The ‘State’ of Allegheny

County Feature is a series of articles on each county in Pennsylvania and its history.

One of the first centers of the organization of the Re­publican party and scene of its first national conven­tion in February, 1856, Allegheny County was strongly for Lincoln in the presidential election of 1860. As the vote count proceeded, one of the leaders kept sending telegrams to Lincoln’s home in Illinois, keeping him up on the news that “Allegheny gives a majority of … ” with the figure growing from 5,000 to 7,000, and at last almost 9,000 votes – a healthy figure in that day of small population. At last Lincoln turned to one of his friends, displayed the latest message, and said with a grin: “Where is this state of Allegheny?”

Allegheny County was never a state, although its maxi­mum extent from 1792 to 1800 included some 7,500 square miles – about one sixth of Pennsylvania – and separatist move­ments between 1759 and 1780 seemed on more than one occasion to bid fair to make that area and additional lands to the south and west achieve a new status as a fourteenth colony or state.

The first permanent settler in Allegheny County was George Croghan, known as “the king of the traders,” who built an Indian trading house (later enlarged into a full-scale plantation) “at the mouth of Pine Creek” prior to Febru­ary, 1753. Later that year John Fraser, a trader and black­smith, built a cabin at the mouth of Turtle Creek, on the Monongahela River, after being driven out of the Franklin area by the French.

Land west of the Allegheny mountains was being sought by the Ohio Company of Virginia and by Croghan, who purchased nearly 50,000 acres from a group of Indian chiefs. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia, a partner in the former combine, sent 21-year-old George Washington on a fruitless journey into northwestern Pennsylvania to warn the French to stay out of the upper Ohio Valley. On his return Washing. ton was shot at by an Indian and al most drowned when he fell from a raft in crossing the ice-filled Allegheny River. But on his visit Washington chose the forks of the Ohio, now the site of Pittsburgh, for a first fort and settlement.

Early in 1754 a company of Virginia militia began building a fort at this place, but before its completion they were compelled to surrender to a French force that built Fort Duquesne on the same site. A reinforcement under George Washington, which was then on the march, was attacked later and also surrendered; and an army under Gen. Edward Braddock was routed and its commander fatally wounded the following year near Fraser’s cabin, site of present-day Braddock. On the approach of Gen. John Forbes in 1758, the French blew up Fort Duquesne and fled. He renamed the place Pittsburgh; and there, a few months later, his suc­cessor Gen. John Stanwix began the construction of Fort Pitt. the largest British fortification in the New World. The settlement that soon grew up around it preserved the name that Forbes had given. The first settlers’ homes were de­stroyed.

The area grew rapidly after settlement was legalized by the first treaty at Fort Stanwix in 1768, but there was con­tinual dispute over its jurisdiction between Pennsylvania and Virginia until an agreement was reached in 1780 to extend the Mason and Dixon line and use it as a border. Mean­while the Ohio Company claim and that of Croghan had both failed for lack of Crown approval. For a while the Virginia and Pennsylvania partisans were close to civil war, but after the Battle of Lexington they united for defense and adopted strong declarations opposing British tyranny. Pennsylvania and Virginia regiments were recruited in and around Pittsburgh, and it was the starting point of Geo Rogers Clark’s expedition to the Illinois country.

Allegheny County was created on September 24, 1788 largely through the efforts of Hugh Henry Brackenridge who had been instrumental in starting the Pittsburgh Gazette, first newspaper west of the Alleghenies, two years earlier, and wrote the first book published in that area in 1793. He also secured a charter for the Pittsburgh Academy, now the University of Pittsburgh. After the accession of the Erie Triangle in 1792, Allegheny contained all the area now included in Butler, Crawford, Erie, Lawrence and Mercer Counties, and parts of Armstrong, Beaver, Forest, Venango and Warren. On the formation of the northwestern counties in 1800 it was reduced to its present area of 745 miles. The land area, if you believe the federal Department of Commerce, is 728 square miles; the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce insists on 730, and the county’s Information Bureau says 731: take your pick.

The county’s first major industry was boat-building, actively begun in 1777. The principal products were keel-boats, poled up and down the rivers, and flatboats on which emigrants could float their families and goods down Ohio to settle along its banks and in Kentucky. But the yards also made ocean-going craft which were sent down the rivers with loads of grain, whiskey, flour and other products, and sailed as far as the Caribbean ports, France, Spain and Italy. In 1812 Nicholas Roosevelt built the New Orleans­ – first steamboat on western rivers – at Pittsburgh, and sailed it successfully down to the city of its name.

Up to this time Allegheny County’s trade had been served solely by three principal roads across the mountains: Braddock’s Road, from Baltimore and Cumberland, Mary­land; the Forbes Road (later adapted as the great Pennsylvania Road) from Philadelphia by Bedford and Greensburg; and the Frankstown Road, by Harrisburg and Johnstown­ – except for the minor traffic on the rivers. With the expanded outreach provided by the steamboat, the business of the area by leaps and bounds.

