When France helped the colonialists defeat Britain in the American Revolution, they had good reason to be angry. Among the territories of the then New World, they had before been forced to surrender to England was Pittsburgh, PA. They didn't, however, give it up without a fight.
In 1754, twenty one years before America's war for independence began, they added a footnote to history that is little cited today. It was then that they forced a young George Washington to lay down his arms and walk his army back to Williamsburg VA, nearly 400 miles away. When he came back four years later as a part of Gen. John Forbes's forces, however, the French were the ones who left with their tails between their legs. They were so thoroughly defeated that when they left they used the cover of darkness to burn the military post, Fort Duquene, they had built at the junction of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.
This location was of strategic importance to early settlers as these two rivers form the confluence of the mighty Ohio River which stretches all they way to the Mississippi River 981 miles away. As testimony to the Ohio's might, once it reaches the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois, it contributes most of the water that then flows to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, it forms part of the border of six states; Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. As a line in the sand, it also roughly separated the north from the south during the Civil War since the two states below it, Kentucky and West Virginia, were Union states that still permitted slavery.
When the French left, the British built a new fort and named it Fort Pitt to honor William Pitt, the British war minister. Also known as the first Earl of Chatham, Pitt would go on to help England win the French and Indian war that had pretty much begun when Washington was first defeated in what is now Pittsburgh. It was also Pitt who would unwittingly go on to foment the unrest that would cause his country to lose its possession. He had gained great popularity in America during the long battle by lavishing cash reimbursements on the colonists for their military expenses. However, by the time the war ended in 1763, the British had forced France off all of the land east of the Mississippi River, but they were also faced with massive public debt.
When they then started to tax everything such as glass, lead, paints, paper, tea, sugar, wine, cloth, and other goods imported into the colonies to help pay that obligation down, the flames had been fanned for the Revolutionary War. A year after America then won its freedom in 1783, the first community that had settled there in 1764 and took the name Pittsburgh, laid out a town. It was also in 1784, that Pittsburgh received a charter as a borough. It became a city in 1816. It wasn't long before Pittsburgh surged ahead of the former colonies as the growing nation's number one industrial powerhouse. Many factors conspired to make this so.
Besides its excellent water highway positioning, it was aided in 1761 when a coal seam was found on "Coal Hill", now known as Mt. Washington. The mine that soon formed would lead the rest of the state of Pennsylvania, still a top coal producer even today, as it fueled the Industrial Revolution in the United States in the late 1700's. Mt. Washington is now a popular tourist attraction with a night time view that "USA Today" says is of one of the most beautiful in America. It was from this spot, now noted for its boutiques and restaurants and even a centuries old tram that climbs the steep incline that separates it from the rest of the city, that the colonial iron industry drew its support.
Not only was Pittsburgh and soon its outlaying areas rich in coal, but when in 1859 Edwin Drake figured out a way to capture the oil that long had long been seen bubbling from the hills of northwestern Pennsylvania, the global petroleum industry was born. While as far back as 1810 "black gold" had been skimmed from Oil Creek, placed in hollow logs and floated down the creek to Pittsburgh 88 miles away, it was Drake who figured out how to drill for it. For the next 40 years countless wells sprung up in Titusville, Pennsylvania, 100 miles from Pittsburgh, making it the center of the oil industry, producing half of all the oil in the world.
One man, John D. Rockefeller, of Cleveland, Ohio, would go on to become the richest person in the world because of Pittsburgh's superior ability to move this oil around. Bringing crude in on its rivers and railbeds, many Pittsburgh refiners then shipped the lighting oil they produced to nearby states. However, it was Rockefeller who would stand out.
In 1868, he had built his first refinery in Pittsburgh as a way to capitalize on the home lighting market which was converting from whale oil to kerosene. However, the emergence of the automobile and its thirst for the formerly near worthless refining by-product called gasoline increased the demand for it to before unthought of levels. Rockefeller's dizzying wealth was the result of his ability to get western Pennsylvania's oil wealth centered in Pittsburgh, out to the rest of America.
Along the way Rockefeller had been helped by the B&O railroad. When the B&O made it through the Appalachian Mountain Range and arrived in Pittsburgh in 1855, it had established Pittsburgh as the center of the industrial universe. Not only did the many lines that serviced it help to make Rockefeller the most powerful man in the world, Pittsburgh's superior transportation positioning also helped to build the second richest man in the world.
Andrew Carnegie who began his working life in Pittsburgh as a bobbin boy in a textile factory, later graduating to a telegraph operator for the local railroad, soared above his competition in large part because of Pittsburgh's ability to move both raw materials and finished products long distances. When Carnegie started Cyclops Iron Works in 1864, he joined sixteen other iron mills that were taking advantage of the rich coal, iron ore and limestone deposits found there.
However, when a higher grade of iron called steel was patented in 1866, he needed northern Michigan to be able to make it at a competitive price. After forming a new company in 1875, Thomson Works, he completed a new factory and went to the Great Lakes state for the less expensive, better quality iron ore that would make his steel the best in the world. It would go on to help him build bridges, railways and skyscrapers all over America. By 1901, Pittsburgh would increase its concentration of American wealth when Carnegie sold his company to a banker named JP Morgan.
