162 Pittsburgh, PA: Cape Cod Afternoon

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Cape Cod Afternoon

In Pittsburgh, I was hosted by Dinah, a long-lost childhood friend who had a popular radio show on the local independent station. "The very first commercial radio station was here in Pittsburgh," she informed me, "It was called KDKA. And they're still KDKA." I learned quickly that nothing changes much in Pittsburgh, including its industrial feel. I sneezed as Dinah drove me around town and she sneered, "The air quality [here] is still not great. I went water-skiing once in the rivers around here, and it felt like it took a week to rinse the film off."

The town began in 1759 as Fort Pitt (named for Great Britain's Prime Minister William Pitt) on a triangle of land where three rivers meet: the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio. The young surveyor George Washington noted that this location was "well situated" because Pittsburgh's rivers connected to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.

In the late nineteenth century, Pittsburgh labeled itself "the natural point of distribution for the most prosperous section of the United States." Soon it called itself also "workshop of the world." To supply Fort Pitt, the army tapped the area's local coal, which was later deemed the single most valuable mineral deposit in the U.S. Taking advantage of the local ore, a small forge opened in nearby Millvale in 1858 that spawned Andrew Carnegie's iron and steel empire that is almost synonymous with Pittsburgh.

Industry flourished in Pittsburgh in the late 1800s. Companies that evolved into ALCOA, PPG (Pittsburgh Plate Glass), Pittsburgh Paint, and of course, America's ketchup: Heinz. Commerce led to the development of Pittsburgh's "Wall Street," the Fourth Avenue financial district, home to Andrew Mellon's bank. By 1908, only New York City held more money than Pittsburgh. As stocks and then steel folded through the 1900s, so did Pittsburgh.

Dinah began pointing out landmarks of the town's legacy. "That's the U.S. Steel Building," she said, "the big rusty brown building made out of steel." A notch halfway up the building made it look like a giant rusty I-beam. The Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) Building was built of aluminum, and Pittsburgh Plate Glass had an all-glass building. The United Steelworkers of America was hatch-marked to form diamond windows. "Do you see the one," Dinah asked, "with the kind of flagpole coming out of it? I call that the Phillips head screwdriver building!"

Resting beneath a sheer cliff along one river sat a grand old railroad station with P&LERR written in big letters across the top. It had been forged into a mall with upscale shops called One Station Square. Dinah said, "This beautiful old building is Station Square, the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Building. Pittsburgh being a railroad town and all. The windows in Station Square were painted black in World War II so as not to be seen, and no one remembered that there was stained glass underneath it until they renovated it."

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