Pittsburgh Sub Specie Aeternitatis

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The story so far:

In the beginning the Universe was created.

This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.


Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

If a tree falls in the forest, and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound? If a planet forms, and there are no scientists to measure it, does the time scale matter?

This is a look at one spot on Earth, sub specie aeternitatis1.

Pittsburgh2 Up to the Triassic

Regardless of the answer to that philosophical conundrum, at some point – estimates range from 4.5 billion years to 6,004 years ago   – Earth happened. About 250 million years ago – again, depending on who you talk to – the land mass of the planet was one big continent. Today, we call this continent Pangea, although there is no record of what anybody called it back then3. At that time, Pittsburgh was not far from the Western Sahara4. Sometime later, possibly 235-200 million years ago during the late Triassic Period, the continents we now know began to drift apart. This was definitely a bad move, because it made getting to Paris more difficult and encouraged seismic activity.

The Carboniferous Age, or How All That Coal Got There

(Note: The next part of this story requires the reader to believe some pretty incredible things, such as that it was warm in western Pennsylvania all year around. Apologies to skeptics.)

Geologists claim that starting about 359 million years ago, and lasting for 60 million years, give or take, the Pittsburgh area was a hot, fetid swamp, with a tropical climate. This makes more sense when one realises that Pittsburgh was on the move, and still located 5° to 10° south of the equator.

Under these conditions, sedimentary layers of decaying plant and animal matter were deposited over time. Eventually, the layers formed the natural gas and coal5 that were to play such a large part in the Pittsburgh story. It is an ill wind that blows no one any good, and Continental Drift did much to improve the fortunes of Andrew Carnegie, when he came along a few million years later.

Pittsburgh Is Settled by Humans

How long ago did humans first arrive in western Pennsylvania? Again, there is disagreement. One widely accepted guess – er, scientific calculation – for human arrival on the North American continent from Asia is about 20,000 years ago. Those same estimators estimate that humans may have moved near the Forks of the Ohio between 18,000 and 12,000 years ago. Whenever they showed up, they liked it – plenty of trees, water, fish and game – and they stayed. Eventually, they became Indians, but no one called them that until ignorant Europeans with faulty maps showed up thousands of years later.

Early tribal people were hunters and gatherers, competing with their fellow predators, the panther, wolf, bear, and mountain lion for the rich animal prey: beaver, elk, deer, and wild turkey. About 6,000 years ago, they learned to build canoes (and could travel to Cincinnati, though they may not have wanted to). About 3,000 years ago, there was an agricultural revolution when tribal peoples all over the Americas discovered how to plant the Three Sisters: maize, beans, and squash. This companion planting was a great invention, and meant not only that they could cook polenta, but that they could build towns and even cities. Although a major metropolis eventually emerged down in Tenochtitlan, Pittsburgh settlements remained at the town level.

About 2,000 years ago, the road system improved. Tribal people built a network of roads across the eastern half of North America. As they failed to invent the wheel – a wise move, in many ways – the roads remained in good repair, and the air was unpolluted. They also did not require snow tires, although snow shoes may have been employed. In western Pennsylvania, the road system was augmented by river travel, and the dugout canoe became popular. There is no record of taxation or toll roads having been introduced. Use of the roads was determined by personal negotiation and intertribal treaty.

Clueless Europeans Arrive

In the 17th Century, white explorers, trappers, and traders arrived in the area. Unwittingly, they heralded the death of the Monongahela people who had lived in the area for so long. Alien diseases – a cough here, a sniffle there – spread like wildfire down the road system. People died without ever meeting the bringers of the germs. Soon, the area was almost denuded of human dwellers.

The hunters and trappers began to make serious inroads into the wildlife with their guns, nets, and traps. Other tribal people, such as the Lenape, were pushed by the pressures of coastal European settlements, and moved into the Ohio Valley. Lenape names began to be heard, such as Aliquippa, the 18th-century tribal queen whose name still graces a community.

War! (What Is It Good For?)

Beginning in the 17th Century, Lenape and Shawnee tribal hunters traded furs with the French and British at the Forks of the Ohio, not yet known as Pittsburgh. In the mid-18th Century, the British and French both began to have military designs on the place. It was a strategic location: control the Forks, and you could control the middle of the North American continent. That's when George Washington entered the story.

