A Tale of Pittsburgh's Three Rivers
Our waterways have evolved into a hub of green, "go" and grassroots activism while continuing to serve as a vital industrial resource.
Since the first communities were founded, humans have gathered along riverfronts. The Tigris and Euphrates. The Nile. The Yellow River. We have always found food and sustenance at the river’s edge.
Even as they encouraged quiet contemplation, rivers have fueled commerce and military might. From Paris to Shanghai and London to Chicago, the world’s most storied cities have been defined by the rivers that run through them.
Usually, though, it’s a single river. In Pittsburgh, we’ve been blessed with three.
If you grew up here, you’ve been reciting this since first grade: The Allegheny, the Ohio and the Monongahela. Since the 1700s, when Fort Duquesne and, later, Fort Pitt were created, these three rivers have been the centerpiece of life here.
We cross them. We sail them. We fish them. We sit alongside them and have a cold drink.
All the while, the rivers have witnessed America’s history in microcosm. From our earliest mills and barges to our newest research labs and skyscrapers, they have seen wealth and loss, boomtown and ghost town. No matter the season or century, these three rivers remain flowing and changing, yet utterly constant.
What do Pittsburgh’s rivers have to offer in 2010? Come with us and see. We’ve found cleaner water, a broad range of recreation and more riverfront access for all. We’ve also found the ongoing battle with pollution and the challenge of maintaining our environmental progress.
In the pages ahead, you’ll find much that is new-from environmental initiatives to programs for kids. But in many cases, these new approaches and opportunities bring us full circle. They lead us back toward pieces of Pittsburgh’s past-from the rowing culture of the 1800s and swimming holes of the early 1900s to relics from our industrial history incorporated into modern riverfront parks.
You’ll find luxury yachts docked in the shadow of Heinz Field, hardcore kayakers powering upstream, leafy walking trails and dreamy waterfront dining. And amid all of this, you might just find tangible pieces of what it means to be a Pittsburgher.
HOW PITTSBURGH EMBRACES THE RIVERS
Adecade ago, what was then known as the Riverlife Task Force, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1999 and dedicates its time to developing Pittsburgh’s riverfronts, joined the fight to reclaim the city’s rivers. The task force began its work-as so many local nonprofits do-by talking with the community. In literally hundreds of meetings with people of all ages, elderly citizens told stories of childhoods spent swimming in alcoves along the shores of the Allegheny. For example: In the 1920s, they said, there was some concern about industry and pollution. But families used the rivers, regardless.
Eventually, though, that recreational use of the waterways disappeared. Parents warned their children not to touch the rivers, let alone swim in them.
"The old Pittsburgh attitude was that you put your warehouse or steel mill along the riverfront," says Stephan Bontrager, director of communications for the organization now known simply as Riverlife. The shoreline was accepted as industrial space, privately owned and chemically compromised.
But as the 20th century was approaching its end, heavy industry had pulled back from the riverfronts. That shook the region’s economy, but it created an opportunity for organizations such as Friends of the Riverfront, a local nonprofit organization that devotes its time to expand the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, and, later, Riverlife and many others, to reclaim the riverfronts as the front door to the city.
That situation also created another opportunity: Riverfront property was no longer dominated by industrial corporations, so more people could begin to access it.
Today, the riverfront "has become the property of the people-all kinds of people, from the luxury boaters and canoe rowers to the fisherman to the bikers and hikers," says Sean Brady, former assistant executive director at Venture Outdoors (now director of development at Riverlife); Venture Outdoors is a nonprofit that looks to increase awareness and participation in regional outdoor activities.
In many American cities and towns, waterfront property is expensive. Water views are prized, mainly available to the wealthy. Not so in Pittsburgh. Our extensive shoreline is dotted with a patchwork of affordable and affluent neighborhoods-among them are Aspinwall, Lawrenceville and Millvale. Homes of all shapes and sizes perch on the many hills overlooking the rivers, sharing in the view. Pittsburgh is defined not just by its elite but by all of us, and the same can be said of its rivers.
At marinas on each of the three rivers, you’ll see yachts bobbing next to the simplest boats. And Pittsburghers of all backgrounds are once again embracing the riverfronts, indulging in a slew of recreational activities.
"Pittsburgh now has one of the larger rowing communities in the country," says Rick Brown, executive director of Three Rivers Rowing, which offers rowing and paddling for beginners through experts, and there’s also "adaptive rowing" for the disabled.
The folks at Kayak Pittsburgh, a Venture Outdoors project with two locations-one downtown and one in Allegheny Commons-agree: They now see more than 15,000 paddlers and rowers each year. Rowing, best known as an Ivy League sport, has something of an elitist reputation in much of the country. But in Pittsburgh, you’ll see inner-city students navigating the waters alongside crew teams from suburban high schools.
Rowing is "a neat way to get into the middle of the city," Brown says, "without being in traffic or having the stress of it being crowded. It’s a great way to connect with the water."
Pleasure boating is also huge here, says Peter Pawlak, of Fox Chapel Marine Sales & Services, a company that allows locals to purchase or store boats and calls itself the "area’s premier marine facility." It suits our family-friendly city well, he says, because "boating is like RV-ing. It doesn’t matter if you’re 8 weeks old or 80 years old. Everybody can enjoy it." In addition to hundreds of weekend boaters, Pawlak is aware of at least a dozen people who live on their boats full-time.
"Only one of those couples is retired. Most of these people have their 9-to-5 jobs," he says. "They go to work, but at the end of the day, they can pull anchor and go where they want."
Justin Hadricky, who grew up boating with his father and works at Washington’s Landing Marina, has lived on his boat for three years. "It’s like being on vacation all the time," he says.
Want a first-hand glimpse of Pittsburgh’s boating community? Go downtown before a concert at the Point or prior to a Steelers game. The shoreline will be filled to capacity with some boat owners arriving more than a week in advance to secure a prime docking space. These individuals bring lavish meals, plenty of cold beer and all the comforts of home-flat-screen TVs and sofas aren’t uncommon.
Plus, the annual Three Rivers Regatta draws crowds of boaters, and they love watching fireworks from the decks of their boats.
On land, the extensive biking and hiking trails that skirt the river are popular with everyone-from weekday commuters to weekend warriors. As work continues on the unprecedented Three Rivers Park project, which will line all three rivers with public trails and green space, additional access to the rivers is being created.
When the project is done-it’s on target to be 75 percent complete by year’s end-these trails will contain some hidden gems. For example, as excavation work has been done on trails along the Monongahela, old structures from the Jones & Laughlin Steel, Inc., have been uncovered. In a cool marriage of our industrial past and our environmentally aware present, the relics are being preserved on-site for hikers and bikers to see.