Exploring the Heritage Area—Ways to Enjoy the Region’s Waterways

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Rafting on the Youghiogheny River. Image courtesy of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

By Brianna Horan, Manager of Tourism & Visitor Experience

Brianna HoranExploring the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area – By Water!

Enjoying the Beauty and Power of our Region’s Waterways

There are many ways to float your boat in the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Centered around Pittsburgh, a city nestled between the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers, the Heritage Area also encompasses the Beaver, Kiskiminetas, and Youghiogheny Rivers, which wind through early iron furnace ruins, coking ovens, patch towns, mill towns, main streets, machine shops, and endless tales of industrial innovations.

Below you’ll learn about ways to get on these rivers to enjoy their beauty and power, but first we’ll share the story of another remarkable local business leader from history who built a successful enterprise that relied on region’s waterways. When Pittsburgh’s industrial history is chronicled, white men are often at the center of the action. If you missed our recent post about Cumberland “Cap” Posey, a man born into slavery who blazed a trail to the same economic and social circles as the big names of the Gilded Age,  click here to read more. And read on to learn the story of an immigrant woman, Mary Pattison Irwin, who thrived in the early republic. Both of these lesser-known entrepreneurs exemplify the vision, ingenuity, and agility that define this region’s industrial legacy.

Map of Mary and John Irwin’s Rope Walk Locations

Mary Pattison Irwin

At a time when the focus was more on founding fathers than leading ladies, Mary Pattison Irwin forged her way to the height of business success by dominating Pittsburgh’s rope making industry. She had a pattern of taking her life into her own hands—as a thirty-year-old living in the north of Ireland, she convinced her parents that the family should attend Dublin’s inaugural St. Patrick’s Day Ball in 1784. It was a six-hour carriage ride to arrive at Dublin Castle, which put quite a distance between her and the doctor she was betrothed to but had recently rowed with. The luck of the Irish favored her at the ball, where she met Colonel John Irwin, a Revolutionary War hero who had fought alongside George Washington. The two were married within weeks and soon sailed to the newly-formed America, staking a claim to the land owed to John as a war veteran.

As they settled into a burgeoning Pittsburgh, their family grew by four children and it soon became clear that John’s war pension needed to be augmented. Mary reportedly took stock of her surroundings, saw three rivers, imagined the growing parade of boats that would be sailing on them, and determined that there would be a great need for rope. And so, the city’s first rope factory was started along the Monongahela River, officially registered as “John Irwin and Wife.” Women were rarely credited in professional capacities, so even this rather anonymous listing was a bold declaration of the role Mary played in the enterprise. The substantial injuries that John had suffered during the Revolutionary War likely limited his ability to assist with day-to-day operations. Despite her foresight of the demand for rope, Mary had no experience with the process of making it or in running a business, but diaries and letters indicate that she was at the helm.

Sadly, Col. John Irwin died shortly after the business got going, leaving Mary to care for four children under age twelve and manage the growing business on her own. One of her first orders of business was to rename the enterprise “Mary Irwin and Son”—law required that a man be listed on a company charter, so her twelve-year-old son John was looped in.

A long, narrow space—at least 1,000-feet long—called a ropewalk, was the hub where workers twisted hand-spun hemp strands into rope. Pittsburgh’s flat riverbanks suited the activity well. Two of the Irwin ropewalks burned down, and as the city and business grew, Mary relocated the operations three times to allow for expansion. Today Rope Way still exists on the North Side as a remnant of her business. If you’d like to see the traditional way of spinning rope, click here to read a WESA article about Mary that includes a video of the old rope walk in England’s Chatham historic dockyard.

Mary made it in a man’s world, and her rope—known for being waterproof—made its way into history. In 1803, when the Lewis & Clark Expedition outfitted itself in Pittsburgh before departing from a point on the Allegheny River where the Convention Center sits today, it is almost certain that they loaded up with rope sold by Mary—she was the only ropemaker listed in the city at that time. Her company made the rope used on the Steamboat New Orleans in 1811 as it set off to complete the first journey down the course of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. And in 1813, when Commodore Perry was preparing the U.S. Navy to take Detroit and Lake Erie back from British seizure in the War of 1812, he sought out Mary specifically to outfit his warships. If you’d like to learn even more about Mary and her family (Irwin Borough in Westmoreland County was named for her son John), follow the Pittsburgh Mayors Facebook page. It’s run by Gloria Forouzan, who discovered Mary’s story when she began researching the history of Pittsburgh’s mayors and other notable locals as Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto’s office manager during the leadup to the city’s bicentennial celebration in 2016. Now retired, Gloria regularly shares newly uncovered information related to Mary’s story on that Facebook page. The What’s Her Name podcast also hosted Gloria for a very entertaining episode dedicated to Mary’s accomplishments.

Ways to Enjoy the Region’s Waterways

If you’re planning to hit the road on these itineraries during the global pandemic, please be mindful of the health and safety guidelines in place from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Be sure to contact the sites, restaurants and attractions directly to confirm their operating statues and the safety protocols they have in place. We encourage you to bookmark these itineraries as travel inspiration to return to when things are less uncertain.

The Explorer riverboat on the Mon Riveri

The Explorer riverboat viewed from Station Square with First Side in the background.

Rivers of Steel’s Explorer Riverboat

Rivers of Steel’s Explorer riverboat lives up to its name. Built as a floating classroom, this 94-foot vessel welcomes students for a slate of hands-on STEAM programming, offers thoughtful sightseeing tours, and is available for social and corporate event charters on the water. Docking on the North Shore at the headwaters of the Ohio, Explorer was the first commercial passenger boat to be built to LEED green building standards. It’s a place where students test the waters to draw conclusions about the health of the three rivers, learn about the artistry—and physics—of bridges and try their hand as a structural engineer, and see the places where history happened while cruising on the rivers that have defined the region.

Rivers of Steel’s sightseeing tours allow passengers of all ages to take in downtown’s shores and skylines from the best vantage point: Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Offered as a public tour in typical seasons, Rivers of Steel’s signature sightseeing cruise, PGH 101: An Intro to Innovation, reveals how the region’s wealth of natural resources and the character of its residents have shaped it into a dynamic city with a legacy of innovation, giving passengers a sense of the city’s history and current character while being surrounded by its natural beauty. During the pandemic, quarantine pods of up to 18 people can charter a private PGH 101 tour on Explorer—though usually the boat can accommodate up to 110. And whether you’re planning a celebration of a personal milestone, a corporate success, or the fact that Pittsburghers are embracing the beauty and vitality of their rivers, Explorer is the perfect venue on the water for intimate and engaging events.

Image courtesy of the Mon Valley Rowing Club

Boat Houses on the Three Rivers

Rowers cutting their oars through the water carve an elegant silhouette on the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers. This low-impact, total body sport can be a solo pursuit or a team effort. Whether you’ve been rowing for years or want to take your first lesson, area boat houses offer an array of instructive programs for all ages.

  • The Mon Valley Rowing Club in Charleroi was founded by a group of community members who aimed to turn an underutilized resource—the Monongahela River—into something that they saw as their greatest resource—children. Youth who attend high schools in the Mon Valley from Monongahela to Brownsville can join the Junior Rowing Program, with an emphasis on at-risk youth. Each child is paired with an adult committed to mentoring them on the water and in life. MVRC also has a Learn to Row summer program for adults.
  • The Pittsburgh Rowing Club was started in 2008 by Florin Curuea, a rower with a number of personal and coaching accomplishments, including racing on the 2012 Romanian Olympic Rowing team. Youth and Adult teams row out of the Montour Marina Boathouse in Coraopolis on the Ohio River near Neville Island, where a variety of instruction options are available for different skill levels.
  • Steel City Rowing develops its youth and adult members into athletes, leaders, and stewards of the region’s rivers. Learn to Row programs, summer camps, private lessons, and memberships are available for all ages and skill levels at the organization’s state-of-the-art, LEED-certified boat house on the Allegheny River in Verona.
  • Founded in 1984, Three Rivers Rowing Association has grown into one of the largest community-based rowing and paddling clubs in the United States. The organization’s boat house on Washington’s Landing and the Millvale Training Center along the Allegheny River offer instruction, equipment, and programming for complete novices and lifelong rowers to glide through the water on a people-powered boat. In addition to rowing programs for all ages, Three Rivers Rowing Association also offers Dragon Boating activities for groups of 14 to 40 people in boats strikingly decorated to Chinese tradition, painted as a dragon to scare away evil spirits. Rowers paddle together to the beat of a drum.

Image courtesy of Kayak Pittsburgh.

Kayak Pittsburgh

If you’re hoping to get a bit closer to the water, Kayak Pittsburgh can make it happen. This kayaking rental concession owned and operated by Venture Outdoors has three locations in Allegheny County for a variety of scenic experiences: North Park Lake, or the Allegheny River on the North Shore and in Aspinwall. Single and tandem kayaks, along with stand-up paddle boards, are available for rent, and Venture Outdoors offers a regular slate of instructional classes, guided trips, and social paddles. In addition to kayaking, Venture Outdoors also offers guided canoeing and fishing programs.

