Singing in the City: The Bonds of Home in an Industrial Landscape

Overview

Singing the City is an eloquent tribute to a way of life largely disappearing in America, using Pittsburgh as a lens. Graham is not blind to the damage industry has done—both to people and to the environment, but she shows us that there is also a rich human story that has gone largely untold, one that reveals, in all its ambiguities, the place of the industrial landscape in the heart.

Singing the City is a celebration of a landscape that through most of its history has been ...

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Overview

Singing the City is an eloquent tribute to a way of life largely disappearing in America, using Pittsburgh as a lens. Graham is not blind to the damage industry has done—both to people and to the environment, but she shows us that there is also a rich human story that has gone largely untold, one that reveals, in all its ambiguities, the place of the industrial landscape in the heart.

Singing the City is a celebration of a landscape that through most of its history has been unabashedly industrial. Convinced that industrial landscapes are too little understood and appreciated, Graham set out to investigate the city’s landscape, past and present, and to learn the lessons she sensed were there about living a good life. The result, told in both her voice and the distinctive voices of the people she meets, is a powerful contribution to the literature of place.

Graham begins by showing the city as an outgrowth of its geography and its geology—the factors that led to its becoming an industrial place. She describes the human investment in the area: the floods of immigrants who came to work in the mills in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their struggles within the domains of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. She evokes the superhuman aura of making steel by taking the reader to still functioning mills and uncovers for us a richness of tradition in ethnic neighborhoods that survives to this day.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“You don't have to be from Pittsburgh to appreciate Singing the City. . . . It's a book that will resonate with anyone, anywhere, who is interested in the complex relationship between urban landscape and human spirit.
Associated Press
Booknews
In this extended essay about Pittsburgh, labor, and community, writer/editor Graham describes how Pittsburgh's geography and geology were factors in its industrialization; the floods of immigrants who came to work in the mills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; steelmaking lore and the loss of mills; and the urban spirit that honors commitment to family, tradition, and hard physical work.
Terry William
Singing the City is a smart, lyrical prose poem that illuminates the beauty in industrial landscapes....showing us what it means to embrace our cities, a subject too often neglected in our exploration of place. Graham locates an urban spirit that honors the hard work, the cultural traditions, the commitment to family and home that root us in a landscape. -- The New York Review of Books
Holly Brubach
The Pittsburgh [the book] portrays is a mythic town, the furnace of the gods stoked by the plain-spoken blue-collar guys with good hearts. The furnace is cold now, the guys at a loss. To cure what ails us, Grham would rekindle those fires. -- The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822940760
  • Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 5.93 (w) x 9.35 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Out of This Land

The view from my window is a pageant of water and light. The river waters are still as glass today, reflecting the fretted curve of Three Rivers Stadium across from the Point, the evergreen and deciduous trees along the riverbanks, the arch of the Fort Pitt Bridge turned golden bronze in its reverse image on the surface of the water. The gray of the sky at the hilltops lightens overhead to a pale, delicate gray blue, marked by darker, apparently motionless puffs of cloud.

Pittsburgh is a city profoundly aware of its landscape. Pedestrians cross the bridges over the rivers on foot. Long flights of steps scale hills too steep for simple paths. Streets, many of them narrow, plunge, soar, and careen off at angles in deference to the terrain. When I turn off the rim of my hill to drive down the back slope, I look into the rearview mirror and see only sky.

    Access to downtown from the south is by tunnel under the long ridge called Mt. Washington. Travelers enter as if through the portal of a medieval city, struck by the rivers and bridges, sparkling towers, and light whose existence they could scarcely have suspected from the other side of the hill. It is as if the hills themselves were the center city's walls. Sitting on a grassy portion at the top of the hillside, at night, looking out over the city, I have felt physically the power and richness of the land, as my body bore down into the solidity of that earth. I have thought of the coal that the land beneath me has given, its gift.

