River Towns: How the Three Rivers Transformed Western Pennsylvania
published on June 20, 2019
Rivers have always been the lifeblood of civilization. The three rivers in western Pennsylvania are no different. These rivers are the reason the city of Pittsburgh and the surrounding towns exist as they do today and are vital natural and economic resources for people and businesses in our region. Through the centuries, the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers have served very different purposes and have even been the sites of many important events in American history. From the Native American tribes to revolutionary battles to giant floating ducks, these waterways have seen it all.
Humans have inhabited western Pennsylvania for at least 16,000 years. Meadowcroft Rockshelter, the oldest site of human habitation in North America, is located in Avella, Washington County along a tributary of the Ohio River. Around 800 B.C., the Adena culture created ancient burial mounds in the McKees Rocks region, just 5 miles from the Ohio River. By the time Europeans arrived in the “New World,” Native American cultures including Iroquois, Lenape, Seneca and Shawnee were well established in this part of the state.
The first Europeans to settle in western Pennsylvania were the French. They saw the confluence of the Allegheny as prime real estate because they provided easy transportation and potential trade routes. Concerned that the French were getting a foothold in the region, the British sent George Washington to warn the French to give up the land. This land near the rivers became the focus of the French & Indian War, a clash of French, Native American, and British cultures that resulted in the establishment of Fort Pitt. You can learn more about this time period and the battles that took place by visiting the Fort Necessity National Battlefield along the National Road – the site of the first battle of that 7 year war, which took place on July 3, 1754.
The Port of Pittsburgh
In the decades following the revolution, western Pennsylvania earned the nickname “The Gateway to the West.” As a west-flowing river, the Ohio River became an incredible asset to pioneers traveling to the frontier and subsequently, boat-building became a huge industry in the region. Brownsville, a town along the National Road that sits on the Monongahela River became a leader in the steamboat building industry, which helped transform the U.S. economy. This along with the region’s abundant natural resources, like steel and coal, led to the industrial powerhouse that it became in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Today, the three rivers still play a key role for business and transportation of materials in the region. In recent years, legislators, federal and state agencies, and non profit conservation organizations have begun concentrated efforts to improve the condition of these waterways with clean ups and enforcement. At the local level municipalities have recognized the value of the riverfront and have undertaken beautification projects to enhance the recreational appeal. The results – the rivers are now popular places for canoes, kayaks, motor boats, and jet skis. Many of the region’s tributaries, while too shallow for motorized boats, also provide tranquil opportunities for paddling.
Celebrate the beautiful history of western Pennsylvania’s river towns this spring at Come Down to the River and Play, an upcoming event along the Monongahela River sponsored by the National Road Heritage Corridor and our partner, the River Town Program. You can also sign up for the Mon River Spring Paddle, which will include paddling safety instructions, interpretation of historic sites and industrial artifacts seen on and near the river, a side trip on Ten Mile Creek, and lunch.