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.


A decade 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.


Photography by Brad Truxell

A boat on the marina at Silky’s Crow’s Nest against the glowing sunset.



"Restoring the riverbanks is more complicated than it seems at first glance," says Lisa Schroeder, executive director at Riverlife. "When you look at the riverbank and see a thick, green, lush bank, it masks problems," such as erosion and invasive species, not to mention the lack of public access.

This process hasn’t been easy. But, surprisingly, motivating local government, business leaders and residents to work together has been far less difficult.

"There has been really impressive cooperation," Schroeder says. "I don’t know another city that has had the three-part participation-from the foundations and philanthropy community investment, from the private business investment and from the public capital investment-to the degree that Pittsburgh has."

A mix of public and private space now exists along the rivers, and there has been a strong commitment to creating as much direct access to the water as possible.

"Public access along our riverfronts is neither required nor legislated," Schroeder points out. In many instances, private-property owners have voluntarily made investments to create public access to the riverfronts.

An army of volunteers has worked in recent years to reclaim this newly accessible space. Friends of the Riverfront has led the way in planning and developing the construction of the riverfront trails-in addition to promoting stewardship of the rivers and riverbanks. "Our volunteer opportunities are geared toward all ages and abilities," says Thomas Baxter, executive director of Friends of the Riverfront. Even small children can pitch in and help their parents plant things like sunflowers.

Larger volunteer opportunities include removing invasive plants from the river’s edge and putting native plants in their place-known as a riparian buffer zone. That not only restores the natural ecosystem, but it also can help with stormwater management. Rain sends chemical-laden runoff from our roads directly into the water. So, having a proper plant barrier to aid in filtration is crucial, and volunteers are central to that effort.

The plan is clearly working: Brady credits these volunteer efforts for aiding the renewal of biodiversity in Pittsburgh’s rivers, which now boast abundant fish and aquatic life. He also notes that volunteers deserve credit for helping maintain the growing network of walking and biking trails along the rivers. These trails need more maintenance than the city or any one entity could handle alone.

Education has been crucial in inspiring the next generation of volunteers. RiverQuest, a nonprofit educational organization that runs a river-learning center for Pittsburghers, takes as many as 5,000 school children out on the water each year, teaching the next generations about the rivers and how to care for them. "They learn about the ecology of the waters and as well as our beautiful city and why we’re the green capital," says Shayna Pitt, director of development for RiverQuest.


After all that kayaking, boating, hiking, biking and environmental volunteering, we need a place to relax. Fortunately, the options for waterfront dining are growing.

Redfin Blues, a restaurant and raw bar on Washington’s Landing, is a favorite of boaters and nonboaters alike. The crowd is "probably 35 percent people who have boats in or just travel the river," but many customers come from the bicycle path, says hostess Kara Chan. Crowds come to enjoy good food by the river during the warmer months-the eatery is open spring through fall at the discretion of the management team.

Farther up the Allegheny in Sharpsburg, Silky’s Crow’s Nest is another hometown favorite.

On the Mon, Station Square has a waterfront plaza lined with restaurants, and indoors at the Grand Concourse, there are some nice views on the Mon side. And work is now being completed on a new marina at the SouthSide Works, where the Hofbräuhaus and many other restaurants are located.

But given our topography, you don’t need to be right at the water’s edge to have a stunning river view. From Monterey Bay Fish Grotto, teetering high above Mount Washington, the view is second to none (and the crab cakes, by the way, are spectacular).

Then there is the option of literally dining on the water. The Gateway Clipper, cruising Pittsburgh’s waters for half of a century (52 years and counting!), remains as popular as ever. "It’s probably 50/50 between local residents and visitors," says the Clipper’s J.D. Szatkowski, a public sales representative. The Clipper Fleet offers dinner theater, dinner-dance cruises and ice-cream socials, and as many as 50 weddings will take place on Gateway Clipper boats this summer.

"Many people come from Ohio, West Virginia, Erie," Szatkowski says. "I think people remember coming here as a child, and they want to come back. … It’s a family atmosphere."


It’s difficult to spend time in Pittsburgh without crossing at least one river during the course of a day. Everyone has his or her favorite bridge, but a few tend to get kudos across the board.

For stunning downtown and Northside views and excellent pedestrian access, nothing beats the bridges originally known as "The Three Sisters." They are located at the bottom of the Allegheny at Ninth Street (now called the Rachel Carson Bridge), Seventh Street (now called the Andy Warhol Bridge and in proximity to the museum that bears his name) and Sixth Street (now called the Roberto Clemente Bridge and overlooks PNC Park, where today’s Pirates play).

In his book Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait, Franklin Toker calls these three bridges "the best public sculptures in the city, with a palpable lightness that comes from their special quality as self-anchoring suspension structures." The curves of their cables, he says, lift the bridges "with the consummate grace of a pole-vaulter."

On the Mon, another favorite is the Hot Metal Bridge. The upstream side transports cars across the water, but the downstream side belongs to pedestrians and bike riders.

Whether by boat or by bridge, on foot or on bicycle, people in this region are interacting with our rivers in a myriad of ways. We are on our rivers and of our rivers.

What will the next decade bring?

Here just one hint of what’s to come: Friends of the Riverfront will soon unveil a universal "app" for hand-held devices, allowing people to download riverfront trail maps, so they can have turn-by-turn directions along the paths-plus details about shops and restaurants they might encounter along the way.

"It’s launching this fall," says Baxter, "It’s the first in the country."

Melissa Rayworth writes for a variety of national news outlets, including The Associated Press. She lives in Hampton Township with her husband and two sons.