    The broad outlines of the city's story are evident insomething as simple as a road map. I have formed the habit of spreading my map of Pennsylvania on the living room floor next to the window. The map reminds me of where I am and why a city was founded here and why it thrived. On hands and knees, I trace the intricate, meandering paths of the Allegheny and the Monongahela, curving, circling back on themselves as they make their way toward the city. Road patterns to the east become a succession of arcs between the Appalachian mountain ridges that separate Pittsburgh from the cities of the Atlantic seaboard. Towns with names like Coal Center and Cokeburg denote the area's vast seams of bituminous coal and its transformation into coke. Early blast furnace sites still dot the landscape—Lemont Furnace, Oliphant Furnace, Wharton Furnace, once small-scale smelters of local iron ore. Their charcoal-burning furnaces of brick and stone were rural forerunners of the looming industrial giants to come. Two hours by car to the north, the town of Oil City recalls "Colonel" Edwin L. Drake, who sank the world's first oil well nearby at Titusville in 1859. Pittsburgh grew up in an era when geology and geography mattered more to the prosperity of cities, before faxes and e-mail and FedEx allowed cities to grow largely outside the context of work. Pittsburgh's story, like that of most older industrial cities, grew out of, and because of, the land. More specifically, Pittsburgh's destiny grew out of its bedrock, the mountain barrier, and the flow of its rivers. As I look at my road map, I realize that my understanding of the city is inseparable from what I have learned of its origins and the path it followed in becoming an industrial place.

    The city's valleys and hills are the eroded surface of the system of nearly horizontal sedimentary layers that we call the Appalachian Plateau. Layers of bedrock reveal themselves along the river cliffs and along roadways and railroads cut into the hillsides—shale, sandstone, marine and freshwater limestones, clay, and coal. Soldiers from Fort Pitt hauled chunks of coal from the bluff along the Monongahela by canoe as early as 1759 or 1760. James Kenny, assistant to the agent of the trading post at Fort Pitt, wrote in his journal in May 1761, "I & my brother & two other Men went to see [y.sup.e] Coal Pit on land in ye Mountain Side over [y.sup.e] Monongahela; [y.sup.e] Mountain is so high & steep that its with Care & difficulty people gets up to it, but its easy got, as ... [y.sup.e] Coal is in a Bank fronting like a upright Wall in [y.sup.e] Hill side they put it into bags & tumbles them down [y.sup.e] hill." Outcrops from "Coal Hill," now Mt. Washington, were part of the Pittsburgh Coal, the most significant of the region's many layers, extending through eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland, and mined over an area of six thousand square miles. Even after two hundred years of mining, it has been called the earth's single most valuable coal deposit.

    The coal that was to provide the city with steam for power and coke for iron smelting formed slowly, at the leisured pace of geologic time, in tropical swamps that bordered a vast inland sea. The Pennsylvanian coal forest was a land of giant dragonflies, cockroaches, and centipedes, of huge amphibians, and reptiles like the fin-backed Edaphosaurus. The straight trunks of Lepidodendron reached a hundred feet to the sky amid a variety of plants, including seed ferns, cordaites, tree ferns, and calamites. As plants died and sank into the swamp, more plants grew over them and died in turn. Layer upon layer the plant debris accumulated, along with intervening layers of sediment, the upper layers generating the heat and pressure to compact the plant layers below, over millions of years, first into peat, then into lignite, and then, in the case of Pittsburgh, into bituminous coal. A ten-foot layer like the Pittsburgh Coal would have required a plant buildup of at least two hundred feet. At Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History a slice of bituminous coal, enlarged eight hundred times, reveals its source in the yellows of embedded plant spores, resin, and cuticle; in the red of coalized wood and bark; and in the black of plant material that has been carbonized. It has been calculated that before mining began, Allegheny County, of which Pittsburgh is the county seat, had 3,194,820,000 tons of bituminous coal.

    During the Pennsylvanian Period, between 320 and 286 million years ago, the area that is Pittsburgh was near the equator, near the eastern edge of the North American plate. At approximately mid-period, the North American and African plates collided, thrusting upward the Appalachians and the Mauritanian Mountains of West Africa in a process of mountain building called the Alleghenian orogeny. Vast rivers and streams carried sediments eroded from the mountains—sands, silts, and clays—toward the inland sea that extended over the future site of Pittsburgh. As the sea advanced and retreated over the coal swamps, sedimentary deposits were laid down to become limestones, sandstones, and shales. Millions of microorganisms also living in the sea eventually combined with the accumulating sediments to form oil and gas.