Nautical Nature

Operated by the Moraine Preservation Fund, Nautical Nature is a 37-passenger enclosed pontoon boat that sail’s on Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park. Public tours showcase showcase the area’s natural history and osprey reintroduction, while taking in the scenery and wildlife of this beautiful spot in Butler County. The boat also offers environmental student programs and is available for private charters and dinner cruises on the lake. The Moraine Preservation Fund plans to launch and cruise a new Nautical Nature vessel in the spring of 2021.

Image courtesy of the Rivers Edge.

The Rivers Edge Canoe & Kayak

A family-owned canoe and kayak sales and rental store along the beautiful Kiskiminetas River in Leechburg, The River’s Edge Canoe and Kayak offers the gear, pointers, and inspiration you need for a scenic river experience in Armstrong County. Paddlers on the Kiski can expect to see wildlife in its natural habitat—there are a number of fish species, great blue herons, eagles, deer, and even the occasional bear! Owners Evelyn and Neil Andritz have curated several trip ideas to experience the best of the Kiski, and can point you to the best swimming spots, fishing holes, and dinner spots around. To soak in the experience even longer, Rivers Edge offers camping packages ranging from sites right along the river to a stay at Leechburg’s beautiful Old Parsonage B&B.

Image courtesy of SurfSUP.

Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP)

We might not be able to walk on water, but atop a stand-up paddleboard we can glide across its surface. Resembling a thick surfboard, a stand-up paddleboard (or SUP) provides a flat floating surface to stand (or sit or kneel) on with a paddle in hand to navigate the water.

  • BVR Boardshop in Bridgewater offers stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) rentals on the Beaver River, about a mile from where it flows into the Ohio River. The company also offers SUP Yoga events throughout the warmer months.
  • SurfSUP Adventures was established in 2011 with an eye on inspiring others to care for the region’s waterways and environment, and now has locations in Moraine State Park, Oakmont, Pittsburgh, and Johnstown. There are a variety of trip options, including serene eco-tours, invigorating “on-water” yoga practices, and adrenaline infused whitewater surfing adventures. SurfSUP sells and rents boards, paddles and equipment, and also offers team-building events, youth initiatives, and conservation programs that can be customized for all age and skill levels.

Courtesy of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau

The Youghiogheny River

The Youghiogheny River is known for its rapids and the horseshoe curve it makes through the mall river town of Ohiopyle in Fayette County. When scouting a water route in 1754 that would allow the British to retake control of the Forks of the Ohio (present-day Pittsburgh) from the French, a young George Washington reached the 19-foot-wide Ohiopyle Falls of the Yough and made up his mind that the river was unnavigable. He called his troops back to the main road, and soon found themselves in a skirmish that would set the French and Indian War in motion—and lay the blame on Washington. More than 200 years later, in 1971, Ohiopyle river guide Tom Love innovated a new inflatable boat design that would prove Washington wrong on that “unnavigable” declaration. He crafted a high-performance raft without a metal frame called the Shredder that can be compactly folded and is self-bailing—important when the rapids are dumping a torrent of whitewater inside the boat. Love has a video of the first run of the Ohiopyle Falls he made on the Shredder—something Washington and his troops couldn’t do. Today, Shredders are favorites of seasoned paddlers around the world. You can read more about the Shredder from the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau’s feature.

While the thrill of the whitewater is certainly integral to the Yough’s character (there are class I – V rapids on the river), many are surprised to know that the Middle Yough offers an opportunity for a calm float trip to take in the history and natural beauty of this part of the Laurel Highlands. There are a number of outfitters in Ohiopyle that offer rentals, gear, guides, tours, and logistical support to those who want to enjoy the Yough—whether they’re beginners or veterans on the water, seeking serenity or thrills. Here is a sampling:

  • Laurel Highlands River Tours and Outdoor Center has been getting folks of all ages on the Youghiogheny River since 1962. Guides and coaches can also get novices and veterans alike through the class III, IV, and V rapids on the Lower and Upper Yough that will get your adrenaline pumping, and rentals and guides are available for the calmer waters of the Middle Yough. The Laurel Highlands River Tours and Outdoor Center also offers a three-hour Express Tour on the class III/IV rapids of the lower Yough, so you’ll have time for high-flying adventure on the company’s zip line, guided mountain biking tours, rock climbing excursions, and gem mining activities. This outfit also operates the Yough Lake Campground near Ohiopyle, so the fun can last for days—and nights under the stars.
  • Ohiopyle Trading Post & River Tours sends guided and unguided tours out on the Yough, and even has Shredders available. Outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe will find something to do at the Trading Post, which also offers kayaking and bike lessons, fishing trips, and refreshing scoops at the Kickstand Ice Cream Shop.
  • White Water Adventurers offers everything you need for a whitewater getaway in Ohiopyle. This family-owned outfitter offers guided and unguided rafting trips on the Yough, along with bike rentals, Ohiopyle Mini Golf, and the Yough Plaza Motel in downtown Ohiopyle.
  • Wilderness Voyageurs offers guided and unguided rafting trips on the waters around Ohiopyle – and several other rivers in Maryland and West Virginia. They also offer instructional outings for kayaking and fly fishing, along with stand-up paddle boarding. On their Historic Float Trip in Connellsville, PA, a guide dressed in 1750s garb joins you on your raft to spin a historical narrative that follows the French & Indian War, the Whiskey Rebellion, and the coal and coke industries in Western PA. The guide does all of the rowing on this tour, making it a great choice for seniors and young children. They also have a great history of the Youghiogheny River on their website, filled with interesting details and lots of reverence.
  • The Laurel Highland Visitors Bureau has a full guide to the area’s water sports and whitewater rafting options.

Jump In!

When the water calls, you know what to do. Head to your local swimming hole, or roll up your pantlegs and wade through a nearby stream to get your feet wet. NextPittsburgh published a roundup of 10 great creeks to explore around Pittsburgh, and FITT staked out the best swimming holes near Pittsburgh.


If you missed them, be sure check out the Automobiles and Roadways itineraries, part one and part two, as well as the Trains and Tracks and the Planes & Aviation itineraries.

Stay tuned for more itineraries through the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, as we continue to explore the region through the lens of transportation. 

Artist Profile: Zachary Rutter

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Rivers of Steel Arts is excited to launch the 2020 Mon Valley Featured Artist Series. Showcasing some of the exciting creative professionals working across the Mon Valley Creative Corridor, this monthly blog highlights an artist each month—from a variety of boroughs—to provide a snapshot of the region’s growing cultural vitality.

artist standing with heart sculptureAbout Zachary Rutter

For the month of November, we are excited to showcase the work of local artist and muralist Zachary Rutter.  Originally from West Mifflin, Pennsylvania Zac’s creative career got its early start in the Mon Valley where he was also part of the original conversations leading up to the Homestead First Fridays arts and entertainment series.  Rutter now lives in Munhall borough and has developed a highly recognizable style best known for spreading the message of love and positivity, something we could all use a little more of these days.  

A Message from Zachary

About My Work

My name is Zachary Rutter. I am a professional artist from the Mon Valley community of West Mifflin. I am grateful to have been from this area and have since accomplished several large projects around the community including multiple interior/ exterior murals in Homestead, West Homestead, Rankin and Glassport, as well as a concrete sculpture in Braddock, and large canvas installations at both West Mifflin High School and CCAC South Campus. However, my current studio space is located on Friendship Ave. in the East end of Pittsburgh. It is referred to as Studio Friendship to friends and fellow creatives in the area. We often host musicians at my space to record a series on YouTube called Friendship Sessions, which features different musicians performing songs while I create a painting! It’s kind of like a cross between NPR’s Tiny Desk performances and the Joy of Painting with Bob Ross.

The love affair between art and I officially began when I received my first comic book as a child. I was immediately encapsulated by the colors and action of the pages. Comics have been a huge inspiration in my life ever since. My art is meant to promote a message of love and positivity. My main motif is an image of a bright red heart that features multiple exploding squares that shoot off in each direction. This image was inspired by the works of Keith Haring and can be seen repeatedly throughout my art. Many have begun to be referred to as the Sun Heart. You may recognize the heart from a large Port Authority Bus that drives all around the city of Pittsburgh. This sun heart is the symbol of a movement I started called the Spread Love Army. This movement is at the core of everything I do. I want my art and my message to bring people together as soldiers of the Spread Love Army in order to close the gap between strangers and neighbors and in return build a stronger community. 

Being an artist is definitely one of the hardest, and stressful endeavor I’ve ever set out on, but it continues to be the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. Recently, I’ve been focusing all of my energy on being a full time artist and teaching art lessons from my studio on YouTube with a series I call “Studio Time with ZAC.” It takes a lot to maintain a full time career as an artist, but when I’m not working I spend my time relaxing and traveling with my fiancée, Jess and my cat, Chèrie. We are the new parents of a little girl who arrived in October and we recently relocated to Munhall in the Mon Valley!

