WQED changes Lives
donate
Education
shop WQED

Education



Western PA History Bridges and Buildings Rivers and Valleys Folks in Community The Arts Having Fun

FYIMoving Mountains

Impediments: Land transportation

Mining the land, molding the landscape

 

Rivers and Valleys

FYI

Making mountains
Rolling on rivers
Moving mountains<
Burgh & burbs
Cleaning up

Related video
Discussion & activities
Resources


Impediments:The Long Haul

For all its risks, river travel was still the fastest and cheapest way to go until the mid-1800s. The mountains, hills and valleys were (literally!) impediments to travel on land. Native Americans had laced the state with a network of narrow footpaths for trade between villages. There were special roads for wet and dry weather, war, hunting, and family use. Early European traders would bring supplies over the trails on "trains" of horses or mules wearing packs.

As early as 1754, the British army, under the direction of General Braddock, attempted to make an Indian path passable by wheeled vehicles by cutting down trees, moving rocks, and building log bridges over streams. Braddock's Road ran roughly the same route as today's U.S Route 30. General Forbes chose another route and less improvements to what would become Forbes Road (roughly today's US Route 22) on his way to take Fort Duquesne in 1758.

video icon Related video stories:

Still, just as the rivers were affected by weather, so was the land. Mud rutted and bogged down the roads in springtime, dust choked them in summer, and rough winters blocked them snow. They were treacherous and inefficient most other times of the year. Hauling freight by land the 300 miles from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh by wagon could take three weeks or longer even in the best of conditions. (Compare that to the five-hour automobile ride on the Turnpike today!) The Conestoga wagon was developed by eastern Pennsylvania farmers specifically to handle heavy loads on rough mountain roads. Pulled by six specially bred Conestoga horses, it was a huge vehicle with wide tires to keep it from sinking in the mud. Its ends slanted upward like a boats to keep loads from slipping hills.

In 1818, the Federal Government completed its first major interstate building project, called the National Road, which had a cleared rock and dirt road to make travel smoother all year round (along today's US Route 40). "Wagoners" hauling goods by wagon often walked alongside the horse-drawn vehicles. "Drovers" used the Road to herd flocks of sheep, goats, and cattle to market. Try to imagine that trip in freezing cold. In the wet weather of spring when the mud threatened to suck your shoes right off, when you had to use all your leg strength to take another step forward. Not too pleasant!

Postcard of Steamboat passing the Fulton Building
Susan Donley

Searight's Tollhouse on the National Road, now Route 40 in Fayette County. Note the how road follows the contours of the land--something that will change with building of the "Dream Highway" Pennsylvania Turnpike in the 1940s.

Travelers making the trip by stagecoach didn't fare much better. As well as being jostled and bumped most of the way, passengers were treated to endless dust, great choking clouds of it, constantly kicked up by the horses and blowing through the stagecoach. Travelers were literally filthy by the time they reached their destination. Along the way grew up inns and taverns to service each class of traveler. Drovers inns had pens and pastures for boarding herds of animals overnight. Washington Tavern near Uniontown (site of Fort Necessity) was a stage coach inn.

Restored interior of the Washington Tavern, a stagecoach inn on the National Road, Fayette County. The tavern is part of the Fort Necessity National Battlefield site and is open to the public.

Postcard of Steamboat passing the Fulton Building
Susan Donley

By modern standards, the National Road was the equivalent of a narrow unpaved country path (picture one of today's wooded rail-trails), but it was the best road available posed a serious threat because it by-passed Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and went through Baltimore, Uniontown, Brownsville and Wheeling instead! Afraid of losing valuable commerce to the new National Road to the south and the Erie Canal to the south, residents of these cities decided to once again harness the energies of it's plentiful natural resource: The waterways.

