Downtown Walking Tour -- To begin, let's get to The Point
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Our exploration begins where the city itself took root, at the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers come together, also once known as "the forks of the Ohio."
To start, find Commonwealth Place (Start on the map) and stroll through either entrance into the 38-acre expanse that since 1974 has been Point State Park. Proceed to the footbridge that crosses the ornamental pool under the highway portal (Point 1 on the map) and contemplate the view beyond the fountain. From here, the Ohio River flows for nearly 1,000 miles before joining the Mississippi at Cairo, Ill., and eventually emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.
War for Empire
In a sense, this Point is also where the American West began. That's why the Point has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Although now a broad lawn, the tract of land situated between the two rivers has changed appearances several times since the arrival of Europeans in the early 18th century.
In 1753, when George Washington, then a 21-year-old soldier exploring the territory west of the Allegheny Mountains, first beheld the river confluence, the Point was covered by forest.
The vast river system that drains the entire western slope of the Allegheny Mountains was simultaneously claimed by British colonies to the east and French provinces to the north, both aware of its importance to westward expansion. "The forks of the Ohio" was about to become center stage in the "War for Empire."
Washington was quick to recognize the Point's strategic advantages and reported as much back to his benefactor, Robert Dinwiddie, governor of the Colony of Virginia. The following January, Dinwiddie dispatched a small contingent of soldiers to build a small log stockade several hundred yards up the Monongahela from the confluence (Point 2).
This first garrison, named Fort Prince George, had barely been completed that April when an overwhelming French force arrived and "persuaded" the British to leave the area. The French burned the fort to the ground and set about building a larger, four-sided stockade closer to the Point. They called it Fort Duquesne.
Look across the broad lawn in front of the fountain. The pattern of stones set in the grass defines the perimeter of Fort Duquesne (Point 3).
Despite several attempts to unseat them, the French controlled the forks of the Ohio for five years. In April 1758, Britain's new prime minister, William Pitt, appointed Gen. John Forbes commander of British troops in the Colonies.
Forbes ordered that strategic outposts be constructed at Bedford and Ligonier, gradually establishing control over the road he had cut through the forested mountains of southwest Pennsylvania.
When Forbes finally arrived at the confluence with his army of 6,000 soldiers in November 1758, he discovered that the outnumbered French forces had abandoned Fort Duquesne three days earlier, leaving it in ruins as they retreated.
The British immediately began the construction of a much larger fortress, which Forbes named Fort Pitt, in honor of his political benefactor (Point 4).
Over the next three years, Fort Pitt gradually took shape, eventually evolving into a five-sided structure that measured a half-mile in total perimeter, with a bastion, or fortified projection, at each corner. The walls of two bastions were built of masonry, the other three of packed earth.
In fact, had you been on this spot in 1765, you would be standing in Fort Pitt's bustling parade ground.
Fort Pitt proved to be every bit the strategic outpost Washington envisioned. When fully garrisoned with 1,000 soldiers, it was a formidable base of operations that allowed the British to establish control of the entire Ohio watershed. A motley collection of small homesteads and farms took root outside the Fort's walls, providing services and supplies to its inhabitants.
Turn around and look back toward the Pittsburgh Hilton and Towers. The deep trench you see traces Fort Pitt's northwest wall, although now only bits of the original limestone foundation remain. The triangular shape at the far left corner is the Music Bastion. There are plans to fill in this trench work later this summer.
Now continue across the bridge and into the park. To your left is the entrance to the State Historical Museum (Point 5), which is housed in the reconstructed Monongahela Bastion.
Touring the museum's first floor displays, dioramas and artifact collections will provide an excellent overview of Pittsburgh's pre-Colonial history. The museum's second floor houses an expanded display area.
As you exit the museum, notice the small square structure located just to the left of the entrance (Point 6).
This is the original blockhouse for Fort Pitt, constructed in 1764 by Col. Henry Bouquet. Although not always respected, the one-room building has survived the centuries and qualifies as the oldest building west of the Allegheny Mountains. Now owned and maintained by the Daughters of the American Revolution, it is open for visitation.
However, the only hostilities Fort Pitt actually saw occurred in the summer of 1763, when it was besieged by a force of Native Americans organized by Pontiac, an Ottawa chief from the Detroit area. The stalemate dragged on for six weeks, but on Aug. 5 and 6, British troops under the command of Col. Henry Bouquet, advancing from Carlisle, defeated the attackers at the Battle of Bushy Run, lifting the siege and effectively ending hostilities in the region.
For a decade afterward, however, pending a final decision about which colony would control the area, the British discouraged all significant settlements west of the Alleghenies. That situation persisted until the British finally removed their troops and abandoned Fort Pitt in 1772. For almost two years, residents of the tiny settlement around the fort were left to fend for themselves.