Allegheny County’s only charcoal iron furnace proved a failure in 1793. But with plentiful supplies of soft coal Pittsburgh quickly became an iron foundry and metal-work­ing center. With its houses warmed by fires of soft coal it became very smoky, being nicknamed the “Birmingham of America.” It required a century and a half for the city to get rid of its smoke and sooty reputation.

Inside the towns. Allegheny County quickly built up a brisk brewing industry (which somehow seems to have al­most completely faded in the past quarter century) and outside on the farms distilling whiskey was almost a must. Whiskey was the lifeblood of the area, the only source of ready money, and was used (old timers reported) externally, internally and eternally. When the new republic put a tax on John Barleycorn, it was hotly resisted. Allegheny County was one of the centers of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791-94, which resulted in the only successful invasion of its bounds since the end of the Revolutionary War. But when a federal­ized New Jersey regiment marched into Pittsburgh the oppo­sition suddenly faded – partly because the tax had already been repealed.

One of the reasons for the Whiskey Rebellion had been the high cost of shipping grain eastward in any other form, and the arrival of turnpikes which could be traveled in almost any ­weather helped ease the problem. Another and cheaper outlet was provided in 1834 with the completion Pennsylvania Canal, which linked Pittsburgh with Harrisburg, Lancaster and Philadelphia, crossing the Allegheny ridge by ten inclined planes, five on each side. The canal crossed the Allegheny River at Freeport and came down its right bank, through Tarentum, Sharpsburg and Etna into the old city of Allegheny, now Pittsburgh’s North Side. From there it recrossed on an aqueduct (the second one was a suspension structure designed by John A. Roebling, who died while building the Brooklyn Bridge) to a turning basin in the upper end of Pittsburgh’s Golden Tri­angle, with a branch running through a tunnel to locks to the Monongahela.

Despite problems with floods, freezing and water shortages, the canal did a great deal for Pittsburgh’s growth and that of the county until the arrival of the first railroads in the early 1850’s. One of the immigrants reaching the city by the canal was young Andrew Carnegie, destined to make Pittsburgh the world’s greatest steel center within three decades.

In 1845 a fire originating under a wash pot destroyed al­most half the city of Pittsburgh. But within two years it was almost completely rebuilt – in brick where it had been of wood.

During the Civil War, Allegheny County not only provided thousands of volunteers for the Army, but was the forge of the Union, producing more cannon and other munitions than any other town. Even a disastrous blast which killed more than seventy workers at the Allegheny Arsenal in September, 1862, hardly made a dent in the city’s war production. A year and a half later Maj. Thomas J. Rodman, who had married a parson’s daughter when stationed at the Arsenal as a young officer, returned to Pittsburgh’s Fort Pitt Foundry to cast the world’s largest cannon, which fired a 20-inch round ball. Also during the war, sweet-faced Martha Grinder, who loved to nurse the sick, was caught in the fatal poisoning of at least four, and went to the gallows dressed in her best, and trying to straighten her cap, which had been knocked askew by the hangman’s knot.

Following the war, industry continued to boom, its cap­tains making millions while the workers became more and more impoverished. In July, 1877, a railroad strike resulted in mobs overrunning the city for days, burning the Pennsylvania Railroad station and its roundhouse, and looting until the arrival of federal troops. Four years later 107 representatives of printers, iron and steel workers, miners, building trades and clothing workers, marine unions and others met in Pittsburgh for three days and organized what was to become in 1886 the American Federation of Labor.

Labor warfare in Allegheny County became almost constant. In 1892 Henry Clay Frick, operating head of Andrew Carnegie’s steel firm, sent his boss off to Scotland, and started in to break the Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers at the Homestead plant. The resulting clash of workers against hired Pinkerton guards left ten dead and more than thirty wounded. The public sided with the union until a young anarchist named Alexander Berkman shot Frick in a murder attempt. Although Berkman had no connection with union or strike, the tide turned, and steel unionism in Alle­gheny County was doomed. The strike was broken, and it is forty years before the union movement revived. And though Carnegie was deceived about the situation, he was largely blamed for the trouble, and his lifelong reputation as a liberal suffered damage from which it has never re­covered. Even his gifts of a university, thousands of libraries and other benefactions amounting to 95 percent of his im­mense fortune are still met with sneers on many sides.

Other great fortunes were made in Allegheny, and some of them lost. Among the most successful was H. J. Heinz, who sold fresh ground horseradish from door to door until he got enough money ahead to start a canning and preserv­ing firm. A lifelong crusader for pure food laws, he lived up to his principles and made his name a synonym for quality. A farm boy named Thomas Mellon studied law, quickly be­came judge, then quit that office for banking. He laid the foundation which enabled his sons Richard and Andrew to build one of the nation’s largest financial empires. Charles M. Hall, who had found a cheap way to produce aluminum, formed a partnership with Alfred E. Hunt, and asked the Mellons for a loan of $4,000 to meet a note. The bankers refused, but offered to lend a million dollars with which the new industry really got underway.

