It is one of the greatest “road trip reveals” you can experience in North America, and it comes out of nowhere.
When you hit the south entrance of the Fort Pitt Tunnel in Western Pennsylvania, you are in the midst of what looks like no man’s land. Imagine the South Augusta industrial area, but with more hills. There are crisscrossing interstate roads, hairpin-turn access ramps and enough warning signs to outfit a failing nuclear power plant. I would call it butt ugly, but that may actually be an upgrade.
And then, as you exit the tunnel, there it is. I honestly believe they should pipe in their own music to augment the experience with a dramatic, royal flourish. It is just that spectacular.
An amazing big city skyline dropped right smack dab in the middle of a rolling mountain valley, where two great rivers merge to create an even greater, bigger, single river.
It is a little place we all know as Pittsburgh.
I first made that drive through the tunnel in 1984, and while there has never been a time when the view disappointed, it was a considerably dimmer sight to behold 33 years ago. The entire city seemed to be a flat, light shade of grey back then. Even in direct sunlight, the architecture and landscape could jump out at you, but it was like you were looking at a New York City glamour shot circa 1925. Beautiful, but all in black and white.
I had no way of knowing about it at the time, but I was looking at about 100 years’ buildup of industrial grime and acidic fallout from Pittsburgh’s salad days as the steel and coal capitals of America. During World War II, there was more steel produced in the City of Pittsburgh than in all of Germany, Japan and Italy combined. While that industry made a whole lot of guys named Carnegie, Frick, Lauder and Phipps more money than they could count, the pollution it created also made the skies over the entire region so dark that street lights often stayed on all day. For local men in the early 20th century it was common practice to have two white shirts on hand at the beginning of the workday, because inevitably, the shirt worn to work would be visibly dirty by lunchtime and had to be changed. These were indoor, executive types, mind you.
All those years later the fallout and stains from the steel mill pollution was still easy to see, but the amazing windfall that industry brought to thousands and thousands of regional mill families had just about completely petered out.
The historic successes of their hometown sports teams in the ‘70s helped soften the depression that hit Pittsburgh about the same time, but by the mid ‘80s the championships of the Steelers, the Pirates and the NCAA football title won by the University of Pittsburgh’s Panthers were all but a fading memory.
Thank goodness there was more than just greed in the hearts and minds of the city’s leaders back in the glory days of the 24-hour operating steel foundries; there was insight and more than just a little innovation and research going on. As billions in steel revenue poured in, there was little thought given to the medical institutions and technology research centers that were growing up in the shadows of the commerce, but they were there.
About 40 years ago those industries and the brain trusts behind them slowly started emerging as the economic engines for the region, and as much more cheaply produced (and some would say inferior) foreign steel flooded the world market, it could not have happened at a better time.
In 2017 Pittsburgh has indeed turned a major corner and even though residents are very proud of the environmentally sound manufacturing base still active in the area, there is no doubt that technology, education and medical innovation are the focal points for future commerce and growth. It is an area whose renaissance has me hopeful, because it reminds me of what we see our own hometown going through right now.
The loss of longstanding employment bases in local manufacturing and industry have had Augusta going backwards for some time. The inevitable collapse of the urban business center 35 years ago and the snail’s pace recovery we have seen downtown survive is a familiar tale from coast to coast. Is it coincidence or serendipity that saw the tallest buildings in both cities switching from corporate logos adorning the structures (U.S. Steel and Wells Fargo) to the names of institutions of research and higher education (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Augusta University).
Even the once taken for granted and overlooked rivers of our fair cities are finally getting their proper respect, with Augusta definitely playing catch-up to what Pittsburgh has been doing for quite some time. Here’s to hoping some entrepreneur can find a cool way to get tourists back to the river here the way they have up north with the Just Ducky amphibious truck tours. Built around a fleet of eight authentic 1944 DUKW trucks that can navigate land and water on demand, the WWII-era vehicles are quite a hit, and my family had a blast with our turn in the boat this week. Can you imagine what fun it would be going straight from a tour of downtown Augusta and Olde Town to a ride on the Savannah without ever leaving your seat?
It was during our Duck Boat tour that the guide reminded me over three decades ago, when I first saw the dramatic landscape of the Steel City, it was just recovering from decades of dirty air and acidic smog. For years there was little greenery along the sides of the cascading cliffs and hills surrounding their urban center, but now, the trees and shrubs have taken hold and transformed the once grey and black backdrops, to a multilayered and very much alive canopy of deep greens.
Just as Pittsburgh is becoming a haven for “eds and meds,” the explosion of cyber, medical and education expansion in Augusta is turning heads and gathering notice all over the world.
Here’s to hoping our business and political leaders can take note of all that has gone right with Western PA during their recovery, while perhaps steering clear of what has not.