PITTSBURGH — As a Washington sports fan, I’ve never had much nice to say about Pittsburgh, but on a recent visit to the city for the Winter Classic I was impressed by the solidness of it. As I sat in Heinz Field watching the Caps handily dismantle the Pens 3-1 in front of 68,000 fans, I admired its surprisingly commanding skyline. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll never like Pittsburgh, but I gotta hand it to the Steel City — it was built at a time when cities rose at strategic locations and prospered on raw industry.
Pittsburgh was built on the foundations of Ft. Duquense (French) and Ft. Pitt (British). In its heyday in the railroad age, the iron ore and coke of the Pennsylvania hills were baked in blast furnaces to produce the steel that built the Union Pacific Railway and Empire State Building. In 1909, sociologist Paul Kellogg wrote in a report called “The Pittsburgh Survey,” that “in coal and coke, tin plate, glass, cork, and sheet metal … its output is a national asset” (h/t Bill Steigerwald). Companies like U.S. Steel funded Mellon Bank and PNC Bank, and hotels with ornate masonry arose downtown.
Today, of course, Pittsburgh is a gloomy place with a rough economy and a nearly bankrupt municipality. Yinzers leave in droves for greener pastures in Charlotte, Atlanta, and Northern Virginia. Those places have humming economies but definitely lack the character. Charlotte prospered thanks to the liberalization of state banking laws in the 1960s and 70s, and Northern Virginia boomed in the 1980s and 90s, thanks in part to Beltway Bandits capitalizing on government spending.
Pittsburgh, for all its faults and horrible hockey teams, is a solid city full of people who know how to make things. Bruce Springsteen might as well been talking about Pittsburgh when he sang in “Youngstown,” “These mills they built the tanks and bombs that won this county’s wars.” The map below shows the increase in steel production from 1941-45, with Pittsburgh clearly leading, and the second map shows furnaces, rollings mills, and steel works in Pittsburgh in 1879: