150 Years of Pittsburgh History


Pittsburgh is looking forward. Our city has long been known as a place intimately tied to its own history. Even young ’Burghers should have no trouble recalling a time when our city’s identity was defined not by where we were going, but where we had been: factories and mills, Heinz and Westinghouse, Franco and Roberto.

Then, as the export of young people finally began to slow, we started to get a sense of the Pittsburgh of the 21st century: startups and studios, Google and robots, Crosby and McCutchen. As a vision of the city’s future began to take shape, the smoky skyline receded into the past.

But even in a season marked by resolutions and plans for the new year, we felt that the final issue of 2013 should open new windows on that long and varied history we share as a city.

We asked four locals known for their appreciation of (and advocacy for) local history to choose archival images of events or periods that, in their distinct perspectives, helped to define, represent or change our region. Below, Andrew E. Masich, Rick Sebak, Sala Udin and Arthur P. Ziegler Jr. share their selections, offering points of reflection at the conclusion of another dramatic and enlivening year of Pittsburgh history.

Preservation of our shared heritage and the details — not just the signifiers — of our cultural and civic history is as vital as ever. After all, if any city can embrace and learn from the past while forging its own future, it’s Pittsburgh.  — Sean Collier



 Pittsburgh’s Civil War
Known as the “Arsenal of the Union,” Pittsburgh had a significant impact on the Civil War — on the battlefield and the home front. At the Fort Pitt Foundry — located across from the History Center on Smallman Street — Thomas Jackson Rodman used groundbreaking technology to build the largest cast-iron cannon of the war, a massive 26-foot-long, 90-ton columbiad that could shoot a 20-inch cannonball 4.5 miles. In Lawrenceville, the Allegheny Arsenal became an important supply and manufacturing center, making ammunition and equipage for men and horses to help the Union effort. On Sept. 17, 1862, a massive explosion at the arsenal killed 78 workers, mostly women and girls, making the Allegheny Arsenal explosion the worst civilian disaster — overshadowed by the Battle of Antietam (the deadliest day in American history) — of the Civil War.  — Andrew E. Masich



H.J. Heinz Tomato Ketchup
H. J. Heinz and his first Pittsburgh food firm, called Heinz, Noble & Co., went bankrupt in 1875. But the energetic Henry John bounced back quickly in 1876, founding the new “F. & J. Heinz Company” — named for cousin Frederick and brother John. One of their first products was tomato ketchup, introduced in the year of the American Centennial. It was not a new idea or a novel spelling of the word, but its blend of spices, taste and distinctive packaging (patented bottles in 1882, then the keystone label, neck band and octagon glass bottle with screw-off cap all by 1890) made it one of Pittsburgh’s most universally appreciated products. Heinz doesn’t make ketchup here anymore, but everybody still loves it, and no other place on Earth can claim it. In 2012, Heinz reported $5 billion worth of sales of ketchup and other sauces around the world. — Rick Sebak



Railroad Strike
Following the post-Civil War construction boom, hundreds of thousands of workers flocked to the railroad industry. As miles of new railroad track crisscrossed the nation, working conditions worsened, precipitating the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Pittsburgh became the epicenter of the first national worker’s strike on July 21. National Guardsmen killed 20 people and wounded 29 others, and rioters destroyed property, prompting President Rutherford B. Hayes to dispatch federal troops to quell the violence. Pittsburgh became a center for organized labor and union activity. In 1892, a violent strike between Carnegie Steel workers and private security agents hired by Henry Clay Frick led to 12 deaths in Homestead. Although the strike dealt a temporary blow to local workers, unions flourished in the 20th century, becoming an integral part of Pittsburgh’s labor history.   — A.E.M.



