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Pittsburgh Fifty Years Hence

A. L. Humphrey. Excerpt from Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Spirit, Chamber of Commerce of Pittsburgh, 1927.

Read the 1927 predictions of respected Pittsburgh industrialist A. L. Humphrey for the year 1977. Think about what happened in Pittsburgh in that fifty years to scuttle some of his predictions. Then make your own predictions for the next fifty year jump to 2027.

Written by A. L. Humphrey, born in Buffalo, New York, June 12, 1860. Throughout his career he served as president of the Westinghouse Air Brake Co., Chicago and Pittsburgh; president of Union Switch & Signal Company; Keystone Clay Products Company; American Brake Company; and officers of other companies and banks. He served in the Colorado legislature two terms and was speaker of the House in 1895. He served as industrial expert on the staff of the chief of Ordnance of the U.S. Army during the World War, and was a member of the President's Conference on unemployment in 1921.


… What the Pittsburgh of fifty years hence, or in other words, 1977, will be we must discover in the light of the past, and I ask you to look back with me over the fifty years which have just ended. The city at that time had a population of about 150,000. To be exact, the federal census of 1880 fixed the population at 156,389. The municipal area in 1877 was 27.31 square miles as against the 49.17 square miles of today. It will be seen that our growth in population has exceeded our growth in area very materially, for within the little more than forty-nine square miles of the city proper today we have a population of 642,000; that is to say, the area has increased a little more than eighty per cent, while the population has increased considerably more than 300 per cent.

There was in 1877 little urban development beyond East Liberty, and in fact, East Liberty itself was for the greater part sparsely settled. There was no Pittsburgh north of the Allegheny, and the boroughs of Birmingham and Temperanceville occupied the south banks of the Monongahela and Ohio. The business section then, as now, was confined to that part of the city which we have since had reason to nickname as the "Golden Triangle." The business houses of 1877, however, were of insignificant dimensions compared with the great establishments which rise from all our downtown streets today. The five-story buildings of 1877 were regarded as skyscrapers and our first eight-story building, which many of us still remember, almost inspired awe. The Monongahela House was the only hotel of note, supplemented by the Central, the St. Charles, and the Red Lion. Cobblestones were the prevalent street paving, although not universal, for one of the longest and most important of our thoroughfares, Penn Avenue, then known as the "The Pike" (which was short for Greensburg Turnpike), was paved in wooden block and was not entirely free from tollhouses.

Neither Pittsburgh nor of course any other city had at that time any horseless street railways. The steam railroads were not yet an old institution and horses or mules were the only motive power for the streetcars. Electric lighting had not yet been invented; gas lamps which shed their so-called radiance hardly ten feet were the only means of street illumination, while candles and oil lamps still lighted thousands of homes n which gas lighting was beyond reach because of the expense. The incandescent lamp was being talked about but had not been sufficiently perfected for commercial use. As for the telephone, we are informed that attempts to introduce it were even yet met with great skepticism on the part of even our most prominent businessmen. One of our local historians is authority for the statement that a prominent bank board consented to subscribe fifty dollars a year for a telephone only upon condition that half a dozen other banks should agree to hazard the same innovation. The editor of one of the daily newspapers being offered a telephone by the telephone company accepted it with a vague sense of impending calamity and instead of using it, relegated it to the sacred confines of a coat closet. As in Pittsburgh, so it was in other cities. There was no more resistance or incredulity in the presence of the rapidly moving commercial and industrial revolution here than elsewhere.

About an acre of grass-covered land between Grant and Ross streets, known as Second Avenue Park, was the only public recreation ground in Pittsburgh.

We had then excellent public schools, but the progress of the last fifty years is nowhere more profoundly impressive than right in this direction. In contrast with the magnificent school system of today, including a numerous group of splendid high schools, each one of which greatly surpasses in scope and equipment the average college of fifty years ago, we had then at the summit of our grade schools only one high school, while the higher education was offered only at the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh), the Pennsylvania College for Women, and a very limited number of private schools.

The Pennsylvania Railroad, the Panhandle, the Baltimore and Ohio, the Allegheny Valley, and the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago railroads were our main means of transportation, although river traffic was in a most flourishing condition. We did not then have nearly as large a river tonnage as now. Our shipments of coal down the Monongahela and Ohio contribute today to a river tonnage reaching the enormous total for the year 1926, of nearly 31,000,000 tons.