    The coal measures of western Pennsylvania are for the most part Pennsylvanian in origin, that is, so well developed and described that the term Pennsylvanian is applied everywhere to them and to rocks of similar age. Our terms for eras of geologic time are merely that, of course—our terms. Without thinking I sometimes feel a wave of disappointment as I remind myself that terms like Pennsylvanian, Ordovician, Jurassic, which are so rich to the tongue and to the ear, are simply modern inventions, terms that we have devised. I find myself wanting to know what the real names of those periods are, what they were called at the time, forgetting that names are only human.

    With the laying down of the coal and the upward thrust of the Appalachians, two elements of the city's geological triad had come into being. It would be several hundred million years before the final element, the drainage of the rivers, would be established.

    Before the Pleistocene, or Ice Age, between 1.8 million and ten thousand years ago, Pittsburgh's rivers followed far different paths. The ancestral Ohio and the southernmost of three rivers that have since combined to form the Allegheny were tributaries of the Monongahela, which flowed northward over its entire course to empty into the ancestral Lake Erie Basin. The "upper Allegheny" and the "middle Allegheny" flowed northward into the basin as well. The glaciers of the Pleistocene, sheets of ice as thick as two miles, advanced from the north, stopping short of Pittsburgh but acting as dams in the rivers. As ice blocked the rivers, lakes formed along the glaciers' edge, which in turn pushed backward into the riverbeds as their waters grew too high to be contained. Erosion, enhanced by meltwater and glacial debris, maintained the southerly flow and the drainage we take for granted today. I can see traces of the preglacial pattern on my road map, as the Ohio heads northwest out of Pittsburgh before turning back south to make its journey west. With the westward thrust of the rivers, the geological triad was complete, and the scene was set for manufacture west of the mountains and for trade with floods of settlers passing through.

    In their journals eighteenth-century travelers wrote of standing at the summit of the Allegheny Front, the eastern escarpment of the Alleghenies (the Appalachian mountain ridges which are closest to Pittsburgh), and looking west over a sea of trees. The forests were dense with oak and sugar maple, chestnut, walnut, and hickory In northern portions of the area, two-hundred-foot stands of hemlock merged into similar stands of white pine. Grapevines laced through the treetops, roofing the forest and wreathing it in darkness. Legend has it that a squirrel could make his way from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh without ever touching the ground.

    It was a landscape larger and richer than life, or life as we know it. John Heckewelder, a Moravian missionary, wrote in 1789 of "a wild cherry tree on the bank of the Allegheny ... 18 feet in circumference," of plums and large wild apples, of honey locusts along the river bottoms and beside the streams. Nicholas Cresswell agreed: "Walnut and Cherry Trees grow to an amazing size. I have seen several three foot [in] diameter and 40 foot before they come to a limb." Colonel John May reported that "within 10 rods of the house [at the foot of Coal Hill], we can catch any quantity of fish we want, and almost any kind—in particular Cat fish, Perch, Buffelow, Pike, Bass of two sorts, sturgeon's of two sorts etc." He noted one catfish that weighed 120 pounds, adding that "he drownd the man that took him." An unidentified French traveler wrote of the beautiful black squirrels swimming in the water near Fort Duquesne, of "hummingbirds hardly as big as olives," of fireflies and swarms of bees. The wife of a settler reported the presence of "some panthers and many wolves." Game was plentiful: deer, elk, wood buffalo, bear, and appearing again and again in the accounts of early travelers, wild turkeys, weighing as much as thirty or forty pounds. Christian Schultz Jr. described them in 1807 as "so overburthened with fat that they fly with difficulty. It frequently happens," he wrote, "that after shooting one on a tree, you will find him bursted by falling on the ground."

    I saw a glimpse of this past, if only a glimpse, two hours from the city in Cook Forest Park, a Registered National Natural Landmark, which contains some of the oldest stands of virgin white pine and hemlock in the northeast. Along the trails, tall, straight trunks of white pine, once used for ship masts, stand thick with towering trunks of hemlock, their leafless lower branches truncated like the arms of a scarecrow. A burst of branches high above forms a filigree of green illumined by the sun, in contrast to the comparative dim of the forest floor. As far as I could tell, the treetops had no vines.