Find Me Online


Instagram: @zacharyrutterart

Facebook: zacrutterart

Twitter: ZacRutterArt

YouTube: Zackary Rutter Art

black and white photographs of Cap and Anna Posey

Cumberland “Cap” Posey

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By Brianna Horan  |   Images of Cumberland “Cap” Posey and his wife Anna Posey.

Brianna HoranThe Lasting Legacy of Cap Posey

For the nearly 12 million immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1870 and 1900, the America Dream shone as a beacon of economic opportunity as they left behind famine, job shortages, rising taxes, and political or religious persecution in the Old Country. But for the millions of African-Americans living in the United States during the same time period, less than a generation removed from slavery, America’s reality meant racial violence and lynchings, the poverty trappings of sharecropping, barriers to education, and an economy that drew stark lines between “white jobs” and “Black jobs.” Cumberland Willis Posey, came of age and established himself as a titan of industry on the Monongahela River.

Posey was born into slavery in 1858 along the Port Tobacco River in Maryland. As Mark Whitaker writes in his book Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance, “a river called out to him from his earliest days.” After Emancipation, his father moved his children progressively north to Winchester, Virginia, and then to Belpre, Ohio, as Posey was entering his teenaged years.

Belpre, which sits on the Ohio River, is where Posey first found employment on the water, sweeping the decks of a riverboat named Magnolia at the age of 19. He studied the boat as much as he worked on it, watching the assistant engineer keep the coal- and wood-fed fires burning evenly, and observing the chief engineer as he monitored the boat’s pressure gauges. He gained an understanding for how each piece of equipment worked in concert to turn steamboat’s paddlewheel and propel the boat forward. And he set a goal of running the engine room of a steamboat, a position that wasn’t available to African-Americans at that time. Posey’s employer believed in Posey’s abilities, however, and helped him find a job as an assistant engineer on a steamboat called the Striker.

A year later, Posey became the first Black man to receive a chief engineer’s license, and a riverboat operator named Stewart Hayes hired him to oversee the operation of several vessels. Posey earned a salary of $1,200 a year as he continued to learn the ins and outs of the steamboat business, shipbuilding, and engine maintenance. He also earned a nickname of respect up and down the Ohio River: Captain Posey, or “Cap” for short.

Traveling the waterways, Posey met and fell in love with Angeline Stevens, a school teacher in Athens, Ohio, along the Hocking River. Anna, as she was known, was perhaps the first African American to graduate from high school in Athens, and she became a teacher at age 17. Because the African-American population in the town was small, white and Black students were taught together (though Black children were required to use separate coat hooks from the white children). By the time she was 20, the Athens Messenger newspaper wrote of her teaching skills, “Progress in the march of events is, in one direction, chronicled in the fact that Miss Anna Stevens, of African lineage, is teaching in the public white school… As a teacher she possesses rare tact and efficiency and her services in this line have been in wide demand.”

Despite the community’s “progress” in embracing Anna, thirty armed Athens men forced their way into the sheriff’s home to seize the keys to the town jail, then dragged an African-American farmhand named Christopher C. Davis from the cell where he was awaiting trial for accusations of assaulting a white widow. After giving Davis three minutes to pray, the mob hung him to death off of a bridge. This lynching intimidated many in Athens’ small Black community to leave town soon after. A little more than a year later, Anna accepted Cap Posey’s hand in marriage, and followed him to start a new life in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1883.

30–42–128 inch Mills, Carnegie Steel Mills, Homestead, Pa., Collection of Rivers of Steel.

As Whitaker notes in Smoketown, “Andrew Carnegie planted his flag in Homestead just as Cap Posey brought his new bride, Anna, there to live.” Carnegie had just bought one of the first American plants built by Henry Bessemer, who innovated a way to produce steel in mass quantities. Bessemer went into debt building his mill, and was forced to sell it after a worker’s strike and a decrease in demand for steel as rail expansion slowed.

As the industrialists amassed fortunes selling products forged by the labor of European immigrants and Black migrants, Cap Posey created his own opportunities, having amassed capital and experience that Black people did not commonly have access to at that time. In 1892, the year of the Homestead lockout and strike, Cap Posey made his first investment in coal boats, and went on to organize a small mining company, the Delta Coal Company. He later sold his shares in that company and founded Posey Coal Dealers and Steam Boat Builders, which manufactured more than twenty steamboats. By 1900 Cap was a major shareholder in the Marine Coal Company, earning an annual salary of $3,000 to manage the business. Whitaker notes in Smoketown that records indicate that Posey oversaw a payroll of one thousand employees and had nine white investors. Those accounts also describe him as a business partner of the region’s coke king Henry Clay Frick, and as a supplier to Andrew Carnegie’s mills. With those two men dominating so much of the coal and steel industries, it would have been almost impossible for Posey to have advanced the way he did in the coal mining and steel shipping businesses without working with Carnegie and Frick. Whitaker also points out that Posey would have been well positioned to recruit Black workers for Carnegie when he was seeking new workers who hadn’t been involved in the labor movement. “While blacks had largely been shut out of the mills and the unions before the [1892] strike, a decade later there would be 346 Negroes working in three Carnegie steel mills in the Pittsburgh area,” Whitaker writes.

While Carnegie was becoming the richest man in the world, Cap became the richest Black man in Pittsburgh. He and Anna first lived in Munhall, an area largely populated by factory workers. Once Cap built his businesses, he also built a grand home on East 13th Ave. in Homestead – click here to see a photo of the massive two-story home in Pennsylvania Heritage. He and Anna enjoyed social and professional circles that orbited on a similar plane as the white industrialists of the Gilded Age, and occasionally crossed paths. A network of Black elite families was expanding, and the patriarchs started fraternal orders and social clubs like the Loendi Club in the Hill District, an elegant establishment modeled after the Duquesne Club. Women in this realm formed the Aurora Reading Club, which still exists today, to discuss books and organize support for local charities.

Posey Residence in Homestead from Pennsylvania Negro Business Directory, 1910.

The Posey children were educated in Homestead’s schools alongside white students—segregated education was outlawed in Pennsylvania in 1883. Beatrix was the eldest, and would become a teacher like her mother. Anna and Cap named their second child Stewart Hayes Posey, after the steamboat owner who had first hired Cap as a chief engineer. The youngest was named Cumberland, like his father, but would be nicknamed “Cum.” At 19, Cum Posey joined a team of Black steelworkers—the Murdock Grays—who played at Homestead Park on weekends. That team renamed itself the Homestead Grays two years later, and Cum later became the principal owner, building the Grays into one of the best teams in the Negro League. Cum Posey was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006 for his 35 years as a player, manager, owner, and club official.

Homestead Grays

Teenie Harris Photograph – Homestead Grays at Forbes Field, Collection of Rivers of Steel

Cap Posey still had one more lasting legacy to create. Seeing the success of press moguls like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, and with a flurry of widely-read white-run newspapers in town, Cap Posey was keen to invest in a fledgling publishing venture in 1910. He was one of four investors in The Pittsburgh Courier, and was named the organization’s president.

street scene with art

Art For Everyone

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By Jon Engel, co-curator of the Homestead Streetside Gallery   |   Featured Image: Mural by Darryl Bennett, installed on Seventh Avenue, Homestead.

Jon Engel HeadshotArt for Everyone

Especially these days, I often find myself taking long walks to nowhere. The destination is not a place, but an intimacy with one’s surroundings. To know the streets you live in—the houses and the trees and the slopes in the curb—is to know a part of yourself. And though I am always quiet on these walks, that connection makes them very social.

That’s the value we wanted to convey in the Homestead Streetside Gallery. One of my co-curators, Douglas Lopretto, came up with the idea as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. What if we could take an art exhibit, usually held in small rooms and ticketed at the door, and crack it wide open? He came to us at Rivers of Steel with this plan: a massive show of temporary public art that could be viewed outside, at the leisure of its audience. Together, we realized exactly that. We commissioned a series of 11 temporary murals and curated 10 displays of works on canvas. The murals were installed on the sides of buildings on Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Avenues and the canvas displays were placed in the windows of several storefronts throughout downtown Homestead.

Mural by Jerome Charles

Piece by Jerome Charles, installed on Ninth Ave, Homestead.

For me, this show echoes a long history of unconventional art in Pittsburgh. Black artists like the those from the Watt Lane Art Club and Barbara Peterson, during the 20th century, worked around a segregated gallery system by hanging their works on community fences and leaving them on the curb. This guerilla philosophy is also the core of graffiti, a tradition that many of our Streetside artists came up in. The works that they created often borrow heavily from neglected “low arts”—of course graffiti, but also comic books, tattoos, and cartoons. All 26 of the creators featured in this show are from southwestern Pennsylvania, many of them working artists in those fields.