In 1826, construction began on the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal. The canal paralleled rivers when it could to receive their water supplies from it. Canal operators could control the canal depths, making them more reliable than the river, but they still required massive amounts of physical energy to operate. Horses and humans walked alongside on the canal's berm, towing the boats using ropes. The canal worked beautifully on the flat land in eastern Pennsylvania, but how could they make it over those mountains? They invented the Portage Railway, an ingenious 37-mile system of inclines with tracks and cables to haul canal boats up and down the mountains. By 1834, the canal reached Pittsburgh where it paralleled the Allegheny River from Freeport to Allegheny City. There it crossed the river on a aqueduct (one of John Roebling's early suspension designs) and terminated in Pittsburgh. The twenty-plus day trip from Philadelphia could now be made by water in just five days! During construction of I-279 on the North Side, a perfectly preserved lock for the old canal was uncovered and preserved so that it can be installed at a museum in the future.

Engraving of a view from Allegheny to Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

View from Allegheny to Pittsburgh c. 1850 showing the Pennsylvania Mainline Canal aqueduct crossing the river on the left. The aqueduct was an early suspension design of John Roebling a Saxonburg native who went on to design the Brooklyn Bridge.

Because of the intensity of the labor involved in hauling boats over the mountains, the Pennsylvania Canal never matched the financial success of its competition, the Erie Canal. The final blow came when the Pennsylvania Railroad finally connected Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in 1852: The train cut the five-day canal trip across the state to just 14 hours.

The combination of rivers and rail proved the most effective way to ship people and goods in many directions and allowed Pittsburgh to once again take advantage of its geographical assets. New Pittsburgh industries could receive tons of raw materials cheaply and ship them anywhere in the country by rail. Factories of the late 1800s located on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers' broad flood plains, poised to take advantage of those transportation benefits.


Mining the land, molding the landscape

Though Native Americans seemed to be content with living with the land they way it was, European settlers grew impatient with letting the land constrain human activity. Once they had the tools to tame the terrain, they wasted no time in trying to level hills and fill the valleys! Technologies like dynamite and steam-powered drills, shovels, tractors, and hammers allowed humans to manipulate the earth in ways never imagined before in the mid 1800s when railroads revolutionized surface travel.

Railroads need gentle, gradual grades, not terrain Pennsylvania is noted for! To keep trains running efficiently, the rail routes needed to be as level as possible. Where they could, they located in the valleys, which rivers had conveniently leveled for them. Otherwise bridges were built over steep valleys and streams, first amazing constructions of wood, later of steel (see Bridges and Buildings).

Postcard of Lock #1 on the Mon
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

Workmen grading a hill using hand tools and horses and wagons.

Grading a track on a hilly slope required enormous amounts of earth-moving to create level surface. Dynamite blasted loose the bed rock, steam drills would carve out a road bed, steam hammers crushed stone it ballast where the tracks would lay. (Folk songs like "Drill Ye Tarriers" and "John Henry" are vivid descriptions of the labor needed to accomplish these feats!) Earth removed from hills was used to fill in low spots. Even going around a mountain could be an engineering feat: The famous Horseshoe Curve on the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona is an impressive example of tackling the terrain! Finally, if a mountain was too steep to go around, a tunnel might be cut through the most difficult portions of it.

video icon Related video stories:

Postcard of Lock #1 on the Mon
Collection of Susan Donley

Postcard of Horseshoe Curve (c1950) on the Pennsylvania Railroad near Altoona.

For their first 40 years, automobiles used the old dirt wagon roads, which built using 100-year-old road-building methods. They followed the terrain with all it's bumps and dips. Help came in the 1920s with improvements in surfacing with concrete and asphalt and a national route numbering system. Drive any two lane stretch of US Route 30, 22, or 40 to see both the benefits and the costs of these early highways: They were scenic and smooth, but windy and hilly. Two lanes made traffic back up behind slow-moving trucks. It was hard to make fast time on these roads, so diners and other roadside attractions lined the way to offer drivers a rest stop.

video icon Related video stories:

The Pennsylvania Turnpike revolutionized road-building and automobile travel by building the nations first superhighway. By leveling hills, filling valleys, and building tunnels (road-building techniques borrowed from the railroad), the Turnpike allowed a much smoother, straighter ride and greater speeds. Four lanes instead of two helped eliminate the back-ups on hills. Limited access ramps did away with stop lights. Beginning in the 1950s, the Interstate Highway System would introduce federally funded superhighways all over the nation.

