Native Americans first seized upon the site at the forks of the Ohio River in what is now Pittsburgh. By the 1740s, they had established a number of permanent settlements in western Pennsylvania, some dating back as far as 5,000 years. By the mid-18th century, the Ohio River and its fork with the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers were recognized by other factions as an ideal strategic location. The control of the forks of the Ohio River would determine dominance over the entire Ohio Valley.
In 1754, the French built Fort Duquesne at this site in an attempt to unite French Quebec with French Louisiana, via the rivers. This alarmed the British and led them to act, which ultimately resulted in the French and Indian War. At this time, a young George Washington subsequently advised that a British fort be built at the confluence of the three rivers—what is the present day site of Point State Park in Downtown Pittsburgh.
After surveying the area, Washington made two unsuccessful attempts to talk the French out of their stronghold in the region. War broke out and the territorial dispute escalated. After many battles, the British returned in 1758 under the command of General John Forbes. Forbes assembled an army of 6,000 men near Fort Bedford, with Swiss-born Col. Henry Bouquet as his second in command. It was the largest army yet seen in the American colonies.
Before Forbes could stage his final takeover of Fort Duquesne, Colonel Bouquet reluctantly authorized Maj. James Grant to take an army over 800 men to scout the situation. Grant led the expedition to "Grant's Hill" overlooking the fort and could not resist the temptation to attack it. Instead, some 800 French and Indians rushed from the fort and surrounded Grant's forces. The debacle cost Grant 22 officers and 278 men, and Grant himself was taken prisoner.
Finally, on November 27, 1758, the British moved in on Fort Duquesne, which they found abandoned and burned by the French. Within three days Forbes proposed calling the site and the town that would grow there "Pittsborough" in honor of British Prime Minister William Pitt, who authorized construction of a new garrison. On the ruins of Fort Duquesne, the British built the largest and strongest fort in America—Fort Pitt.
And so marks the beginning of Pittsburgh.
Following the American Revolution, the village around the fort continued to grow. Subsequently, Pittsburgh's Downtown neighborhood started at Market Square, or what was then called the Diamond. It was part of the original 1794 plan for Pittsburgh, made by Philadelphia surveyors George Woods and Thomas Vickroy.
One of the earliest industries was building boats for settlers. By 1815, Pittsburgh was producing significant quantities of iron, brass, tin and glass products, as well. By the 1840s, Pittsburgh had grown to one of the largest cities west of the Allegheny Mountains, although this expansion was stalled by a widespread fire in 1845, which burned more than 1,000 buildings.
Production of steel began in 1875, and by 1911, Pittsburgh was producing as much as half of the nation's steel. In the early 20th century, the city's population topped half a million, including many European immigrants.
During World War II, Pittsburgh produced 95 million tons of steel and became known as the "Steel Capital of the World." However, while steel was king in Pittsburgh, the air was thick with the smoke of the mills, coke ovens and foundries. It was common for streetlights to burn during the daylight hours in an effort to cut through the smog. Men would have to take two shirts because their first shirts would get dirty and would not be presentable for an evening function. And this was long after 1868 when British journalist James Parton described Pittsburgh as "Hell with the lid taken off."
Following World War II, the city launched a clean air and civic revitalization project known as the Renaissance. This effort transformed Pittsburgh from a smoky city into America's "Renaissance City." Two men credited for this transformation are Richard King Mellon and David Leo Lawrence, the financier and the mayor. The pair is credited for creating a new and brighter Pittsburgh. And, after the smoke and smog had gone, Pittsburgh presented itself as one of the most beautiful places in the country.
Later, Renaissance II, a $4-billion plus program that added several skyscrapers Downtown and revitalized city neighborhoods, put more than 8 million square feet of prime office space on the market. In 1972, Market Square was named Pittsburgh's first historic district.
Pittsburgh's industrial base continued to expand through the 1960s, but in the 1980s, the steel industry imploded and there were massive layoffs and mill closures. Some 100,000 jobs were lost in the region between 1980 and 1983—91,000 of them in manufacturing. Today, no steel is produced within Pittsburgh's city limits. In 2000, the population had dropped to 330,000, because of the loss of jobs.
During this period of transition, the city became a model for economic diversification. Pittsburgh is now a hub for finance, tourism, medicine, education and technology—including robotics and advanced steelmaking technology. With many corporate headquarters still in Downtown Pittsburgh (H.J. Heinz Co., PPG Industries Inc., U.S. Steel, PNC Financial Services), Pittsburgh stands today as a national banking, health care and high-technology center. In fact, jobs in the science, engineering, robotics, supercomputing and health sectors have increased nearly 70 percent faster than in the rest of the country.