Geography and geology both play big roles in the history of Pittsburgh business. The city and surrounding areas of Pennsylvania have been one of the biggest economic engines in the United States since before the country formed. That tradition continues through today.
Pittsburgh ranks in the Top 25 metro areas in the U.S. for gross domestic product (GDP), with a GDP of more than $152 million. While famous for its steel, the city has diversified in the 21st century.
Students in a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration program at Point Park University in Pittsburgh will learn about the area’s economy and plans for future growth. The same holds true for students in the Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Leadership program, as well as Bachelor of Science in Business Management program.
Founding of Pittsburgh
Europeans created what became the modern city of Pittsburgh after arriving around 1710. Geography played a key role in the city’s development because it sits at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers. This made a perfect spot to develop a trading post.
The western slope of the Allegheny Mountains is only 40 miles from where the rivers meet. As noted by Pittsburgh Quarterly: “Pittsburgh not only faces but opens the great heartland of America. Before the canals and railroads, the Ohio and Mississippi river systems were the interstate highways of their day.”
Trappers and traders flocked to Pittsburgh, as did farmers and whiskey-makers (whiskey served as good as money in some parts of the frontier). Boat-building also became a big industry, with ships built in Pittsburgh sailing all the way to Europe by the late 19th century.
Coal Changes the Economy
If geography played a role in the city’s development, geology propelled Pittsburgh business into a wildly successful period starting in the 19th century. The discovery of one of the largest coalfields in the U.S. helped the city grow after falling behind emerging outposts like St. Louis. Coal-fired plants allowed the city to start becoming a major player in iron production.
From 1870 to 1910, Pittsburgh business experienced a golden age. The city’s population grew from about 86,000 to almost 534,000 in those four decades. Iron from Pittsburgh was used in projects around the country. The value of goods from Pittsburgh in 1900 was more than the value of goods from Detroit and Cleveland combined.
Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie started the Carnegie Steel Co. Other steel industry leaders included George Westinghouse and the Mellon Family. By 1911, Pittsburgh made 24% of the country’s pig iron, 24% of its steel rails and 53% of its crucible steel.
From Strength to Weakness
The iron and steel industry brought great wealth to Pittsburgh business. But focus on this one area became a weakness when the price of steel dropped. With its fortunes tied to steel, the city began to lose ground in the mid-20th century.
After a strike in 1959, American companies began to import steel from other places, such as Japan. By 2000, 29 steel companies in Pittsburgh had declared bankruptcy. By 1970, 75% of the corporations headquartered in Pittsburgh were gone. The ones that still remain include PNC, U.S. Steel, Allegheny Technologies, H.J. Heinz, PPG, Mine Safety, Wesco and Westinghouse Nuclear.
The 21st Century
Pittsburgh now has a cleaner environment and a far more diversified economy than the one it had in the mid-19th century. The region attracts tourists and the film industry. The biggest employers in the city are:
- University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
- PNC Financial Services
- Allegheny Health Network
- Giant Eagle supermarkets
- Bank of New York Mellon
- Highmark health insurance
- U.S. Steel
- Verizon Communications
The city also is attracting tech companies, with Google, Apple, Intel, Uber, Facebook and RAND establishing offices there. As noted by Pittsburgh Quarterly, the city is a bit like a two-headed Janus, looking forward to a bright future but looking back “to a time long ago when Pittsburgh forged the industrial might that made America the greatest nation in the world.”