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Why Is Pittsburgh Called the "Steel City"?

Pittsburgh earned the "Steel City" moniker for its pivotal role in the steel industry, once housing over 300 steel-related businesses. This industrial legacy shaped its skyline and culture, forging a city of resilience and innovation. Discover how Pittsburgh's steely past continues to influence its vibrant present and future. What lasting impacts has this heritage left on the city? Continue reading to explore.
Angela Farrer
Angela Farrer

Pittsburgh is also called the "Steel City," due to its rich history as a center of the steel industry. Steel production formed the basis of the city's growth and prosperity beginning in the 19th century and continuing into the 1970s. Steel mills were once the main employers of many Pittsburgh residents, and much of that legacy is still evident in the local culture.

The rise of the Pittsburgh steel industry began in earnest when entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie opened the Edgar Thomson Works mills in 1875 and began mass-producing durable, inexpensive steel through the patented Bessemer process. His company later became part of the larger U.S. Steel Corporation, which produced a significant percentage of the nation's steel during its heyday. Both Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick are still remembered for their substantial economic and philanthropic contributions to the steel city.

The steel industry was a major component in the growth of Pittsburgh.
The steel industry was a major component in the growth of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh history also attributes the growth and diversity of the steel city and its surrounding boroughs to large rates of immigration that coincided with the success of the steel mills. Newcomers from other countries frequently passed through New York's Ellis Island and ventured to Pennsylvania in search of jobs at the many steel manufacturing industrial sites. The highest volume of Pittsburgh-produced steel products topped 95 million during the Second World War.

The growth of Pittsburgh was fueled by the steel industry.
The growth of Pittsburgh was fueled by the steel industry.

The steel city faced a significant economic downturn beginning in the 1980s when the majority of Pittsburgh's steel plants were forced to close or outsource production to other regions. Before the end of the decade, only two steel plants remained in the surrounding area. Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel is one of the few steel manufacturing plants with all of its operating facilities still in this section of western Pennsylvania. The steel city has since become economically revitalized due to a good deal of industry diversification. Some of the largest Pittsburgh employers are now within the financial and technology sectors.

The rise of the Pittsburgh steel industry began with entrepeneur Andrew Carnegie.
The rise of the Pittsburgh steel industry began with entrepeneur Andrew Carnegie.

Pittsburgh is also sometimes known as the "city of bridges" due to the prominent group of bridges that span the Allegheny River to the north and the Monongahela River to the south, providing easy access from the boroughs to the downtown area. Each bridge required significant local steel fabrication at the time of construction, a source of pride for many Pittsburgh natives. Lifelong residents in fact take such pride in the legacy of the steel industry that the championship-winning Pittsburgh Steelers football team even takes its name from this city history.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is Pittsburgh known as the "Steel City"?

One of the Pittsburgh Steelers' most famed quarterbacks was Terry Bradshaw.
One of the Pittsburgh Steelers' most famed quarterbacks was Terry Bradshaw.

Pittsburgh earned the nickname "Steel City" due to its prominent role in the steel industry during the 19th and 20th centuries. The city was home to numerous steel mills and factories, and it was a leader in steel production. At its peak, Pittsburgh produced up to half of the nation's steel, according to historical records from the Senator John Heinz History Center. This industrial dominance led to the city's association with steel and its enduring nickname.

What role did Andrew Carnegie play in Pittsburgh's steel history?

Andrew Carnegie was a pivotal figure in Pittsburgh's steel history. He founded the Carnegie Steel Company in the late 19th century, which became the largest and most profitable steel company in the world at the time. Carnegie's use of innovative technologies and business strategies, such as the Bessemer process for steel production, significantly boosted Pittsburgh's steel industry. His success helped cement the city's reputation as a steel powerhouse.

How did the steel industry shape Pittsburgh's economy and culture?

The steel industry was the backbone of Pittsburgh's economy for over a century, attracting workers from diverse backgrounds and fostering a strong labor movement. The industry's economic impact led to the growth of the city and the development of its infrastructure, culture, and community identity. Pittsburgh's sports teams, such as the Steelers, even pay homage to the city's industrial heritage. The steel industry's influence is deeply ingrained in the city's character and history.

What happened to Pittsburgh's steel industry?

In the latter half of the 20th century, Pittsburgh's steel industry faced decline due to several factors, including increased competition from overseas, technological advancements, and environmental regulations. The industry's downturn led to the closure of many steel mills and significant job losses. However, Pittsburgh has since undergone a transformation, reinventing itself with a focus on healthcare, education, and technology, while still honoring its steel legacy.

Can visitors still see remnants of Pittsburgh's steel history today?

Yes, visitors to Pittsburgh can still witness remnants of its steel history. Landmarks such as the Carrie Blast Furnaces, now a National Historic Landmark, offer tours that showcase the city's industrial past. The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area also provides insights into the region's steelmaking heritage. Additionally, many of the city's museums and cultural institutions, like the Heinz History Center, feature exhibits related to the steel industry.

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Discussion Comments

Buster29

@AnswerMan, my parents were from the Pittsburgh area, and I remember them talking about the final years of the steel industry there. My dad left Pennsylvania for Ohio when the employment focus shifted from raw steel production to the automotive industry. When the steel plants shut down, their hometown looked like a ghost town. There really was no other industry to take the place of steel production during the late 70s and early 80s. Pittsburgh survived by attracting investors in the medical field.

Pittsburgh is a very interesting city to visit, with a lot of ethnic neighborhoods and traditions. Natives of Pittsburgh also have their own "language" called Pittsburghese. The elastic loop used to hold papers together is not a "rubber band", for instance. In Pittsburghese, it's a "gum band".

AnswerMan

Pittsburgh was part of a manufacturing loop that started in West Virginia and ended up in Cleveland or Detroit. The coal from West Virginia mines would be shipped to Pittsburgh in order to heat the raw iron and convert it to steel. Pittsburgh's steel would then be shipped to Cleveland or Detroit and turned into construction materials or automotive parts. The finished products would be shipped worldwide. It was a great economic system while it lasted.

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    • The steel industry was a major component in the growth of Pittsburgh.
      By: industrieblick
      The steel industry was a major component in the growth of Pittsburgh.
    • The growth of Pittsburgh was fueled by the steel industry.
      By: Gino Santa Maria
      The growth of Pittsburgh was fueled by the steel industry.
    • The rise of the Pittsburgh steel industry began with entrepeneur Andrew Carnegie.
      By: Popova Olga
      The rise of the Pittsburgh steel industry began with entrepeneur Andrew Carnegie.
    • One of the Pittsburgh Steelers' most famed quarterbacks was Terry Bradshaw.
      By: Erik Drost
      One of the Pittsburgh Steelers' most famed quarterbacks was Terry Bradshaw.