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Stephen Foster | Article

Pittsburgh Becomes the City of Steel

Nicholas and Marilyn Graver

When young William Foster arrived in Pittsburgh in the year 1796, the town of 1,300 had already begun its transformation from untamed wilderness to industrial powerhouse. Already, its skies wore a black gauze of coal smoke from iron foundries and glass factories. Already, it formed a critical link between the cities of the East and the frontier outposts of the West. Within a few short decades, it would become one of the most productive industrial cities in the world.

Much of what attracted early settlers to Pittsburgh were blessings bestowed by nature — a location at the conjunction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers and a plentiful subterranean supply of coal. The two rivers met at Pittsburgh to form a third — the Ohio — which opened the way into the American West. The Ohio flowed into the Mississippi, which was navigable to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Pittsburgh's rivers — and the boats that plied them — provided the speediest way to transport goods from eastern cities such as Philadelphia and New York to cities and settlements throughout the Ohio and Mississippi valleys.

In the years before Pittsburgh's founding in 1788, the location served as a center of the fur trade and a strategic military outpost. The French and the British battled over the spot, and in 1754, the British won out, changing the name of the place they conquered from Fort Duquesne to Fort Pitt. Ten years later, a man named John Campbell laid out the beginnings of the city of Pittsburgh near the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela and convenient to the massive coal deposits at Coal Hill. 

The extensive coal deposits undoubtedly contributed to the early establishment of factories and foundries at Pittsburgh. Some time around 1792, George Anschutz built the city's first iron foundry, and in 1797, General James O'Hara and Major Isaac Craig built one of its first glass factories. An almanac from 1803 lists income from a broad variety of industries, ranging from glass and ironmaking to textiles, furniture making, and distilling. Not surprising given the town's riverine geography was its strong shipbuilding industry, which led all categories in income for that year. 

In 1811 Robert Fulton built America's first steamboat, the New Orleans, at Pittsburgh. Other steam-powered boats soon followed. Using not just steamboats but flatboats and keelboats as well, Pittsburghers sent finished goods West and South. On return trips from places like Chicago and Cincinnati came agricultural products, from wheat and flour to pork, wool, animal skins, flax and hemp. Among those to participate in — and profit handsomely from — such enterprises was William Foster, who upon his arrival found work with the merchant firm Denny & Beelen. By 1807 he had become a partner in the firm.

While rivers provided a good means of travel between Pittsburgh and the West, the journey between Pittsburgh and the East proved more troublesome. The State Road, opened around 1790, provided wagon access, but the track was far from ideal; other roads proved equally rough, and travel on them slow. In 1825 the opening of the Erie Canal pointed to a solution. The following year, Pennsylvania legislature funded a canal between Pittsburgh and the eastern part of the state. 

Building canals on the spine of the rugged Allegheny Mountains proved an impossibility. Engineers solved the problem by building not one, but two canals, linked by a wagon road over the Alleghenies. The Pennsylvania Canal opened in 1829, but it wasn't Pittsburgh's only manmade waterway. Among those who benefited from a spate of canal building was William Foster Sr., who served as toll collector on the Blairsville-Pittsburgh canal, and William Foster Jr., who worked as a canal surveyor.

Soon, the invention of the steam locomotive gave Pittsburgh even better access to the East. William Foster Jr. was among the early officials of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which linked Pittsburgh to Philadelphia in 1848. This improved travel time increased trade to Pittsburgh, hastening its rise from the ashes of a devastating 1845 fire. 

By the time the railroad steamed into Pittsburgh, composer Stephen Foster probably had cast his eyes on the bright lights of New York. But a Scottish immigrant who arrived in Pittsburgh that same year would stay put — and change the city forever. Near the junction of the Allegheny and the Monongahela, Andrew Carnegie would build an empire of steel, transforming Pittsburgh into the biggest industrial powerhouse in the world.

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