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Celebrating Pittsburgh: The old to new riverfronts

PITTSBURGH — We continue to celebrate Pittsburgh this week and show you all the good our region has to offer. We thought we’d look at how our area changed our cityscape by making our riverfront more accessible, welcoming and essential for our region’s growth.

Many of us know Pittsburgh is a city separated by three rivers with a large fountain, bridges, stadiums and riverfront walkways.

“The Pittsburgh of today is vastly different from the Pittsburgh of yesteryear,” said Heinz History Center CEO Andy Masich.

But not so long ago, our steel-producing city looked a lot different. Look at the pictures below looking toward The Point -- the photos were taken in 1947, 1963 and 2020.

Masich says our city was the gateway to the west. It’s where Lewis and Clark started their expedition here in 1803. It then became the arsenal for the Union Army during the Civil War as we produced iron cannons and ammunition. After the Civil War, industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie came and made steel for rails and buildings.

“As America boomed, Pittsburgh boomed. Pittsburgh was one of the largest cities in America, in the top 10, and Fortune 500 companies were born here or drawn here because of what could happen in Pittsburgh,” said Masich. “Dreams came true in Pittsburgh, but it was a smoky city. Those dreams came with a cloud of smoke that hung over the city. Businessmen had to change their shirts in the middle of the day because of the grime on the neck, and the street lights came on at noon.”

The city was covered in factories that made steel and glass. Many Pittsburghers forget that Point State Park was added in the 1960s.

“We wouldn’t recognize that today,” said Masich. “Today, it’s a place of recreation and one of the most livable cities in America.”

>>PHOTOS: Celebrating Pittsburgh: The old to new riverfronts

The old mills and glass factories are gone; our city now is known for robotics, high tech industries, education and medicine. Where those factories once sat are now replaced by miles of trails and green space.

Friends of the Riverfront helped with much of that development by using state grants and other partners to give the Pittsburghers access to the riverfront. The now non-profit first started with a group of trail advocates and was a task force of the city.

“There are other cities that have done what we’ve done, but I’d say that Pittsburgh has really kind of led the way. The city really made it a priority to revitalize our riverfronts and reclaim it,” said Friends of the Riverfront Trail Development Director Courtney Mahronich Vita.

The Three Rivers Heritage Trail started more than 30 years ago. It’s made up of more than 30 miles of riverfront trails along all three rivers in the city and county. It was built in phases over two decades, and work continues on it today.

Mahronich Vita said the purpose was to connect communities with the essential part of our culture for centuries.

“A lot of these communities have been disconnected for a long period of time. Of what’s left on the riverfront, industry or rail lines that have been left or they still exist, so these trails are a means of actually improving and restoring our riverfronts and then bringing people back to them,” Mahronich Vita said.

A 2014 study from the Rails to Trails Conservancy found that more than half a million people used the trail and had more than $8 million in economic impact. But many people know the trail system by different names, according to Mahronich Vita.

Click here to see the Three River Heritage Trail map.

"There's the Eliza Furnace Trail, the North Shore Trail, Station Square Trail, South Side Trail," said Mahronich Vita. "That's usually what people sort of know the Three Rivers Heritage Trail as, and that's just the beauty of it. It's taking on its local identities within the communities that exist."

Mahronich Vita said what many Pittsburghers don’t know is the Three Rivers Heritage Trail is part of larger multi-state trail systems.

“Three Rivers Heritage Trail becomes a little bit of a hub. Everybody wants to connect into us. So, we are along the Great Allegheny Passage, which runs from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, then continuing to the C & O Canal to D.C. We are on the developing Erie to Pittsburgh trail,” said Mahronich Vita. “We were along the Pittsburgh Harrisburg Mainline Canal Greenway. We are a part of the Great American Rail Trail, a new initiative from the Rails to Trails Conservancy to connect Washington D.C. to Washington state. And then we were also the center of a major trail project in the region called the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition, connecting over 1,700 miles in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, New York, Maryland and West Virginia.”

Below are links to those other trails listed above.

Friends of the Riverfront is helping to connect their system to the Erie to Pittsburgh trail, which is supposed to be completed in 2029.

The city we know today wouldn’t be here without the thousands of volunteers working to make our steel city the trail city.

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