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Allegheny Valley’s Rich History
Originally Indian Territory, few people settled here before the 19th century. Hills, valleys and the Allegheny and Kiskiminetas Rivers defined the area. It was not conducive to settlement or farming.
Its growth began when William Penn’s grandson gave the property north of the Allegheny River to the state in 1789. Few people had settled in its wilderness and there were few Indians in the region. Following the American Revolution, real estate on the north side of the Allegheny and Ohio rivers became available as a payment to veterans as “Depreciation Lands.” They did not settle it en masse as it was too wild and they often sold it to notable people such as Benjamin Franklin. (Franklin Park, north of Pittsburgh, for example). A few people came to farm but the population remained small.
Salt mining was the first regional business. Salt was valuable for the preservation of food without refrigeration. The first large company in the Valley was Penn Salt started by Quakers in Natrona in 1850.
The Pennsylvania Canal (1834 – 1865) operating from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh opened the valley for settlement and growth. It became possible to travel between these two cities at minimum cost with unbelievable speed (six days).
The Allegheny Valley Railroad opened in 1856. The availability of cheap rail and river transportation of bulk materials allowed the manufacture of iron, steel, glass and aluminum companies to prosper. This growth in turn caused an influx of workers and the subsequent growth of the Valley.
By the 1880′s, as industries grew, it became necessary to find workers. Recruiters went to Europe to recruit cheap labor. Poland, Italy, Russia, Germany, Belgium, Slovakia and other countries sent their men. They came in large numbers and were followed by their wives and families. These people often lived together in sections of the region where their language was spoken. To this day there are areas where ethnic names are common and the senior citizens can speak their native language.
River transportation was not predictable prior to the installation of the series of locks and dams built in the 1920′s and 30’s that are still operating from Pittsburgh to Brady’s Bend, some sixty miles. Prior to their installation it was possible to walk across the river at Brackenridge and other locations in the summer. Flat-bottomed stern-wheelers could get up and down the river much of the year but many a wooden paddlewheel was broken going over a shallow spot in the river. The installation of the lock and dam system solved that problem.
Today the Valley has a proud history and heritage and a developing interest in the future.
Dr. S. Hartley Johnston, Historian
Allegheny Valley Chamber of Commerce
1 Acee Drive, Suite 2
Natrona Heights, PA 15065