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Undoing environomental damage

The Renaissance

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Rivers and Valleys


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The environmental Renaissance

In the second half of the 1800s, western Pennsylvania increasingly extracted it's living from the natural resources of its hills: lumber, coal, oil and natural gas. Changes brought about by over-timbering, mine drainage and subsidence, acid rain, and untreated waste water made Pennsylvania's lush green hills and clear streams nearly extinct. In the 1940s and 50s, Pittsburghers once again stepped in to influence the shape of the land – but this time it was to initiate a massive clean-up effort for a region that was in danger of being poisoned to death by the very industry that had helped it to grow.

The Air

Coal smoke from industrial furnaces, locomotives, steamboats, and domestic fires filled the air in quantities not to be believed today. Sulfuric acid created when the sulfur dioxide in coal smoke reacted with water in the atmosphere caused acid rain that together with fumes from beehive coke ovens, killed vegetation (notice how bare Mt. Washington and other slopes are in photos of Pittsburgh from the early 1900s).

Smoke output of a small steel mill in the Strip in 1906.

Smoke from a Strip steel mill in 1906
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

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Pittsburgh's Renaissance is associated with the 1950s, but actually began with a planning study in 1939, which outlined new arterial roads and called for a park at the Point. The smoke issue was the top priority, not just because it was a health hazard, but also discouraged outside investment and new business and threatened to drive established businesses out of the area. A smoke ordinance was enacted in 1941, but was suspended during the war. In 1946, Pittsburgh businesses were required to clean up their smoke and homes a year later. Smoke-control legislation covering the entire county was put into effect in 1947.

The effects were dramatic: Eight years later the hours of "heavy smoke" as reported by the Weather Bureau showed a 94% reduction! It is important to note, that this was in 1954, when the steel mills were still running at full capacity, more than 20 years before the first mill closings. One rarely mentioned result of cleaner air is the return of vegetation to the hills and riverbanks.

Liberty Bridge and Tunnel in the 1950s
Collection of Susan Donley

Postcard of Liberty Bridge and Tubes in the early 1950s showing clear sky and the return of foliage on Mt. Washington--results of the Smoke Ordinances.



While much effort went towards managing the flow of the rivers for navigation, little effort had been made to manage the quality of their content! Nearly 200 years of using the rivers as sewers had taken a toll. Pittsburgh had the highest rate of typhoid fever in the nation because it was still dumping it's raw, untreated sewage into the rivers and pumping raw, untreated drinking water out of the rivers! In 1907, the city addressed half of the problem by building its first water treatment plant near Aspinwall.

Postcard of the Brilliant Pumping Station
Collection of Susan Donley

Postcard of the Brilliant Pumping Station, part of Pittsburgh's first water treatment plant along the Allegheny Riverin 1907.

Incredibly, though, until the 1950s most municipalities in Allegheny County still allowed their sanitary sewers to empty untreated into the areas streams and rivers! Factories added to the toxic mix by dumping waste chemicals and hot wastewater into the rivers. Fish and other wildlife were unable to tolerate the conditions. Our waters were lifeless (except for dangerous bacteria!).

In 1955, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority was contracted to build collection sewers and disposal plant. Industries were also required to treat their wastewater. Slowly, the rivers slowly recovered, and by the 1970's, when local and national governments instituted water pollution laws, the fish population again began to grow. Today, the rivers are populated by not only fish but also ducks, geese, and seagulls, too – a great sign of the rivers' conditions, since waterfowl can only thrive on a clean waterway that provided plentiful fish and vegetation upon which to feast!

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The Land

Pittsburghers' fondness for earth-moving and headache balls contributed Point State Park, and a multitude of Downtown buildings during the Renaissance (see Western Pennsylvania History), but also went a little too far. Cleaning away the centers of neighborhoods like the Hill District, Allegheny, and East Liberty to replace them with the Civic Arena, and so-called pedestrian malls was in retrospect, a bad move. No one considered in their plans that cultures aren't completely transferable to new locations. Successful urban redevelopment projects since have tried to preserve the old neighborhoods by assisting its residents to do for themselves.

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The flight to the suburbs and to jobs outside of the region altogether that continues today has drained the city of Pittsburgh and less prosperous areas of the county of a much-needed source of tax revenue as its population gets older and older. Meanwhile no one seems to have solved the problems of managing suburban sprawl and the developing getting suburbanites to actually use mass transportation to ease rush hours and the new air pollution of smog.

A positive side to the extinction of the mills on our river banks, is that for the first time in 125 years, citizens are regaining access to the rivers! Pleasure boating and competitive rowing are making a comback. Housing and light industry are moving into to the shores. Its hard to leave the past completely behind, however, as new construction often has to deal with toxic chemicals that have leeched into the soil before they can build. One mixed-use development on the Allegheny's Herr's Island, successfully dealt with the problem to create one of the first of these new rivershore communities. Washington's Landing brings together light industry, housing, and recreation in the form of the Pittsburgh Rowing Club and the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. Many other cleared industrial sites are still barren, awaiting their future.

Diagram of Native American bark house Susan Donley

Rick Sebak

Washington's Landing on Herr's Island with the Three Rivers Heritage Trail going past housing units.

Bottom: WQED crew films scullers on the back channel of Herr's Island.

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Over the centuries, Pennsylvania's rivers and valleys have given way to urban landscapes designed by the region's residents, and occasionally, Nature will keep people humble by asserting its power – in the form of floods, landslides, snow and ice – to restructure some of the land's geography.

Civilization fights back.

Hopefully during this power struggle we have learned some lessons that will help us achieve a balance that will appease the "earthlings" as well as the Earth.


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