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Pittsburgh History

For centuries, people have been drawn to Western Pennsylvania's rolling hills and river valleys rich in natural resources.

Evidence of the earliest human habitation in North America, some 16,000 years ago, can be found at Meadowcroft Rockshelter, a National Historic Landmark located 30 miles west of Pittsburgh in Avella, Pa. Other prehistoric settlements once lined the great Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers that converge at Pittsburgh.

By the 18th century, both the French and the British recognized the region's strategic importance and fought for the right to claim it in battles of global consequence. Battles in Point State Park demonstrated western Pennsylvania’s pivotal role during the French & Indian War and the American Revolution. Fort Pitt, a key British fortification during the French and Indian War, also served as the western headquarters of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. By the dawn of the 19th century, Western Pennsylvania was no longer the frontier. Farm sites dotted the landscape producing whiskey, flour, bacon, and other products. Iron and glass factories sprang up along the riverbanks as steamboats plied the waterways and the city solidified its reputation as the "Gateway to the West."

Although roads, canals, and eventually railroads connected Pittsburgh with other cities, Western Pennsylvania maintained an independence of spirit and a determined self-reliance born of geographic isolation and necessity. Pittsburgh became a hub of entrepreneurs and skilled craftsmen creating a region seething with the fire and smoke of industry, earning its nickname as the "Smoky City."

When the Civil War began, Pittsburgh was known for its iron furnaces and foundries. By the war's end, the city had secured a reputation as the arsenal for the Union, producing enormous quantities of ordnance and munitions, the likes of which the world had never seen.

The years following the Civil War saw an unparalleled explosion of creative genius and productivity that attracted enormous capital investment and made Pittsburgh one of the world's greatest industrial centers. Steel was king and immigrants in search of a better life eagerly responded to the insatiable demand for labor.

Pittsburgh's organized labor movement led the nation in difficult efforts to improve wages and working conditions that forever changed management/labor relations. Under a mighty cloud of industrial smoke, the city and region prospered and matured, giving birth to philanthropy and cultural institutions that became models for the rest of the country.

During the World Wars, Pittsburgh again led in military production and was touted as the "Arsenal of Democracy," confirming that America's might lay not only in its democratic ideals but its ability to quickly adapt its industries to war material and out-produce the enemy.

Boom times continued after World War II with further industrial expansion. At the same time, visionary political and business leaders created unprecedented urban renewal partnership that reengineered Pittsburgh's downtown. While some of the city's historic character was lost during this era, the problems of environmental contamination and air pollution were finally addressed.

By the 1970s and 1980s, the crippling decline of the steel industry changed the region's image as well as its economic base. Industries and businesses retooled and diversified. Innovative leaders adapted to this changing world, engineering another remarkable renaissance. By the mid-1980s and again throughout the 2000s, Pittsburgh had gained the reputation as the nation's "most livable city."

Today's Pittsburgh is a model of adaption, maintaining its work ethic, independence, and inventive spirit while exhibiting an "old world charm" that is cherished by people who care about heritage and preservation.

Western Pennsylvania is once again recasting its image and building a new identity. It is a rapidly advancing leader in medicine, education, health care, robotics, software engineering, hi-tech industries and is positioning itself to take advantage of the growing draw of cultural tourism in Pennsylvania.

Source: Senator John Heinz History Center, in association with the Smithsonian Institution