    Cook Forest is an old-age or climax forest. Older trees are dying. Many simply fall over, pulling a fringe of roots from the soil. When I put my hand on a massive trunk lying along the ground, its moss-covered curve felt like an animal's flank.

    When prospective white settlers first arrived, the area near the Point was only sparsely settled by native peoples. Much of what is now western Pennsylvania had been reserved since 1656 as a hunting ground by the Iroquois, who had driven out its previous inhabitants. Its repopulation had begun in the early 1700s as native groups sought new lands, largely in response to the pressure of whites moving west. A trader's census shows the Delaware chief Senangel and sixteen families at Shannopin's Town, two miles upriver on the Allegheny. (The site is now occupied by the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville.) Queen Allaquippa reigned "with great authority" over a small band of Seneca at the modern site of McKees Rocks, a few miles down the Ohio, before moving on to the Monongahela and the mouth of the "Yough" (short for Youghiogheny River, and so called even in the eighteenth century, pronounced Yock). Shingas, another Delaware leader, succeeded Queen Allaquippa at McKees Rocks. Shawnee, Delaware, and Mingo lived eighteen miles down the Ohio at Logstown (near modern-day Ambridge, named for the American Bridge Company), which also served as a headquarters for English traders and as a site of negotiation between Indians and whites. Most of its forty log cabins had been built for the Indians by the French.

    Historians Solon and Elizabeth Buck have written of the "Arcadian quality in Indian life as it existed in western Pennsylvania in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. It was a life of leisure, of hospitality, of a simple social honesty." A stranger or friend was greeted with a haunch of venison or at least a communal pipe. White traders plied their wares in the area, exchanging a range of goods, most significantly guns, ammunition, and rum, for the Indians' furs and skins. George Croghan, a former Dubliner who was married to a native woman and was said to control a fourth of the Ohio country trade, had a trading post across the Allegheny from Shannopin's Town, and another down the Ohio at Logstown. John Frazier's trading post stood a hundred yards east of the steep bank of the Monongahela at Turtle Creek, on land given to him by Queen Allaquippa.

    When George Washington arrived in November 1753, there were no native settlements on the land between the Forks, that is, the Point. (At the time, the converging Allegheny and Monongahela were referred to as the Forks of the Ohio.) Perhaps because it could be swampy and subject to flood, it was not as highly prized by native peoples as other sites. Washington was on a mission to Fort Le Boeuf, now Waterford in Erie County, to deliver the British response to the recent military advance by the French into the Ohio country. The French, wishing to secure the most direct route between their dominions in Canada and the city of New Orleans, had moved early in 1753 toward the Ohio, building forts at Presque Isle, now Erie, and Lake Le Boeuf. The British, who were unwilling to have their colonies in the New World hemmed in by the Appalachians, instructed the governors of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia to demand that the French withdraw, or to "repel Force by Force" if they declined. They also authorized Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia to build forts along the Ohio. (The southern and western borders of Pennsylvania were not permanently fixed until 1779; until then, the lands north to the Ohio were claimed as well by Virginia.) Dinwiddie chose the "gentleman" George Washington to deliver the message to the French and to evaluate the proposal by the Ohio Company, a group of Virginia land speculators, to build a fort near the Forks. Washington's guide, Christopher Gist, had made several previous trips for the company, and in June of 1752, with three commissioners appointed by the Virginia governor, had distributed a present to the Indians at Logstown. In return, the Indians had granted permission to build two forts.

    Of that day in November 1753, at the future site of Pittsburgh, Washington wrote in his journal, "I spent some Time in viewing the Rivers, and the Land in the Fork; which I think extremely well situated for a Fort, as it has the absolute Command of both Rivers. The Land at the Point is 20 or 25 Feet above the common Surface of the Water; and a considerable Bottom of flat, well-timbered Land all around it, very convenient for Building: The Rivers are each a Quarter of a Mile, or more, across, and run here very near at right Angles: Aligany bearing N.E. and Monongahela S.E. The former of these two is a very rapid and swift running Water; the other deep and still, without any perceptible Fall."

    After considering and rejecting the Ohio Company's previous choice of site, at the place where "lives Shingiss, King of the Delawares," Washington forged on to Fort Le Boeuf and delivered Governor Dinwiddie's letter requiring the "peaceable Departure" of the French. In reply the fort's commander was gracious but firm: "As to the Summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey."

