During the early nineteenth century, Pittsburgh became a significant commercial center as it connected western settlements with eastern and European markets. Westward settlement expansion caused agrarian communities to became isolated from eastern and European urban centers. Carting agricultural foodstuffs eastward, or European and eastern goods westward were economically inefficient. Water travel, on the other hand, was inexpensive, less time-consuming, and, after steam engine technologies were utilized, nearly effortless. With access to the Ohio and, through intersection, the Mississippi, Pittsburgh attracted tremendous amounts of commerce from the Midwest, New Orleans, eastern metropolises, and Europe.
Pittsburgh, however, was not the only commercial center that developed into a medium for east-west commerce. As settlement of the West expanded, gateway cities, such as Wheeling, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis, attracted commerce away from Pittsburgh. By 1820, Pittsburgh had access to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which connected it to Philadelphia, however, tolls were expensive and cart travel over the Appalachians was long and tiresome. Following international fascination over Britain’s eighteenth century canal projects, businessmen, merchants, and politicians in Pittsburgh lobbied to construct a canal that would reduce costs of traveling across Pennsylvania in an attempt to attract commerce. The canal, however, did not pass through the Appalachians, which prevented Pittsburgh from achieving their aims- creating a cost-efficient continuous waterway across Pennsylvania.
Upon completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, Pittsburgh’s significance in facilitating east-west commerce diminished further as New York City became the predominant commercial center in the United States. Goods were transported across the Atlantic, into New York’s port, across the Eire Canal, into the Great Lakes, and dispersed throughout the Midwest. Similarly, agricultural products from the interior were transported into New York, other eastern cities, and Europe with greater ease.
While the all water route increased commercial flow through New York City, New York State, and Buffalo, it exposed the inefficiencies in the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh connection. As a result, businessmen pursued other avenues for economic prosperity, which, in turn, allowed Pittsburgh to transform from a commercially driven economy into one based on manufacturing. Through the exploitation of readily available natural resources located near Pittsburgh, manufacturers were able to prosper in the iron and glass industries. Although rivaling urban centers overwhelmed Pittsburgh in the contest for commercial preeminence, the defeat stimulated the development of industries that became the foundations upon which the steel industry was established, which, in time, allowed Pittsburgh to gain international fame.