About the Exhibit
This exhibit from the ULS Archives Service Center illustrates the vast changes of the Point over the last 250 years. It comprises early drawings, paintings, postcards, engravings, maps, and photographs of the Point between 1758 and 2013. It’s hard to believe the Point State Park we enjoy today once looked like it did!
The History of the Pittsburgh Point
The converging Allegheny and Monongahela rivers form a 225 acre, low-lying triangle of land, which slopes gently westward ending in a point. Here the Ohio River begins its nearly 1000 mile long journey to its junction with the Mississippi River. This point and its accompanying triangular land parcel have long been a significant geographical and historical landmark in North America. They have also been the functional and symbolic heart of the City of Pittsburgh and its region.
Native Americans, European explorers, fur trappers and traders, and military leaders all recognized the strategic importance of the Ohio River as a route to the continent’s interior. In the 1750s France and England, each with Native American and colonists allies, fought for control of the point at the head of the Ohio.
With England’s victory, settlers streamed across the Allegheny Mountains and down the Ohio to western territories. The point’s role shifted from its military importance to a gateway to the west. Pittsburgh arose on the triangle behind the point to supply westward migrants and furnish western markets.
On the sloping mudflat beside the Monongahela, merchants conducted a flourishing trade between the eastern seaports of Philadelphia and Baltimore and the burgeoning west down to the mid-nineteenth century, while boatbuilding, iron, glass, textile, and handicraft industries produced goods not economically carted over the mountains.
The arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1852 and the rise of cities closer to the westward moving frontier thwarted Pittsburgh’s commercial aspirations. During the next eighty years, manufacturers, bankers, and workers built pre-eminent iron and steel, coal mining, glass, railroad equipment, aluminum, electrical equipment, and food processing industries among others.
Railroads and warehouses occupied the point where decades earlier the forts of European empires once stood. The city’s businesses turned away from the former focus of economic life on the Monongahela wharf and moved to the center of the triangle. They pushed residences out, erected tall buildings, and established fancy shops. Like the wharf, the point was ignored and neglected.
The city’s new downtown, ironically proclaimed the Golden Triangle, suffocated under a blanket of coal smoke, choked on heavy street congestion, and periodically suffered devastating floods. The renowned planner Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. urged municipal leaders to redevelop the point, riverfronts, and downtown into civic assets, but the imperatives of industry and commerce took precedence over aesthetic reforms. Much was discussed, little was accomplished.
In the mid-1940s after the Great Depression and several years of war, the Golden Triangle appeared tired and run down with dismal prospects for the future. Corporate leaders through the newly established Allegheny Conference on Community Development partnered with Democratic Party leaders to address longstanding problems in hopes of making the city a better place to work and live.
Through a series of projects called Renaissance, the partnership cleared the skies of smoke, diminished the intensity of floods, constructed new infrastructure, redeveloped parts of downtown with modern skyscrapers, and turned the point into a state park with a footprint of a fort marking its earlier military significance and a majestic fountain as its signature element.
The brutal demolition of the poor, African American Hill District neighborhood adjacent to downtown and its replacement with a massive, domed arena indicated the inconsistencies of the redevelopment program. Nonetheless, Renaissance restored the city’s energy and sense of importance, while the fountain at the point heralded the renewed Pittsburgh to the nation.
Unfortunately, not even Renaissance could ward off the ravages of deindustrialization in the 1980s. However, the post-World War II revitalization experience inspired civic leaders to believe that the city could again remake itself. During the next twenty five years, political leaders, foundations, not-for-profit organizations, private businesses, and countless volunteers reclaimed the riverfronts for recreation; redeveloped downtown for office, cultural, and residential uses; and refurbished the point once more to symbolize the heart of Pittsburgh and its region.
Dr. Ted Muller
University of Pittsburgh, Department of History
Exhibit in Hillman Library
Currently, this collection of 26 images are also part of an exhibit in Hillman Library.