Once-grim steel town now has different kind of mettle PITTSBURGH RENAISSANCE

January 02, 1994|By Larry Lipman | Larry Lipman,Cox News Service

Three rivers run through it, and from their waters you can gauge modern Pittsburgh.

Once these rivers were the polluted receptacles of millions of tons of industrial waste. Their waters carried steel and coal around the world.

Now the waters sparkle. Pleasure boats slice down one river and up the next. Elaborate, old-fashioned clippers carry sightseers and party groups.

The story of Pittsburgh can be told in one small room -- the visitors center at the top of the Duquesne Incline.

For flatlanders to appreciate an incline, you have to know a bit about Pittsburgh's geography. Located in the Allegheny Mountains, Pittsburgh sprawls around three rivers: the Allegheny and the Monongahela, which converge to start the Ohio, which eventually flows into the Mississippi.

That means some of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods are built on mountaintops, such as the Mount Washington neighborhood.

Since the 1870s, cable cars have climbed the inclines from the Monongahela River to the top of Mount Washington. There are two inclines about a mile from each other. One is the Monongahela Incline, the other is the Duquesne. Both offer rides in original cable cars with spectacular views of downtown as you make the steep ascent. Both cost $1 each way, and both arrive at outstanding lookout spots.

The Monongahela Incline is at the foot of Station Square, a series of renovated train warehouses offering shopping, dining and entertainment. The Grand Concourse at Station Square is one of the city's major tourist attractions and dining spots.

At the top of the Duquesne Incline is a waiting room with walls lined with Pittsburgh history. Here are turn-of-the-century and later photos of grimy old Pittsburgh. They show streets so dark from the soot of coal and steel mills that the street lamps had to be lighted 24 hours a day. A picture taken at 3 p.m. looks like midnight.

Here, too, are views of the city as seen by its earliest settlers and of the city that once boasted industrial plants side-by-side along the waterways.

Step outside the waiting room onto the observation deck and the view of modern downtown Pittsburgh is quite different. From here, you look down on a city of glass and metal skyscrapers. One of the most interesting of these is 40-story PPG Place, a glass and steel Gothic structure that is home to the nation's first glass company, Pittsburgh Plate Glass.

There are several good restaurants atop Mount Washington offering a spectacular view. One of the best is Christopher's at the top of the mountain. An elevator takes patrons to the third-floor restaurant where two glass walls look out over the rivers and the city. The rear wall of Christopher's is made from 20 tons of the indigenous anthracite coal that powered Pittsburgh's industrial era.

From up here, it's easy to see the point where the Monongahela and Allegheny converge -- the point is where Pittsburgh began.

In the mid-1700s, this was contested ground. It was the western frontier for British colonists who'd settled the eastern seaboard. The French, who had moved up the Mississippi and down from Quebec, considered it their domain. It was also home to numerous Indian tribes.

In 1753, George Washington, then a 21-year-old British major, scouted the point and reported it was "more than suitable." Five years later, in the heat of the French and Indian War against the British, this region was the scene of bitter battles for control of the west.

The French built Fort Duquesne here, but it was destroyed by the British, who erected Fort Pitt, named after then-Prime Minister William Pitt. It was the largest and most expensive British fort on the American continent.

Today, reconstructed traces of Fort Pitt remain. So does a small, original blockhouse a few yards outside the fort that was built in 1764 and is still open to visitors. Inside the fort is a museum with scale models of three 18th-century forts and other exhibits depicting Pittsburgh's early history.

The pie-shaped downtown area extends from Point State Park eastward. Much of the downtown area has been rebuilt. Pittsburgh has undergone two eras referred to as "renaissances." The first, shortly after World War II, was a $500 million urban-renewal project that also began to impose smoke controls on the local industries. The second, which began in the 1980s and is still under way, occurred after the steel industry pulled out in the 1970s and the city hit the economic skids.

There are several excellent hotels downtown, from the Hilton, next to Point State Park, to the Vista, next to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center at the base, or eastern end, of the so-called "Golden Triangle."

Within the downtown area is its cultural district, with two major halls: Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, the 2,847-seat home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; and the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, where full-scale performances are given.

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