Think Back

Traveling back in history for the new year of Pittsburgh’s 250th birthday

So, I’m looking through this slick little book of old travel posters, and like any loyal local resident, I think, “Hmm, wonder if Pittsburgh gets a poster?” and sure enough, there’s a beauty: a vintage Pennsylvania Railroad poster with a classy old illustration titled “Pittsburgh in the Beginning.” It shows some British soldiers and a few Native Americans meeting under a British flag at the Point—they seem to be raising their hands and saying, “How!” just as actors used to do in old movies—on a snowy day in what would later be Downtown, maybe Point State Park. It makes Pittsburgh look intriguing, the site of maybe something important. The snow-covered hills and the icy blue rivers look unspoiled and romantic.

The bottom of the poster says, “Fort Prince George, Established February 17, 1754.” Oh, yes, that little fort that seldom gets mentioned. We all know about Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt, and they’re both memorialized in big bridges, but nobody ever pays much attention to the small fort that was the first English fortification on this side of the Allegheny Mountains.

Construction of this little fort was started by a small band of two or three dozen Virginians, still British subjects then, under the leadership of William Trent, sent by Gov. Robert Dinwiddie down in Williamsburg to help mark the British claim on this part of what was then wilderness.

And I love this: As that little band of Virginians was working their way up here, they happened to bump into the young George Washington, who was headed the other way with bad news from the uncooperative French guys up at Fort Le Boeuf. You can imagine that scene out in the woods somewhere.  

The Virginians got to the Point (which everybody apparently called “the Forks” back then) and started building in February 1754, some say Feb.17, whenever, it was probably cold and miserable. They named it “Prince George” for the 16-year-old heir to the British throne, the Hanover kid who would later become the goofy King George III, hated by Early American revolutionaries, grandfather of Queen Victoria. He had a long and eventful reign.

The little fort named for him didn’t fare so well. It lasted just about two months. William Trent had gone off to get more men and supplies and left an Ensign Ward to watch the fort and keep building it. Then on April 17—and this sounds like a great scene in a movie—about a thousand Frenchmen and Native Americans came down the Allegheny in a flotilla of 60 boats and with 300 canoes, and they quickly convinced  Ward and his 33 men to surrender. The French renamed the little fort and enlarged it to become Fort Duquesne.

The squabbling over who gets to build a fort here eventually expands and becomes the French and Indian War. In November 1758, when British Gen. John Forbes arrives with a bigger army (almost 7,000 men) to tell the French to hit the road, he finds Fort Duquesne in ashes, abandoned and destroyed. And then Forbes (in a classic act of kissing up to his boss) starts to write a letter back to England, telling British statesman William Pitt that he’s naming this place Pittsburgh.  That’s what we’ll be celebrating the 250th anniversary of this year. The naming of Pittsburgh.

But the classy old travel poster convinces me that we shouldn’t forget any of our history.  And the Pennsylvania Railroad obviously believed you never know what tiny unfinished fort might attract a tourist here.  

Categories: Rick Sebak