The company that resulted, US Steel, remains the largest integrated steel producer in the United States. Its influence is felt the world around even today. Even though it's smokestacks are gone, US Steel is still headquartered in Pittsburgh.
The Pittsburgh of today is much changed from nearly 40 years ago when the last of its mills shut down. For that matter, it began its renaissance in 1945 when Mayor David Lawrence first proposed the overhaul that resulted in the beautiful city it is today. With the recessions of the 1970's and the advent of cheap foreign labor, Pittsburgh's steel mills found themselves unable to compete with foreign steel mills and most closed down.
Once known as "The Smoky City" because billows of smoke poured from its thousands of stacks, it was recent Mayor and NBG booster, Tom Murphy, who would help earn Pittsburgh a reputation as an environmental showcase. Today, civic leaders from all over the world come to Pittsburgh to see the amazing changes that have taken place.
From a city where on its worst days the streetlights and automobile headlights had to be lighted during the day and downtown office workers needed to change shirts at noon because of the sooty air, a whole new Pittsburgh has emerged. From a city where the constant pounding of its industrial machines lulled people to sleep and protracted periods of silence awakened them, one today could never know that so much filth, dirt and noise desecrated this innocent looking paradise.
The Pittsburgh of today looks almost surreal against it surroundings. It shines like an emerald jewel that had been dropped into an ocean of lush, forest covered hills. Seated at the convergence of two mighty rivers, its very geographic positioning combines with its story book skyline to communicate power. It is against its many shining glass skyscrapers that all of this is painted.
Instead of steel and other heavy manufacturing, the new Pittsburgh is fueled by finance, high technology, health care and service-based industries. Education is also a major local employer and Pittsburgh boasts many specialized professional institutes as well as top-flight universities.
Pittsburgh is almost half as big as it was when it plundered along, taking from the natural perfection that envelops it. From a peak population of 676,806 people in 1950, as of 2002 Pittsburgh counted 327,898 people as its resident population.
Of note to cyclists is the fact that Pittsburgh is widely believed to be right behind San Francisco as the "steepest" city in the United States. As testimony to this, Pittsburgh has more public staircases (700) than any other city in America. While this last fact is important to walkers, it still shows those on two wheels that once you leave its downtown, Pittsburgh has more than its fair share of precipitous turf.
All of this is what our group, which had grown to include maybe forty others riders from the local area, entered when we left our last week of trail riding behind. We had met them at the Eliza Furnace trail head and since we somehow ended up behind schedule, only regrouped long enough to tell one another that we would exchange names as we rode in to town. The fifteen minute ride was spirited and fun. There were questions about my bike and our ride up from DC. We laughed a lot.
By the time we approached the linear park along the Allegheny River where our destination, the Venture Outdoors Festival was being held, we found ourselves separated from Pittsburgh’s famous skyline by water. Bordered by two rivers, the city’s downtown is located in what is also called “the point” because that is where the Allegheny joins with the Monongahela to form the mighty Ohio River. It was also there that Pittsburgh City Hall was located.
Though we no longer visited it, It was there in 2002, that a police escort delivered our rain soaked riders to our very first Mayors' Ride reception. It was then, that on its steps, former Mayor Tom Murphy stood with his senior aide and one of our biggest believers, Ro Fischer, as well as two other strong NBG supporters, Michael Sobkoviak of Venture Outdoors and David Hoffman of Bike Pittsburgh to welcome our riders. Many others were also there to receive Gil Gilmore and Dave Rabinowtiz who had spent the last week riding up the C&O canal trail from their send off in Washington DC.
As we pedaled to the festival, I remembered how excited Ro and the rest of her office had been to be getting bicycle visitors from far away Washington, DC. City Hall also had special memories for Jim Muellner. It was inside of it, in the Mayor’s office, that Ro had created a sign with colored copier paper that read “Go Jim Go”. She even had a map that tracked his daily progress as he then pedaled across the USA for us in 2003.
I also remembered how enthused Ro had been about the building she worked in. She had said that it was built all the way back in 1917. I knew it had to look out of place
surrounded by all those mighty skyscrapers and other modern looking office buildings.
From the pictures taken when we used to hold NBG Day there, I remember the three large arches where everyone had congregated to get out of the rain. They looked to be
several stories tall. A stone building, it was square in shape, and had to be nine or ten floors from bottom to top.
Soon Troy Bogdan, a local organic farmer, and veteran DC to Pittsburgh NBG rider called. “If we want to get a picture of all of us with the skyline in the background, this would be a great place!”
“Photo op!” I shouted. “Let’s all take a quick break.”
Once every one had stopped, I could see that we weren’t going to get everyone in a photo unless I started doing choreography.
“Can some one hold my bike?” I said as I started my organizing. “OK team let’s get over here on this part of the path. Recumbents in the front, tall people with regular bikes in the back. Let’s make like four rows....”
Finally after another five minutes of walking people into position and other forms of cajoling, we had everyone in place! At which point I grabbed one of the many curious bystanders who had interrupted their walk to watch us and gave her a camera. It wasn’t long before others from our group were handing her their picture taking devices.
Once all the five or six cameras had been used, we all thanked our volunteer photographer and got back on our bikes. Soon, we were on our way to the fun we could see ahead.