Historical Markers
Pittsburgh (Steel) Historical Marker
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Pittsburgh (Steel)

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Pa. 65 (Ohio River Blvd.), N city line. [+ 7 more locations]

Dedication Date:
December 21, 1946

Behind the Marker

Smoke pollution produced by Pittsburgh factories
Smoke pouring into the air from a Pittsburgh steel mill, 1906.
"Pittsburgh is more than a city," declared Herbert Casson in his popular history The Romance of Steel (1907). It was "the acme of activity," "an industrial cyclone," a region of "sweat and gold," a singular place where labor became "an untiring fury to produce." As awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon, Pittsburgh possessed the "secret of perpetual energy which science cannot explain." Another popular image put it simply: "Pittsburgh is hell with the lid off."

Pittsburgh experienced its first boom as a commercial city following the American Revolution. The intersection of three major rivers - the Allegheny and Monongahela flowing from the east and the Ohio flowing to the west - sited a vibrant port that served settlers moving to the new states of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.
Pittsburgh from the Salt Works at Saw Mill.
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Pittsburgh from the Salt Works at Saw Mill, by William T. Russell, 1843.

Whiskey, coal, salt, and diverse farm products poured into the main Monongahela wharf (roughly today's Market Street in the downtown grid defined in a 1764 plan). Iron products came from the markerAlliance Furnace and other regional ironmaking centers. Artisans working wood, leather, glass, textile, and metals flocked to the city to provision soldiers and settlers, while innkeepers and boat builders provided lodging and transportation. As early as 1829, one visitor noted Pittsburgh's "dirty streets and dark, filthy looking houses . . . enveloped in an atmosphere of smoke and soot which blackened everything in sight."

Pittsburgh soon grew as an industrial city, too. The terminal of the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal opened in 1830, four years before the canal itself was completed, formed a core for industrial growth, which spread upstream along the banks of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. The arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1852 accelerated these developments. Manufacturers sited many factories across the river in Allegheny City; there, among other recent immigrants, lived markerAndrew Carnegie's family. Settlement around iron and glass factories on the south bank of the Monongahela created the South Side, annexed in the 1870s.
Industry and houses line the river and dot the hill side.
The Hill District in Pittsburgh, 1935.

Pittsburgh's leading role in crucible steel - its first steel industry - is almost entirely forgotten today, eclipsed by the fiery Bessemer converters and oversize rolling mills. Beginning in the 1850s, successful crucible steel manufacturers, often depending on skilled workers from Sheffield, England, melted high-carbon blister steel and pure bar iron together at extreme heat. These skilled workers, hefting clay or graphite crucibles filled with 100 pounds of white-hot molten metal, made a fine grade of steel that was for many decades the choice for scissors, cutlery, piano wire, women's skirt hoops, and edge tools of all sorts.

Pittsburgh's four principal crucible steelmakers were the Hussey, Wells partnership, whose success made Curtis Hussey into the city's first millionaire; Black Diamond Steel, run by native Pittsburghers James and David Park; the Sheffield Steel Works, owned by a prominent Pittsburgh partnership; and Crescent Steel, owned by Pittsburghers and run by a native Englishman. By 1877, the region's fourteen medium-scale crucible steel factories produced nearly three-fourths of the nation's output. (Midvale Steel in Philadelphia was also founded as a crucible steel firm.) Metal-shaping factories across the country depended on cutting tools made of crucible steel through the 1920s, when electric steel furnaces gained prominence.

Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill in Daylight
Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill in Daylight, by James O Milmoe, c. 1951.
Ironically, the later, high-volume steel industry that brought Pittsburgh international fame was sited almost entirely outside the city. Jones and Laughlin's massive factory complex located just upstream on the Monongahela River was the sole exception. Other famous steelmaking complexes were farther upstream and beyond the city limits: markerHomestead, Rankin, Braddock, markerDuquesne, McKeesport, and Clairton, in that order. Upstream along the Allegheny were two medium-sized steel factories in the city (Cyclops and Crucible) and early factory towns in Millvale, Etna, and Sharpsburg, but the large-scale steel centers such as markerVandergrift were even farther distant. Downstream along the Ohio stood McKees Rocks and Aliquippa.

Pittsburgh's vibrant central business district had skyscraper office buildings put up by markerHenry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. But the city lost out when U.S. Steel, formed in 1901, established its headquarters at 71 Broadway in New York. Pittsburgh remained the symbolic "center" of the steel industry.

South Sharon Works
South Works, Carnegie Steel Company, South Sharon, PA, circa 1910.
In retrospect, we can see that Pittsburgh was poised on a new, postindustrial era when World War II ended in 1945. For decades, industrial smoke had choked its residents and disfigured its buildings. A memorable image of Pittsburgh was its eerie darkness at noon. Early efforts such as the Mellon-funded smoke studies of 1912-14 had less effect than the determined effort led in the late 1940s by Mayor markerDavid Lawrence to clean up its air. Pittsburgh slashed its dependence on coal between 1940 and 1950, so that natural gas accounted for two-thirds of the city's total fuel usage.
General view of the Golden Triangle from Mt. Washington. Photo shows the point where the Ohio River meets the Allegheny (left) and Monongahela (right) Rivers
Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle, circa 1975.

Major projects associated with the postwar "Pittsburgh Renaissance" were Point State Park, the Gateway Center of high-rise offices, and Three Rivers Stadium (1970). Other changes were less rosy. A classic urban renewal project in the 1950s tore down a predominantly African-American community to clear space for the new Civic Arena. The city of Pittsburgh's population peaked in 1950 at 677,000 and has fallen to half that today.

Continuing city planning has also shaped contemporary Pittsburgh. Greater attention to the city's historical character was evident during a second Pittsburgh Renaissance, with such projects as Heinz Hall (1971) and Allegheny Landing (1984). Skyscrapers erected during these years created a dramatic city skyline. Two high-profile projects signaling the city's embrace of a postindustrial future are the Research and Development Park sited on the Monongahela at Jones and Laughlin's former steel mill and the Washington's Landing development located on a former slaughterhouse and industrial site on the Allegheny. One imagines that the city's boosters were happy when, in cinematic terms, the city's former images from Deer Hunter (1978), Flashdance (1983), and Robocop (1987), were partially replaced by the magnificent river scenes in Bruce Willis's action film Striking Distance (1993).
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