Three Rivers Run Through It
If cities were alive, rivers would be their arteries.
Since time immemorial, rivers have been the lifeblood of
civilization. The greatest cities in the world:
Rome, London, Paris, Moscow-all are built on rivers.
The area around the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia
is known as the "Cradle of Civilization" because it is
believed that settled society began there.
In Pittsburgh, we owe the existence of our own city to
its three rivers: The Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio.
But what was here before the skyscrapers of glass and
Before the last Ice Age, the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers
flowed north, emptying into Lake Erie. When
encroaching glaciers blocked the southern shore of Lake
Erie, jamming it with ice, the streams and rivers
flowing into it backed up. As the glaciers receded
and the ice melted, an area accustomed to a harsh
freeze-thaw cycle experienced the most intense one ever.
Land that was once buried under the weight of tons of
ice, thawed, expanded, and rose 350 feet. This
ridge of higher land formed just south of Lake Erie
causing the streams and rivers south of it to flow
Early Human Habitation
Artifacts found at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, a
massive rock overhang in Washington County (used by some
of the area's earliest inhabitants for shelter) provides
clues as to what life was like here 16,000 years ago.
Meadowcroft is situated on a tributary of the Ohio River
and is the oldest known site of human habitation in
North America. It was discovered in 1955, but it
wasn't until 1973 that professional excavation began.
The Adena culture followed. These ancient
ancestors also made their homes near the rivers.
The Adena built huge mounds, which were burial sites,
near what is presently McKees Rocks, five miles from the
head of the Ohio River. Growing out of the Adena
was the Hopewell culture, an ancient Indian
civilization. The Hopewell people lived in
villages scattered around the Ohio River.
By the time Europeans arrived in the New World, Native
American cultures were well established. Iroqois,
Lenape, Seneca and Shawnee inhabited our region.
In the early 1700s European traders followed. In
1717, Michael Bezallion, a trader, was the first to
describe the area's rivers in writing. The
Europeans must have liked what he had to say, because by
the end of that year, new outposts and settlements were
George Washington and the French
The French were the first Europeans to settle in any
significant size at the confluence of the Allegheny and
Monongahela Rivers. They recognized this area as
prime real estate; therefore, this land near the rivers
became the focus of battles for domination of the new
world. The rivers provided easy transportation and
served as trade routes. Concerned that the French
were getting a foothold in the region, the British sent
a young officer by the name of George Washington to warn
the French to give up the land. In the mid-1700s
the French and British battled over control of the area
around the three rivers until the British ultimately
took permanent control in 1758, establishing Fort Pitt
and what later became Pittsburgh.
Boat Building and the Port of Pittsburgh
Because the Ohio River flows west, Pittsburgh became the
debarkation point for pioneers heading for the frontier,
earning the city the nickname The Gateway to the West.
Consequently, one of the city's earliest industries was
boatbuilding. In 1811 the first steamboat was
built in Pittsburgh.
In addition to the rivers, Pittsburgh was blessed with
an abundance of natural resources. Combine those
with our navigable rivers, and the area soon became a
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Port
of Pittsburgh is the second busiest inland port and the
17th busiest port of any kind in the country. Many
people erroneously believe that the area's series of
river locks and dams were designed to limit flooding.
They were, in fact, designed to keep our rivers
navigable. Before the corps built them, sometimes
the depth in spots of our rivers fell to 12 inches,
making them unable to support boat traffic. The
dams constructed on the rivers act, according to the
Army Corps of Engineers, as an "aquatic staircase,"
allowing the water level to be controlled. The
rivers are maintained at a depth of 9 feet.
Practical reasons are not the only reason that
Pittsburgh reveres its rivers. Our three rivers
provide much beauty and pleasure.
In the 1800s, Pittsburgh was a major rowing capital; 20
boathouses dotted the river banks. Recently,
rowing has been making a comeback. The Three
Rivers Rowing Association is one of the largest
community-based paddling clubs in the nation.
Fifteen high school and five college teams row out of
the TRRA's facilities in Millvale and Washington's
Landing. The TRRA also offers kayaking and dragon
Perhaps paddling doesn't float your boat. In that
case you'd be welcome aboard The Gateway Clipper fleet.
During the 1950s, John E. Connelly had the foresight to
realize that Pittsburgh's lifeblood was its rivers.
He purchased a riverboat, and in 1958, launched the
Gateway Clipper, which provided pleasure boat tours of
the rivers. The tours became so popular that in
1959 Connelly added two more boats to the fleet, the
Gateway Clipper II and the Good Ship Lollipop. In 1987
the largest boat to ever sail the area's rivers -- The
Majestic -- joined the fleet. More than 25 million
passengers have sailed with the fleet during the last 51
years, making the Gateway Clipper Fleet the number one
non-sports attraction in the city.
If history is any indicator, as long as rivers run
through the area, people will keep flocking to them to
work, play and live.
Written by Janice Palko
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