    The following year found a small force of Virginians engaged in construction at the Forks of Fort Prince George (the first British fort on the triangle of land beneath my window). The Virginians were unaware, however, of the approach down the Allegheny of the French captain Pierre de Contrecoeur and his five hundred troops. Contrecoeur arrived on April 16 with three hundred canoes and sixty bateaux and disembarked at Shannopin's Town. Moving toward the Point the following day, the troops trained their cannon on the fort and demanded the surrender of its defenders. Given the superiority of the French in number and arms, the Virginians obediently retired. The French demolished Fort Prince George and erected in its place the earth and timber, four-bastioned structure they called Fort Duquesne.

    Even as the French were dismantling Fort Prince George, two companies of Virginia militia, unaware of its fall to the French, were making their way from Alexandria to the Forks of the Ohio as reinforcements. The troops' commander, George Washington, this time in military guise, learned at Fort Cumberland (Maryland) that Fort Prince George had fallen. He did not turn back, however, but proceeded on, engaging a small detachment of the enemy fifty miles south of the Forks near Chestnut Ridge. During the rout, which lasted only fifteen minutes, twelve French soldiers, including their commander, Coulon de Jumonville, were killed, and the rest were taken prisoner. Washington wrote in his journal, "If the whole Detachment of the French behave with no more Resolution than this chosen Party did, I flatter myself we shall have no great Trouble in driving them to ... Montreal." It was the first battle of what we have come to call the French and Indian War.

    We know of course that Washington's confidence was misplaced. Only weeks later, deserted by his Indian allies, he was in full retreat at Fort Necessity. A quarter of his force was ill from hunger and exhaustion. The subsequent attack by six hundred soldiers and one hundred Indians led by Coulon de Villiers, Jumonville's brother, began at noon and ended eight hours later and left Washington with such heavy losses that he had little choice but to accept Villiers's terms of capitulation.

    It was not the last defeat to be suffered by the British in their effort to reclaim the Point. On July 9, 1755, a large British force under the command of Major-General Edward Braddock was massacred near Turtle Creek by French troops and their Indian allies. Nearly one thousand of approximately fourteen hundred British troops were killed or wounded. Almost two decades later the Reverend David McClure would write in his diary, "Monday rode to Braddock's field.... It was a melancholy spectacle to see the bones of men strewed over the ground, left to this day, without the solemn rite of sepulture." (Since the 1870s, the battlefield has been the site of the Edgar Thomson steel plant.)

    In September 1758, an even larger British force was moving toward the Forks under the command of Brigadier General John Forbes. Their progress was slow, as Forbes had decided not to travel to the Forks by Braddock's route northwest from Virginia, but to cut a new road straight over the Pennsylvania mountains, building or enlarging forts along the way. It was from the army's advance camp at Loyalhanna that Major James Grant moved out with 750 troops, including 300 Highlanders, to reconnoitre Fort Duquesne and possibly recover some prisoners. Once within range of the fort, Grant gave in to a (somewhat Custerlike) overassessment of his strength and guile and moved to lure its occupants into ambush from the hill that would subsequently bear his name. Three hundred men were killed, thirty-seven, including Grant, taken prisoner. The heads of several decapitated Highlanders were soon impaled on stakes along the Indian racetrack outside the fort, their kilts draped underneath.

    In spite of the humiliation of Grant, there was no denying the superior strength of Forbes's army, of which the French were well aware. Their Indian allies were equally aware and preferred to retire to their autumn hunting grounds in face of the British threat. By late November, some were even negotiating a peace with the Moravian missionary Christian Frederick Post at their camp across the Allegheny from Fort Duquesne. When the British forces arrived at the Point, they found the fort deserted, its timbers smoldering. The French had burned it to the ground.

    General Forbes surveyed the scene the following day from a litter that had been suspended between two horses (Forbes had to travel by litter through the entire campaign). He was exhausted and weak with "the bloody flux," and only months short of dying. Summoning his strength, he dictated the opening of a letter to William Pitt, then a secretary of state and in charge of the North American campaign: "Sir, I do myself the honour of acquainting you that it has pleased God to crown His Majesty's Arms with Success over all his Enemies upon the Ohio." Concluding the letter some weeks later, he added, "I have used the freedom of giving your name to Fort Du Quesne, as I hope it was in some measure the being actuated by your spirits that now makes us Masters of the place." The letter was dated "Pittsbourgh, 27 Novem. 1758."

