A giant forged
By David M. Brown
Sunday, June 11, 2006
A century ago, Western Pennsylvania’s sister cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny were locked in a bitter battle that would profoundly alter the region’s future.
After decades of pushing to grow beyond its boundaries between the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, Pittsburgh — the state’s second-largest city after Philadelphia — saw a chance to expand into a metropolis near the top rung of great American cities.
Allegheny — the third-largest municipality, situated north of Pittsburgh on the banks of the Allegheny and Ohio rivers — found itself in an outright struggle for survival. At stake: identity and autonomy after nearly a century of growth and development on its own.
On June 12, 1906, Pittsburgh won, swallowing Allegheny in a forced annexation.
Today, traces of resentment linger in the city’s North Side neighborhoods that once belonged to Allegheny City.
Mary Wohleber, 89, of Troy Hill, longs to carry old Allegheny City’s flag across Clemente Bridge to announce secession — should that day ever arrive.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s still Allegheny. I’m an Alleghenian,” says Wohleber, whose parents and grandparents opposed annexation.
“We could not possibly have won, because it was stacked. It could not be done today. It would be illegal,” she said. “Many people felt very, very bad about it.”
Unquestionably, the 1906 election was set up to favor annexation.
But a younger generation of North Side natives, such as Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, 45, of Brighton Heights, say the action, in the long run, strengthened the region.
Now that its population has shrunk — from 534,000 in 1910 to 322,000 in 2004 — and Pittsburgh is still combatting economic decline from the downfall of the steel industry, the city’s diverse neighborhoods need each other more than ever, Onorato said.
“The good news is that here we are in 2006, and the North Side is becoming an extension of Downtown — new development, new business buildings, (and) Federal Street is rebounding,” Onorato said.
A Greater Pittsburgh
The Allegheny City Society and Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation are planning programs for next year to recognize the 100th anniversary of the merger, which officially took place in 1907.
It was one of the most controversial annexations in U.S. history. Voters flocked to polling places that June day in 1906 — many wearing pins proclaiming “Yes” or buttons defiantly answering “No” — and when it was over, Pittsburgh’s national ranking among cities jumped from 12th place to 7th. Allegheny City disappeared.
Annexation fever also was gripping other cities, including New York and Boston, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was considered part of a progressive movement to bring reforms to urban life. Allegheny, too, was annexing its smaller neighbors.
“In the minds of the people that supported the annexation, it wasn’t that they wanted to doom Allegheny City. They wanted to make a bigger and better city,” said John Canning, a North Side resident and retired Mt. Lebanon High School history teacher. Canning is a director of the Allegheny City Society, a group that works to preserve the history and landmarks of old Allegheny.
In 1906, debate on both sides of the river was passionate and loud.
H.J. Heinz, the food-processing tycoon whose plant was located in Allegheny City, spoke out in favor of consolidation at a rally attended by an estimated 4,000 people. “Let us stand before the world as we are, a great municipality, instead of an aggregation of villages,” Heinz said in news accounts of the time.
“The desire of Pittsburgh for its annexation was now a mania,” wrote local historian Charles W. Dahlinger, who witnessed the political battle, in his 1918 history, “Old Allegheny.”
“Newspapers which formerly had been lukewarm in their advocacy of annexation, came out strongly in its favor. The politicians in power in the state were also favorable,” Dahlinger wrote.
On the other hand, “Allegheny was proud of her existence, and her death struggles were severe. The consolidation savored strongly of force which the people resented,” he wrote.
Pittsburgh had been trying to annex Allegheny City, along with neighborhoods in the South Side and East End, for nearly 70 years.
Allegheny City’s eight square miles of space was particularly appealing to Pittsburgh, which needed room for industrial expansions and more residential neighborhoods. Allegheny also contained a sprawling park, room for other parks, and key railroad and water transportation links.
Alleghenians, though, placed importance on independence, and many feared a consolidation would result in higher taxes. In 1867, voters rejected the idea of a merger, and several later attempts also failed.
