Pittsburgh in 1851

This view of Pittsburgh appeared in A Pictorial Description of the United States, an expensive book published in 1851. Father Pitt has not seen it before. Every once in a while he runs across what we may describe as an undiscovered historical image of the city, which he will publish here for your enlightenment.

Although the original caption describes the image as a view “from the northwest,” it appears to be from the southwest, on the south bank of the Ohio just downstream from the Point. This book has trouble with directions: it lists Washington (Pennsylvania) as twenty miles north of Pittsburgh.

“This is the greatest manufacturing town of the west,” says the book, “and has furnished a large proportion of the steamboats which navigate the Mississippi and its branches. It occupies a low point of land, at the junction of the Allegany and Monongahela rivers, whose united stream is named the Ohio. It is three hundred miles west from Philadelphia, eleven hundred from New Orleans, by land, and over two thousand by water, yet has almost daily communication with it by steamboats. A part of the city now covers Ayres’ hill, and part of the sides of two other eminences; while four small towns, Allegany, Sligo, Manchester, and Birmingham, at short distances, occupy points on the banks.

“A bridge of eight arches, and fifteen hundred feet long, crosses the Monongahela, erected in 1818, at an expense of one hundred thousand dollars; while four bridges cross the Allegany, as well as the noble aqueduct of the Pennsylvania Canal. The city contains about seventy churches, and the population, in 1850, was 80,000.”

Note that the great fire of 1845, which destroyed the original Monongahela bridge, is not mentioned, although the population figure for 1850 is given. Consider for a moment what a crowded place the city was when 80,000 people lived in the area now occupied solely by downtown, with only a few straggling up the Hill.

The rest of the description is worth reading to get a notion of what Pittsburgh was like, or what people in Boston (where the book was published) thought Pittsburgh was like, in the middle of the 1800s.

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