It seems Pittsburgh made several grabs at annexing Old Allegheny and finally snared it in 1907, turning it into the North Side. What did Pittsburgh want so bad with Allegheny? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

It seems Pittsburgh made several grabs at annexing Old Allegheny and finally snared it in 1907, turning it into the North Side. What did Pittsburgh want so bad with Allegheny?

Question submitted by: Trevor Ley, Millvale

That Allegheny would be so desirable might have surprised the man who first surveyed it. In 1798, David Redick wrote that he found it "far inferior to my expectation. ... [I]t abounds with high hills and deep hollows, almost inaccessible to a surveyor. ... [I]t would have been far more suitable for residents of the moon."


But Redick wasn't exactly a disinterested observer: He was an emissary of Washington County, from which Allegheny County was carved. And the 1941 Story of Old Allegheny City surmises that in downplaying the location's desirability, he may have been trying to "delay partitioning of his own county."


Redick's report set the tone for Allegheny's future: Outsiders would always value it according to selfish interests. That's why the city of Pittsburgh made numerous attempts -- dating back to 1846 -- to seize control of its rival across the river. After numerous court battles, the two cities took a vote on the issue in 1906: While Allegheny residents voted nearly two-to-one against the proposal, Pittsburgh voted five-to-one in favor -- and its much-larger population swamped Allegheny's vote.


The advantages of consolidation were laid out in one piece of 1895 propaganda. There was talk about new efficiency and enhanced borrowing power, but what really seemed to excite supporters was the potential for bragging rights: "The Greater Pittsburgh, at the very outstart, without a single new furnace, would have a larger output of pig iron within city limits than any other State in the Union save one. Our tonnage upon river and rail would be larger than that of any city in the United States. ... There is only one Pittsburgh and there can be only one Greater Pittsburgh."


But if you believe this booster rhetoric is the real reason annexation happened, I've got a new stadium to sell you. Make that two.


Most scholarship focuses on how annexation was carried out, rather than why. But the general consensus is that Allegheny was simply a better-run, better-funded, and just all around better place than Pittsburgh. So it had to be destroyed.


No, really. Pittsburgh was struggling with considerable municipal debt and needed to grow its tax base. Just across the river was a prosperous city with much less debt and a full slate of municipal services. (In some respects, Allegheny did better by its citizens than Pittsburgh did: According to the pro-annexation camp's own propaganda, for example, Pittsburgh schools had twice as many students as Allegheny's, but they cost nearly three times as much to educate.) Annexing Allegheny allowed the city to grab a larger tax base, made up of citizens who already had adequate services. 


All of this should sound familiar. Pittsburgh is talking about merging with Allegheny County, so once again a debt-saddled city is looking to pull itself out of a fiscal hole by grabbing on to neighbors who haven't fallen in. If consolidation doesn't happen, resentment of Allegheny's annexation may be part of the reason. Resentment over the "Rape of Allegheny" died hard: At a November 1914 "Old Timer's Night," for example, native son Louis White told the gathering he was "sorry Allegheny ever became a part of Pittsburgh." White spoke wistfully of what might have been "[h]ad not Allegheny been embalmed by Pittsburgh."


Pittsburgh officials, meanwhile, did their best to rub salt in the wound. "When we annexed you we felt that you needed someone to help you out," Mayor Joseph Armstrong told White. "So we took you by the hand and led you through difficulties." All this while Pittsburgh's other hand was in Allegheny's wallet.


After seeing what happened to Allegheny, "Other Allegheny County municipalities feared a similar fate," writes Joel Tarr in an essay for the book City at the Point. So they formed a lobbying group that "continued to prevent the city from securing wholesale annexation" in later years.


It may be the same this time around. But now Pittsburgh is really desperate, and of course these days we've got the incalculable charisma of Mayor Tom Murphy to aid our cause.


So look out Shaler, Swissvale, and Dormont. We're coming to get you. For your own good, of course.

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