But in early 1906, the rules changed. State legislators quietly hurried a consolidation bill through, with the blessings of Gov. Samuel W. Pennypacker, a reform advocate.
Before, Allegheny City’s fate was tied to what a majority of its residents wanted. The Greater Pittsburgh Act of 1906 authorized a referendum that would count the total votes for and against annexation in both Pittsburgh and Allegheny as a whole, with an overall majority settling the issue.
Allegheny City, with half Pittsburgh’s population, essentially lost the day Pennypacker signed the bill. The referendum carried even though nearly two out of three Allegheny residents opposed it.
They continued the battle with court challenges, until the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 18, 1907, upheld the Greater Pittsburgh Act as a legal annexation.
Allegheny City receded into history.
A lingering, prosperous city
“When I was a kid,” recalls 81-year-old North Side native Don Graham, now of McCandless, “people thought of the North Side as part of Pittsburgh.”
In the 1930s, an aura of Allegheny City lingered in historic landmarks, Graham said — such as the ornate Allegheny Post Office at the corner of West Ohio and North Diamond streets; the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny, a gift of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who got his start in Allegheny City; and the famous Market House, where ladies from Millionaires’ Row on Ridge Avenue once mingled with housewives from other sections of the city to buy fresh vegetables, poultry and other goods.
Although many Alleghenians crossed bridges daily to jobs in Pittsburgh, Allegheny City was not just a bedroom community or suburb, historians say. It was a distinct city with its own colorful history.
“It had a very strong sense of place,” said Edward K. Muller, a University of Pittsburgh professor and authority on urban history.
North Side resident Lisa Miles, a member of the Allegheny City Society, is writing a history of Allegheny City to be published in connection with the annexation’s centennial. The book, titled “Resurrecting Allegheny City: The Land, Structures & People of Pittsburgh’s North Side,” is sponsored by the History & Landmarks Foundation and paid for by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission and the Buhl Foundation.
“Here we have twin cities, the second- and third-largest cities in the state, sitting right next to each other,” Miles said. “One was no lesser to the other, in terms of all the impressive statistics that make for a strong city — the output for business and industry and the accumulated wealth — except Pittsburgh was bigger.”
A coffee-table style book published in 1904, “In and About Allegheny,” for J.G. McCrory & Co., a five-and-dime store chain that had an outlet in Allegheny City, described the city as “beautiful and prosperous.”
“The enviable position of the city at the junction of the great rivers and near the immense fuel supply of Pennsylvania has given a wonderful impetus to the development of manufacturing enterprises,” the writer boasted. “Allegheny is one of those municipalities where progress in culture and refinement has accompanied prosperity. This is made manifest by her fine churches, schools, public library, hospitals, and benevolent institutions.”
Incorporated as a borough with about 1,000 residents in 1828, the population climbed to 10,000 by 1840, when Allegheny was designated a city, and shot to nearly 150,000 before it was annexed by Pittsburgh.
Allegheny City was the location of two institutions of higher learning, the Allegheny Theological Seminary and Western University of Pennsylvania, the forerunner of the University of Pittsburgh. It had prominent scientists, writers and musicians, including composer Stephen Foster, whose father was an Allegheny mayor.
A paid fire department and police force kept the community safe. A diversified base of manufacturers and thriving business community produced goods and services. For recreation, people flocked to Exposition Park, home of baseball’s first World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston American League Baseball Club — now the Red Sox — in 1903. The city also had the original Phipps Conservatory, a gift of Henry Phipps, Andrew Carnegie’s partner.
Harold Haney, 83, of McCandless, grew up near Allegheny General Hospital, a landmark that remains.
“In my time, the North Side was Pittsburgh,” Haney said. “Old Allegheny faded during my dad’s time. My dad was born in 1889.”
David M. Brown can be reached at email@example.com or (412) 380-5614.