The Decline of Big Steel in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh has undergone great changes throughout the past two centuries. The city has transitioned from one of the largest steel producing cities in the world to a struggling city looking for new hope in high technology. Despite these drastic changes, Pittsburgh has retained its image to many outside of the area as a smoky and industrial town rich in pollution. In reality, very few steel mills still exist in the area and the city has been able to clean up tremendously. During the mid to late 1800’s, the steel industry began to boom in the city (1). The reasons for this tremendous success included; its location (including geography and weather), availability of natural resources, development of technology and the area’s growing work force. This great success that the city endured for many years ultimately did not last and the steel industry suffered a sharp decline. This decline can be attributed to a variety of factors including the end of WWII, pollution created by the industry, sprawl of the city, technology, the creation of labor unions and outsourcing.

When North America was first inhabited and settled by Europeans, Pittsburgh quickly became a desirable area to settle. Located in a prime location providing many beneficial opportunities, this land has continued to be of strategic importance. Located 350 miles from the Atlantic coast, Pittsburgh served as a “gateway to the west” (2). For travelers making the strenuous journey through the Appalachian Mountains, before the use of the automobile and railroad, Pittsburgh was the first city on the western front and often served as the resting place for the tired travelers. Pittsburgh also has great access to water travel, for both recreational in industrial uses, as it is located at the meeting of three major rivers. These rivers are the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio, which network far throughout the country. These rivers served as a great hub for both travel and trade, as many of the materials used in the production of steel were often brought on large barges on the rivers. The climate of Pittsburgh also created good conditions. People were easily able to bare the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter, creating an excellent atmosphere both to work and to live (3).

Steel production in Pittsburgh, like other industries, was very dependent on fuel. The natural land of Pittsburgh provided this for the industry and was rich with an abundance of natural resources. The most common resource in the area was coal. As a solid fuel, coal could be used as a source of heat through the process combustion. Coal was also able to be used in producing power necessary for the operation of the steel mills. Natural gas was another prominent resource found around Pittsburgh (4). Like coal, it was able to be used to heat, although many Pittsburghers were already dependent on coal burning furnaces and did not want to switch to a natural gas one (3). Natural gas was also used in the fueling of the steel mills, which required a great deal of energy. Oil was another resource found in the Pittsburgh area; however, it proved not to be a significant contribution to the steel industry (4).

The development of technology in Pittsburgh during the steel era also aided in the success of the city during the middle and late 19th century. The railroad was one of the most significant technological advances relevant to the industry and was introduced to Pittsburgh in the mid 19th century (3). Furthering the use of the railroad, the air brake was invented in 1869 by George Westinghouse (13). This significant invention allowed trains to run faster and heavier with little safety risk. This allowed the supplies needed in the production of steel and the finished product to be shipped more efficiently. Directly used in the manufacturing of steel, advances in the efficiency of furnaces was also common (3). The development of inclines along Mount Washington was also important to the success of the steel industry. The Monongahela incline opened in 1870 and the Duquesne incline in 1877. These both served to transport resources such as coal, and others involved in steel production, up and down the hill (7).

A strong work force in Pittsburgh also greatly contributed to the success of the city as a steel producing power. Throughout this era, Pittsburgh had a dramatically growing work force. Immigration was a very significant factor in this during this time and many came to Pittsburgh looking for work. Once established in Pittsburgh, they’re large contributions to the steel industry created more success, thus, demanding more labor. African-Americans made up a large portion of these immigrants. With the victory of the North in the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves in 1863, nearly 4 millions slaves were granted their freedom and many journeyed to the north for work. Between 1890 and 1919 and estimated 300,000 blacks moved north and many headed to Pittsburgh for work in the booming steel industry. In 1910 the black population in Pittsburgh rose to over 26,600 from only 6,000 in 1880 (5). This influx of labor also improved the efficiency of the laborers as the incentive to do better work existed in the form of the availability of many possible replacements (6).

Many argue that the collapse of the steel industry in Pittsburgh was inevitable and that the city would soon fall thereafter. During the “steel days,” the prosperous city was heavily reliant on its production of steel. The efforts of the city ad its people went to improving this industry. Little or no attention was paid to other industries and the city failed to diversify. It was argued that “Pittsburgh’s elites would not bring about the economic diversification neededâÂ?¦because they were doing well enough as things were (8).

1. Pittsburgh in the 1850’s.
Retrieved 10/5/05.

2. Gateway to the West. Pittsburgh History Series Teachers Guide. WQED Multimedia.
Retrieved 9/20/05.

3. Pittsburgh and the Rise of the Modern American City – 79244 Class Notes.
Carnegie Mellon University. Professor Joel Tarr. Spring 2005.

4. Tarr, Joel. Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its
Region. University of Pittsburgh Press. 2003.

5. Trotter, Joe. Reflections on the Great Migration to Western Pennsylvania.

6. Rees, Jonathan. Why Andrew Carnegie Would Feel Right at Home at Columbia
During the Strike. History News Network. George Mason University. Retrieved 4/27/05.

7. Tar, Joel. Transportation Innovation and Changing Spatial Patters in Pennsylvania.
Public Works Historical Society. Chicago, Illinois. 1978.

8. Gugliotta, Angela. The “Smoky City” Between Wars. The University of Chicago.
Chicago, Illinois.

9. Goldner, Cheri. The Homestead Strike: 1892. American Culture Studies. Retrieved 10/5/05.

10. Foner, Philip. The Great Labor Uprising of 1877. Monad Press. New York.

11. Fitzpatrick, Dan. Brooking Say Pittsburgh Plagued by Sprawl.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. September 9, 2001.

12. Moore, Adrian, Seagal, Geoffrey & McCormally, John. Infrastructure Outsourcing.
Reason Public Policy Institute. September, 2001. Retrieved 10/4/05.

13. The Westinghouse Air Brake Company.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

× four = 16