Top 10 Worst Events in the History of Pittsburgh
The city of Pittsburgh, in southwestern Pennsylvania, is known for being the resilient steel city of bridges just west of the Alleghenies, but it’s the people who have settled in the three-river city who are far tougher than their steel.
Pittsburgh is the 2nd-most populous city in Pennsylvania, behind Philadelphia, and 68th-largest city proper in the U.S. with a population of 302,971 as of the 2020 census. The city anchors the Pittsburgh metropolitan area of Western Pennsylvania; its population of 2.37 million is the largest in both the Ohio Valley and Appalachia, the 2nd largest in Pennsylvania, and the 27th-largest in the U.S. Furthermore, it is the principal city of the greater Pittsburgh–New Castle–Weirton combined statistical area that extends into Ohio and West Virginia.
Located at the confluence of the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River, which combine to form the Ohio River, Pittsburgh is known both as “the Steel City” for its more than 300 steel-related businesses and as the “City of Bridges” for its 446 bridges. The city features 30 skyscrapers, two inclined railways, a pre-revolutionary fortification, and the Point State Park at the confluence of the rivers. The city developed as a vital link of the Atlantic coast and Midwest, as the mineral-rich Allegheny Mountains led to the region being contested by the French and British empires, Virginians, Whiskey Rebels, and Civil War raiders.
Aside from steel, Pittsburgh has led in the manufacturing of other important materials—aluminum and glass—and in the petroleum industry. Additionally, it is a leader in computing, electronics, and the automotive industry. For part of the 20th century, Pittsburgh was behind only New York City and Chicago in corporate headquarters employment; it had the most U.S. stockholders per capita.
Deindustrialization in the 1970s and 1980s laid off area blue-collar workers as steel and other heavy industries declined, and thousands of downtown white-collar workers also lost jobs when several Pittsburgh-based companies moved out. The population dropped from a peak of 675,000 in 1950 to 370,000 in 1990. However, this rich industrial history left the area with renowned museums, medical centers, parks, research centers, and a diverse cultural district.
After 1990, Pittsburgh transformed into a hub for the health care, education, and technology industries. Pittsburgh is home to large medical providers, including the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), and 68 colleges and universities, including research and development leaders Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Google, Apple Inc., Bosch, Facebook, Nokia, Autodesk, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM are among 1,600 technology firms generating $20.7 billion in annual Pittsburgh payrolls.
Federal money has supported the research agenda. The area has served as the federal agency headquarters for cyber defense, software engineering, robotics, energy research and the nuclear navy. The nation’s fifth-largest bank, eight Fortune 500 companies, and six of the top 300 U.S. law firms make their global headquarters in the area, while RAND Corporation (RAND), BNY Mellon, Nova, FedEx, Bayer, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have regional bases that helped Pittsburgh become the sixth-best area for U.S. job growth.
In 2015, Pittsburgh was listed among the “eleven most livable cities in the world”. The Economist’s Global Liveability Ranking placed Pittsburgh as the most or second-most livable city in the United States in 2005, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2018. The region is a hub for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and energy extraction.
Top 10 Worst Events in the History of Pittsburgh
When determining our Top 10 Worst Events in the History of Pittsburgh, we kept a few things in mind:
What was the cultural, economical, and overall historical impact of the event?
How much has Pittsburgh changed as a result of this event?
Which moments do the people consider to be of great significance?
Therefore, while we could have listed over 50 different events that may have affected Pittsburgh overall, we have chosen to focus primarily on the events that ultimately shaped, molded, and defined what Pittsburgh is today.
Let’s dive in!
#10: Destruction of the Hill District for the Civic Arena, 1958
In 1956, plans for demolitions began to clear land for the Civic Arena in the Lower Hill, a predominantly black neighborhood area that had been designated a slum. Known affectionately as “The Igloo” and officially called Mellon Arena at the time of its destruction, the Civic Arena was considered an ambitious architectural marvel at the time of its groundbreaking in 1958.
The site of the new arena was a controversial and racially charged one. Large swaths of the culturally vibrant lower Hill District was seized by eminent domain. The largely black community was separated from downtown as 8,000 residents and 400 businesses were forced to move. In the end, about 1/5th of the population of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods was displaced and 80 city blocks, or about 100 acres, was flattened.