Postcard of Lock #1 on the Mon
Collection of Rick Sebak


Collection of Rick Sebak

TOP: Postcard of Seven Mile Stretch (c1920) on the Lincoln Highway. The "Stretch" was remarkable, because must of the road was windy and hilly. Note that it is unpaved.

BOTTOM: Postcard of the Pennsylvania Turnpike at night (c. 1950). The Pennsylvania Turnpike became the nation's first "Dream Highway" in the 1940s by using the railroad-building technique of cutting through hills and filling valleys.

video icon Related video stories:

Bituminous Coal

All these technical wonders that "leveled" Pennsylvania's mountains and made it's rivers efficient waterways required gifts from the mountains: the fossil fuels coal, oil, and natural gas. Extracting those minerals from the earth required mountain-moving of a different sort. From the very first (Mt. Washington's original name was Coal Hill named for its 8-foot coal seam), coal mined from the hills of the region was used for heating and cooking. Already by 1800, there were complaints about all the black smoke from coal fires--inevitable with western Pennsylvania's soft bituminous coal. Of course, Pittsburghers hadn't seen anything yet! For the next 150 years, we found many more uses for this humble stone!

Postcard of coal barges on the Mon
Collection of Susan Donley

Postcard of coal barge (c1900) traffic on the Monongahela.

Steam engines for boats, trains, and other machines may have been wood-stoked on the East Coast, but here they used coal. Glass and iron factories used coal to melt their raw materials. Steel manufacturing used coke (coal that has been heated to purified to contain high carbon content) and later, electrical plants burned coal to generate electricity. But even before the first steel mill, Anthony Trollope was duly impressed with the "Smoky City" on a visit in 1860:

Pittsburgh…is without exception the blackest place which I ever saw.… As regards scenery it is beautifully situated, being just at the juncture of the two rivers, Monongahela and Allegheny… Nothing can be more picturesque than the site.… Even the filth and wondrous blackness of the place are picturesque when looked down upon from above…I was never more in love with smoke and dirt than when I stood here and watched the darkness of night close in upon the floating soot which hovered over the housetops of the city.

Postcard of Eliza Furnace by night
Collection of Susan Donley

Postcard "Eliza Furnace by night, Pittsburgh, PA," c. 1930.

Later, after the steel mills lined the riverbanks for miles, one writer was inspired to describe the smoky, fiery scene as "Hell with the Lid Off"!

video icon Related video stories:

Evidence of the coal industry remains in many area neighborhoods, however, if we could see the underground, we would find that most neighborhoods have been thoroughly "undermined." This is why prospective homeowners may have to have property inspected for tunnels from coal mines, or purchase special insurance to protect it from mine subsidence.

In years past most coal was mined from underground seams. With the powerful earth-moving equipment available today, however, surface mining is another commonly used method. Strip mining literally moves mountains (or digs giant holes) to get to the coal underneath, then puts it back after the coal has been extracted! Both methods of mining have been greatly improved for the safety of miners and the environment. Miners in the past labored underground in 12 hour shifts with the possibility of collapse or gas explosions and the certainty of black lung disease. Acid run-off from underground mines continues to kill off streams long after the mines close, but newer mines control their drainage to protect the watershed. While strip mining looks more risky to the land than deep-shaft mining, if it is done according to today's laws, it can be friendly to the environment. Strip mines are required to replace the land they move, replant with native plants, and restore wetlands.

Postcard of Anthracite mine
Collection of Susan Donley

This postcard depicts Coal Mining (c1940) in the Anthracite region of eastern Pennsylvania. Anthracite was harder and burned cleaner than western Pennsylvania's bituminous coal.

Most old mines have been closed and filled in, but old mine operations in a few places have been turned into educational exhibits and tourist attractions. One such tour is operated in Lackawanna Valley in eastern Pennsylvania, and visitors can travel 200 feet below ground to visit an abandoned anthracite mineshaft. The Tour Ed Mine and Museum in Tarentum is a bituminous mine open for tours in western Pennsylvania.

video icon Related video stories:

 

 

[Previous] Rolling on the Rivers
Teachers' Guide Home