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The Many Lives of the "Belle Riviére"

Sheets of glacial ice once covered the northern half of Western Pennsylvania, blocking the natural northward flow of the region's rivers. By the time the glaciers began to melt and recede, the waters had been trained to flow southward and today the Allegheny River basin extends nearly to the southern shore of Lake Erie.

In a Potter County, PA, field at an elevation of 2520 feet, an area known as the "Triple Divide" marks the point where runoff is split between tributaries of three eastern rivers: the Genessee River sends its water northward through the state of New York, the St. Lawrence and then the Atlantic Ocean; the eastern branch of the Susquehanna reaches for its share and carries it southward toward Chesapeake Bay; and the trickles which come together to form the Allegheny River begin to flow toward Pittsburgh where they combine to become the Ohio, then the Mississippi and then into the Gulf of Mexico.

When European explorers began to enter the interior of North America, they followed the only highways then available. The rivers. As had the Native Americans. The French entered the Allegheny River basin from the north and made it part of its claim in the New World. Called the "Belle Riviére", The Beautiful River, it was considered to be one with the Ohio River. With its reach into the eastern mountains, portage connections, and westward flow, the Allegheny continued to be a popular route for settlement and trade. The Pennsylvania Canal, completed in 1834 in an attempt to compete with the Erie Canal, followed its right bank downstream from the Kiskiminetas River to Pittsburgh. This same route was later used by a division of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

In the days of the Industrial Revolution, the Allegheny was a hard working river every bit as much as the Monongahela River, which it joins at the Point in Pittsburgh. Major industries were founded or advanced along its banks: Samuel Kier, experimenting in 1849 with the oil which continually polluted his father's salt wells in Natrona, refined the substance into usable products which inspired Drake's well at Titusville. The difficulties of producing enough evenly controlled heat to manufacture a consistent glass product were met by the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company at Creighton in 1883. At nearby New Kensington, Charles Martin Hall invented a process to extract aluminum in 1885, giving rise to Alcoa which for many years operated giant factories in Pittsburgh's Strip District. George Westinghouse's first factory in Allegheny City, H. J. Heinz's foods packaged in clear glass containers in Sharpsburg, iron and steel, and countless other industries once lined the Allegheny River. One of the more famous photos of Pittsburgh's "Hell With The Taken Lid Off" is a scene of overwhelming clouds of black smoke churning from factories near the present 16th St Bridge.

This was a time when "shipping" literally meant to transport goods by water and the cost to "ship" goods from one side of Pittsburgh to the other was nearly the same as floating them by river to New Orleans. Rivers were the highways - - but, in time, they were seen as barriers or obstacles to be bridged by other forms of transport.

Today, the Allegheny River is thought of as a recreational river. And a majority of the traffic traveling its waters fits that description. The upper reaches of the river have reclaimed or retained its more wild nature. From the point where the Kiskiminetas River adds its mine-stained flow from the Laurel Highlands, and the 28.6 miles passing into the heart of Allegheny County, the river shows some remnants of its industrial age. But the decline of many industries have left the riverbanks lined with only reminders of what once was. Scrambling down an embankment to explore the substructure of a bridge, one find teams of rowers, families feeding ducks, kids swinging on bull ropes attached to the bridge stringers, and solitary fishermen sitting on gravel banks - - next to iron, steel, stone, and wooden fragments of the Allegheny River's earlier lives.

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Last modified: 02-Nov-1999