The arena officially opened on Sept. 17, 1961. Thousands gathered to watch the roof retract to reveal the skyline. The first event was the Ice Capades the following night. Even after the arena was completed, its vast parking lots were seen by many as an open wound where their neighborhood once stood.
During its nearly 50 years of service to the city, it hosted the Stanley Cup Final three times, the NHL All-Star Game, NHL Entry Draft, both NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, competitions from wrestling to gymnastics and recording artists too numerous to list.
Discussions to replace the aging Civic Arena began in 1999, when Penguin’s star and team captain, Mario Lemieux, sold the naming rights to Mellon Financial for $18 million, changing the name to Mellon Area. Lemiux helped pave the way for the $321 million Consol Energy Center (later renamed PPG Paints Arena), which opened on Aug. 28, 2010 and remains the permanent home for the legendary Pittsburgh Penguins.
Once again known as the Civic Arena, the Igloo was the oldest and third smallest facility in the NHL at the time of its demolition. Various community and preservation groups’ efforts to preserve the arena failed to come to fruition and demolition began on Sept. 26, 2011.
Now, all that remains of the Civic Arena is a vast parking lot.
#9: Collapse of the Pittsburgh Steel Industry, 1980s
Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the steel industry in Pittsburgh began to implode along with the de-industrialization of the United States. Following the 1981–1982 recession, the steel mills laid off 153,000 workers, and ultimately, began to shut down. These closures caused a ripple effect, as railroads, mines, and other factories across the region lost business and closed.
The local economy suffered a depression, marked by high unemployment and underemployment, as laid-off workers took lower-paying, non-union jobs. Pittsburgh suffered as elsewhere in the Rust Belt with a declining population, and like many other U.S. cities, it also saw white flight to the suburbs.
#8: McKees Rocks Pressed Steel Car Strike, 1909
The Pressed Steel Car strike of 1909, also known as the “1909 McKees Rocks strike,” was an American labor strike which lasted from July 13 through September 1909.
The walkout drew national attention when it climaxed on Sunday, August 22, 1909 in a bloody battle between strikers, private security agents, and the Pennsylvania State Police. At least 12 people died, and perhaps as many as 26, although the final fatality count is unknown.
The strike was the largest and most significant industrial labor dispute in the Pittsburgh area since the famous 1892 Homestead strike, and was a precursor to the Great Steel Strike of 1919.
#7: Homestead Steel Strike, 1892
The Homestead strike, also known as the Homestead steel strike, Homestead massacre, or Battle of Homestead, was an industrial lockout and strike which began on July 1, 1892, culminating in a battle between strikers and private security agents on July 6, 1892.
As a result of the conflict, between 10-18 people died, 11-47 people were injured, and 324 people were captured. Of the Carnegie Steel Company Pinkerton Agency, between 3-8 people died, 12-36 people were injured, and 324 people were captured. From the Amalgamated Association Knights of Labor, at least 7 people died and 11 people were injured.
The battle was a pivotal event in U.S. labor history. The dispute occurred at the Homestead Steel Works in the Pittsburgh area town of Homestead, Pennsylvania, between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (the AA) and the Carnegie Steel Company.
The final result was a major defeat for the union of strikers and a setback for their efforts to unionize steelworkers. De-unionization efforts throughout the Midwest began against the AA in 1897 when Jones and Laughlin Steel refused to sign a contract. By 1900, not a single steel plant in Pennsylvania remained unionized.
The AA presence in Ohio and Illinois continued for a few more years, but the union continued to collapse. Many lodges disbanded, their members disillusioned. Others were easily broken in short battles. Carnegie Steel’s Mingo Junction, Ohio, plant was the last major unionized steel mill in the country. But it, too, successfully withdrew recognition without a fight in 1903.
AA membership sagged to 10,000 in 1894 from its high of over 24,000 in 1891. A year later, it was down to 8,000. A 1901 strike against Carnegie’s successor company, U.S. Steel, collapsed. By 1909, membership in the AA had sunk to 6,300.
A nationwide steel strike of 1919 also was unsuccessful. The AA maintained a rump membership in the steel industry until its takeover by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in 1936. The two organizations officially disbanded and formed the United Steelworkers on May 22, 1942.
In 1999, the Bost Building in downtown Homestead, AA headquarters throughout the strike, was designated a National Historic Landmark. It is used as a museum devoted not only to the strike, but also the steel industry in the Pittsburgh area.