On the other hand, miscellaneous merchandise as well as passenger business was carried then to a larger extent on the lower rivers than now, as far as Pittsburgh is concerned, with the result that our wharves presented a scene of greater animation than at the present day.

For the reason that, as already stated, the progress of the last half century is the only measure by which the progress of the half century to come can be divined, you will bear with me, I am sure, while I present just a few statistics by means of which our remarkable growth may best be visualized. Our population growth of more than 300 per cent within the city proper has been alluded to. The population gains within what is conveniently called the Metropolitan Area including the suburbs, have of course been even more notable, for it is after all in the outskirts of our great cities that the larger growth is inevitable. And if, as now seems entirely possible, the pending state constitutional amendment already favorably acted upon by two legislatures is ratified by the people of the state and subsequently the people of Allegheny County avail themselves of the metropolitan form of government which it will provide, we shall have (perhaps by the census of 1930) a city here of approximately 1,500,000 as against the 150,000 of just fifty years ago.

The wealth of Pittsburgh is piled up in more visible form in the "Golden Triangle" than even in our finest residence sections or most fashionable suburbs. A comparison of the property valuations in the First, Second, and Third wards, which constitute the Golden Triangle, is little short of astounding. The entire assessed valuation of those three wards in 1880, was only $1,828,250. In 1890, it had risen to $38,599,876; but it was in the last three decades that the most amazing growth of property values in this key section of the city occurred. The assessed valuation of $58,414,760 in 1900 had actually increased in 1910 to $277,573,286. In the following ten years the expansion was not so rapid, the total for 1920 being $297,745,910. In the seven years that have passed since 1920, there has been another marked property development, the valuation at the beginning of the present year in the three wards of the "Golden Triangle" having stood at $34,625,560. In comparison with the "Golden Triangle" valuations of just twenty-six years ago this is a gain of 510 per cent.

Let us turn to industrial production. The value of the industrial production of the city of Pittsburgh, taking account of only the city proper and none of its great industrial suburbs, in 1926, was $711,164,300. That compares with a production valued at $243,453,693 in 1910; $126,859,657 in 1890; and only $75, 915,033 in 1880. In short, the value of our industrial production was almost tripled between 1910 and 1926, and multiplied almost ten times since 1880.

The commonest and most generally accepted index to the total business activity of any community is the volume of its bank exchanges. That index in the case of Pittsburgh reflects not only a constant but an almost phenomenal increase. The Pittsburgh Clearing House, through which bank exchanges are made, was organized in 1865 and the first clearings were recorded in 1866, the total in that year being $83,781,242. The total clearings or exchanges in 1877, just fifty years ago, were $223, 569, 252. Between that and 1890 there was an increase of approximately 250 per cent, bringing the 1890 total up to $786,694,231. Between 1900 and 1905 the increase was nearly a billion dollars, the 1905 total being $2,506,069,215. Our greatest period of business growth and development, however, as indicated by our bank exchanges, was the five years between 1915 and 1920 when the exchanges actually increased from $2,666,312,569 to $8,982,887,397, an increase of approximately 240 per cent in five years. Our 1926 clearings $9,197,686,607 were forty-one times as large as the clearings of fifty years ago.

Our bank exchanges, which we have just compared, give a very fair idea of the volume of trade and industry as a whole. If we turn to another group of statistics, namely the reports of inbound domestic money orders at the Pittsburgh Postoffice, we shall get a clue to the enterprise and growing magnitude of our merchants. The total number of such money orders cashed I 1900 at the Pittsburgh Postoffice was 183,300 and their value $1,726,896. In 1920 there number had increased to 1,516,725 and their value to $16,952,485. In 1926, 2,349,299 were cashed of a total value of $21,884,625. If to these figures are added the money orders transmitted through the express companies it will be seen that our merchandising concerns have been steadily and largely increasing their trade in outside territory, so that we may fairly claim an uninterrupted extension of the boundaries of our trading area and our dependent territory.

On the whole, the Pittsburgh of fifty years ago might well be likened to a young Titan in that it was endowed with tremendous potentialities and giving promise of a power unequaled by that of any other community of equal population the world. Looking back now over the fifty years we see that the promise has been abundantly fulfilled. Even then the city was recognized as an unrivaled iron, steel, coal, and glass center that distinction having come upon it through the natural advantages of its great stores of nearby raw materials and its exceptionally favorable location for the distribution of its products throughout the country.


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