Idlewild Park
The beautiful little amusement park in the woods beside the Loyalhanna Creek near Ligonier began as a place for “picnic purposes or pleasure grounds” along the Ligonier Valley Rail Road. Judge Thomas Mellon (who founded the bank) bought the old lumber and coal train line, and he wanted passengers from as far away as Pittsburgh to escape into the Laurel Highlands. He helped to create a sylvan spot for camping, hiking, biking, fishing and boating, and Idlewild proved wildly popular from the very start. Soon there was a carousel, and by the 1930s, there were electric lights and mechanical amusements, including the Rollo Coaster that was built in 1938 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, using trees that were cut down to make room for the ride. It’s still an enchanting place, with the addition of a water park and Storybook Forest, and it regularly wins awards as “the best children’s park in the world” and “best park for families.” — R.S.



First Ferris Wheel
George Ferris was a young bridge engineer in Pittsburgh when he drew up his first plans for a magnificent moving structure designed to be as monumental and memorable as the Eiffel Tower had been in Paris in 1889. It was 1892, and Chicago wanted a big attraction for its upcoming Columbian Exposition that would mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America. Ferris’ giant revolving wheel was a huge sensation, with 36 cars that each held 60 passengers, and it gave riders an astounding bird’s-eye view of southern Illinois a decade before the Wright Brothers learned how to fly. All the elements of the giant landmark “ride” were fabricated in Pittsburgh and shipped to Chicago via rail. How did it slow down and stop? Westinghouse air brakes, also manufactured in Pittsburgh. — R.S.



Pittsburgh’s 150th Anniversary
Pittsburgh celebrated its 150th birthday in grand style, lighting its bridges, buildings and archways with electricity for the first time. In the summer, a flotilla of more than 400 steamboats, towboats and canoes converged on the three rivers as part of a daylong parade that attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators. Historians and American Indians raised the American flag over the restored 1763 Blockhouse, Pittsburgh’s oldest building. Later that year, elected officials joined Civil War veterans to lay the cornerstone for the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland. Pittsburgh’s sesquicentennial showed off the city’s innovation, natural resources and tradition of excellence for the nation to see. — A.E.M.



Black Immigration
Described by some historians as “the largest migration of a single people in human history,” millions of African-American people left the Deep South between 1865 and 1930 for cities of the north and west. Pittsburgh was one of the cities of greatest attraction because of the “good-paying jobs” in the steel industry. Most African-American people in Pittsburgh today trace their ancestors’ arrival in Pittsburgh to the “Great Black Migration.” — Sala Udin



World War II
During World War II, western Pennsylvania factory employees worked day and night turning out war materiel, including everything from ships and gliders to big guns and munitions. Pittsburgh’s role as the “Arsenal of Democracy,” producing 95 million tons of steel, 52 million shells and 11 million bombs, cemented the region’s worldwide reputation for industrial might, hard work and can-do spirit. Thousands of “Rosie the Riveters” entered the workforce for the first time, including 30,000 women in 1943. The now-famous “We Can Do It!” poster created by Westinghouse artist J. Howard Miller, depicting a Westinghouse war worker flexing her muscle, remains an American icon. — A.E.M.



Pittsburgh’s Renaissance
In the 1940s and ’50s, a $500 million public-private partnership helped to transform Pittsburgh from the smoky city into a thriving metropolis. With smoke control, a challenging business climate and the out-migration of young professionals as the hot buttons of their efforts, civic leaders developed a long-term plan to steer the city toward the 21st century. Spearheaded by Mayor David L. Lawrence, Richard King Mellon and others, Pittsburgh’s Renaissance greatly improved the region’s quality of life and business environment. Massive citywide cleanup efforts ensued along with an influx of developments, including the Gateway Center complex and the Civic Arena, and the beautification of Point State Park. Following the Renaissance, Pittsburgh proudly displayed its innovative spirit and industrial might in a clean, hospitable and modern Golden Triangle that became a national model for urban redevelopment. (From left: James F. Hillman, Mayor David L. Lawrence, an unidentified aide and Adolph Schmidt.) — A.E.M.