A railroad bridge over the Monongahela River near the site of the battle is named Pinkerton’s Landing Bridge in honor of the dead. Two sites were each designated with a Pennsylvania state historical marker: the site where Pinkerton attempted to land, and the two adjoining cemeteries of St. Mary’s and Homestead where are buried the remains of six of the seven Carnegie Steel Company workers that were killed. The Pinkerton landing site was also named a Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation Historic Landmark.
#6: The Great Saint Patrick’s Day Flood, 1936
Between March 17-18 of 1936, the city of Pittsburgh witnessed the worst flood in its history when flood levels peaked at 46 feet (14 m). This flood became known as The Great St. Patrick’s Day flood, and also affected other areas of the Mid-Atlantic on both sides of the Eastern Continental Divide.
On Monday, March 16, warmer-than-normal temperatures and torrential rain followed a cold and snowy winter, leading to the rapid melting of snow and ice on the upper Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. They and their tributaries were already over their banks and were threatening the city of Pittsburgh.
On Tuesday, March 17, the waters reached flood stage of 25 feet. Heavy rains overnight caused the waters to rise quickly, and on March 18, the water peaked at about 46 feet, 21 feet above flood stage.
By Saturday, March 21, four days later, the water finally receded to 24 feet.
The aftermath to the city was devastating. About 100,000 buildings were destroyed and the damage was estimated at about $250 million ($4.94 billion today). Steel mills that were located around the three rivers suffered devastating damage and 60,000 steel workers within a thirty-mile radius were out of work due to the damage that the mills suffered. 65% of the downtown business district had been under water from the Point all the way up to Grant Street.
Electric power failed on March 17 and full electric service was not restored for 8 days. KDKA radio was able to broadcast without interruption throughout the flood, but many Pittsburghers were unable to listen because they did not have electricity to run their radios.
Many buildings in Pittsburgh, particularly in or near downtown, have markers indicating the height reached by floodwaters. The flood eventually led to calls for the construction of a dam upstream on the Allegheny to prevent future floods of this magnitude.
#5: Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting, 2018
The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was an antisemitic terrorist attack in the form of a mass shooting, which took place at the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
The congregation, along with New Light Congregation and Congregation Dor Hadash, which also worshipped in the building, was attacked during Shabbat morning services on October 27, 2018. The perpetrator killed eleven people and wounded six, including several Holocaust survivors. It was the deadliest attack ever on the Jewish community in the United States.
A lone suspect, identified as 46-year-old Robert Gregory Bowers, was shot multiple times by police and arrested at the scene. Bowers had earlier posted antisemitic comments against HIAS (formerly, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) on the online alt-tech social network Gab. Dor Hadash had participated in HIAS’s National Refugee Shabbat the previous week. Referring to Central American migrant caravans and immigrants, Bowers posted a message on Gab in which he wrote that “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” He has been charged with 63 federal crimes, some of which are capital crimes. He has pleaded not guilty. He separately faces 36 charges in Pennsylvania state court.
Eleven (11) people were killed, including three (3) on the ground level and four (4) in the synagogue’s basement. Among the dead were two brothers and a married couple. At least six (6) others were injured, including four (4) Pittsburgh Police officers. Five (5) people were transported to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, four requiring surgery, while one was treated and released by the afternoon. Another victim was transported to UPMC Mercy, while the accused was taken to Allegheny General Hospital.
Those killed were:
Joyce Fienberg, 75
Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Cecil Rosenthal, 59
David Rosenthal, 54
Bernice Simon, 84
Sylvan Simon, 86
Daniel Stein, 71
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69
Seven (7) others who were injured in the incident included three other congregants and four Pittsburgh officers (two patrol officers and two SWAT officers; three by ricocheted gunfire and another by glass fragments).
#4: Equitable Gas Explosion, 1927
The Pittsburgh gasometer explosion, or Equitable Gas explosion, was an accident that took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on the morning of November 14, 1927.
A huge cylindrical gasometer, the largest in the world at that time at 5 million cubic feet (140,000 m3), developed a leak, and repairmen were sent to fix it. The exact cause of the explosion is not known, but some of those repairing the leak were using acetylene torches.
