When Pittsburgh Stopped Being a Borough
The Steel Borough. The Borough of Champions. Iron Boro Beer.
None of those ever existed.
That’s reason enough for a parade, right?
Pittsburgh will mark its 200th year as a city on Saturday, July 9 with a celebratory procession downtown — including more than 400 descendants of its many mayors– followed by music and fireworks at Point State Park.
Pittsburgh could have remained a borough, but before we get into that, I should point out there is a good reason entire colleges are devoted to the study of public administration. It’s well outside the realm of common sense and consistency.
In 1816, Pittsburgh had a population somewhere around 7,000.
It sought the city designation from the state (You could call it a commonwealth, but it’s a distinction without a difference).
Most states don’t have boroughs, but Pennsylvania does. Pittsburgh didn’t want to be one any more. Philadelphia was a city. Pittsburgh wanted to be one, too.
Forty-seven years earlier, Pittsburgh had been a town or a township (sometimes they’re the same thing). The declaration making it a borough said it would be a borough “for ever.”
Borough, burgh, burg, etc. all derive from a really old European word meaning fort. That tells you something about how safe it was in the good ole days.
It also explains why Gen. John Forbes looked over the Point in 1758 and named the site Pittsburgh. Pitt was his English boss in London who sent him to oust the French and erect a fort. We call it Fort Pitt. Forbes, a Scot, was thinking Pitt’s Fort.
Boroughs Are Not Forever
Maybe the Philadelphia delegation put that “for ever” part into Pittsburgh’s borough charter, or maybe “for ever” meant something else back then. In any case, Pittsburgh decided it had been a borough long enough and directed its state representative to push for the city designation.
It would give Pittsburgh a “strong” mayor to run things rather than a “weak” burgess, and less need to go to Harrisburg for what it wanted. The new city got authority to do things like hire watchmen, but no means to pay them. So, it had to go back to Harrisburg, a two-week trek, for multiple revisions anyway. Harrisburg, by the way, didn’t make it to cityhood until 1860.
How special is cityhood? Not very.
Consider the city of Parker. Never heard of it? You’re not alone.
It’s only about an hour and twenty minutes north of Pittsburgh in Armstrong County. Parker has all of 840 people. Yet it is designated a city.
That happened during an oil boom in the 1870s when the population gushed to more than 20,000.
By 1880, it was down to 1,000 again. The people trickled away, but the community held onto its cityhood and bills itself as the Smallest City in the World. No one doubts that.
Pittsburgh & Brooklyn
The world’s biggest borough, Brooklyn, NY, was once the nation’s third largest city. Then, it narrowly voted to go back to borough status. Many there still call it the “The Great Mistake of 1898.”
The development of the steam engine powered both Pittsburgh and Brooklyn into cities.
Pittsburgh grew because river boats could now chug upriver as well as down. Brooklyn ballooned as ferry boats could reliably cross the East River to and from Manhattan.
In 1816, Pittsburgh became a city and Brooklyn graduated from a little townlet to a borough.
Neighboring communities made them both salivate. They swallowed them whole. Brooklyn’s neighbors had much greater populations and it quickly surpassed Pittsburgh.
Brooklyn became a city in 1834. By 1898, it was the third largest in the U.S. behind only New York City across the river and Chicago. The windy city was expected to soon take New York’s population crown.
Brooklyn was more worried about drinking water.
Its supply under Long Island was running out. New York City had what seemed like an endless amount available through expensive conduits and reservoirs it built upstate.
So, Brooklyn joined Manhattan to form a bigger, even newer New York City. Brooklyn got water and maintained a separate, if subservient identity, by reclassifying itself as a new type of borough, one that is part of a city. Joining Brooklyn and Manhattan were The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.
That was more than enough to keep Chicago at bey. It remains America’s “Second City.”
As for Pittsburgh, it
consumed embraced more than 50 municipalities after it became a city. That included another city (Allegheny), 25 boroughs and two dozen townships. A list follows this post.
Current residents from those areas will be either in the Bicentennial Parade or among thousands lining the route along Liberty Avenue to Point State Park.
Gloria Forouzan, parade organizer for the city, says it begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 9 at 11th Street.
More than 100 organizations are to participate and 400 descendants of past mayors have confirmed they will attend. They’re coming from various European countries and states from Vermont to Oregon, she notes.
The celebration continues at the Point from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. with music, food and a fireworks finale.
The mayoral descendants include one expected to be born this month and one born 1,224 months ago (that’s 102 years).
But, no one in the parade was alive 200 years ago when Pittsburgh shed its borough mantle. Pity.
Growth Through Annexation
As you survey the list of independent communities that became part of Pittsburgh through annexation, keep in mind that it was once much to the advantage of the smaller to be swallowed by the larger.
What did you get? Treated water in the Age of Typhoid, sewage piped away (even if into a river), lighted streets, city police and firemen, paved streets, etc.
Annexation laws have varied, but most of the time a majority in each municipality had to approve the plan.
A major exception occurred in 1906 after the Pennsylvania Legislature changed the law just in time for Pittsburgh to marry its reluctant cousin, Allegheny City, across the Allegheny River.
The new law said annexation could be approved or denied by combining the votes of both communities. Obviously, the larger city would get what it wanted over the smaller one. Pittsburgh had about 321,000 people, Allegheny about one-third that.
It fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but to no avail. Welcome to Pittsburgh, Allegheny City . . . I mean the North Side!
It should be noted Allegheny City did its share of swallowing smaller fish before it got swallowed itself, including the boroughs of Manchester and Duquesne.
Independent communities that became Pittsburgh neighborhoods:
Northern Liberties Borough, 1837
Pitt Township, 1846 and 1868
Peebles Township (Squirrel Hill) ,1868
Liberty Township, 1868
Collins Township, 1868
Oakland Township, 1872
Lawrenceville Boro, 1872
Union Township, 1872 Temperanceville Boro, 1872
Mount Washington Boro, 1872
West Pittsburgh Boro, 1872
Monongahela Boro, 1872
South Pittsburgh Boro, 1872
Allentown Boro, 1894
Birmingham Boro, 1894
East Birmingham Borough, 1894
St. Clair Borough, 1894
Brushton Boro, 1894
Beltzhoover Boro, 1898
Elliott Boro , 1905
Esplen Boro, 1906
Street Township, 1906
Montooth Boro, 1907
Sheridan Boro, 1907
City of Allegheny, 1907
West Liberty Boro, 1908
O’hara Township, 1908
Beechview Boro, 1909
Part of Union Township, 1909
Part of Baldwin Township,1912
Part of Ross Township, 1916
Spring Garden Boro, 1920
Part of Penn Township, 1920
Part of Chartiers Township, 1920
Remainder of Chartiers Township, 1921
Part of Reserve Township, 1922
St. Clair Boro, 1923
Parts of Lower St. Clair Township, 1924
Part of Swissvale Boro, 1925
Carrick Boro, 1927
Knoxville Boro, 1927
Westwood Boro, 1927
Union Township, 1928
Part of Ross Township, 1928
Parts of Mifflin Township, 1929
Parts of Ross Township, 1929
Parts of Penn Township, 1930
Overbook Boro, 1930
Part of Baldwin Township, 1931
Part of Mifflin Township, 1931
Part of Reserve Township, 1931
Part of Baldwin Township, 1947
Part of Ross Township, 1948
Parts of Baldwin Township, 1951
Part of Robinson Township, 1955