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Monongahela: The River Highway

In colonial America, European settlement was constrained to the Atlantic seaboard by the "Endless Mountains" -- the many parallel ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. Thick forests covered steep hillsides and the only trails were merely the footpaths of Native Americans. Even following the military missions of Braddock (1755) and Forbes (1758), which improved two routes for westward travel, the journey remained difficult.

The Potomac River reached temptingly between Virginia and Maryland and seemed to offer the beginning of a water-assisted route to the western interior. A portage from the Potomac headwaters to the eastward-reaching fingers of the Monongahela River -- the Youghiogheny and Cheat Rivers -- was established. But traffic on both of those rivers was impeded by falls and whitewater -- ironically, giving both rivers their major present day attraction.

From the 1770s, Redstone's Old Fort -- today's Brownsville -- was also a major transportation and commerical center on the river. At the outflow of Dunlap's Creek into the Monongahela, it was on the route of Nemacolin's Trail, Burd's Road and the National Road.

Thirty-five miles above the Point at Pittsburgh, the Monongahela River enters Allegheny County at Beckets Run. Three miles downstream at Pigeon Creek, Devore's Ferry was chartered in 1775, laid out as Williamsport in 1796, and became Monongahela City in 1873. It was a starting point for many thousands of western travellers and a major boat building center. It was also a meeting point for citizens resisting the excise taxes during the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion.

Elizabeth, named in 1787 for the wife of the town's founder Stephen Bayard, was an important center of boat building. In 1793, a ship launched from the boatyards of John and Samuel Walker reached Philadelphia by way of New Orleans.

There were several attempts to tame the ebb and flow of the Mon and her tributaries. In 1841, Monongahela Navigation Company opened a series of small dams to maintain the river level. Attempts at canal building along the Youghiogheny River were ruined by flooding and the connection to the C&O Canal along the Potomac never materialized. In the 1860s, the river valleys, and former canal beds, provided natural paths for easy grades. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and its competitors found the river routes provided an advantage over the dificult routes faced by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Yet, the rivers continued to allow cheap and easy transport of coal, coke, limestone. With the constant flow of water, the rail transport of iron ore, and an efficient method of shipping massive products, the wide river plains were natural sites for iron and steel manufacture. It was glass that was the valley's first major industry, but soon enough iron and steel overshadowed everything else. For over 100 years, the Mon River valley was the focal point of America's industrial might. The constant glow of the furnaces was a landmark to airline pilots; the smoke and grime seen as oppressive today was a symbol of prosperity. The 20 miles between Pittsburgh's South Side and Clairton were a nearly continuous amalgamation of steel mills. Today, only three facilities continue to operate: Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, Irvin Works in West Mifflin and the Clairton Coke Works.

With the passing of the Steel Era, the Mon Valley declined severely. The blue skies returned and the hillsides were able to green again, but the towns which had grown up around the mills struggled to find new life. In many places, the factories have been completely erased leaving massive tracts of flat, vacant riverfront property. The Eliza Furnace site has become the Pittsburgh Technology Center with partnerships between higher education and high technology companies. The Homestead Works, site of the violent clash in 1892 which gave rise to labor unions, is now being reclaimed as a bit of suburbia surrounded by the former mill town. In Duquesne and McKeesport, the county's Regional Industrial Development Corporation has created industrial/business incubators to spur reinvestment and job opportunities in the valley.

And through it all the river continued its muddy flow. Slower than the Allegheny River, and overpowered when they join at the Point to become the Ohio, the power of the Mon is found on its surface. It is still one of the busiest conduits for transportation -- especially of bulk materials such as coal, coke and stone. Pittsburgh, at the Forks of the Ohio, remains one of the world's busiest inland ports: 44 million tons per year moves through the Port of Pittsburgh with about half of that on the Lower Monongahela. Yet the power of the Mon Valley is found not in its steel heritage, but in its resiliency in withstanding the changes.

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Last modified: 29-Sep-2000