Works by Kyle Rybak

Works on canvas by Kyle Rybak, installed on Amity Street, Homestead.

Art by everyone, for everyone. That is the core of the Homestead Streetside Gallery. This goes beyond the artists we featured or the subjects they chose—the community of Homestead makes this show what it is. More than any show in a traditional gallery could ever be, the Streetside Gallery is alive and rooted. As you walk from piece to piece in this show, you are also walking by your neighbors and through their lives. The friendly waves, the sounds of traffic, the chatter at bus stops, in shops, and on stoops—that’s all part of this show too. Our hope is that you will explore the whole town, searching not only for the pieces we have put up, but also for the art and the comradery that was always there. When you turn a new corner, that is what you find.

Please, slow down and smell the flowers with us.

Mural with Josh Gibson, a gray "H" and flowers

Mural by Cue Perry, installed on East Eighth Ave., Homestead.

The Homestead Streetside Gallery will be on display until December 1. It is presented by Rivers of Steel in partnership with the Steel Valley Arts Council. It was curated by myself, Douglas Lopretto, and Shane Pilster, with love to our friends in Homestead.

Also, love to the artists in the show:

Jared Altamare – Ashley Hodder – Shane Pilster
Latika Ann – Edina Kurjakovic – Jameelah Platt
Darryl Bennett – Jasmine Kurjakovic – Zack Rutter
Jerome Charles – Minuet Kurjakovic – Kyle Rybak
Jon Engel – Douglas Lopretto – Phil Seth
Trenita Finney – Christian Miller – Tom Ski
Sadie Flower – Danielle Nichols – Valkyrie Williams
Brian Gonnella – Cue Perry – Jason Wright
Max Gonzales – Eden Petri

Mural of flowers, butterflies, sun, and molten iron

Mural by Doug Lopretto & Jason Wright, installed on East Eighth Ave, Homestead.

All images of Homestead Streetside Gallery are by Rivers of Steel.  For more information on the exhibit, including a map of the installation locations, click here.

The Steamboat Race of the Century

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By Brianna Horan  |   Image: The Christening of the Homestead, October, 1945. From the University of Pittsburgh’s William J. Gaughan Collection.

Brianna HoranThe Steamboat Race of the Century

In 1949, tens of thousands of Pittsburghers lined the riverbanks of the Ohio and Monongahela rivers, packed onto bridges, and peered out of skyscraper windows to watch the “steamboat race of the century.” This friendly competition between two steam-powered tow boats owned by United States Steel Corp. and Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. carried serious bragging rights for the winner, and the photo finish was hotly contested.

Luckily for those of us who missed the race 71 years ago, a radio broadcast from announcers riding along on U.S. Steel’s Homestead still exists today, with a minute-by-minute recap of the action, a cacophony of cheering boat horns, and even a “hoowee” of glee from Charles R. Cox, president of the U.S. Steel Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corporation.

Take a listen to part one of the broadcast here, and hear the exciting finish here. The two audio files are about 9 minutes long all together. You can also read the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph’s recap of the events here, and a profile of the 49-year-old fire boss whose sweat and brawn secured the win for his sternwheeler can be read here.

The West End Bridge over the Ohio River served as the starting line, where the gun went off at 11:51 a.m. to start the race. The two sternwheel towboats, U.S. Steel’s Homestead, built in Ambridge in 1922, and Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp.’s William Larimer Jones, built in Indiana in 1930 and named for the president of J & L, were both pushing four empty barges in front of them as they plowed towards The Point and veered right to head up the Mon. The Homestead quickly pulled to the lead, with the radio broadcasters onboard remarking, “Have you ever seen water boil and flow underneath barges like this?!” They describe the May weather as overcast, cool and cloudy, and note that they can’t see behind them because of the black smoke pouring out of the two vessels.

The race heats up as the sternwheelers reach The Point Bridge, a structure that spanned the Monongahela close to where the plaza around The Point’s fountain is, and was demolished in 1970. The Sun-Telegraph reported that the Homestead suddenly dropped behind, “while the black smoke pouring from its double stacks thinned to a haze.” Meanwhile, Jones & Laughlin’s “gleaming, single-stacked William Larimer Jones shoved its black barges into the lead in the stretch.” The broadcasters onboard the Homestead audibly deflate, and they point out that deckhands on the William Larimer Jones, “are waving their hands and jumping around, they are really excited and they are calling remarks back and forth.” By this point, the Jones’s staff of stewardesses, clad in white uniforms, have started to cheer, as well.

But as the finish line—the Smithfield Street Bridge—draws near, the Homestead had regained its slight lead. There’s an exuberant whine of boat horns in the audio recordings cheering along with what the broadcasters estimate to be 200,000 spectators. The recordings capture the roar of the William Larimer Jones blowing off its build-up of steam.

The “see-saw race” of 1.5 miles ends at noon in a photo finish. It’s so close that the deckhands and distinguished guests onboard both vessels erupted in celebration, each thinking that they had come in first place. The broadcasters can’t be sure who’s won, but get word that the judges, one of whom is Mayor David Lawrence, declared U.S. Steel’s Homestead sternwheeler the winner. The steamer’s Captain, Richard Hanna, was gifted a bouquet of roses and “an ornate captain’s cap” from the presidents of both steel manufacturers. After the race, a victory dinner was served onboard the Homestead while it took a “triumphal tour of the harbor.”

The Sun-Telegraph quoted the William Larimer Jones’s Captain William D. McConnell saying after the race, “They’ll be arguing the decision of this race for the next 100 years. And when the deckhands get together in a bar there’s sure to be a fight about who won.” The newspaper also reported that their newsroom was inundated with calls contesting U.S. Steel’s victory.

But the Homestead’s recapturing of the lead becomes even more impressive when it’s revealed that unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, the boat’s steam regulator valve failed midway through the race, and cut off the automatic stoker engines. Realizing what happened, the steamboat’s firemen, Ed Berry of Rices Landing and Jesse Beckner of Carrick, began a frenzied shoveling of “more than a ton of coal into the four raging boilers of the Homestead during the last minutes of the race.” A later interview with Beckner, a 49-year-old weighing in at 245 pounds and standing six feet tall, quoted him saying that it was “the Lord’s will” that brought them victory—although he also admitted that the $20 wager he’d put on the Homestead was also a strong motivator.

USS's sternwheeler towboat, the Homestead.

United States Steel’s sternwheel towboat, the Homestead, pushing coal or coke. Mid-20th-century image from the collection of Rivers of Steel.

This steamboat race was the crowning event of Pittsburgh’s Welcome Week, hosted by the city’s Chamber of Commerce to show off what was being touted as “America’s busiest city” to draw more businesses and residents to town. The two steel companies had a rematch during the 1950 Welcome Week, and the winner was even announced in the New York Times—the Homestead won again, racing against J&L’s Titan. While Welcome Week lasted only a few years (Pittsburgh saw its last steamboat race in 1951), the city’s affinity for boat racing would later push the Pittsburgh Regatta, which debuted in 1978, to become the largest inland regatta in the country before going on hiatus in in 2019, when the iconic event was cancelled because the event management company failed to secure the necessary insurance.

As for the mighty Homestead, it worked in service to the company until 1960 when it was dismantled. It met that fate despite calls from some locals to covert it a tourist attraction…perhaps a early indicator of our region’s reverence for its industrial history—a notion we at Rivers of Steel wholeheartedly embrace today.

illustration of a steamboat

Pittsburgh’s Time as a Steamboat City

By Blog

By Brianna Horan  |   Image: An illustration of the Steamboat Arabia by Gary Lucy, provided by the Senator John Heinz History Center

Brianna HoranPittsburgh’s Time as a Steamboat City

What goes up must come down–that’s the easy part, thanks to gravity. Getting things to move in the other direction is the where the challenge usually comes in. For the feat of propelling a large amount of passengers and cargo against the south-flowing currents of the Mississippi River in the 1800s, the invention of the steamboat was revolutionary. Suddenly, merchants could transport their goods to new frontier settlements, expanding both the economy and the supplies available to pioneers in the nation’s interior.

Marked by their striking, steam-driven paddle wheels, these boats were made possible by the invention of the steam engine by Englishman Thomas Newcomen in the early 1700s. After a series of shaky attempts to combine steam engines and nautical travel, Robert Fulton, born near Lancaster, PA, refined the technology and built the Clermont in 1807—a flat-bottomed sidewheeler with a square-shaped stern that was initially dubbed “Fulton’s Folly.” After the Clermont consistently completed multiple roundtrip journeys between New York and Albany on the Hudson River, Fulton soon proved that his venture was popular and profitable, kicking off the first viable commercial steamboat service.