At this time, France and Britain were involved in what the US calls 'The French and Indian War', the Europeans call 'The Seven Years' War', and historians call 'World War Zero', because it was the planet's first global conflict. Even Pangea didn't have a war this big. It lasted from 1754 to 1760 or so in North America, and was ended by the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which made Britain a superpower, and people at the Forks of the Ohio pretty smug, for various reasons.

In 1755, Washington, then a young militia officer of 23, surveyed the Forks, suggested that a fort would be a good idea, and left a small contingent to build Fort Prince George. As soon as the British had built it, the French decided this was a good idea as well, descended on the tiny force, and took the place over, renaming it Fort Duquesne. French troops held the spot for three years, until the British came back in force. The French set fire to the fort before leaving. The rebuilt fort was named Fort Pitt in honour of the British Prime Minister, and the village that grew up was called – can you guess? – Pittsborough. Of course. It was variously spelled 'Pittsborough' (English), 'Pittsbourgh' (General Forbes to William Pitt) and 'Pittsburgh' by the local Scots, who like the Scots general, pronounced it to match 'Edinburgh'.

Rabble Rousers

When the United States won its independence, surveyor George Washington became the first president of the new nation. Pittsboroughers were proud of him, no doubt, and memorialised the new leader in many ways: by naming all sorts of things – roads, taverns, a mountain, etc – after him, and by mispronouncing these places 'Warshington'. Relations with Washington – the president, that is – became more strained when the question of taxes arose.

Pittsburghers grew a lot of maize and grains. And these grains didn't travel well. Maize and grain, however, can be made into whiskey, which ships nicely, even over rough roads to Philadelphia and beyond. As president, Warshington insisted on taxing this. Farmers argued that they didn't do a lot of cash business, and the government had no right to tax the barter system. One thing led to another, and soon, the new government had a tax revolt on their hands, known as the Whiskey Rebellion.

Which is why, in 1794, Pittsburgh's tax rebels became the only Americans ever to face a military assault by a sitting president. He was sitting on a horse at the time, and Washington was telling them, 'No, you can't secede. We've just got the country good and started.' The whole fracas settled down eventually, but Pittsburgh was off to a roaring start.

Growth of Steel City

Pittsburgh was always a hub for travel, a gateway to the West. In the 1850s, river barges and the newly-completed railway lines kept the place hopping. However, iron on the rails kept wearing out. It was up to innovative Scotsman Andrew Carnegie and his friends to bring in steel mills. Once the Bessemer process became well and truly established, Pittsburgh became a steel-making giant.

Steel contributed mightily to the growth of Pittsburgh, bringing in:

  • Workers, skilled and otherwise, from everywhere in Europe, making Pittsburgh a polyglot's paradise.
  • Prosperity that fueled intellectual and cultural growth.
  • Hideous pollution.

The pollution was caused not only by industry, but by geography and chemistry. The mountains surrounding the triangular river confluence held in the smoke from furnaces and factories. The local coal was bituminous, or 'soft' coal, adding to the amount of smoke. Soon, nobody could leave babies outside. Washing hung out to dry became sooty again. New buildings quickly acquired the patina of spurious antiquity. Life in Pittsburgh had its challenges, particularly when it was flooded, as in 1907.

What Did They Expect?

The denizens of Pangea could have predicted this. What do you expect, when you build a major city on former swampland, at a spot where two rivers converge, and proceed to burn the leftover sediment of (possibly, allegedly, presumably) millions of years in your mills? Fortunately, the steel boom is over and done with. The city has undergone a renaissance, the air is cleaner, and the universities and other intellectual institutions are still working hard. The Forks of the Ohio are ready for the next challenge – be it global warming, meteor strike, or more Continental Drift.

1'Sub specie aeternitatis' is a Latin phrase meaning 'under the aspect of eternity'.2Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is located at 40°26'23"N 79°58'35"W (at least, at the time of writing, see this Entry). The city's centre is on the Forks of the Ohio, which is the place where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converge to form the Ohio River. See this map. Hopefully this clears up the location of our subject, positioned as it is on a slowly shifting tectonic plate turning at roughly 460 meters per second aboard a planet circling at the rate of 30 km per second around a star which is whirling at the speed of 220 km per second around galactic centre, which in turn is hurtling toward the Great Attractor at 1000 km per second. In other words, space/time is, er, relative. But at least you can claim to know where Pittsburgh is.3We suggest 'The Big Giant Jigsaw Puzzle'. That's what it looked like.4Well, it was only a few hundred kilometers away, as New Jersey was adjacent to the Sahara.5See The Geological Story of Pennsylvania, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Topographic and Geologic Survey.

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