I recently read the novel, Thirsty by Kristin Bair-O’Keeffe which tells the story of one woman’s life in a tiny Pittsburgh suburb during the time of the steel boom. My review will be forthcoming but I loved this book. My family is originally from Pittsburgh and I spent several weeks there this summer for job training. Reading this book made me feel very connected with the city and the culture. This post will explore the history of Pittsburgh and steel a little as well as show some pictures of the city during the steel age. I unfortunately did not take any pictures of the city while I was there.
The steel boom in Pittsburgh started around the 1850’s and really blossomed during the Civil War when steel and iron were in high demand. As a result of the steel industry the railroad industry increased. Many of the employees at these steel plants were immigrants from Germany and of other eastern European descent. My family was a part of this tradition – coming over from Germany and working in the steel factories.
The city was a very dirty place because of all of the smoke from coal burning factories and the railroads. The rich would live on the eastern part of the city to avoid the wind blowing the soot – this area was dubbed “Millionaire’s Row”. Many of the middle class people lived up on the hillside of Pittsburgh, while most of the factories were down along the rivers – the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River meet to form the Ohio River. Today there is a beautiful fountain at the point where these two rivers meet – it was a great place to sit on a hot summer day and such a wonderful view.
In order to get the workers down from the hillside to the factories, the city created “inclines” – that would bring people up and down the hillside for a small fare. There are still 2 of these in operation today – the Monongahela Incline and Duquesne Incline. I had the opportunity to ride the Duquesne incline and there is an amazing view of the rivers from up there. Many people still use these on a daily basis.
The steel boom in Pittsburgh began its decline in the mid 1950’s. There were many things that led to the decline – the end of WWII, the pollution of the city, labor unions and disputes, among other things. There are very few steel factories remaining in the city today and the city underwent a huge revitalization effort. The city today is beautiful – one of the cleanest cities I have seen. There are many beautiful fountains and parks that make it hard to believe it was once very polluted.
Hope you enjoyed this little tour of Pittsburgh. I enjoyed my trip there and after reading this book I feel much more connected to the hometown of my family.
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