As is the case with so many stories of innovations that shaped America, the Pittsburgh region had a vital role to play in the steamboat industry’s history. The city became a steamboat hub after the Steamboat New Orleans set off here and became the first to complete the 1,800 mile journey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The boat was funded by Fulton and Robert Livingston, a New York politician and inventor who helped to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. Nicholas Roosevelt, who was a great-granduncle of President Theodore Roosevelt, oversaw the building of the Steamboat New Orleans in Pittsburgh, which he named for its ultimate destination. On October 20, 1811, Roosevelt and his wife Lydia, who was eight months pregnant with her second child, set out from Pittsburgh on the Ohio River to make history. The Senator John Heinz History Center’s blog tells the riveting story of this maiden steamboat voyage down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. It is highly recommended reading about a riveting journey that included a delay in Louisville caused by low waters at the treacherous Falls of the Ohio that was perfectly timed to allow Lydia to give birth, riverbanks crowded with people terrified by the unsettling sights and sounds of the strange steam-powered behemoth, and navigation through a series of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded in the eastern United States. The seismic activity caused the Mississippi to temporarily run backwards, new waterfalls were formed, islands were swallowed up as new ones were formed, and fallen trees created an obstacle course of snags that easily could have doomed the boat. The newly-enlarged Roosevelt family arrived in New Orleans nearly three months later, on January 10, 1812, proving that steamboat was a viable—if dangerous—way to connect the nation’s interior as western expansion intensified.

Image of the New Orleans Steamboat from a book cover

Cover of the book “The Story of the New Orleans, 1811-1911,” from the University of Pittsburgh’s Historic Pittsburgh Book Collection.

By the 1830s, nearly 40 percent of the nation’s steamboats were being manufactured in Western Pennsylvania, using locally-produced wood, iron, glass and paint. Mon and Ohio River Valley communities like Elizabeth, Brownsville, Belle Vernon, California, and Sewickley employed a large number of skilled craftsmen, launching hundreds of vessels each month. As the Heinz History Center’s communication assistant Katelyn Howard wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2014, “The booming steamboat industry helped maintain Pittsburgh’s role as a key ‘Gateway to the West’ from the 1830s through the 1860s.“ By 1849, Pittsburgh’s wharf hosted more than 2,000 steamboats annually.

Steamboats were plentiful, but so were the dangers of traveling on one. The average lifespan of a steamboat was only a few years long. American waterways were filled with treacherous curves, fast currents, and variable water levels. The country was heavily forested at the time, and steamboats had to contend with numerous tree trunks floating beneath the surface—known as snags—waiting to impale and sink the vessels.

illustration of a steamboat

An illustration of the Steamboat Arabia by Gary Lucy, provided by the Senator John Heinz History Center

The Steamboat Arabia was one such boat that struck a snag while navigating the Missouri River, sinking in a matter of minutes. Luckily, all 130 people onboard survived – the only casualty was a carpenter’s mule who had been tied to the boat’s stern. It was thought that the 220 tons of cargo onboard were lost forever—a loss that caused several frontier towns to dry up after the Arabia failed to arrive with the clothing, tools, food, mail, munitions, and other supplies onboard.

The Arabia had been built at the boatyard of John S. Pringle in West Brownsville, PA, in 1853. This 171-foot-long steamboat sat at the bottom of the Missouri until the late 1980s, during which time the river’s path changed course. When a team of Kansas City, MO, locals learned the boat’s story, they were able to pinpoint the Arabia’s resting place – which ended up being 45 feet below a cornfield near Kansas City, a half mile from the present channel of the Missouri River. During a four-and-a-half month excavation, they uncovered millions of items in what was the largest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts – all perfectly preserved for 130 years in an oxygen-free environment.

These treasures are on permanent display at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City’s River Market (check out their website for some incredible photos), and in 2014 the Senator John Heinz History Center hosted a special exhibit displaying some of the recovered cargo, called “Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia.” The exhibition is now over, but luckily for us a thorough video tour guided by the History Center’s president and CEO Andy Masich is available online, where there are also a number of interesting facts and photos about the Arabia’s ill-fated journey. It’s fascinating to see goods made in western Pennsylvania and across the globe in the mid-1800s looking like new—including an assortment of clothing, bolts of fabric, jars of pickles, balance scales, fine china, tin ware, and even two prefabricated homes that were intended for frontier towns.

The Sprague at Point State Park

Postcard of the Sprague docked at Point State Park, 1959. Collection of Marilyn (Sprague) McCoy.

To bookend a story that linked Pittsburgh with a steamboat “first” is the story of a local connection to the biggest steam-powered sternwheeler towboat in the world. The 318-foot Sprague was built in Dubuque, Iowa, at the Iowa Iron Works, but it was named for Captain Peter Sprague, a marine construction supervisor who spent his early years in Elizabeth and Shousetown, PA, learning the boat building trade. He was known for having built or repaired one steamboat for every year of his 72-year-long life, earning him an induction in the National Rivers Hall of Fame in 2000. It’s noted that towards the end of the 19th century, Sprague was able to look from one end of Pittsburgh Harbor to the other and see that he had either built, designed, repaired, or rebuilt nearly every boat.

Historic image of pittsburgh with steamboats and barges

A panoramic view of Pittsburgh’s riverfront from the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad yards. The Smithfield Street Bridge is visible along with the Kanawha steamboat, docked on the Monongahela River, and several downtown business buildings including the Union Bank Building. From the University of Pittsburgh’s Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, 1912.

In 1899, more than 90 independent coal operators in Pittsburgh were consolidated to form the Monongahela River Consolidated Coal and Coke Company, the largest river operation of all time. At the age of 71, Sprague took the job of overseeing the maintenance of the company’s fleet of more than 100 steam towboats. Soon after, the towboat Smoky City went up in flames in Pittsburgh in October of 1900. To fill the need to haul empty coal boats from New Orleans to Louisville, Sprague sat down to pen his final and finest design.

The finished Sprague was launched in September 1902, after her designer’s death. The massive vessel had to be towed from Dubuque to St. Louis to have her 40-foot paddlewheel installed because it was too long to pass through the Keokuk Lock in Iowa with the wheel attached. On her maiden voyage to Cairo, IL, the Sprague collided with a showboat called Temple of Amusement due to mixed up signals. The show boat was sliced in half and sunk in the incident. The Sprague also suffered damages, and she was taken to Pittsburgh to strengthen her structure and improve the signal system. Next came a successful run to New Orleans, after which the vessel returned to Pittsburgh for extra hog chains to be added to prevent the hull from sagging or “hogging” under heavy loads.

Before long the Sprague earned the nickname “Big Mama” in 1904 by pushing 53,200 tons of coal – only to break it in 1907 towing 67,307 tons of coal between Memphis and Baton Rouge, a 612-mile journey.  The Sprague also set records for the number of tows lost; on one incident in 1913 she hit a stone dike near Osceola, AR, and let go of 35 barges carrying 53,200 tons of coal – enough to temporarily form a new island in the Mississippi River. Big River Magazine details the Sprague’s eventful life in a 2015 article by Connie Cherba and Harold Pollock called, “When ‘Big Mama’ Ruled the Rivers.” The Sprague’s paddlewheel kicked up a 10 to 14-foot wake behind it, and some claimed that the Mississippi ran backwards after the Sprague passed going upriver, with her wheel wash splashing the shore for hours after she went by.

Flood refugees on the Sprague.

Steamer Sprague arriving at Vicksburg with refugees for Red Cross care, May 12, 1927. Photography by the American National Red Cross. Collection of Marilyn (Sprague) McCoy.

In 1925, Standard Oil Company bought the Sprague to haul crude oil to Baton Rouge, LA,– more hauling records ensued. In 1927, “Big Mama” carried 20,000 refugees from Greenville to Vicksburg, MS, during a record flood of the Mississippi River. She continued to haul oil in service of the World War II, but after the war she was decommissioned at Memphis in 1948 in favor of more efficient diesel vessels. The Sprague was sold to the city of Vicksburg for one dollar in 1957, housing a popular floating restaurant and river museum.

George and Marilyn Sprague on the Sprague, 1959. Collection of Marilyn (Sprague) McCoy.

In 1959, the Sprague made one more trip to Pittsburgh, towed to the Point in celebration of the city’s bicentennial. The Waterways Journal Weekly’s March 2008 “Old Boat Column” by Keith Norrington details the Sprague’s later years and the trip back to Pittsburgh. In preparation of the bicentennial appearance, “Big Mama” was treated to more than $100,000 of renovations and repairs before the Union Barge Line towed her 3,000 miles round trip on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Thousands of visitors toured the Sprague while it visited the Point in the summer and fall of 1959; one of them was a young Marilyn Sprague, a distant relative of Captain Peter Sprague—take a look at the photo of her with her father, George Sprague.

The Sprague returned to Vicksburg in November 1959 and continued to draw tourists as a floating theater, showing Vicksburg Little Theater’s long-running melodrama, “Gold in the Hills.” Sadly, an overnight fire on April 15, 1974, gutted the Sprague, leaving only the sternwheel and hull intact. The remains of “Big Mama” stayed on Vicksburg waters for a few years after, until the flood of 1979 sank her. That wasn’t before Marilyn Sprague paid a visit to what was left of the world’s largest steam-powered towboat one more visit in Vicksburg in 1975.