    Pitt responded with orders to erect a fort at the Point "strong enough to assure the undisputed possession of the Ohio," and in August 1759 General John Stanwix arrived to oversee its construction. In my mind's eye I see the swarm of activity as the Point came alive with brick kilns, saw pits, and forges, and the works for the "largest and costliest" of British forts in North America displaced the ruins of Fort Duquesne. The completed Fort Pitt covered seventeen and a half acres with its outworks included. One and a quarter million locally fired, whitish bricks went into its construction. Behind the fort was a village of approximately 150 houses and at least a third as many "huts." The Union Jack proclaimed its authority from a pole rising above the flag bastion. One modern drawing of the fort lists thirteen buildings, including a barracks that measured 180 feet in length.

    The newly completed fort marked the toehold of a culture largely antithetical to that of the area's native peoples. Similarly, their ways were incompatible with and perhaps incomprehensible to the white settlers who would follow. The life of the native hunter required vast tracts of uncultivated land, while for the whites ownership of land was the standard by which people were defined. Hugh Henry Brackenridge, a Princeton-educated lawyer and chronicler of early Pittsburgh, expressed the settlers' point of view: "It was against [the] laws of God and nature that so much land should lie idle while so many christians wanted it to work on and to raise their bread." Though it was the policy of the British government, the Pennsylvania Assembly, and the commandants at Fort Pitt to prevent settlement west and south of the Forks and to reserve those lands as native hunting grounds, the steady influx of settlers rendered the policy unenforceable. With the Treaty of Fort Stanwix of 1768, by which the Iroquois ceded their claim to lands in the southwestern portion of the state, the policy was abandoned. By 1775, in spite of continued danger of attack by Indians still resisting their advance, at least fifty thousand people had settled south of the Forks.

    Pittsburgh, after the Revolution, was a rowdy, independent-minded place, short on the refinements of the eastern seaboard. Its houses, most of them built of logs, were often ramshackle, its streets often seas of mud. "Sanitary provisions were primitive," writes historian Leland Baldwin, "the dogs made night hideous with their howls, and drunken Indians and whites snored beside hogs in the mud puddles." During his visit to Pittsburgh in 1788, John May wrote in his journal, "I have had but little sleep since I have been here chiefly owing to the barking of dogs. I believe here are two dogs to one man—and at my quarters there are no less than seventeen of these wide throated son's of B—."

    Still, the seeds of civility were being planted. The Pittsburgh Gazette, the first newspaper west of the Alleghenies, was established in 1786. In 1787, the Pittsburgh Academy, which would eventually become the University of Pittsburgh, was incorporated to teach "the Learned Languages, English, and the Mathematicks." A German evangelical church was organized in 1782; the Presbyterian congregation of Pittsburgh was incorporated in 1787. Prominent families like the Nevilles and the O'Haras provided a degree of elegance and polish. A visitor from Philadelphia, Mrs. Mary Dewees, described "Mr. and Mrs. O'Harra" as "very polite and agreeable." On a call to "Col. Butler and his lady," she noted the "very handsome parlour, elegantly papered and well furnished, ... more like Philadelphia than any I have seen since I left that place." Before long the town would boast several music teachers and a store that sold violins.

    But the city's identity would be forged above all by its situation and the wealth of the land. Fertile soil soon created agricultural surpluses that could be converted to capital or exchanged in trade, shipped down the Ohio and the Mississippi by keelboat, flatboat, or barge. By 1800 the "Gateway to the West" was shipping "flour, whiskey, bar iron and castings, glass, salted pork and beef, copper and tin wares, cordage, apples, cider, and peach and apple brandy" downriver to New Orleans. The mountains to the east were as good as a tariff, so hazardous and expensive was it to transport goods over them. Settlers often sold everything before leaving the eastern seaboard, then, once over the mountains, bought flatboats and otherwise outfitted themselves at Pittsburgh, the meeting-place of overland and river routes to the west. Flatboats could be had in Pittsburgh boatyards at a dollar a foot, to be broken up for lumber at their final destination. Local manufactories grew up in face of the cost of goods from the east. On the subject of glass, Joshua Gilpin, a Philadelphia investor, wrote in his journal, "the cost of this article when procured at Philadelphia would be more than doubled by carriage to Pittsburgh since a black glass bottle which costs 5 cents would require 6 more to convey it.—add to this that there is no article whose price is so exceedingly inhanced by accident.—it could rarely happen that a crate of bottles could pass over the mountains without a large portion of it being broken." By 1797, James O'Hara and Isaac Craig had established Pittsburgh's first glass factory on Coal Hill, using coal from a seam near the summit of the hill to manufacture "black & green glass principally bottles & window glass."

