Stretch Your Legs On This Historical Riverfront Tour
Pittsburgh’s three rivers are one of the original reasons people settled in the region, and while we self-isolate due to the nationwide coronavirus outbreak, here’s a walking tour to get you moving along the city’s waterways.
The riverfront: Approx. 40 minutes
Start at the convention center, down by the water’s edge. You’ll see a large, steel railroad bridge next to you
Near this site is a marker that signifies the beginning of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Meriwether Lewis, a soldier appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the uncharted sections of what would become the American west, began his journey here in 1803 on a 50-foot “keeled boat.” A keel is a structural beam that runs in the middle of a sailing vessel to keep the boat stable.
Regardless of the ship’s origins, the great journey started here in Pittsburgh and it’s also possible the rope Lewis used was manufactured here. In the late 1700s, a woman named Mary Pattison Irwin and her husband, Col. John Irwin, moved to the region when the land here was undeveloped and started growing hemp. Mary’s part of the business, being a woman, was unprecedented for the times. In this story about her legacy, she’s remembered for running a successful rope-making business in downtown and then on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
The Three Rivers Heritage trail
Hop on the trail that follows the Allegheny River, the Three Rivers Heritage trail (there’s an access point at 11th Street). This 24-mile trail extends throughout several city neighborhoods and is a favorite among bicyclists and commuters.
Look to your right, across the river, and you’ll see Alcoa Corporate Center. In 1888, a young engineer named Charles Martin Hall invented a way to manufacture aluminium for commercial use. The company that put this technology to use would become Alcoa, a blend of “Aluminum Company of America.” It had its headquarters in Pittsburgh for years and produced aluminum for cars, packaging and aerospace craft. Alcoa moved its headquarters to New York in 2006, but returned in 2017.
Keep walking downriver (toward the three yellow sister bridges). You’re about to walk underneath the 9th Street, or Rachel Carson Bridge. Carson, a Springdale, Pa. native, was a conservationist who’s known best for her book, “Silent Spring,” which warned of the dangers of pesticides. She encountered a lot of pushback from the chemical industry when it was published in 1962, but her words eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972.
If you’re interested in a longer hike, there’s a 45-mile one that runs between Harrison Hills County Park and North Park, both in Allegheny County.
The next identical bridge you see is the 7th Street, or Andy Warhol Bridge. The iconic artist grew up in Pittsburgh, attended Schenley High School in Oakland and Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) before moving to New York City. You might recognize his famous Campbell’s Soup Cans or have visited the Andy Warhol Museum. The museum sits at the corner of Sandusky and East General Robinson streets, and can be reached by following the bridge.
About 1,870 people have been involved in the Knit the Bridge project, according to organizers, and over the weekend scores of volunteers were on hand to help with the installation.
Credit Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA
In 2013, the Andy Warhol Bridge was part of an effort called Knit the Bridge, when volunteers hand-stitched afghan panels and affixed them to the span.
Up next is the 6th Street, or Roberto Clemente Bridge, named for one of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ most celebrated players. In addition to being the first Latin American baseball player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he was the 1971 World Series MVP and a 12-time Gold Glove winner.
On the North Side of the river, you’ll see what looks like a floating house. This is the City of Pittsburgh River Safety Center. The River Rescue Unit was formed in 1986 and is a joint effort between the Bureau of Emergency Medical Services' SCUBA Search & Rescue Team and the Bureau of Police River Patrol. The city also has a fire boat named for Pittsburgh’s only female mayor, Sophie Masloff. It can pump 3,000 gallons of water per minute.
As you pass under the third of the sister bridge trio, what do you notice? They’re all the same yellow color. We reported on this tint a few years ago, finding that they’re all painted “Pittsburgh Yellow,” which is technically Aztec Gold. It’s the same color as the West End, Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt bridges.
To your right after the Roberto Clemente Bridge is PNC Park, home to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Washington Post ranked it one of the best ballparks in the country, saying it had “the greatest view.”
Now do a 180-degree turn and look to your left. This usually bustling street is the 10th Street Bypass. Large metal rings are fixed to the retaining walls here, a reminder of a time when the riverfront was home to the Allegheny Wharf.
The sets of rings are traces of a time when industrial river traffic was common and people would anchor their boats to unload their goods. You can to listen to this Good Question! story as you make your way farther down the trail.
As cars became more popular, the wharf was converted to a parking lot.
Now, the only rings that are used with any frequency are the ones attached to the concrete on the ground directly next to the river. You might see a few on your walk. These are used by boaters when the weather is nice.
Soon you’ll find yourself under another yellow bridge, Fort Duquesne. This span connecting Downtown and the North Side was once called the “Bridge to Nowhere,” because its main section was finished in 1963, but construction wasn’t finished until several years later, leaving a large drop-off at the end.
Eventually you’ll reach the confluence, where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers meet to form the Ohio River. When it’s warm, the fountain near the Point spews water 150 feet into the air and is a popular hangout for Pittsburghers
This confluence is a big reason why Pittsburgh developed the way it did -- access to water made commerce and travel possible.
In Point State Park, there is an outline of the original location of Fort Duquesne in the ground. The fort was established by the French, later taken over by the English and then destroyed by the French during the French and Indian War.
