History of Pittsburgh since 1800

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The Fort Pitt Blockhouse, dating to 1764, is the oldest structure in Pittsburgh.[1]

The site of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, is at the confluence of the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River, forming the Ohio River. The history of Pittsburgh began with a struggle between Native Americans, the French and the British over the control of this strategic juncture. See * Pittsburgh, History to 1800

By 1815, Pittsburgh was producing significant quantities of iron, brass, tin and glass products. By the 1840s, Pittsburgh had grown to one of the largest cities west of the Allegheny Mountains. A great fire burned more than a thousand buildings in 1845, but the city rebuilt. By 1857, Pittsburgh had nearly 1,000 factories. The American Civil War boosted the city's economy still further, with increased production of iron and armaments. Production of steel began in 1875. By 1911, Pittsburgh was producing as much as half of the nation's steel. In the early 20th century, the city's population topped half a million, including many European immigrants. During World War II, Pittsburgh contributed more than 95 million tons of steel to the allied war effort.[2]

Following World War II, the city launched a clean air and civic revitalization project known as the "Renaissance." The industrial base continued to expand through the 1960s. In the 1980s, however, the steel industry imploded, with massive layoffs and mill closures. Pittsburgh shifted its economic base to higher education, services, tourism, medicine and high technology. During this transition, the city population shrank to 330,000.

The Iron City (1800–1859)

Second Court House, completed 1841[3]

Commerce continued to be an essential part of the economy of early Pittsburgh, but increasingly, manufacture began to grow in importance. Pittsburgh sat in the middle of one of the most productive coalfields in the country; the region was also rich in petroleum, natural gas, lumber and farm goods. Also, the early settlers were accustomed to manufacturing everything they needed. Blacksmiths forged iron implements, from horse shoes to nails. By 1800, the town, with a population of 1,565 persons, had over 60 shops, including general stores, bakeries, and hat and shoe shops.[2]

The 1810s were a critical decade in Pittsburgh's growth. In 1811, the first steamboat was built in Pittsburgh. Increasingly, commerce would also flow upriver. The War of 1812 was catalytic in the growth of the Iron City. The war with Britain, the manufacturing center of the world, cut off the supply of British goods, stimulating American manufacture.[2] Also, the British blockade of the American coast increased inland trade, so that goods flowed through Pittsburgh from all four directions. By 1815, Pittsburgh was producing $764K in iron; $249K in brass and tin, and $235K in glass products.[2] When, on March 18, 1816, Pittsburgh was incorporated as a city, it had already taken on some of its defining characteristics: commerce, manufacture, and a constant cloud of coal dust.[4] With a population of 6,000, Pittsburgh was already Pittsburgh.

Other emerging towns challenged Pittsburgh. In 1818, the first segment of the National Road was completed, from Baltimore to Wheeling, bypassing Pittsburgh. This threatened to render the town less essential in east-west commerce. In the coming decade, however, many improvements were made to the transportation infrastructure. In 1818, the region's first river bridge, the Smithfield Street Bridge, opened, the first step in building the city of bridges.[5] In 1820, the original Pennsylvania Turnpike was completed, connecting Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. In 1829, the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal began operations.[6] Now Pittsburgh was part of a transportation system that included rivers, roads and canals.

Manufacture continued to grow. In 1835, McClurg, Wade and Co. built the first locomotive west of the Alleghenies. Already, Pittsburgh was capable of manufacturing the most essential machines of its age. By the 1840s, Pittsburgh was not a town, but one of the largest cities west of the mountains. In 1841, the Second Court House, on Grant's Hill, was completed. Made from polished gray sandstone, the court house had a rotunda 60 feet in diameter and 80 feet high.[7]

Like many burgeoning cities of its day, Pittsburgh's growth outstripped some of its necessary infrastructure, such as a water supply with dependable pressure.[8] Because of this, on April 10 1845, a great fire burned out of control, destroying over a thousand buildings and causing $9M in damages.[3] As the city rebuilt, the age of rails arrived. In 1851, the Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad began service between Cleveland and Allegheny City (present-day North Side).[6] In 1854, the Pennsylvania Railroad began service between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Despite many challenges, Pittsburgh had grown into an industrial powerhouse. An 1857 article[3] provided a snapshot of the Iron City:

  • 939 factories in Pittsburgh and Allegheny City
    • employing more than 10 K workers
    • producing almost $12M in goods
    • using 400 steam engines
  • Total coal consumed - 22M bushels
  • Total iron consumed - 127 K tons
  • In steam tonnage, third busiest port in the nation, surpassed only by New York City and New Orleans.
Monongahela River Scene, 1857.[3]
Year City Population City Rank [1]
1800 1,565 NA
1810 4,768 31
1820 7,248 23
1830 12,568 17
1840 21,115 17
1850 46,601 13
1860 49,221 17

The Steel City (1859–1946)

[9] Pittsburgh in 1874. Birmingham is in the foreground, and Allegheny City in background across the Allegheny.

During the mid-1800s, Pittsburgh witnessed a dramatic influx of German immigrants, including a brick mason whose son, Henry J. Heinz, founded the H.J. Heinz Company in 1872. Heinz was at the forefront of reform efforts to improve food purity, working conditions, hours and wages.[10]

The iron industry in Pittsburgh was thriving. In 1859, the Clinton and Soho iron furnaces introduced coke-fire smelting to the region. The American Civil War boosted the city's economy with increased production of iron and armaments, especially at the Allegheny Arsenal and the Fort Pitt Foundry.[7] Arms manufacture included iron-clad warships and the world's first 21" gun.[11] By war's end, over one-half of the steel and more than one-third of all U.S. glass was produced in Pittsburgh.[10] A milestone in steel production was achieved in 1875, when the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock began to make steel rail using the new Bessemer process.

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 Company (1869), Union Switch & Signal (1883), and Westinghouse Electric Company (1886). Banks played a key role in Pittsburgh's development as these industrialists sought massive loans to upgrade plants, integrate industries and fund technological advances. For example, T. Mellon & Sons Bank, founded in 1869, helped finance an aluminum reduction company that became Alcoa.[10]

Burning of Pennsylvania Railroad and Union Depot, Pittsburgh, 21–22 July 1877

As a manufacturing center, Pittsburgh also became an arena for intense labor strife. During the great railroad strike of 1877, Pittsburgh erupted into widespread rioting.[12] Dozens died and over 40 buildings were burned down, including the Union Depot of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Fifteen years later, in 1892, another tragic episode in labor relations resulted in 10 deaths when Carnegie Steel Company's manager Henry Clay Frick sent in Pinkertons to break the Homestead Strike.

Andrew Carnegie, a former Pennsylvania Railroad executive turned steel magnate, founded the Carnegie Steel Company. He proceeded to play a key role in the development of the U.S. steel industry. In 1890, he established the first Carnegie Library, and in 1895, the Carnegie Institute. In 1901, as the U.S. Steel Corporation formed, he sold his mills to J.P. Morgan for $250 million, making him one of the world's richest men. Carnegie once wrote that a man who dies rich, dies disgraced.[13] He devoted the rest of his life to public service, establishing libraries, trusts and foundations. In Pittsburgh, he founded the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.[10]

[14] Pittsburgh in 1902

In civic developments, in 1886, the third (and present) Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail was completed. In 1890, trolleys began operations. In 1907, the city had a major flood.[6] Pittsburgh annexed Allegheny City.[6]

By 1911, Pittsburgh had grown into an industrial and commercial powerhouse:[15]

  • Nexus of a vast railway system, with freight yards capable of handling 60 K cars
  • 27.2 miles of harbor
  • Yearly river traffic in excess of 9M tons
  • Value of factory products more than $211M (with Allegheny City)
  • Allegheny county produced, as percentage of national output, about:
    • 24% of the pig-iron
    • 34% of the Bessemer steel
    • 44% of the open-hearth steel
    • 53% of the crucible steel
    • 24% of the steel rails
    • 59% of the structural shapes

To escape the soot of the city, many of the wealthy lived in the Shadyside and East End neighborhoods, a few miles east of downtown. Fifth Avenue was dubbed "Millionaire's Row" because of the many mansions lining the street. Oakland became the city's predominant cultural and educational center, including four universities, multiple museums, a library, a music hall and a botanical conservatory. Oakland's University of Pittsburgh erected the world's second-tallest educational building, the 42-story Cathedral of Learning.[16] It towered over Forbes Field, where the Pittsburgh Pirates played from 1909–1970.[10]

Downtown Pittsburgh panorama, from 1920.