Squirrel Hill Tunnels
Pittsburgh had a few noteworthy tunnels — including the Liberty Tubes, the longest automobile tunnels in the world from their opening in January 1924 until New York City’s Holland Tunnel opened in November 1927 — but the Squirrel Hill Tunnels provided a much-needed link to rapidly growing eastern suburbs after World War II. The opening-day ceremony on June 5, 1953 included speeches from Pennsylvania Gov. John S. Fine and Mayor David L. Lawrence, with music provided by the Taylor Allderdice High School Marching Band. At first, the state and the county argued about who should police what we now call the Parkway East, so there was no enforced speed limit from Churchill to Bates Street for about six months — making it Pittsburgh’s own little freewheeling autobahn. Nonetheless, mid-century motorists probably slowed down before entering the tunnels. — R.S.



Freedom Corner/Lower Hill District Demolition
In a “misguided strategy of massive demolition and new construction,” a late-1950s project by Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority intended to clear 95 acres of the city’s Lower Hill District neighborhood and create space for construction of the Civic Arena. [Editor’s Note: The project displaced homes, businesses, landmarks and thousands of residents — most of them African-American. When the city broached plans for additional development, residents of the neighborhood rebelled, erecting this billboard at the intersection of Centre Avenue and Crawford Street. Protesters later gathered outside St. Benedict the Moor Church and defied death threats in a march downtown that succeeded in blocking more demolition. The intersection would become known as Freedom Corner; it would be the site or starting point of numerous civic marches and demonstrations in the years that followed.] — Arthur P. Ziegler Jr.



Post-World War II Urban Renewal
Soldiers came home from WWII with renewed intolerance for segregation and discrimination and laid the foundation for a much stronger national civil rights movement. In addition, Congress allocated funds to rebuild American urban infrastructure, homes and institutions. In Pittsburgh, political and corporate leaders such as Mayor David L. Lawrence and Richard King Mellon joined efforts to create the Pittsburgh Renaissance; a central ingredient of their plans was to relocate the downtown cultural district and get rid of the “slums” in the Hill District adjacent to downtown. In the nation’s largest “urban-renewal” program at that time, more than 8,000 families, businesses, churches and social/cultural institutions were demolished. This project damaged and almost completely destroyed the Lower Hill District community. — S.U.



The Pittsburgh Courier
The Pittsburgh Courier, founded in 1910 by Pittsburgh attorney Robert L. Vann, was a nationally distributed newspaper with bureaus in many U.S. and international cities. The Pittsburgh Courier was a major clarion call for civil rights, anti-lynching campaigns, anti-segregation efforts and the “Double V” campaign of black WWII soldiers who fought for democracy abroad and at home. The newspaper, which continues to publish today as The New Pittsburgh Courier, not only reported the news of the black experience but helped shape the black experience. — S.U.



Manchester’s Liverpool Street
The city’s first nonprofit historic preservation group, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, was organized in 1964 when Liverpool Street and other areas of the North Side were set to be demolished. PHLF staff assisted Manchester residents, pictured here on the steps of a Liverpool Street house, in organizing Manchester Citizens Corporation for the purposes of neighborhood revitalization. The group later took the name Manchester Citizens Corp., by which it is known today. PHLF and residents initiated the Manchester Program, the first of its kind in the United States for low-income and minority families in which federal, state and local funds were used to create a restored, economically sound neighborhood affordable for its existing residents. — A.P.Z.


Early 1970s

Narcotics, Gun-Trafficking and Homicides
Along with the devastation that accompanied “urban renewal” and suburbanization, urban communities were saturated with illegal drug traffic as the steel-manufacturing economy collapsed. Illegal gun trafficking followed. The related increase in drug addiction, incarceration, homicides and exposure to HIV and AIDS continued to plague the communities through the 1980s and beyond the turn of the 21st century. — S.U.



