- Historic Sites
Iron Man Meets Mr. Clean
What Rust Belt? Pittsburgh shows how a city can lose its industry but retain its soul.
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
Most cities have some activity that’s mandatory for out-of-towners. Every tourist in San Francisco has to ride a cable car; everyone who vacations in New York has to complain about the prices. And every visitor to Pittsburgh has to remark with wonder that the place is no longer a smoky mess.
This has been going on for quite some time. As early as 1949 Newsweek said Pittsburgh was “no longer the smoky city or the tired milltown, but an industrial metropolis . . . with clear skies above.” A decade later Stephen Potter, author of the Gamesmanship series of books, marveled that “in fact there is very little smoke and quite a lot of green.” Even today writers feel compelled to explain: “Gone are all those huge steel mills gushing black smoke into polluted air.” Or: “Some people still envision a grimy steel town. But that was the old Pittsburgh.” This article, of course, is no different.
By now such incredulity should have become rather quaint; one might as reasonably be surprised that the residents of Denver no longer ride horses and twirl lariats. Yet so strongly is Pittsburgh identified with its brawny past that visitors never cease to be shocked to find the city changed since McKinley was President.
Pittsburghers take all this with surprisingly good grace, considering that it’s like telling a man his wife isn’t as ugly as you’d expected. In recent years the city has scored high in surveys of that vague quality called livability, but rather than be insufferable about it, like many towns similarly rated, Pittsburgh seems almost bemused by its status as America’s latest and unlikeliest Shangri-la. For all the talk of renaissance and renewal, the switch from Steeltown to Livability Land is just the latest transition in Pittsburgh’s long history, which stretches back way before the days of heavy industry that brought the town to the peak of its grimy glory.
In the mid-eighteenth century, as British and French colonists vied to settle the continent’s interior, the confluence of the Mananguelé (Monongahela) and La Belle Rivière (Allegheny) to form the Ohio River became a place of great strategic importance. The struggle started to heat up in 1754, when Virginia troops began building a fort there. Before they could finish, French and Indian forces evicted them and put up their own, Fort Duquesne. Soon the American phase of the Seven Years’ War was in full swing.
In November 1758, after repulsing several attacks, the outnumbered French burned their wooden fort and withdrew. Gen. John Forbes wrote Britain’s chief minister, William Pitt, to say that the site had been dubbed Pittsbourgh. He also predicted that “these dreary deserts will soon be the richest and most fertile of any possest by the British in No. America.” As it happened, the rocky hills of western Pennsylvania were not destined to become the nation’s breadbasket. Even had Forbes known about the deposits of coal and oil beneath those cliffs, their significance would have eluded him in that preindustrial age.
Still, the merest glance at a map was enough to show the importance of the Ohio River to controlling North America’s heartland. Recognizing this, the British strengthened and expanded Fort Pitt between 1759 and 1764. It served as a site for trade, negotiation, and battle with local Indians until the British withdrew in 1772. During and after the Revolution, American troops occupied the site and used it for similar purposes before finally closing up shop in the 1790s. Within a few years the fort was reduced to ruins.
By that time the surrounding town was already turning into a transportation hub. Its population had grown to about a thousand, and its reputation for livability was long in the future. In 1790 a visitor wrote that the town was “inhabited . . . by Mortals who act as if possessed of a Charter of Exclusive Privilege to filch from, annoy and harass her Fellow Creatures.”
Today the site of Fort Pitt is the pleasant, tranquil, and surprisingly uncrowded Point State Park, opened in 1954. On a summer afternoon, sunbathers surround a two-hundred-foot fountain at the very tip while office workers stroll along the riverside, looking up at the steep green hills across the Monongahela or at Three Rivers Stadium—the true nerve center of western Pennsylvania—across the Allegheny. As the rivers merge and flow together into the distance, one can see how the early settlers felt a similar compulsion to keep moving westward, into the fertile valleys that lay beyond.
Little remains of the Point’s colonial-era fortifications. The location of Fort Duquesne and the shoreline of 1754 are outlined in a large central lawn. Some uninspiring remnants of the rampart walls have been excavated. There is also a small blockhouse, some of which consists of original materials, that was restored in 1892 after a century of neglect. Today it is a souvenir shop for the Fort Pitt Museum.
The museum itself, one of whose walls is built of excavated bricks from the fort, is the murky, old-fashioned type, filled with glass cases, maps, artifacts, detailed captions, and dioramas that play a stirring narration over fifeand-drum music when you push a button. A rebuilt trader’s cabin and displays of a typical soldier’s meager possessions give a good sense of what eighteenth-century frontier life was like. Still, the sheer quantity of information on exhibit can be daunting. You almost need a few nights of cramming beforehand to deal with it all.