Between 1870 and 1920, the population of Pittsburgh grew almost sevenfold. Many of the new residents were immigrants who sought employment in the factories and mills and introduced new traditions, languages and cultures to the city. Ethnic neighborhoods emerged on densely populated hillsides and valleys, such as Polish Hill, Bloomfield and Squirrel Hill, home to 28% of the city's almost 21,000 Jewish households.[17] The Strip District, the city's produce distribution center, still boasts many restaurants and clubs that showcase these multicultural traditions of Pittsburghers.[10]

The years 1916–1930 marked the largest migration of African-Americans to Pittsburgh. Known as the cultural nucleus of Black Pittsburgh, Wylie Avenue in the Hill District was an important jazz mecca. Jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Pittsburgh natives Billy Strayhorn and Earl Hines played here. Two of the Negro League's greatest rivals, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays, often competed in the Hill District. The teams dominated the Negro National League in the 1930s and 1940s.[10]

During World War II, Pittsburgh's mills contributed 95 million tons of steel to the Allied war effort.[2]

Steelworker watching molten steel being poured into a mold, J&L Steel, Pittsburgh, May 1942.
Year City Population City Rank [2]
1860 49,221 17
1870 86,076 16
1880 156,389 12
1890 238,617 13
1900 321,616 11
1910 533,905 8
1920 588,343 9
1930 669,817 10
1940 671,659 10
1950 676,806 12

Renaissance I (1946–1973)

Three Rivers, in 2000. The multi-purpose stadium was built in 1970 as part of the Renaissance I project. It was imploded in 2001.

Rich and productive, Pittsburgh was also the "Smoky City," with smog sometimes so thick that streetlights burned during the day.[2] Civic leaders, notably Mayor David L. Lawrence, elected in 1945, and Richard K. Mellon, chairman of Mellon Bank, began smoke control and urban revitalization projects that transformed the city.[2] Renaissance I began in 1946. By 1950, the first building project, the Gateway Center, was under construction. 1953 saw the opening of the (since demolished) Greater Pittsburgh Municipal Airport.[6] Ninety-five acres of the lower Hill District were cleared, displacing 1,200 residents, most of them African-American, in order to make room for the Civic Arena, which opened in 1961.[18]

The city's industrial base continued to grow. Jones and Laughlin Steel Company expanded its plant on the Southside. H.J. Heinz, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Alcoa, Westinghouse, U.S. Steel and its new division, the Pittsburgh Chemical Company and many other companies also continued robust operations through the 1960s.[2] 1970 marked the completion of the final building projects of Renaissance I, the U.S. Steel Tower and Three Rivers Stadium.[6] In 1974, with the addition of the fountain at the tip of the Golden Triangle, Point State Park was completed.[19] The city was revitalized. Air quality was dramatically improved. Pittsburgh's manufacturing base seemed solid. Pittsburgh, however, was about to undergo one of its most dramatic transformations.

Reinvention (1973–present)

"Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington," by Jennifer Yang, December, 2005.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. steel industry came under increasing pressure from foreign competition. Manufacture in Germany and Japan was booming. Foreign mills and factories, built with the latest technology, benefited from lower labor costs and powerful government-corporate partnerships, allowing them to capture increasing market shares of steel and steel products. Separately, demand for steel softened due to recessions, the 1973 oil crisis, and increasing use of other materials.[2][20] At this critical juncture, free market and anti-union policies, and deregulation, especially under President Reagan, came into play.[20] These pressures only added to the U.S. steel industry's own internal problems, which included a now-outdated manufacturing base that had been over-expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, hostile management and labor relationships, the inflexibility of United Steelworkers regarding wage cuts and work-rule reforms, oligarchic management styles, and poor strategic planning by both union and management.[20] In particular, Pittsburgh faced its own challenges. Local coke and ore deposits were depleted, raising material costs. The large mills in the Pittsburgh region also faced competition from newer, more profitable "mini-mills" and non-union mills with lower labor costs[20]

Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the steel industry in Pittsburgh began to implode. Following the 1981–1982 recession, for example, the mills laid off 153,000 workers.[20] The steel mills began to shut down. These closures caused a ripple effect, as railroads, mines, and other factories across the region lost business and closed. The local economy suffered a depression, marked by high unemployment and underemployment, as laid-off workers took lower-paying, non-union jobs. Pittsburgh suffered as elsewhere in the Rust Belt with a declining population, and like many other U.S. cities, it also saw white flight to the suburbs.[21]

Year City Population City Rank [3] Population of the Urbanized Area [4]
1950 676,806 12 1,533,000
1960 604,332 16 1,804,000
1970 540,025 24 1,846,000
1980 423,938 30 1,810,000
1990 369,879 40 1,678,000
2000 334,563 51 1,753,000

Today there are no steel mills in Pittsburgh, although manufacture continues at regional mills, such as the Edgar Thomson Works in near-by Braddock. Beginning in the 1980s, Pittsburgh's economy shifted from heavy industry to services, medicine, higher education, tourism, banking, corporate headquarters and high technology. Today, the top two private employers in the city are the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (26,000 employees) and the University of Pittsburgh (10,700 employees).[22]

Despite the economic turmoil, civic improvements continued. In 1985, the J & L Steel Southside site was cleared and a High Technology Center was built.[6] In the 1980s, the Renaissance II urban revitalization created numerous new structures, such as PPG Place. In the 1990s, the former sites of the Homestead, Duquesne and South Side US Steel mills were cleared.[6] In 1992, the new terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport opened.[6] In 2001, Heinz Field and PNC Park opened.

Following these transformations, present-day Pittsburgh, with clean air, a diversified economy, a low cost of living, and a rich infrastructure for education and culture, has been ranked as one of the World's Most Livable Cities.[23]

See also


  1. "A History of the Point," Fort Pitt Museum
  2. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Lorant
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Ballou's Pictorial, issue of 21 Feb 1857
  4. Darby's Emigrant's Guide, 1818
  5. Bridges and Tunnels of Allegheny County and Pittsburgh, PA
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 Key Events in Pittsburgh History, WQED Pittsburgh History Site
  7. 7.0 7.1 "A century and a half of Pittsburg and her people," Boucher, John Newton; The Lewis Publishing Company, 1908.
  8. "History of the Allegheny Fire Department," Allegheny Fire Dept., 1894/5
  9. Otto Krebs, Lithograph, 1874
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 History of Pittsburgh, Miriam Meislik, Ed Galloway, Society of American Archivists Annual Conference, Pittsburgh, PA, 1999.
  11. "Allegheny County's Hundred Years," Thurston, George H.; A. A. Anderson Son, Pittsburgh, 1888.
  12. "Harper's Weekly, Journal of Civilization," Vol XXL, No. 1076, New York, Saturday, August 11, 1877.
  13. "The Gospel of Wealth," Carnegie, Andrew, 1889.
  14. Thaddeus M. Fowler, Lithograph, 1902, From the Palmer Museum of Art of The Pennsylvania State University.
  15. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named EB1911
  16. "Cathedral of Learning," University of Pittsburgh
  17. "The 2002 Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study," Ukeles Associates, Inc., December 2002
  18. "Building the Igloo," PittsburghHeritage.com
  19. "History, Point State Park," Pennsylvania State Parks website
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 20.4 "And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry," John P. Hoerr, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988.
  21. "Western PA History: Renaissance City: Corporate Center 1945–present," WQED's Pittsburgh History Teacher's Guide series
  22. "Top Private Employers, Pittsburgh Regional Alliance - Aug 2006
  23. Livability Ranking, Economist Intelligence Unit, October 2005