The Sprague in Vicksburg, MS.

Marilyn Sprague with the Sprague Sternwheeler, Vicksburg, 1975.

Pieces of the Sprague are strewn and rusting in overgrown riverfront property outside of downtown Vicksburg today. Marty Kittrell, a photographer there, has photographed these relics in an appeal to preserve the Sprague and its story on his blog. Today the Sprague can still be heard, thanks to a recording of her whistle from an LP recorded in 1965, shared by (listen to the second recording to hear “Big Mama”).

The Sprague enjoyed a life that extended long into the 1900s, but for the most part steamboats began to decline as the preferred way of trade and travel after the Civil War, when railroads emerged as a more efficient mode of transportation.

Pittsburgh’s reign as a steamboat city may have been fleeting, but the craft of boat building and the pioneering spirit that grew out of that age are an important foundation of the region’s heritage.

A Barge on the Mon River

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Iconic Barges

By Blog

By Suzi Bloom, Director of Education   |   Image of a barge on the Monongahela River by Adam Piscitelli, 2016.

Suzi BloomSouthwestern Pennsylvania’s Iconic Barges

While towboats and barges are not unique to Pittsburgh, there’s nothing quite like seeing a barge gliding through the early morning river fog. To me, it is one of the more iconic images of our working rivers. The powerful towboat and companion barges synonymous with the brawniness of Joe Magarac as the operation appears to glide effortlessly through rivers that have long been integral in the building of America.

Barges have been used to transport coal and other goods along Pittsburgh’s rivers for well over the past 200 years. The concept of a boat pushing what is essentially a floating box may seem antiquated, but barge transportation is still competitive with other forms of transportation, like railroads and semi-truck trailers. In fact, water transportation for dry bulk goods is one of the cheapest and most energy efficient means of transport.

The first transport of coal by barge on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers was in the late 1700’s. However, barge travel during this time was not easy. With barges sitting so low in the water, transportation was limited to rainy seasons when rivers were deep enough to keep barges from running aground. During the dry season, when the rivers could become as shallow as a foot, industries dependent upon barge’s cargo were required to use other methods of goods transportation or they shut down.

Historic Images of Coal Barges

Postcard of “Coal Barge Scene in Pittsburg Harbor” depicting coal barges at the Point with the old Point Bridge and the Smithfield Street Bridge in rear, pre-1919. Collection of Rivers of Steel.

The first barges known as coalboats were powered by the river current and, as their name implies, only transported coal.  Coalboats were rectangular wooden vessels that were approximately 100 feet long by 20 feet wide and 6 feet deep.  They could carry up to 330 tons of coal and required a river depth of at least 7 feet. Many coalboats often wrecked on the journey, but for those that made the trip, the coal was unloaded and the boat itself dismantled and sold as lumber.

The invention of steam-powered boats was a game changer for river transportation. Coalboats were tied to steamboats for both up and downstream travel. Steamboat operators experimented with both the pushing and pulling of coalboats and ultimately determined that pushing was most effective

Southwestern PA was home to many shipyard companies that supplied the market with steamboats. From 1811-1888 boatyards along the Monongahela River alone produced more than 3,000 steamboats, with notable large-scale operations in Brownsville, PA.

USS's sternwheeler towboat, the Homestead.

United States Steel’s sternwheel towboat, the Homestead, pushing coal or coke. Mid-20th-century image from the collection of Rivers of Steel.

In conjunction with the invention of steam-powered vessels, I would be remiss not to provide a brief history of the engineering efforts to increase the navigability of our waterways. U.S. Congress recognized the commercial value of navigable waterways and in 1824 authorized the first civil works mission assignment to Army Corp of Engineers to remove snags and obstructions from the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Construction of small wing dams and dikes took place on the Ohio River to concentrate flow, but the need for a deeper river channel remained an issue. Additional small-scale lock and dam construction took place in the early 1840’s, but the turmoil of the Civil War stalled further development.

Progress reinstated on waterways improvements shortly after the war. Philadelphia native, William Milnor Roberts, a civil engineer who began his career in 1825 at the age of 16 and later became known as the “Genius of the Ohio River Improvement,” was promoted to the Superintendent of the Survey for the post-war Rivers and Harbors Act that concluded in 1869. Roberts’ career achievements had a major impact on the success of the commercial transportation of goods on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. He worked in both the canal and railroad industries and his work on the Harbors Act concluded that the following actions were the most critical improvements necessary for Ohio River navigation:

The general substitution of fleets of barges for the former single steamers, or the plan of floating boxes. It is reasonable to believe that after a while a large proportion of the steamers engaged in freighting will be low-boats, running in connection with barges. Some single steamers will of course still be useful in carrying on the local passenger and freight business between the numerous commercial points along the river…;but the bulk of the freighting will probably be ultimately carried on by means of barges towed as steamers.

There is much more to the history of Roberts, U.S. waterways navigation, and the complications that arose from plans to canalize the rivers and build lock and dams. In fact, the history of waterways navigation in Pittsburgh could fill another blog entry and we will save that for another day.

Locally however, the first lock and dam built by the Army Corp of Engineers at Davis Island opened to the public in 1885.

Modern barge on the Mon River

A modern barge on the Monongahela River. Image by Adam Piscitelli / Primetime Shots, August, 2020.

Modern day barges are still essentially just floating platforms (now made of steel), that carry a variety of commodities and consumer goods such as coal, wheat, barley, corn, petroleum etc. Barge use can be slower but serves to maximize carrying capacity.  Barges themselves typically still do not have engines and are still pushed or pulled by a tug or tow boat. Tug or tow boats are usually powered by diesel or sometimes natural gas and even hybrid engines.

Towboats and barges are manned by a crew, which typically consists of 11 members including a captain, a pilot, a chief engineer, an engineer, a mate, a watchman, four deckhands, and a cook. Oftentimes shifts rotate onboard every 6 hours with the captain and pilot taking turns steering the vessel.

To return to the subject of maximizing carrying capacity, a typical 15-barge tow has the same dry cargo capacity as 1,050 Semi Tractor-Trailers. This carrying capacity helps to reduce landside highway traffic as well as emissions from trucks. The drawback to the system is that these barges are limited to the rivers that are navigable; modern day barges require a navigable river channel of at least 9 feet deep to accommodate the draft of a full vessel.

Fortunately, many navigable waterways lead to some of the most productive states. The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and their associated connections make up the majority of navigable waters in the United States. This leads to several waterways to choose from considering those waters stretch all the way to the Great Lakes.

A view of downtown Pittsburgh from the water showing recreation boat traffic.

A view of downtown Pittsburgh from the water with recreational boat traffic.

The Port of Pittsburgh itself is the fourth busiest inland port in the nation. According to 2014 data, each lock on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers handles about 9,000 barges per year. All 200 miles of commercially navigable waterways in southwestern Pennsylvania are in the Port of Pittsburgh District, which encompasses a 12-county region.

In Pittsburgh, some barges have even been repurposed and used as attractions, such as the floating “boardwalk” that was once moored on the Allegheny River from 1991-2008 and was home to bars like Donzi’s and Tequila Willies. That particular barge eventually was shipped in two pieces down the Ohio River to Chattanooga, Tennessee where it was to be used again for an entertainment venue that never came to fruition.

The Port of Pittsburgh is now part of The Marine Highway Program, which promotes the expansion of America’s navigable waters. Some of the public benefits of the program are the job creation, reduction of landside congestion, emissions reduction, and highway maintenance cost reduction.

The next time you see a towboat muscling a barge full of materials through our beautiful city, I hope you take a moment to appreciate the ingenuity and carrying capacity of barge transportation.

watercolor by ryan keene

Artist Profile: Ryan Keene

By Blog

Rivers of Steel Arts is excited to launch the 2020 Mon Valley Featured Artist Series. Showcasing some of the exciting creative professionals working across the Mon Valley Creative Corridor, this monthly blog highlights an artist each month—from a variety of boroughs—to provide a snapshot of the region’s growing cultural vitality.

Ryan KeeneAbout Ryan Keene

Our featured artist for the month of October is no stranger to Rivers of Steel.  Artist Ryan Keene (RakArt) was part of the inaugural Alloy Pittsburgh project in 2013 and has in the years since, continued to be a vital creative force in the Mon Valley Creative Corridor.  Making his home in Mt. Oliver, Keene’s work has evolved into a focus on angler art that has led to his paintings, illustrations and apparel gaining recognition across the country.

A Message from Ryan

About My Work

I approach art like walking into the dark forest, ripe with the smells of nature’s rot. You can find serenity as the light breaks through the overhead canopy or the action of a bird exploding from brush as you walk by filling you with both shock and awe at the power and beauty of nature. I work mostly in watercolor , its nature matching my own with it’s both meditative and explosive impatient characteristics. Washes mix and play as swipes of the ink nib leaves splatters and hard lines providing energetic reminders that nature is anything but a sterile world.

