April 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 2
When photographers take pictures of Pittsburgh, they traditionally perch on the slopes of Mount Washington. So Peter Kr’fcmel did in shooting the view below in the late 1890s. Here the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, to the left and right, merge to form the mighty Ohio. Barges heavy with coal line the busy waterfront, while upriver more than a dozen mills produce two-thirds of the nation’s crucible steel.
In 1753, shortly before the start of the French and Indian War, a twenty-one-year-old major, George Washington, recognized the strategic value of the area. The following year five hundred French soldiers evicted a small force of British troops from their half-completed outpost without firing a shot and named their conquest Fort Duquesne. The land changed hands again in 1758, and the British built a new installation named Fort Pitt after the British prime minister, William Pitt; the budding village nearby was called Pittsburgh.
Because the town’s rivers offered access to the Ohio Valley, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi, Pittsburgh soon became a gateway for settlers headed west. Coal deposits in the surrounding hills fueled the city’s emergence as an industrial giant. But prosperity came at a high price. During the nineteenth century the by-products of Pittsburgh’s flourishing glass, iron, and steel works plunged the city into a perpetual gloom of soot and smoke.
After World War II a vigorous coalition of civic leaders from business and local government effected one of the most astonishing changes ever visited on a major American city. Strict smoke-control regulations cleared away much of the haze that shrouded the city; blighted neighborhoods were razed, and gleaming new buildings took their place. At the tip of land where the rivers merge, a decaying expanse of ware-houses, shanties, and railroad trackage was demolished to make way for the splendid thirty-six-acre park seen in the recent photograph.
The extent of the change is evident in these two views—the three rivers look much as they did a century ago, but only two man-made structures can be found in both. They are the distinctive Smithfield Street Bridge at far right, which has spanned the Monongahela since 1883, and, on the hilltop just to the left of the bridge, the old main building of Duquesne University, which opened in 1878. Elsewhere, redevelopment has profoundly altered the face of the city. At sixty-four stories the USX Tower dominates the downtown landscape. To the right the fanciful spires of the architect Philip Johnson’s One PPG Place add a postmodern touch to the skyline.
More than forty bridges cross Pittsburgh’s three rivers today. Closest to the Point the arches of the Ft. Duquesne (left) and Ft. Pitt (right) bridges provide a symmetry to the downtown cityscape. Behind the Ft. Duquesne are the Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Street bridges, completed in the 1920s.
For years Pittsburgh endured a reputation as an industrial wasteland. A 1951 Atlantic Monthly article observed that the “decrepitude showed in its worn-out office buildings, its degraded housing, its traffic-choked streets, its sordid alleys, its polluted and uncontrolled rivers, and, above all, in the dense-choking smoke that covered the city and the river valleys.”
The description no longer applies.