  • Baldwin, Leland D. Pittsburgh: The Story of a City University of Pittsburgh Press, 1937 online edition, popular history by leading scholar
  • Bauman, John F. and Edward K. Muller. Before Renaissance: Planning in Pittsburgh, 1889-1943 University of Pittsburgh Press,(2006). 331 pp. online review
  • Cannadine, David. Mellon: An American Life (2006), major biography of top industrial and financial leader
  • Carson, Carolyn Leonard. Healing Body, Mind, and Spirit: The History of the St. Francis Medical Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Carnegie-Mellon U. Press, 1995. 246 pp.
  • Thomas, Clarke M. Front-Page Pittsburgh: Two Hundred Years of the Post-Gazette. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. 332 pp.
  • Couvares, Francis G. The Remaking of Pittsburgh: Class and Culture in an Industrializing City 1877-1919 State University of New York Press, 1984 online edition
  • Crowley, Gregory J. The Politics of Place: Contentious Urban Redevelopment in Pittsburgh. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. 207 pp.
  • Devault, Ileen A. Sons and Daughters of Labor: Class and Clerical Work in Turn-of-the-Century Pittsburgh. Cornell U. Press, 1991. 194 pp.
  • Glasco, Laurence A., ed. The WPA History of the Negro in Pittsburgh. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. 422 pp.
  • Greenwald, Maurine W. and Anderson, Margo, eds. Pittsburgh Surveyed: Social Science and Social Reform in the Early Twentieth Century. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1996. 292 pp.
  • Hays, Samuel P., ed. City at the Point: Essays on the Social History of Pittsburgh. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1989. 473 pp.
  • Heineman, Kenneth J. A Catholic New Deal: Religion and Reform in Depression Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania State U. Press, 1999. 287 pp. online edition
  • Hinshaw, John. Steel and Steelworkers: Race and Class Struggle in Twentieth-Century Pittsburgh. State U. of New York Press, 2002. 348 pp.
  • Hoerr, John. And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of American Steel. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1988. 689 pp.
  • Holt, Michael 1850s
  • Ingham, John N. Making Iron and Steel: Independent Mills in Pittsburgh, 1820-1920. Ohio State U. Press, 1991. 297 pp.
  • Kleinberg, S. J. The Shadow of the Mills: Working-Class Families in Pittsburgh, 1870-1907. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1989. 414 pp.
  • Krause, Paul. The Battle for Homestead, 1880-1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. 548 pp.
  • Lopez, Steven Henry. Reorganizing the Rust Belt: An Inside Study of the American Labor Movement. U. of California Press, 2004. 314 pp.
  • Lorant, Stefan. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City, (1964), well written, heavily illustrated popular history
  • Lubove, Roy. Twentieth Century Pittsburgh: Government, Business, and Environmental Change (1969)
  • Lubove, Roy. Twentieth-Century Pittsburgh. Vol. 2: The Post-Steel Era. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1996. 413 pp. the major scholarly synthesis
  • David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie (2006), major biography
  • Pittsburgh Survey 5 vol
  • Rishel, Joseph F. Founding Families of Pittsburgh: The Evolution of a Regional Elite, 1760-1910. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1990. 241 pp.
  • Rose, James D. Duquesne and the Rise of Steel Unionism. U. of Illinois Press, 2001. 284 pp.
  • Ruck, Rob. Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh. U. of Illinois Press, 1987. 238 pp.
  • Seely, Bruce E., ed. Iron and Steel in the Twentieth Century. Facts on File, 1994. 512 pp.
  • Smith, Arthur G. Pittsburgh: Then and Now. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1990. 336 pp.
  • Smith, George David. From Monopoly to Competition: The Transformation of Alcoa, 1888-1986. Cambridge U. Press, 1988. 554 pp.
  • Tarr, Joel A., ed. Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 2003. 312 pp. online review
  • Wade, Richard C. The Urban Frontier: The Rise of Western Cities, 1790-1830. (1959)
  • Wall, Joseph. Andrew Carnegie (1970). 1137 pp.; major biography
  • Warren, Kenneth. Triumphant Capitalism: Henry Clay Frick and the Industrial Transformation of America. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.
  • Weber, Michael P. Don't Call Me Boss: David L. Lawrence, Pittsburgh's Renaissance Mayor. U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1988. 440 pp.

Primary sources

  • Lubove, Roy, ed. Pittsburgh 1976. 294 pp. short excerpts

External links

See also