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Mapping Pittsburgh's Past

Comparing maps from different eras of Pittsburgh's history tells us a lot about when, how, and why the different neighborhoods grew as they did.

Answer the "Look for Clues" questions about each map you've been given, then with the rest of your group "Compare the Maps."

Part I. Look for clues

bullet The basics

  • What the date of the map?

  • What kind of map is it?

  • Trace the city borders with pencil.

  • Where do you see any interesting "lumps" or changes in the city border?

  • Why do you think they are there?

bullet Topographical features

  • List major land forms on the map (bluffs, valleys, islands, etc.)

  • List any waterways or bodies of water (rivers, lakes, streams, reservoirs, etc.) Put a check mark beside waterways that are man-made or altered.

  • In what direction on the map does the drainage system flow?

  • Look for and list geological features like mines or quarries.

  • How do you think these topographical features might have influenced Pittsburgh in the past?


bullet Surveyor patterns

  • Look for the street grids on the map. Mark where one pattern "breaks" and another begins.

  • Why do you think the breaks happen where they do?

  • What are some of the different plans that the were used in each town or neighborhood (below are some examples of common town plans)?

Central square

A common 18th century arrangement for new towns was to arrange streets around a central square where a market or courthouse would be located--a logical place for people to gather.


Later towns would just lay out streets in an even grid with streets running east-west crossing streets going north-south.

Diagram of town square

Riverfront strip

Another typical town planning scheme was to line streets parallel and perpendicular to a waterfront.

Diagram of development of riverfront towns
  • Give an example of a neighborhood using each plan:

    Central square:


    Riverfront strip:

  • Which plan was most common in our region?


bullet Settlement patterns

  • Divide the map into "city" or "town(s)" and "suburbs." What clues did you use to decide what was city and what was suburb?

  • Divide the suburbs into northern, eastern, southern, and western.

  • Which suburbs look the most prestigious?


  • What clues does the map give about the prosperity of the neighborhoods?


bullet Transportation

  • What transportation systems exist on this map?


  • What evidence of those systems do you see on the map?


  • Where do different means of transportation (railroads, highways, canals, etc.) share the same corridors? In what direction do these corridors run? Why?


  • What are the major streets or roads on this map? In what direction do they run? What pattern is there to how the major streets run? Why?


bullet Economic features

  • What clues can you see about where where industries were located?


  • What clues can you find of where retail or wholesale markets were?


  • Where is "downtown"? What are it's boundaries?


  • What other "towns" can be seen on this map?


bullet Place names

  • What place names do you find repeated again and again?


  • Find examples of each of the following kinds of place names:

    • Location (east… lower…)

    • Names of people

    • Original settlers

    • People admired by settlers

    • Indian words

    • Early transportation systems

    • Old World places

    • Works in languages other than English or Indian languages

    • Historical incidents

    • Inspirational names

    • Natural features or resources

Continue with "Part II: Compare the Maps"


Source: Adapted from material created by Susan Donley for Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. Used by permission.

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