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FYIGateway to the West

Commercial Town: 1796-1851

As the frontier moved west, Pittsburgh became a vital link in trade and communication between the eastern cities, the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, and the Great Lakes region.

The expense of shipping goods over the mountains and the ease of shipping down river to western markets encouraged Pittsburgh to become more self-sufficient in manufacturing goods for its own use and for trade. As Pittsburgh grew, so did other nearby towns.

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The challenges of travel over the Allegheny Mountains truly isolated Pittsburgh from the East Coast, as shipping goods by Conestoga wagon between Philadelphia and isolated Pittsburgh was a dangerous and time-consuming endeavor. New settlers moving west also made the arduous trip across the mountains and would stop in Pittsburgh, anxious to take advantage of river travel for the reminder of their journey.

Painting of Pittsburgh in 1804
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

Pittsburgh was painted in 1804 by English artist George Beck on his tour of the West.

Pittsburgh in the early 1800s made its living from east-to-west traffic, building the boats travelers needed, provisioning them for the journey and supplying their needs once they settle further downriver. The first important industry was boat-making, providing flat boats to transport people downriver, and keel boats that could travel on the river in both directions, with the help of strong-armed crews who would manually pole the boats back upstream.

Painting of Pittsburgh in 1817 by Mrs.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

1832 painting by Russell Smith of a saltworks on the Ohio River. This small manufacturing business was typical of hand-intensive industries during this era. Salt was critical for food preservation and would have been sold to settlers passing through Pittsburgh to settle in the West. Note the black coal smoke.

During this era Pittsburghers soon realized the benefits of producing their own goods to avoid the high cost of shipping from the east. And with the rivers to aid them, they could easily ship and sell their goods further downriver where people were also eager to avoid the higher costs of eastern goods. The mountains formed a sort of protective tariff allowing manufacturing in Pittsburgh to thrive without much competition. In 1792, Pittsburgh's 33 craftsmen included coopers, tanners, weavers, tinsmiths, blacksmiths, shoemakers, cabinetmakers, ropemakers, brewers, saddlers, and clockmakers. In 1795 James O'Hara and Isaac Craig founded a factory to manufacture glass--the most difficult-to-transport material of all. Other glass factories soon followed, making glassmaking Pittsburgh's second major industry.

Painting of Pittsburgh in 1817 by Mrs.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

"View of the City of Pittsburgh in 1817" painted by a Mrs. Gibson while on her wedding tour of the West, one year after Pittsburgh became a city. The building with the tower is the first Court House at Market Square. A flatboat is pictured on the left.

Travel in both directions on the river became a much easier and practical prospect in 1811, when Robert Fulton and Nicholas Roosevelt (whose family later produced the American presidents) built the first steamboat on western waters right in Pittsburgh. The city became a jumping-off point for people and goods heading west after travelling over the mountains. This journey became easier in 1830 with the building of the incredible Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, which ran along the north side of the Allegheny River through the city of Allegheny (now the North Side) and crossed the river to its end (terminus) in Pittsburgh.

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Painting of Pittsburgh in 1817 by Mrs.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

1830 view of Pittsburgh shows how steamboats had come to dominate river traffic -- the Monongahela wharf is lined with steamers. Note the covered wooden bridge over the Allegheny. Just out of view on the right is the first Smithfield Bridge, the city's first also built out of in 1820.

By the 1820s massive lumber rafts floated into Pittsburgh from northern forests, and as early as the 1830s, steamboats pushed barges full of coal along the Monongahela River. Coal mined from the region's hills fueled stoves for heating and cooking and stoked steamboats, and later, trains. Surprisingly, ironmaking was not big in Pittsburgh during this period. The iron furnaces of the time used charcoal rather than coal, so they were located in the countryside where wood for fuel was plentiful. Pig iron was shipped to Pittsburgh blacksmiths for finishing. To supply the iron needs of the War of 1812 and the budding steam engine manufacturing, larger ironworking forges, foundries, rolling mills, and machine shops sprung up on the flat lands along the rivers.

Eliza Furnace in Indiana County
George Warholic

The Eliza Furnace (in operation from 1846-1849) in Indiana County is one of the few old charcoal-fired furnaces still existing today. "Pigs" of iron were shipped from furnaces like these in rural areas to workshops in Pittsburgh. More on the Eliza Furnace at the Ghost Town Trail site.


With growing factories, and improved methods of navigating the river, Pittsburgh's population grew allowing it to incorporate as a city in 1816. Many of the social structures that support "civilization" grew right along with it. Churches and schools sprung up to serve communities of people who lived within walking distance of the manufactories situated at Pittsburgh's Point. Some of the existing structures from this era are the Burkes's Building and the Trinity Cathedral graveyard Downtown, and the Beulah Church in Churchill.

Burke's Building on Fourth Ave.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

The Burke Building was designed in 1830 by Pittsburgh's first professional architect, John Chislett. Fire destroyed most of the Monongehela side of Downtown in 1845 and burned down the first wooden Smithfield Street Bridge, but the stone Burke's Building survived. Today it is the second oldest building Downtown.

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Just opposite the shores of Pittsburgh, other cities were emerging and gaining prominence as well. In the 1820s the first bridges over the Monongahela and Allegheny made travel between these urban areas much easier. In the area now known as the North Side, the city of Allegheny was a square of blocks and streets surrounded by a commons area for grazing livestock. "Allegheny Town" was intended to be the Allegheny County seat, but Pittsburgh was awarded the temporary title -- and held onto it for good! Allegheny served as an important port along the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal and for a good while in the early 1800s competed closely with Pittsburgh in population and economic strength.

1840 drawing of Pittsburgh from Grant's Hill
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

1840 drawing of Pittsburgh from Grant's Hill (now Grant Street). The Allegheny River is to the right, crossed by the Pennsylvania Mainline Canalin the lower third of the drawing and by a covered wooden bridge further down river. The city of Allegheny is across the river.

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On the south shore, the city of Birmingham (now the South Side), also established itself as a marketplace for area farmers then as a center for industry. The land was originally given to John Ormsby by the King of England, his reward for service in the French and Indian War. Ormsby's son-in-law laid out the town, and called it "Birmingham" after his own hometown in England. Streets were named after members of his family. This may surprise modern-day residents of the South Side, who still live on streets with names such as Sarah, Jane, and Muriel!

Birmingham was the location of many of the regions' successful glass factories, the first dating all the way back to the 1790's. During this era, glass production was performed by skilled craftsmen (many new German immigrants) in small factories. But later in the century 70 glass shops would be producing in Birmingham, making over half of the nation's glass.

Drawing of old glass works
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Drawing of an early glass works in Pittsburgh. Birmingham is across the Monongahela River in the background (note the steamboats).

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Early in this period, however, it was by no means inevitable that Pittsburgh would become (or remain) the Gateway to the West. Brownsville and Wheeling were fierce rivals with the distinct advantage of being on the National Road (finished in 1820), which by-passed Pittsburgh. The issue was only settled at the close of the period when the Pennsylvania Railroad reached Pittsburgh in 1852.


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