My Home

I have lived in my studio/house In Mount Oliver with my family for the past four years following a long stint in Oakland. The most intriguing aspect of Pittsburgh is its constant push and pull it has with nature. Trees and tall grass will take over a once fire breathing blast furnace or the many other abandoned structures sprinkled along the city limits.

Pittsburgh has always been so supportive of my art career ever since I arrived here almost 20 years ago. This was much different from the area I had left prior to here. Massachusetts and Maine both had great art scenes but their support of the struggling young contemporary minded community was limited. It was not long after moving I was already showing with the Society of Sculptors and a wide variety of other Art organizations. When I was an installation artist I would have never thought I would ever get the opportunities I had to create my body of work. In both the painting and sculptural time lines of my artistic career I feel like there was always this play of nature vs man, the natural and the synthetic. This city has definitely had its impact.

Find Me Online

Instagram: @rakart_pgh

Facebook: RAKart flies


Exploring the Heritage Area—Planes & Aviation

By Blog

Westmoreland County Airshow in Latrobe by Bill Rigsby. Image courtesy of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

By Brianna Horan, Manager of Tourism & Visitor Experience

Brianna HoranExploring the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area – Planes & Aviation!

Surprising Contributions in Flight

As we explore our region’s legacies in transportation, it seems natural to focus on our the crisscrossed network of railroads or even the auto industry of the early 20th century. After all, those industries were intrinsically connected to the iron and steel that the Pittsburgh area was so famous for. For the third segment in the series. we delve into the somewhat surprising, but highly relevant, contributions that have been made in the field of aviation. From a pioneering female aviator to the heroic Tuskegee Airmen, pilots from Western Pennsylvania have left a proud legacy. Read on to learn more about these exemplars, the flights and fields that helped birth aviation here, the places you can visit and the experiences you can have—including a special event on August 25—to celebrate planes and aviation in the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area.

But first, we have to share the story of the 1956 disappearance of one B-25 bomber that crashed into the Monongahela River…

Illustration of the B-52 "Ghost Bomber" descending into the Monongahela River

Illustration of the B-25 “Ghost Bomber” descending into the Monongahela River, Image courtesy of the B-25 Recovery Group.

The Enduring Mystery of the “Ghost Bomber”

One of the region’s most well-known aviation-related incidents is surrounded by what many consider to be mysterious circumstances. This much is agreed upon: Shortly after 4:00 p.m. on January 31, 1956, a B-25 Mitchell bomber with crew onboard fell out of the air, skimming low over what is now the Homestead Grays Bridge and splashing into the icy, 34-degree Monongahela River downstream of where Sandcastle Water Park in West Homestead is today. The men were on a routine training flight from an Air Force Base in Nevada to pick up a cargo of airplane parts at Olmstead Air Force Base in Harrisburg when it became clear they were quickly running out of fuel and had a malfunctioning engine. All six crew members survived the initial crash, but sadly two drowned while attempting to swim to shore. After the crash, a Coast Guard cutter caught the wing of the submerged plane with its anchor, but when the line slipped it was the last sign ever seen of the B-25 bomber. Official search efforts continued for two weeks with no luck finding the aircraft, and a number of additional attempts in the years since have also been fruitless.

This is where the questions arise—though there are many locals who swear they know exactly what happened. Some say they witnessed the military secretly recovering the plane’s wreckage in the dead of night to conceal its sensitive cargo, which is said to range from nuclear weapons to Soviet agents, or even a UFO from Area 51. (Remember, this was at the height of the Cold War.) Others contend that the aircraft’s aluminum body would have been eaten away decades ago by the polluted waters of the Mon, leaving only the steel engines and landing gear remaining. Some believe the craft was washed down the Mon to the Ohio River and may have landed somewhere around Emsworth. But if you ask the B-25 Recovery Group, who are determined to rescue the aircraft, it’s settled in a gravel pit near where it first sank, under 32 feet of water and 15 feet of silt. The Senator John Heinz History Center has a detailed account of the incident, including original newspaper clippings and official documents pertaining to the mystery of the “Ghost Bomber.”

Aviation Destinations in the Heritage Area

If you’re planning to hit the road on these itineraries during the global pandemic, please be mindful of the health and safety guidelines in place from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Be sure to contact the sites, restaurants and attractions directly to confirm their operating statues and the safety protocols they have in place. We encourage you to bookmark these itineraries as travel inspiration to return to when things are less uncertain.

Image courtesy of Air Heritage, Inc.

Air Heritage Museum and Aircraft Restoration Facility

35 Piper St., Beaver Falls, PA 15010 | 724-843-2820 |

This working museum in Beaver Falls has a large collection of displays and ephemera that tell the rich history of flight, specializing in World War II and Vietnam era aircraft and artifacts. Members of the organization have repaired and restored numerous aircrafts over the past 30+ years, and visitors can see active restoration in progress in the large hangar.

Spirit of Freedom, image courtesy of Visit Greene, the Greene County Tourist Promotion Agency.

Aviation Day in Greene County

417 E. Roy Furman Hwy., Waynesburg, PA 15370 |

This annual two-day festival celebrates the history and thrill of flight every August at the Greene County Airport in Waynesburg. The historic Spirit of Freedom takes flight for a Candy Drop as a kid-friendly way to re-enact the Berlin Airlift, and children aged 8 to 17 can take a free Young Eagles flight. The event is presented by Support Our Aviation Resources (SOAR) of Greene County, which brings together aviation enthusiasts and professionals to support the community airport and inspire youth to embark on careers in flight. The 2020 Aviation Day has been cancelled due to the pandemic.

Butler Flying School, image courtesy of Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau

High-Flying History and Dining at Butler County Airport

Serventi’s on the Runway, 473 Airport Rd., 2nd Flr., Butler, PA 16002 | 724-481-1213 |

The flat spread of land that makes Butler County well-suited for agriculture also made it an ideal place for early pilots to land. In 1908, a member of the Wright Brothers’ Exhibition Team soared over Butler in a one-man dirigible from the current site of Butler High School to the Courthouse and back, completing the first flight in the county. By 1929, a 230-acre site made up of the former Nixon and Dodds Farm was officially opened as the Pittsburgh Butler Airport, which served as the primary airport for the Pittsburgh region until Pittsburgh International was built in the early 1950s. The Penn School of Aviation was originally housed here and was regarded as one of the most state-of-the-art air transport and mechanical schools in the nation. Amelia Earhart attended the airport’s dedication, and she returned in 1930 to train in Butler’s skies for three months to earn her instrument flight certificate prior to her flight across the Atlantic. She had long-range fuel tanks installed on her Lockheed Vega (dubbed the Little Red Bus) while in area. The 2015 Butler County Visitors Guide has a detailed timeline of the county’s aviation milestones. Read up and let history come alive as you settle in for a meal at Serventi’s on the Runway, which serves fine Italian cuisine overlooking the Butler County Airport. At dinnertime you can watch jets taking off against the setting sun.

Helen Richey in a U.S. Mail Carrier, image courtesy of McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center.

McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center

1832 Arboretum D., McKeesport, PA 15132 | 412-678-1832 |

The collection of this museum is extensive, and includes an exhibit honoring McKeesport native Helen Richey, a pioneering female aviator who was started her flying career as a teenager out of high school. In 1929 at age 20, she became the first licensed female pilot in Allegheny County, and by 1932 she and Frances Marsalis set a new women’s endurance record, staying aloft for nearly ten days. She beat out eight men for the job when she was hired as the first female pilot for a commercial scheduled passenger carrier, Central Airlines, in 1934. She was forced to resign soon after, however, following a gross case of sex discrimination when male pilots threatened to strike if she stayed on – women wouldn’t become airline commercial pilots again until 1973. Later, Richey became the only female flight instructor for Army Air Corps cadets at Pittsburgh-Butler Airport. During World War II, she ferried combat aircraft around England as a member of the British Air Transport Auxiliary. Take a look at McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center’s webpage dedicated to Richey to see vintage video footage of her in a Universal Newsreel titled “Lady Mail Pilot.” Pittsburgh International Airport’s Blue Sky News blog also recently wrote about Richey as the Amelia Earhart of Pittsburgh.

Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of Greater Pittsburgh

Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of Greater Pittsburgh

501 Hopkins St., Sewickley, PA 15143 | 412-741-4409 |

The Sewickley Cemetery is home to the largest outdoor memorial to Tuskegee Airmen in the country. Ninety of these legendary first Black military airmen were from western Pennsylvania—the largest contingent involved in the Tuskegee experience. The memorial is one of the first displays on the road into the cemetery, with four handsome granite monuments, an honor roll of local Tuskegee Airmen, and an airplane tail sculpted from red granite inspired by the Tuskegee unit’s nickname, the “Red Tails.”  Like most things in the United States, the U.S. Armed Forces were segregated in the leadup to World War II. Racist beliefs that Black people couldn’t learn to fly aircraft prevented African-American men from joining the newly expanded civilian pilot training programs to prepare the country for war, until 1940 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt listened to the lobbying campaigns of the NAACP and Black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and announced a new training program for Black pilots. Nearly 1,000 African-American and Caribbean-born airmen volunteered to train at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, flying more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen’s impressive performance—they are especially known for their protection record, having lost only 27 of the 179 bombers they escorted, compared to an average of 46 among other units—earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. This heroism and excellence helped to encourage President Harry Truman to desegregate the U.S. Armed Forces and mandate equality of opportunity and treatment in 1948, three years after the end of the war. In 2007, 350 Tuskegee Airmen and their widows received the Congressional Gold Medal. WQED produced a documentary called Fly Boys: Western Pennsylvania’s Tuskegee Airmen, featuring the stories of more than 40 aviators from the region.

Pittsburgh International Airport

The Pittsburgh International Airport also honors the legacy of local Tuskegee Airmen, with a museum-quality photographic display in Concourse A, which can be seen by non-travelers who get a myPITpass at the third-floor ticket counter. This memorial and the display at Sewickley Cemetery were both created by Regis Bobonis Sr., a retired Pittsburgh journalist and amateur historian who was inspired to pay tribute to Tuskegee Airmen from the region after meeting with dozens of them in a quest to capture their stories. Pittsburgh International Airport’s Blue Sky PIT blog has more information about the memorials, and how to view them.

Special Event at the Tull Family Theater

Tull Family Theater, 418 Walnut St., Sewickley, PA 15143 | 412-259-8542

On Tuesday, August 25, 2020, Chauncey Spencer’s traveling museum dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen will be parked in front of the Tull Family Theater in Sewickley from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Tull Family theater will also host two free showings of a 30-minute documentary, Tuskegee Airmen: Fight and Flight, at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Spencer is taking his museum on a cross-country tour from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to honor his father, Chauncey Spencer Sr., who flew a plane with Dale White in 1939 between the same two cities to convince Congress that African Americans had a place in aviation. What became known as the “Goodwill Flight” did include a stop in Pittsburgh, where they were forced to land in the dark after they were refused arrival at Morgantown’s airport. After landing safely in Pittsburgh, they were grounded the next day by the Civil Aeronautics Authority—ensuing legal proceedings drew Robert Lee Vann, an attorney and then publisher and editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, to come to their legal defense. Spencer Sr. and Dale’s flight convinced Congress to allow Black people to be included in the pre-WWII Civilian Pilot Training Program in Tuskegee. This article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has more details about the traveling museum, and the Tull Family Theater website has information about the documentaries.

Westmoreland County Airshow by Denise Eidemiller. Image courtesy of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

Westmoreland County International Airshow

148 Aviation Ln., Latrobe, PA 15650 | 724-539-8100 |

The Arnold Palmer Regional Airport usually hosts a two-day airshow each May, often featuring the Navy Blue Angels, who are slated to perform at the 2021 event. Daredevils and fighter jets entertain the crowd with stunts and narrated re-enactments of war missions. Attendees can step onboard static aircraft to peak into the cockpit. The Westmoreland County International Airshow is on hiatus in 2020.


If you missed them, be sure check out the Automobiles and Roadways itineraries, part one and part two, as well as the Trains and Tracks itinerary.

Stay tuned for more itineraries through the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, as we continue to explore the region through the lens of transportation. 

Celebrating National Aviation Day

By Blog

Photo: Huffman Prairie, National Aviation Heritage Area, courtesy of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance.

Across the United States, there is a vast network of National Heritage Areas, each one designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape. The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area is just one of 55 National Heritage Areas, each one focusing on a special that’s defined America. Today, we’re transporting you about 260 miles west in the comfort of your own home to learn more about the National Aviation Heritage Area, which encompasses eight counties and more than 15 aviation sites radiating out from Dayton, Ohio—the birthplace of flight. Learn more about the experiences that the region offers at!

Logo for the National Aviation Heritage Area with the tagline "Come. Discover. Fly!"

Celebrating the Wright Brothers on National Aviation Day


By Elizabeth Connor, APR.   |  Director of Communications, National Aviation Heritage Area


Today, on National Aviation Day, we take a moment to celebrate the national success of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Their invention in Dayton, OH connected the world in real life before the internet shifted our perception of time and space. Started in 1939 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Orville Wright’s birthday (National Aviation Day) is now annually a time to honor connections, share resources, and discover new adventures.

We invite you to read and enjoy this story, shared with us by our friends and neighbors in southwest Ohio at the National Aviation Heritage Area.

During the late 1800s, the Carnegie Steel Company managed the steel mills in and around Pittsburgh, PA including the Carrie Blast Furnace. For a massive sale price of $492 million, Andrew Carnegie sold his company to J.P. Morgan in 1901. The new conglomerate: United States Steel Corporation.

But that wasn’t the only business investment J.P. Morgan was making at the turn of the century. On February 17, 1901, W.H. Ogan of Boston represented the financial interests of Morgan at the first run from Springfield, OH to Urbana, OH on the Dayton, Springfield and Urbana interurban rail line(DS&U).[i]

While the rise of the automobile signaled doom for the interurbans, in the early 20th century these electric streetcar lines were a primary means of transporting passengers between cities and provided new access to rural farms and small towns. Two brothers became some of their best customers.

Wilbur and Orville Wright took the DS&U daily from their west Dayton shop to the farm of Torrence Huffman about eight miles to the east. The DS&U had a small shelter called Simms Station there and the 100-acre farm was perfect for an impromptu airfield, as long as you didn’t mind a few cows and horses grazing on the runway.

Beginning first with the Wright Flyer II on May 26, 1904, the brothers flew 25 feet across Huffman Prairie. Their father had come to watch the spectacle and caught the 3:30 DS&U back to Dayton after his sons’ flight. It took less than 30 minutes to get back home.[ii] Six years after that first flight, almost to the day, the Wright brothers took their father up into the air for the first time. As we all are, the brothers were nervous about their father’s reaction. But his words were only, “Higher, Orville. Higher.”[iii]

As word of the brothers’ success spread, tourists and supporters frequently traveled the DS&U to Simms Station to watch history unfold. At Huffman Prairie in 1904 and 1905, through a series of unique experiments, the Wright brothers mastered the principles of controlled, powered flight, and developed the world’s first practical airplane.

In 1904, the brothers made 105 flights, totaling 49 minutes in the air with their 1904 Wright Flyer II. With this flying machine, they made the first turn and the first circle in the air. They also employed a starting derrick for the first time and Wilbur set a new distance record.

When the brothers returned to the Huffman Prairie for the 1905 flying season, they brought along an improved machine, the 1905 Wright Flyer III. This flying machine, which evolved throughout 1905, could bank, turn circles, and make figure-eights. On October 5, 1905, Wilbur piloted the plane for a world record of over 24 miles in 39 minutes. About two weeks later, the brothers ended their experiments for 1905 feeling that they now had a practical airplane that they could market. In the 1905 flying season, the brothers stayed aloft for 262 minutes in just 50 flights.

The Wright brothers returned to Huffman Prairie Flying Field in 1910. The field was used by their new business, The Wright Company, as a testing ground, flying school, and home to their exhibition team. The Wright Company ceased use of the flying field in 1916.

You can no longer travel on the interurban today, but you can visit Huffman Prairie. Located on the grounds of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the area includes the Huffman Prairie Flying Field Interpretive Center, the Huffman Prairie Flying Field, and the Wright Memorial.

At the Huffman Prairie Flying Field Interpretive Center, you’ll see exhibits that focus on the achievements of the Wright brothers at Huffman Prairie Flying Field, and the story of their continuing legacy as embodied by Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Dedicated in 2002, the interpretive center is owned by the U.S. Air Force and operated by the National Park Service.


[i] Keenan, J. (1992). Chapter III, 1901 – The Year of Promise. In The uncertain trolley: A history of the Dayton, Springfield and Urbana Electric Railway (p. 33). Fletcher, OH: Cam-Tech Pub.

[ii] Ibid, (p. 62).

[iii] Crouch, T. D. (2003). The Bishop’s boys: A life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (p. 12). New York, NY: W.W. Norton.


Join the National Aviation Day Conversation

Want to keep learning about everything there is to celebrate on National Aviation Day? The National Aviation Heritage Area is facilitating a #NationalAviationDayChat all day on Twitter. Follow their high-flying Twitter handle, @visit_NAHA to join the conversation and enjoy the connections that aviation—and the internet—provides!


About Elizabeth Connor

Elizabeth Connor is the Director of Communications at the National Aviation Heritage Area in Ohio. She is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and an avid Pens fan. Elizabeth has worked in tourism throughout the globe since 2008 and was named the 2019 Emerging Leader by the Ohio Travel Association. The National Aviation Heritage Area is the recognized center of aviation heritage tourism and aerospace innovation, sustaining the legacy of the Wright brothers.