    The land offered timber for logs and lumber, and for charcoal to be used in iron smelting. It offered clay for bricks, limestone and sand for glass, iron ore, and coal—for manufacturing and eventually for steam-powered transport. William Turnbull began construction of western Pennsylvania's first iron furnace in 1789 on Jacob's Creek in Fayette County, to Pittsburgh's south. In 1802 Zadok Cramer, another chronicler of early Pittsburgh, noted the presence of one brewery, two glassworks, a paper mill, several oil mills, fulling mills, powderworks, ironworks, saltworks, sawmills, gristmills, and boatyards. By 1817, Cramer's Pittsburgh Magazine Almanack listed the products of the city's iron manufacture: "nails, shovels, tongs, spades, scythes, sickles, hoes, axes, frying pans, cutting knives, vices, scale beams, augers, chisels, nail springs, locks, files, coffee mills, plane bits, door handles," and numerous other articles. By 1809 the city had its first steam-powered flour mill. The steam engine's finer parts were manufactured in Philadelphia, then shipped to Pittsburgh where they were assembled under the supervision of George Evans, the son of Oliver Evans, with parts that could be manufactured locally. By 1816, at least eight steam engines were in use in Pittsburgh's mills or factories, the largest being the seventy-horsepower engine at Cowan's rolling and slitting mill. Cramer's Almanack of 1817 observed that local manufacturing "has almost rendered us as independent of the eastern states, as those states have been rendered by the war independent of the Old World."

    The city grew dramatically. The Scottish geographer and merchant John Melish noted that by 1810 Pittsburgh "contained 11 stone buildings, 283 of brick, and 473 of frame and log; making in all 767; and the number of inhabitants was 4768." Public buildings included "a court-house, jail, market-house, bank, academy, and 5 places of public worship." Even then, the city drew character from its work. "In the course of my walks through the streets," Melish recalled, "I heard every where the sound of the hammer and anvil; all was alive; every thing indicated the greatest industry, and attention to business." Yet the city could be beautiful. "I ascended a handsome eminence, called Grant's Hill," Melish wrote, "from whence I had a fine view of the town and country." A sketch of the Point drawn in 1817 by Mrs. James Gibson of Philadelphia while on her wedding trip shows a cluster of clean, trim houses and steepled churches, framed by rolling, tree-lined hills, with a flatboat on the river in the foreground and a single smoking stack on the city side of the Mon.

    Not all observers were as sanguine. Of his visit to the city in 1816, David Thomas wrote that "Pittsburgh was hidden from our view, until we descended through the hills within half a mile of the Allegany river. Dark dense smoke was rising from many parts, and a hovering cloud of this vapour, obscuring the prospect, rendered it singularly gloomy." Ten days later Thomas left Pittsburgh, "with all the joy of a bird which escapes from its cage." The Englishman John Bernard wrote that "on approaching Pittsburgh we were struck with a peculiarity nowhere else to be observed in the States; a cloud of smoke hung over it in an exceedingly clear sky, recalling to me many choking recollections of London." Another Englishman, John Pearson, called the city "a poor, gloomy, sickly receptacle, hardly fit for convicts of the worst description." And yet, he wrote, "this was the place where the hammers stunned your ears, and the manufactories struck you dumb with astonishment." Nonetheless, rather than buy a farm and settle down as he had intended, he promptly turned around and returned to England.