Immaculate Reception
For the first 40 years of their existence, the Pittsburgh Steelers were known as football’s lovable losers. That changed Dec. 23, 1972, in an AFC divisional playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium. With the Steelers trailing the rival Oakland Raiders, 7-6, late in the fourth quarter and facing an improbable fourth-and-10 from their own 40-yard line, third-year quarterback Terry Bradshaw sailed a pass intended for John “Frenchy” Fuqua. The pass deflected off Oakland’s Jack Tatum as he collided with Fuqua, sending the ball caroming backward toward the line of scrimmage. Steelers rookie running back Franco Harris snatched the ball inches before it hit the ground and raced downfield for the game-winning touchdown. In what has been dubbed “The Greatest Play in NFL History,” the “Immaculate Reception” helped to transform the Steelers franchise, set the tone for four Super Bowl victories in the 1970s, and contributed to Pittsburgh’s reputation as the “City of Champions.” — A.E.M.



Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Terminal
People crowded into the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Terminal on June 15, 1976, to celebrate the announcement of Station Square, the first mixed-use riverfront development in the Pittsburgh region. Two years later, the Grand Concourse restaurant opened in the former passenger terminal; several years later, the upper floors of the historic 1901 building were restored for new office tenants. From 1976 to 1994, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation was the prime developer of Station Square, which demonstrated how the restoration of historic buildings could generate urban renewal and economic development. When PHLF sold Station Square to Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises in 1994, 3 million people were visiting the complex each year. — A.P.Z.

Meet the curators

Andrew E. Masich is president and CEO of the Sen. John Heinz History Center, the largest history museum in Pennsylvania and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. Under his leadership since 1998, the center has expanded to include the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village and the Fort Pitt Museum. “Pittsburgh’s history has at times been marked by conflict and violence — on battlefields, places of work and even sports arenas,” he says. “These events can be tragic, transformative, or celebratory — sometimes all three at once — and become part of our regional identity and character.”

Arthur P. Ziegler Jr. is president and co-founder of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. The organization was formed in 1964 to preserve significant places in Pittsburgh from the wrecking ball or bulldozer. “The historic neighborhoods and buildings that were saved through the efforts of so many local citizens now contribute to the unique character, quality of life and economic revitalization of this area,” he says.

Hill District native Sala Udin — a longtime community activist, former member of Pittsburgh City Council and former CEO of the Coro Center for Civic Leadership — is the Carnegie Museum of Art’s choice of interpreter and “voice” of its Teenie Harris Archive for this essay. The collection of nearly 80,000 images by photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris “is an unusually complete history of a specific place and time,” documenting life in Pittsburgh’s African-American community from 1935 to 1975, says Jonathan Gaugler, the museum’s media relations manager. “The most appropriate person to talk about this work is someone who lived in that place and time.”

WQED documentarian and Pittsburgh Magazine columnist Rick Sebak is uncomfortable being dubbed a “historian,” saying “I’m really a TV producer.” In the same breath, he is quick to add: “I do a lot [of work] about history, though, and there are things I really like about Pittsburgh history.” Over the past 26 years, Sebak has shared those things in more than 50 local and national television programs as well as his magazine columns, winning multiple awards as he celebrates the people, places and traditions of the region.

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

How Well Do You Know Pittsburgh?

How Well Do You Know Pittsburgh?

What do you know about the fountain of youth in North Park? The relics at St. Anthony’s? The history of Pittsburghese? We bring you all this and more in our guide to Pittsburgh lore full of insider info and fun facts. Plus, take our quizzes to test your expertise of all things Pittsburgh.
Are You a Yinzer or a Pretender? Take our Quizzes

Are You a Yinzer or a Pretender? Take our Quizzes

Whether you’ve lived in Pittsburgh your whole life or are a newcomer, there may be things you don’t know about our city — but you should –– so we have these quizzes to test your knowledge of the city’s pop culture, sports, food history and locales.
Restaurant Review: Northeastern Kitchen

Restaurant Review: Northeastern Kitchen

The Squirrel Hill restaurant introduces Pittsburgh to Dongbei cuisine.
Pittsburgh's 12 Essential Restaurants

Pittsburgh's 12 Essential Restaurants

Step-by-step, these establishments helped build our dining scene. Even better, they still have something to offer today.

Edit ModuleShow Tags