The growth of an American city
Walk next across the broad lawn toward the fountain. The permanent stage to your right is the venue for a variety of outdoor symphony concerts and other musical performances in the warmer months (Point 7).
Then continue to the fountain at the tip of the Point (Point 8).
In 1774, a force of Virginia militia moved in and took over the now decrepit fort. Through the Revolutionary War and following years, the frontier area was slow to develop. As late as 1782, the settlement around the crumbling Fort Pitt had only about 100 residents.
Finally in 1784, a street plan for the city of Pittsburgh was laid out. Two years later the Pittsburgh Gazette began publishing, the first newspaper west of the Alleghenies (and direct predecessor of the Post-Gazette).
By 1789, in addition to a newspaper, the fledgling city could boast having a market house, post office, court house, five stores, a Presbyterian church and 33 taverns, most within a stone's throw of the lower Point. Coal cut out of the steep escarpment on the Monongahela's opposite bank fired the furnaces of the homes and small workshops that established themselves on the Point.
Pittsburgh was on its way. As the old fort gradually moldered, its building stones were carted away for new construction. A brewery, grist mill and other commercial concerns were established in the former parade ground.
Flatboats ferried goods, materials and people around the river system. In 1803, when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark undertook their epic exploration of the American West, Lewis came to Pittsburgh to have their flatboat constructed (in Elizabeth) and begin their journey.
The steamboat revolutionized water transportation in 1807, and the city quickly established itself as a natural hub for westward travel and trade. By 1830, the earthworks for the old fort had been completely dismantled and the industrial usage of the area began in earnest.
In 1854, the acreage at the Point became the western terminus for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and it was covered with rail yards and warehouses, a situation that continued for nearly a century.
Goods from the east could be transported by rail to the Point and loaded onto barges for shipment down river. Similarly, raw materials from the west could be floated this far upriver and then shipped overland to population centers to the east.
About that time, Andrew Carnegie, a bright young manager with the Pennsylvania Railroad, became interested in the manufacture of steel, and he decided that Pittsburgh's rivers provided an ideal place to do that.
As the city and its riverbanks underwent rapid industrialization in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, the Point served as its transportation hub, with ranks of steamboats and river barges lining its shores. Bridges were built across both rivers, meeting at the Point. As the banks of both rivers were gradually covered with steel mills and heavy industry, the Point throbbed with daily commerce, but by the Depression, it had become dirty and derelict.
It was time for a Renaissance, and once again the Point is where history began.
An urban renaissance
On March 26, 1938, the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society and the Point Park Commission gathered to hear a National Park Service plan to create a 36-acre park. But it wasn't until May 1950 that wrecking balls began to clear away a century and a half of haphazard construction.
After the Point's waterfront was extended 450 feet into the river, new bridges were built over the Allegheny and Monongahela and the signature fountain installed, Point State Park formally opened Aug. 30, 1974.
Let's continue walking up along the Allegheny River embankment.
Much of the development that characterizes Pittsburgh's latest Renaissance lies on the Allegheny's opposite bank. Starting closest to the Point, you'll see the Carnegie Science Center; Heinz Field, home of the Steelers and the Pittsburgh Panthers; The DelMonte food corporation's headquarters and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the site for the 2006 All-Star Game.
When you've circled the great lawn, head back under the portal toward the Hilton (Point 9).
The Golden Triangle's most visible landmark since it was opened in 1959 as part of the first Renaissance, the Hilton has hosted many of the celebrities who have passed through town in the last four decades, from the Beatles to many of the athletes who have competed in the parks across the Allegheny.
Stroll to the left and around the Hilton. Before 1950, this area was a commercial and industrial slum. Forty buildings were demolished as part of Pittsburgh's first Renaissance. Now the plaza formed by the Hilton and the silver-clad towers of Gateway Center is the focus of various events throughout the year. Not least of these is the Three Rivers Arts Festival, which each June fills these walkways with booths and several hundred thousand participants.
As you approach the circular fountain at the far end, note the blue historical marker on your left (Point 10). It commemorates the 1920 broadcast of Frank Conrad, widely credited as the first radio broadcast which led to the organization of KDKA Radio, the world's first radio station. Although the actual broadcast took place in a garage in a Pittsburgh suburb known as Wilkinsburg, KDKA Radio and TV have called Gateway Center home for decades.
Continue through the plaza to Stanwix Street. To the right across the street, you'll see the start of Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh's original overland connection to the east. Blazed by the surveyors of General Forbes in 1758, it became part of the famous Penn Lincoln Highway. Although it's now flanked by the buildings of a great city, as you walk up Penn Avenue, you're literally following the trail of history.
Stop when you've gone two blocks, at the corner of Penn Avenue and Sixth Street.
First Published May 1, 2006 12:00 am