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FYISmoky City

Early Industrial City: 1852-1876

Industry grew in Pittsburgh and the surrounding communities, especially in iron manufacture, which was still basically done by skilled craftsmen. The new railroad sped growth by consuming great quantities of iron and by providing new markets for all of Pittsburgh's manufactured goods.

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Once the new railroad assured efficient connections to the east in 1852, Pittsburgh became the leading city not only in western Pennsylvania, but also in nearby states. Shipping by water was still much cheaper than by rail, although the railroads did have the advantage of traveling where rivers didn't flow. The result was trains and rivers that worked together, laying the groundwork for Pittsburgh's future industrial might. Often trains would shift their loads to barges to make the trip downriver, and barges would empty their loads onto trains to disperse goods to the countryside. And the trains finally resolved the problem of getting over the mountains. A trip that took three weeks by wagon in 1800 by 1852 took just 14 hours!

Engraving of Pittsburgh in 1855
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

Engraving of Pittsburgh in 1855 showing a busy Monongahela wharf and Allegheny in the background on the left. Note how Grant's Hill confines the city. The bridge in the lower right was an early suspension design of John Roebling, who later designed the Brooklyn Bridge.

Pittsburgh was already well-known as the "Smoky City," between manufacturing, steamboats, and household heating with coal. The growth of the railroads and the Civil War's almost insatiable need for hardware caused explosive growth in manufacturing. The need for coal to fuel both trains and manufacturing was another boost for Western Pennsylvania's economy. Massive amounts of coal were mined then moved by barge and boxcar.

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Early in the century, iron furnaces were located in the country nearer to the wood and charcoal they needed for fuel. When the coke-burning blast furnace was developed, ironmakers could integrate their operations by moving them close to the rivers. The coke—a purified form of coal—could be delivered by barge or rail to a riverside furnace near rolling mills and other ironworking operations whose engines and processes demanded water. This consolidation helped bring down prices even though making iron during this era was still the work of skilled craftsmen working in small businesses at relatively high wages.

Painting of Pittsburgh in 1817 by Mrs.
Archive of Industrial Society, U. of Pittbsurgh

Iron works from this era were not the huge steel mills of later period. The Clinton Iron and Steel Company (built 1859), in this photo, was tucked in the small wedge of riverbank where Station Square is now.

The rivers also provided the raw materials for glass (coal was plentiful for firing glass furnaces, and sand to melt could be dredged from the riverbed). The small glass factories that began in Birmingham earlier in the century stepped up production until more than seventy glass factories stood in Birmingham alone. Local glass suppliers in the 1850s and 1860s eventually became the national suppliers by the end of the 1800s, and by then, Pittsburgh became the leading producer of glass in the world.

Glassblowers making window glass in a South Side glass works

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

TOP: In side a South Side glass works. These skilled glassblowers are blowing large cylinders that will be slit, then unrolled to make window glass.
BOTTOM: One of the South Side's many glass factories in the mid to late 1800's, this building now houses the Salvation Army.

These iron and glass factories were not the giant mills of later years. The average iron mill of this era employed fewer than 200 workers, each working as part of a smaller team run by a highly skilled craftsman. The iron and glass masters bought the equipment and sold the finished products, but the craftsmen were in charge of production, a process that could not yet be broken down into smaller tasks. The master craftsman saw the process through from beginning to end and was respected by the owner as a subcontractor rather than simply a dispensable laborer.

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Pittsburgh's growing economy was well diversified. With railroads to deliver materials to Pittsburgh's factories and carry off finished products to markets in other cities, other industries flourished too. The textile industry grew so that by 1857, five large mills employed more than 1300 people with a total of about 3000, if all the smaller mills and clothing factories were included.

Pittsburghers today might be surprised to learn that in the 1860s Pittsburgh was the world's greatest petroleum-refining center! The oil lamp, which was a standard wherever gas lighting was unavailable, had been fueled with expensive whale oil. Now it was discovered that petroleum that rose from the ground in western Pennsylvania could be made into lamp oil and other useful products. So, in the 1860s a sensational boom hit northwestern Pennsylvania and boats full of crude oil headed down the Allegheny River toward Pittsburgh. The refinery period was brief, though, since John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Co. attracted the petroleum shippers to Cleveland.

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

An 1857 photograph of the Pittsburgh Fort Wayne Railroad locomotive going over an early railroad bridge on the Allegheny River between Pittsburgh and Allegheny.

Agriculture, once so important to provide capital and raw materials for the manufacturing industries, began to fade in importance as industries--and its workers' and managers' residences--began invading rural lands. Furthermore, because of the railroad, the city's food needs could be provided by bringing farm produce from greater distances than before.

Because of its topography, Pittsburgh was still contained in the Golden Triangle area, The Strip, the flats on the South Side (Pittsburgh had annexed Birmingham in 1870s). Allegheny was still its own city, growing just as Pittsburgh was. The continuing challenges of hilly terrain and numerous rivers made most residents dependent on walking. Wedged among the factories were rows of housing, surrounded by markets, schools and churches also within easy walking distance. This pedestrian-dependent system helped to form the many distinct characteristics of each neighborhood, as immigrants preserved their traditions and influenced the public buildings that surrounded and served them.

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

Tiny houses dating from the mid-1800s are still tucked Downtown at Strawberry and Montour Ways (in the background is Smithfield United Church).

Those who could afford to buy land and build residences outside the city moved away from industrial areas and commuted to work by train, horsecar, or private coach. One of the first of these prosperous suburbs in the Ridge Avenue area in Allegheny (now North Side) was nicknamed "Millionaire's Row." Other desirable train suburbs were Sewickley, Edgeworth, East Liberty, Swissvale, and Hazelwood.

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Houses in Old Allegheny
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

The area of Old Allegheny (around Ridge Avenue on the North Side) was one of the city's first "suburbs". Most neighborhoods were built compactly like the street above, since residents walked everywhere in the days before mass-transit.

Rick Sebak

These buildings were rescued from demolition by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks in the 1960s. The homeowners above and to the right are restoring two of these old houses on "Millionaires' Row."


Rick Sebak

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Pittsburgh's environment already was not fairing well. The "Smoky City" was a moniker well and truly earned. Everywhere the air was choked with the thick, black smoke issued by heating stoves, factories, steam ships, and trains. The filth that hovered above the city also spilled into the waters, polluting the rivers. The streets Downtown were full of raw sewage and household waste thrown into the gutters. Epidemics of cholera and typhoid fever swept through with frightening regularity. Those who lived in Pittsburgh seemed to accept this way of life as the trade-off for the city to prosper.

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