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Smoke City: A Story Of Redemption

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The 21st century is an age of environmental awareness. We have commissions and agencies that measure our pollution in minutiae level parts per million. There is study after study of the affects of not only elemental health pollution, but also mental health pollution. Although there is no doubt of the importance of this era of hyper-awareness of this movement, it is a new phenomena in the spectrum of history. In the United States, a vanguard in environmental awareness has only seriously started legislating pollution controls for the protection of its citizens in the past thirty years. Many detractors, even today, feel that it is a losing

battle and that regulation of pollution control is indirect conflict with the industrial machine that is the backbone of the United States economy. However, there is one example of a region of this country that demonstrates not only the successful combination of environmental control and business, but this relationship was started forty years before the nations first pollution regulations were drafted to Congress.

Pittsburgh's story is one of suffering and redemption that no city, no community no region can claim to be more tragic and hopeful in its fight against pollution. A city founded in a river valley rich with resources; central access by water, rail and road; and integral to the key to the creation of a nation; Pittsburgh knew days when no vegetation grew from the soil and the sky was permanent midnight twenty four hours a day. That was life in the monikered "Smoke City" until citizens and businesses took fate into their own hands and cleaned themselves up. Their struggle endured hardship and death, but the residents of Pittsburgh found themselves after two hundred years of darkness living in one of the cleanest major cities in the country.


Before Europeans traveled the Monongahela to the confluence of the "Three Rivers" of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio, Pittsburgh was a sparsely populated area even by the Native Americans. At best it was a rendezvous point for trade, claimed by no one due to the difficulty in traversing through large waterways and steep hills. For colonists, the trek over the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains was enough to make the Pittsburgh region almost unreachable.

On November 23, 1753, an officer of the Virginia MilitiaÐ'--Major George WashingtonÐ'--sent to give warning to Britain's enemy, the French forces, on the Ohio river a warning as a precursor to the French & Indian War-Ð'-- noted in his journal the confluence of the major rivers. "This location is extremely well suited for a fort as it has absolute command of the rivers and all its terrain." He built Fort Prince George, which was lost to the French within the year and renamed Fort Duquesne.

The location of the fort was so remote and difficult to attack that it was largely ignored throughout the war. Three years later, George Washington made his attempt to reclaim the fort and the garrison was so confident of the geography of the fort that they had let the wood dry rot. Rather than risking musket fire burning the garrison to the ground, the French surrendered and abandoned the fort. It was then renamed Fort Pitt.

It was in these modest beginnings that we already see the development and assumption of the power of the locality and the lack of gratitude and care given to the land that offered so much getting nothing in return.

With the birth of Pittsburgh, the city, was also the origin of its smoky heritage. As early as 1753, coal was the recognized as the most readily available and best heating source in the area. The region had an almost limitless supply of coal. The voluminous clouds of blackness were seen as advertisements of the new city's industrious population in the 18th century. The geographic design on the confluence and high south hills kept the smoke gathered over the city.

Between 1780-1830 new settlers carved arable farm land from the surrounding forest and hills to become a self-sufficient community from the rest of the country, but agriculturally the Allegheny region was not a thriving as the central plains of Pennsylvania or the flat lands of Virginia.

The city's growth was fed by its coal, iron, zinc, and oil and expedited by its major waterways giving easy access from the Mississippi to the Potomac. The city stood as an antithesis to the pastoral values of most of the frontier. One visitor noted in 1829, "After two weeks through white clear, cheerful-looking villages to come all at once upon dirty streets dark houses and filth enveloped in an atmosphere of smoke and soot which blighted everything in sight, was not a pleasant transition."

The early 1800s saw no relief from smoke, as the pig iron foundries, rolling mills, coke furnaces, blast furnaces and hot ovens took over the landscape of the city, country and region. The concept of a new industrial aesthetic even spawned an artistic movement as popular as the pastoral art of the Hudson Valley school, creating a Mon Valley school of art showing the romance of steel complexes and starry nights above the glowing furnaces.

The growth of the nation also grew the demand on goods, which Pittsburgh had in endless supply. The chief commodity was still coal.


The impact of the demand for goods was exacerbated by the railroads, which connected Atlantic to Pacific, and made Pittsburgh's resources a cookie jar that every American could reach his hand in.

The demand was so great during the birth of the industrial revolution that the population of Western Pennsylvania tripled from five million in 1850 to fifteen million in 1870. These communities, mostly immigrants, lived in poorly organized company "Patch" towns, rarely with any sanitation concerns. The human pollution alone ruined many watersheds and disease like cholera, dysentery and cholera were pandemic.

The coal industry's major impacts were numerous. Strip mining scared the Earth. The mine waste, or gob piles, filled streams with acid drainage turning waterways rust-orange. But worst of all was the smokes.

Carbon is required to make iron and steel. Historically, iron had been made with charcoal. However, "coke" made from carbon rich coal of the Pittsburgh region made the iron process cheaper, faster and stronger. Burning down coal created Coke and taking only the remaining carbon and these factories were able to operate within city limits for convenience. To this day Pittsburgh's Connersville Coke is considered the best in the world for making steel. Ovens ran twenty-four hours a day to keep up with demand.



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