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Ohio River: Gateway to the West
The Point in Pittsburgh marks the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers -- the beginning of the Ohio River's journey of 981 miles to join the Mississippi at Cairo, IL. Forty of those miles are in Pennsylvania; the first 14.3 in Allegheny County.
One method for determining the source of a river is to follow the stream which contributes the larger flow at each junction. By this method, the Ohio River and its largest tributary, the Allegheny River, may be said to be the source of the Mississippi. The Ohio drains an area of 203,900 square miles, including the western quarter of Pennsylvania.
During European exploration and colonization, the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers were considered a single entity, La Belle Riviere, "The Beautiful River." But more than beautiful, the importance of the Ohio was recognized as a major navigation and trade route into the interior of North America. France claimed the territory on the basis of explorations made by La Salle in 1669. England later claimed the same land by a purchase from Native Americans in 1744. Conflict over their colonial possessions drew the two countries into the French and Indian War (1756 to 1763). This conflict led to the establishment of a succession of forts at the confluence which would later become "Pitt's Borough."
The English triumph in the war effectively gave them all lands east of the Mississippi River, save Florida, and cleared the way for westward expansion from the colonies of the eastern seaboard. The failure of the Proclamation of 1763 to halt settlers from crossing westward over the Appalachians and the American victory in the War for Independence saw the flood of westward immigration continue to grow. The 1787 Northwest Ordinance officially opened the Ohio country; the Ohio River was the main route.
After travelling overland to Redstone (Brownsville) or Elizabeth on the Monongahela, or to Pittsburgh via Forbes Road, many immigrants bought or constructed flatboats or rafts to continue their journey. These early hand-powered, pole-driven boats were meant for one way travel downstream and were broken up for lumber at their final destination. After 1811, when the New Orleans, built in Pittsburgh, became the first steamboat on western waters, the Ohio River began to see two-way traffic.
Shifting sand bars, snags and rocks made the untamed river a continous challenge to navigators. The water level would change dramatically with the seasons, often being impassible for months. In 1824, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began its work to clear the river of obstacles.
The seasonal disruptions continued, however, until 1885 when the Corps completed the first federally built lock and dam about 4.5 miles below Pittsburgh at Davis Island. The wooden wickets acted like a fence hinged on the river bottom. They could be raised to restrain the flow and maintain a navigable level, then lowered during periods of higher water during which traffic passed directly over them, bypassing the lock. In time, 53 of these dams were built along the length of the Ohio River.
Traffic has steadily increased, approaching 150 million tons per year. As the size of the tows became larger, the old system of locks became inadequate. Even before the last wicket type dam was constructed in 1929, the Davis Island facility was removed in 1922 and replaced by the Locks and Dam which straddle Neville Island at Emsworth, 6.2 miles below Pittsburgh. The system now maintains a navigation channel 9 feet deep along the length of the river.
Although St. Louis, MO, also claims the nickname "Gateway to the West" (and the famous Gateway Arch of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was fabricated by Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel on Neville Island), the vast majority of that traffic first flowed through Pittsburgh by way of the Ohio River.
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