When you reach the Point of the park, look around. This is one of the city’s greatest views.
In 2013, a giant four-story rubber duck docked here. It was a huge tourist attraction at the time -- people lined the city’s bridges, got in boats and watched from the shores to see artist Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck Project. It was the first time the duck visited the United States.
If you look down the Ohio River toward the West End Bridge (the yellow one in front of you), you’ll see the Duquesne Incline. The funicular is one of two in Pittsburgh, with the Monongahela on the (you guessed it) river of the same name a bit behind you.
At one time, there were dozens of inclines in the city of Pittsburgh. They were in Knoxville, Fineview, the Strip District and Mount Oliver. Constructed mostly in the late 19th century, the inclines transported goods, livestock and people from the bottom to the top of the city’s many hills.
The Monongahela Incline was the city’s first and still transports tourists and commuters to Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington.The cars act as counterweights--that’s why they always pass each other in the middle of the ride.
Fort Pitt Museum
Keep walking up the Monongahela River (toward the city) and soon you’ll be able to see the Fort Pitt Block House. Built in 1764, this structure is all that remains of the historic Fort Pitt. We looked into how the building was saved by a group of “fearless women,” the Daughters of the American Revolution in the early 20th century, as the land around it was beginning to be developed.
You’ll also be close to the Fort Pitt Museum, operated by the Heinz History Center. This museum showcases western Pennsylvania’s role in the French and Indian, and Revolutionary wars, and tells the story of its namesake fort. The museum offers virtual tours and online learning, too.
Across the Monongahela River, you’ll see a large flag billboard on the side of the slope. This location once showcased a Bayer pharmaceutical sign, then, controversially, a Sprint sign. Now it displays a flag by the National Flag Federation. The region used to be littered with billboards until the 1960s, when former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson helped create the Beautification Act, which regulated outdoor advertising and put restrictions on where eyesores like junkyards could be located.
Walk through the park and toward the Wyndham Grand hotel. Take a right on Commonwealth Place and follow the street until you reach Boulevard of the Allies. Head toward the former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building and you’ll see another 1936 flood marker.
Boulevard of the Allies was built as a way for “modern” automobiles to get from the East End to Downtown in the early 20th century. We reported a story about the stretch’s construction and its statues.
Keep walking until you reach Stanwix Street. Turn right. You’re currently passing the headquarters of the United Steelworkers. Turn left when you reach Fort Pitt Boulevard.
Firstside Historic District
You’re now walking between a number of downtown interstates and some of the city’s oldest buildings. It includes commercial structures associated with the trade along the Monongahela River, industrial spaces and the site of Pittsburgh’s first hotel, the Monongahela House.
WESA reported on this 210-room hotel on what was then Water and Stanwix streets. Erected in 1840, the building burned down in the Great Fire of 1845, only to be rebuilt in 1847 at even larger proportions, with almost 300 rooms. It hosted guests including Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, as well as President Abraham Lincoln. It was razed in 1935 and the space is currently occupied by the Allegheny County Human Services building.
At the corner of Fort Pitt Boulevard and Wood Street you’ll see the historical marker commemorating this district. Turn left onto Wood Street and right back onto Boulevard of the Allies.
You’ll soon see Engine Company No. 1, built in Romanesque and Classical styles. Since the establishment of fire departments in the Pittsburgh region, stations have used a variety of bells, horns and fire whistles to call firefighters to duty. Here’s a story on the sounds heard in the Pittsburgh area.
You have a while to go until you reach the intersection with Grant Street. This is a large intersection so be careful on the crosswalk as you head toward Court Place (not Boulevard of the Allies or Second Avenue).
This part of town was once Pittsburgh’s Chinatown. You can see evidence of its existence as you pass the Chinatown Inn (notice the ornamental exterior). An article in the Pittsburgh Press from 1903 notes that about 180 ethnically Chinese people lived in Pittsburgh around 1900, most -- if not all -- within a few square blocks of downtown.
The Chinatown Inn, the last remaining business of Pittsburgh's Chinatown.
Credit Allyson Ruggieri / 90.5 WESA
“Construction of Boulevard of the Allies in the 1920s cut through Chinatown, prompting Chinese Pittsburghers to leave for other communities and the suburbs. Chinese residents likely had little political sway -- County Commissioner meeting minutes about creating Boulevard of the Allies don't mention Chinatown at all.”
Just after the Hong Kong Express 2 restaurant, you’ll see a little sign that says “406 feet” with a Pirates jersey painted on top. This signifies the 406-foot distance that famed Pittsburgh Pirate Bill Mazeroski hit from Forbes Field in 1960. The painting is part of a handful of art commemorating the event, and is around the corner from a mural of famous Pittsburgh Pirates and Negro League players.
Turn right on Ross Street under the Boulevard of the Allies’ underpass and you’ll see a small park in front of you. This is Firstside Park, a park constructed after PNC Firstside Center. In order for the structure to be silver-rated LEED certified, it had to have an environmental element, which is why the park was constructed using environmentally-friendly practices. What pieces of public art do you see?
This ends our journey for today. Enjoy the park!
Love historical walking tours? Take this one of the Golden Triangle.