John Arbuckle invented automatic weighing and packag­ing machines and a gelatin coating to keep coffee fresh, a combination which made his name a household word all over the country. He was even able to challenge Henry Have­meyer’ s sugar trust. But in the resulting price war he was forced to sacrifice quality, and within twenty-five years after his death, his firm went out of business. George Westinghouse came to Pittsburgh soon after the Civil War with an invention that was to revolutionize railroading. He became one of the nation’s great industrialists, but in the Panic of 1907 lost everything except his first invention – the air brake. Joe Joy successfully developed mining machinery where all others had failed. But he lost out in the intricacies of financing, and became a pensioned researcher in the in­dustry he had made possible.

Almost the only women to have achieved important national reputation were newspaper writers, including Jane Swisshelm, who crusaded against slavery and the war with Mexico, and Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochran) who beat the round-the-world record of Jules Verne’s fictional hero, Phineas Fogg. Nor have musicians and others in the artistic fields fared much better. The two best known musicians, Stephen Foster and Ethelbert Nevin, both died as frustrated alcoholics.

Mellon Institute of Industrial Research, the first such great cooperative institution of this type, had great success. In recent years, it has become a part of Carnegie-Mellon University.

An unenviable facet of the county’s development was the Flinn-Magee political ring, which held Pittsburgh and Alle­gheny County in its grip from the mid-1870’s until 1909. It was the strongest, dirtiest and most successful of all such political combines until a reform movement sparked by the great Pittsburgh Survey (financed by the Russell Sage Foun­dation) revealed the utter degradation to which dirty politics and industrial power had brought the area.

Four Allegheny County residents have been elected gov­ernors of Pennsylvania: Francis Rawn Shunk, William A. Stone, James H. Duff and David L. Lawrence. Only the latter two were natives, Shunk having been born in Mont­gomery County. and Stone in Tioga.

The county’s greatest disasters, in addition to the Pittsburgh fire of 1845, have been the Harwick mine explosion in 1904, with a death toll of 179, and the St. Patrick’s Day flood in 1936, which cost forty-six lives and caused a quarter billion dollars in damage, leaving 135,000 homeless. But even disasters can have positive results. The flood gave rise to a flood control program which would make even the amount of water in that record deluge almost harmless to­day. The grime of World War II production triggered a smoke control program which has given Pittsburgh a clean face for the first time in a century and a half. And a Downtown ware­house district fire three decades ago enabled Pittsburgh to begin a renaissance which has given the Golden Triangle a new appearance and outlook, replaced a slum area at the Fort Pitt site with a spacious Point Park, and even improved the cultural life of the county. But it has not forgotten its heritage, and still treasures its two major folk heroes, Mike Fink – “king of the keelboatmen” – and Joe Magarac, the all­-powerful steelworker.

Today Pittsburgh has nearly half a million people – a little less crowded than half a century ago – and Allegheny County just over one and a half million. It includes, besides Pittsburgh, eighty-three boroughs (Penn Hills, with 65,000, the most populous in the state); forty-two townships, and three third-class cities, Clairton, DuQuesne and McKeesport.

The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania was organized in 1879 as the Old Residents Association of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, largely because of interest stirred up by the Centennial of 1876. Membership was limited to men who had lived in Allegheny County for fifty years or more. Women with the same qualification were admitted in 1880, and persons of any age two years later. It assumed its present name in two stages, in 1881 and 1883, by which time it had 121 members. Archives and other collections were kept in the homes of members until 1888, the county’s Centennial, when the society was incorporated and given space in the courthouse. In 1891 it was moved to the Free Library of Allegheny, and five years later to the newly built Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Following the Pittsburgh Sesquicentennial in 1908 its membership had grown to more than 600, and the first unit of the present stone building was completed from 1914-16 with a state appropriation of $25,000. The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, a quarterly, was launched 1918. The remainder of the building was begun in 1929 with a $40,000 state grant and $40,000 matching funds from local sources, and finished in 1931.

That year the Society, in cooperation with the Buhl Foundation, which contributed $70,000, and the University of Pittsburgh Press, which put up $25,000, began a five­-year historical survey, which resulted in the publication of ten important volumes. An additional spin-off was the first Western Pennsylvania historical guidebook. A second followed in 1953. (A third, sponsored by the University press and three foundations, will be published next year.)

From 1937 the society went into a decline, its membership slipping back to a lower figure than it had been in two decades. But about 1950 came a period of rejuvenation which has resulted in recent years in annual seminars, a membership newsletter and a program of community activities. Current membership is over 1,000. Long just an Allegheny County institution, HSWP has begun a program of cooperation with smaller groups in Allegheny County, of which there are a considerable number, and other his societies in outlying counties. Thus it has become in fact what it has long been in name, truly a Historical Society Western Pennsylvania.


George Swetnam is a noted Western Pennsylvania writer and historian, he has written twelve historical books.