All cities are shaped by land and water, few more emphatically than Pittsburgh. The site gained strategic importance from the rivers that joined to open a gateway to the American West. Its economic advantage derived from its position at the eastern headwaters of the vast Mississippi – Ohio – Missouri river system and on the northwestern edge of the rich Appalachian bituminous coal beds. Over the course of time, geography profoundly shaped the history of the area; but, in more recent times, humans have in turn drastically impacted the region’s land, air and waters.
When the first small bands of humans advanced along the edge of the retreating ice cap into what is today southwestern Pennsylvania, they were confronted by a pristine and magnificent natural setting. Crystal waters teemed with fish, vast forests spread over the ridges and stretched along the river banks, an enormous diversity of wild animals were sustained in this environment, including a number of fierce predators that competed with men for prey. Above, the skies were clear, but full, traversed by enormous flocks of birds with great diversity among the feathered tribe. The small groups of humans, hunting and gathering in tight-knit communities, were far from dominant in the scene, but people adapted and slowly found an expanding niche in the thick web of life. Over time, the hand and mind of man transformed this scene dramatically.
When Europeans landed on the coast of what is now the United States, they found indigenous peoples, but no great cities to conquer or treasure to plunder as in Mexico and Peru. As John Smith of Jamestown Colony, Virginia, indicated, the land was incredibly rich and needed only hard labor. "Here are no hard landlords to rack us with high rents, or extorting fines, nor tedious pleas in law to consume us with their many year disputation for justice...here every man may be master of his own labor...and if he have nothing but his hands, he may set up his trade and by industry grow quickly rich." Without iron or steel to fabricate axes to cut the primeval forest, or plough deeply Mother Earth, or provide the weapons to build empires, native peoples adapted their economic strategies around a mix of growing, gathering, fishing and hunting, with both fixed and migratory communities. As a consequence of frequent movement inside a territory and strong communal traditions, nature was viewed as a resource, not as property to be dissected, bought and sold.
The point between the Forks of the Ohio is shaped like an arrowhead pointed west. During its early history, Pittsburgh was in fact the primary American entry to the vast Mississippi River basin unbroken by mountain barriers for more than a thousand miles from the Alleghenies to the Rocky Mountains: a city that looked west, outfitting armies, expeditions, and generations of westward-bound pioneer settlers. Down the broad Ohio opened the heartland of a continent -“in addition to the imposing grandeur of its vast extent…an immense region of animal and vegetable life in all their endless varieties.” Down the Ohio, “the Beautiful River,” a highway to the heartland of a continent for generations of pioneer families, seemingly limitless opportunity beckoned.
Pittsburgh and its region in the second half of the 19th century became a muscular center of innovation and spawned important technical advances leading to the creation of modern industry, advances that catapulted the United States onto the world stage as a major power. The city’s strategic position, expanding rail network, supply of skilled workers, and deepening reservoir of raw labor power, positioned it for dramatic growth at the very moment when an epic civil conflict challenged its capacity to mass produce the implements of modern war, the artillery and shells, as well as the extensive industrial infrastructure including railroads and bridges that was transforming the nature of military supply and logistics. The city’s rapidly growing power and accumulated wealth failed to solve, and in fact, exacerbated the deepening class divide that had been dramatically revealed in the labor riots of the 1840s. In the following decade, however, the impending crisis over the institution and extension of slavery overshadowed other issues. In Pittsburgh, animosity toward slavery in general and the fugitive slave law in particular was shared by many whites, but the core of organized resistance to the institution arose out of the free black community.
The year 1877 marks an important transition in the history of the United States. The nation's hundredth birthday had been celebrated the previous year in Philadelphia with an extravagant display of national optimism. America, on the threshold of its second century, was undergoing fundamental transformation, and Pittsburgh was on the cutting edge. A new corporate industrial society was in the process of radically changing the agricultural, mechanical and commercial republic of the Founding Fathers. The great upheaval occasioned by the railroad strikes of 1877 constituted the "labor pains" of a new economic order. The expansionist designs of far-reaching empires of business began to drive the imperial politics of industrial nations while it transformed the urban and rural landscape and economy. Corporate power was achieving dominance, but fierce resistance emerged from within the new industrial workforce that it had called into being.