    Others perceived the positive beyond the smoke. Russell Errett, a newspaperman and politician, recalled that after first seeing Pittsburgh, the initial gloom and melancholy the city inspired "passed away never to return." Decades later, Anthony Trollope called the city "without exception, the blackest place which I ever saw," then proceeded to vindicate it: "Nothing can be more picturesque than the site," he wrote. "Even the filth and wondrous blackness of the place are picturesque when looked down upon from above.... I was never more in love with smoke and dirt than when I stood here and watched the darkness of night close in upon the floating soot which hovered over the house-tops of the city." Cramer's Navigator of 1817 observed that "the character of the people is that of enterprising and persevering industry." From the city's earliest days, smoke not only issued from household chimneys, but also signified that people were at work.

    And that, above all, has been what Pittsburgh is about—work. A vein of Calvinism ran deep from its beginnings, in the Presbyterianism of the dominant Scots and Scotch-Irish founding population. Years later James Parton would write that "the masters of Pittsburgh are mostly of Scotch-Irish race, ... keen and steady in the prosecution of their affairs, indifferent to pleasure, singularly devoid of the usual vanities and ostentations, proud to possess a solid and spacious factory, and to live in an insignificant house. There are no men of leisure in the town." (History would contradict Parton in one respect. Pittsburgh's Gilded Age industrial millionaires would build houses that were anything but "insignificant.")

    The verve of this trans-Appalachian frontier was most visibly manifest in the keelboatmen, tough, roisterous, independent, who moved farm produce and other freight along the rivers. Poling their shallow craft, or hauling them from shore, warping (pulling from the boat on ropes tied to trees), or bushwhacking (reaching from the bow for a branch along the riverbank, then walking aft to propel the boat upstream), they were, until overtaken by steam, the rivers' mighty men. Tall tales and hyperbole swelled around such real-life adventurers as Cherry Tree Joe McCreery and Mike Fink, making them the stuff of legend.

    Cherry Tree Joe, who hailed from the town of Cherry Tree, was the more genial of the two. He kept a moose for milking and a panther as a house pet, presumably with the permission of his wife, who had her hands full just taking care of Joe. His appetite was enormous, and the frying pan she cooked in was so big it took a side of bacon to grease it. When Joe got restless, he skated off down the Allegheny with a log raft strapped to each foot. The image of Joe with rafts on his feet no doubt arose from his real-life expertise as a lumberman, running logs and rafts on the upper Allegheny.

    Mike Fink, who preferred to spell his name Miche Phinck, was "half wild horse and half cock-eyed alligator" with some "crooked snags an' red-hot snappin' turkle" thrown in. He liked to boast that he could "out-run, out-jump, out-shoot, out-brag, out-drink, an' out-fight" any man on either side of the river "from Pittsburgh to New Orleans an' back ag'in to St. Louiee." Fink didn't take kindly to the advent of the steam age and eventually, feeling the country growing too civilized, took off for the Rockies, where a murderous exploit when he was in his cups earned him a bullet through the heart.

    The first steamboat on the western rivers, the New Orleans, was built under the supervision of Nicholas Roosevelt, a partner of Robert Fulton, in a boatyard on the north bank of the Monongahela. Launched in March 1811, the sidewheeler was greeted with "huzzas" by the townspeople but was forced because of low water to wait until October to make the trip to New Orleans. Once at New Orleans the steamer was deemed too feeble for the return trip upstream and remained on the lower Mississippi.

    The first steamboats were clumsy and unwieldy, unsuited to the rivers' sometimes shallow waters and rapid currents, and their threat to the keelboat was not immediately evident. But each steamboat built brought improvements, resulting most significantly in boats of shallower draft, and in 1817 Captain Henry Shreve made the trip from New Orleans to Louisville on the steamer Washington in just twenty-five days. Keelboatmen had needed as much as a month just to travel the short distance from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh. Between 1812 and 1826, forty-eight steamboats were built in Pittsburgh, and as steam became preeminent, keelboatmen drifted to the rivers' tributaries or found work on the steamboats or in the yards in which they were made. One era of heroes was over. But future decades would see the germ of a new hero, and he would grow out of the story of steel.

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Table of Contents

August 24, 1995. 5:40 A.M. 1
Prologue 5
Out of This Land 14
Vessels of Fire 34
The Contours of Home 68
The Loss of the Mills 101
People and Work 132
The Sublime and the Beautiful 154
Notes 167
Acknowledgments 173
Index 175
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