There was a loud explosion, and three gasometers at the site exploded. A “dense mass of dust and smoke” rose from the ruins before igniting into a ball of fire reported as 100 feet in diameter, which rose further before burning out at a height of 1000 feet.
Most buildings within a radius of half a mile were damaged, with windows being broken a mile away, causing upwards of $4 million worth of damage. It was reported that the explosion “caused lofty downtown skyscrapers to tremble and sway as if hit by an earthquake”.
28 people were killed and hundreds were injured.
#3: Indigenous Holocaust and Colonial Gateway to the West, 1492-Present
Native Americans inhabited the region where the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River join to form the Ohio River for thousands of years. Evidence from archaeological sites, such as Meadowcroft Rockshelter, suggests that Paleo-Indians lived in the region as early as 19,000 years ago. Subsequent cultures, such as the Adena and Hopewell cultures, also left their mark on the region with the construction of burial mounds.
By 1700, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Lenape, and Shawnee tribes, among others, inhabited the region. The arrival of European explorers brought devastating diseases to which Native Americans had no immunity, leading to trade, conflict, negotiations, and support for the European colonists by various indigenous tribes.
European settlers arrived in the region in the early 18th century to establish trade posts, and by 1754, Fort Duquesne, a French fort, was established at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. The fort was later taken over by the British and the Americans, and the area developed into the city of Pittsburgh. The region saw conflict during the French and Indian War, which erupted over control of the confluence of the rivers, and the site of Fort Duquesne.
After Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War, dissatisfaction among Native Americans with British policies led to the outbreak of Pontiac’s War in 1763. Fort Pitt, a British fort, was besieged by Native American tribes led by Pontiac, but ultimately the British prevailed, ensuring their dominion over the region.
The aftermath of the conflicts and wars in the region, including the Seven Years’ War, the French and Indian War, and Pontiac’s War, saw retribution against Native American tribes that had supported the French, with their supplies cut off and forced compliance with British rules.
Present-day issues faced by indigenous people in North America, such as the disappearance of indigenous women without justice and the theft of tribal lands by federal and state governments, continue to be ongoing challenges.
To learn more about The History of the Indigenous Holocaust in the Pittsburgh region, please check out our article on the subject.
#2: Allegheny Arsenal Explosion, 1862
The Allegheny Arsenal, established in 1814, was an important supply and manufacturing center for the Union Army during the American Civil War, and the site of the single largest civilian disaster during the war. It was located in the community of Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, which was annexed by the city of Pittsburgh in 1868.
On Wednesday, September 17, 1862, around 2 pm, the arsenal exploded. The explosion shattered windows in the surrounding community and was heard in Pittsburgh, over two miles (3 km) away.
At the sound of the first explosion, Col. John Symington, Commander of the Arsenal, rushed from his quarters and made his way up the hillside to the lab. As he approached, he heard the sound of a second explosion, followed by a third.
Fire fighting equipment as well as a bucket brigade tried to douse the flames with water. The volunteer fire company from Pittsburgh arrived and assisted in bringing the fire under control.
By the time the fire was put out, the lab had been reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble. 78 workers, mostly young women, were killed. 54 bodies were unidentified, and were buried in a mass grave in the nearby Allegheny Cemetery.
Among those killed were 15-year-old munitions assembler Catherine Burkhart, who lived at 184 38th Street, and 17-year-old Margaret Turney, who lived at 160 43rd Street.
Today, the site is the location of the nine-acre Arsenal Park as well as Arsenal Middle School, a county health services complex, and a large condominium development.
#1: Crash of USAir Flight 427, 1994
USAir Flight 427 was a scheduled flight from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to Palm Beach International Airport, Florida, with a stopover at Pittsburgh International Airport.
On Thursday, September 8, 1994, the Boeing 737 flying this route crashed in Hopewell Township, Pennsylvania while approaching Runway 28R at Pittsburgh, which was at the time US Air’s largest hub.
After the longest investigation in the history of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), it was determined that the probable cause was that the aircraft’s rudder malfunctioned and went hard over in a direction opposite to that commanded by the pilots, causing the plane to enter an aerodynamic stall from which the pilots were unable to recover.
All 132 people on board were killed, making the crash the deadliest air disaster in Pennsylvania’s history, just ahead of the crash of United Airlines Flight 93, which was a domestic scheduled passenger flight that was ultimately hijacked by four (4) al-Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001.
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