Point," 1980, and Stefan Lorant's "Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City," 1975.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Pittsburgh: A City Of Steel and Rivers
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today