In the hundred years from 1800 to 1900, Pittsburgh’s relationship with its land and waters changed drastically. . The great flocks of birds that once blackened the sky, the panther, the wolf, the woodland buffalo, already precarious at the century’s dawn, were gone. The lush pristine landscape, the towering trees, the rivers teeming with an astonishing diversity of fish, turtles, crustaceans, and amphibians, had disappeared. The rivers were nearly lifeless by 1900, serving as drains for the untreated sewage of hundreds of thousands of people, with uncounted tons of toxins and metals discharged from mills and factories, mixed with the acidic discharge from hundreds of mines. Millions of tons of sulfuric acid leached from coal mines into the region’s waters annually, annihilating the rich diversity of aboriginal stream life. Along with the environmental toll, the industrial capitalist organization of production was taking enormous profits out of very low-paid and hard-working immigrant families. With the defeat of industrial unionism, the power of the company spilled from the workplace into the community. The managers of the new industrial order demanded unfettered control over their workers, with the right to dictate the terms of employment and even regulate the life of working-class communities.
The questions “who is an American?” and “what is an American?” were central political issues in the first half of the 20th century. They have reemerged early in the twenty-first. Who is an American? The “100% American” questions the loyalty of the immigrant and the civic aptitude of the descendents of slaves, or natives, or orientals, or “hunkies,” or Catholics, etc. However, unlike nations where one’s ancestors lived in the same location for many hundreds of years, a degree of insecurity accompanied the demand for a pedigree in the United States, given our anti-royalist, democratic, revolutionary roots. Only Native Americans had any degree of antiquity to their claim on this land. “What is an American?” on the other hand, goes to the question of meaning. Is an American someone who has loyalty to a set of ideals including freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, who pledges allegiance to a government that provides for the common defense and promotes the general welfare? Or, does being an American come wrapped in an Imperial flag, demanding unregulated private control of the nation’s wealth and lifeblood, and use of its military to pursue ambitions of expansion and domination at home and abroad?
On November 2, 1920, from the roof of the tallest building at the Westinghouse Electric plant in East Pittsburgh, the first commercial radio station, KDKA, broadcast the results of the presidential election. The saintly socialist, Eugene V. Debs, imprisoned in the Atlanta federal penitentiary for his opposition to World War I, received more than one million votes as Socialist Party candidate for president of the United States. Reflecting voter desire for a “return to normalcy” after foreign war and domestic upheaval, Republican Warren G. Harding easily defeated Democrat James M. Cox. This election not only inaugurated a radio industry that changed mass communication and politics, but it unexpectedly propelled Pittsburgh’s Andrew W. Mellon into national political power, characterized by many as “the Secretary of the Treasury under whom three presidents served.”
Three plus years of deep economic depression had undermined whatever weak labor standards existed and wiped out most of the meager gains that workers had achieved. With many unions destroyed or marginalized, the sweatshop returned; labor was increasingly transient and migratory, and the mounting misery of the bottom half of society raised the specter of mass revolt and even revolution. U.S. Senator Robert Wagner said: “We are not in a mere business recession. We are in a life and death struggle with the forces of social and economic dissolution.” When unionization came, it surged like a mighty wave sweeping up masses of people and changing the shape of government and labor relations for several generations.
The enormous volume and diversity of the Pittsburgh region’s production, result of the genius and effort of its peoples, played a major role in the victory of the allied armies in World War II. The working-class of southwestern Pennsylvania donned uniforms in massive numbers. Hardened by depression and struggle, older workers, females, and minorities toiled long hours in factories and mines to send forth a seemingly endless supply of the implements of war. The region’s women contributed heroically, maintaining families and gardens, entering the mills and workshops in record numbers as welders, machinists and other trades formerly closed to them replacing men fighting on Pacific beaches and in the ruined cities of Europe. Organized industrial labor under the leadership of Pittsburgh’s Phil Murray consolidated its institutional power and extended its presence in American life. Inside the house of labor, however, serious divisions arose. John L. Lewis led his coal miners from their position as labor’s shock troops, the spearhead of its resurgence, to the margins of the broader labor movement. Of even greater consequence, the issue of Communism and its place in American unionism came to a head in post-war Pittsburgh. A political civil war between right and left factions inside the region’s third largest industrial union shaped the character of the labor movement for decades, providing unions a measure of acceptance, while narrowing labor’s aspirations and constricting its place in society.
After the deprivation of the Great Depression, the enormous sacrifices of the Second World War, and the bitter union divisions that followed, the Pittsburgh working-class experienced a dramatic increase in prosperity and social well-being during the 1950s. While political dissent was suppressed and the black community remained marginalized despite substantial achievements, the period witnessed an explosion of activity and energy that was truly extraordinary. The post-World War II economic prosperity in Pittsburgh was driven by union wages and the G.I. Bill. Union wage increases as a result of the 1946 strike and in subsequent labor contracts to millions of industrial and craft workers stimulated the consumer economy and helped redirect military production toward acute human and material infrastructure needs.