Take a walk through the streets of Pittsburgh and you’ll see some very interesting sights. Urban revitalization, neighborhood renaissances and a myriad of other programs are just the tip of the iceberg that is Pittsburgh. While many look to the future, there are just as many who wish to preserve the history of those who lived and worked this region before we were even born.
Such is the mission of this website, as well as writer Bob Regan and photographer Jeff Wingard. No, I have no affiliation with them, and they have absolutely no clue I am writing this blog post. But I write it to shed light on a really cool, really interesting aspect of Pittsburgh: the city’s public use stairways that can be found all over the Pittsburgh watershed and its valleys.
From childhood I have vague memories of seeing what, I thought, were random steps built into hillsides. Sometimes seemingly random hillsides. Now, as an adult, I can see the logic and ingenuity behind them. That someone took the time to plan them out, and recognized their necessity. Many were built before public transit was widely used, and many looked like they defied gravity. Let’s take a look at this rich history.
These steps are an integral part of the city’s history and bear a relationship to the city’s many diverse ethnic neighborhoods, another of Pittsburgh’s most endearing features. Sixty-six of the city’s ninety neighborhoods contain steps.–Pittsburgh Steps, pg. XIV
Travel Between the Neighborhoods
It is said that once you find your niche in Pittsburgh, you rarely travel to other neighborhoods. Because, normally, you have no need unless there’s a specific business or family member you wish to visit. My family, in particular, is all spread throughout the Pittsburgh region.
People from all over the Western world settled in these hills – Germans, Irish, Pols, Slovaks, Ukrainians and Lithuanians are just a few of the nationalities who decided to call Pittsburgh home. I, myself am German, Croatian, and a few other things I cannot remember. Click here for a full list and map of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods. While some locations proudly display their cultural heritage, others, like Squirrel Hill, have become a clear melting pot of several different nationalities.
It’s easy to see where just some of the inspiration came from for Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.
Consequently, the only affordable, inhabitable land for the common people was on the hilltops or, in some cases, along the hillsides. In order for workers to travel or work, a series of steps were built to the steel mills. Originally the steps were privately built, but soon formal steps along rights-of-way were constructed by the municipality.–Pittsburgh Steps, pg 1
Bob Regan’s Pittsburgh Steps explores not only where they’re located, but the data. He mentions whether the steps are wood or concrete, their elevation, and how long they are. Some are more dramatic than others (ex Diana Street) steps. Some simply go straight up. Some are so intricately constructed one has to wonder at the architect’s state of mind at the time of the build. Still some steps are a continuation of the street itself (ex: Duncan Street, Pittsburgh Steps, pg. 12).
There is also such as thing as “sidewalk steps, where the steps are built right alongside the road in stay of a smooth sidewalk. “If one visits one of the hillside neighborhoods today, it is immediately apparent why the city steps are still a sensible means of transportation,” (pg. 18).
People had to get to work somehow, so it’s a really cool thing that these steps were built. One such network actually existed in Allegheny City, now known as Pittsburgh’s North Shore. These steps followed an old Pontiac Indian trail to assist the steel workers’ trek to work along the river.
Believe it or not, this cumbersome, extended walkway was a well-trodden route for Pittsburgh workers commuting from the factories along the river to their homes in the hilltop neighborhoods above. Some walked the trail every day to save the five cent fair for a ride on the incline. Prior to the installation of the steps, some adventurous travelers even managed to get their horse and wagon up and down the path, somehow navigating the steeper section, known as the switchback.–source, Pittsburgh’s Indian Trail Steps
According to the above linked site, the steps themselves were dismantled in the 1930s, but the trail still exists to this day. This trail, used for hundreds upon hundreds of years, has solidified its place in Pittsburgh’s history as an important access point for multiple peoples of all walks of life.
These Pittsburgh Steps Have A Huge Following Today
In the 1930s and beyond, these steps were constructed for practical use. In the 2000s, however, many have seen these steps as a challenge. A fitness challenge, and an exploration challenge. In fact, there is a huge movement of “step climbers” who would willingly call the steps of Pittsburgh their hobby. Just to name a few:
- Secret Pittsburgh Guide
- Pittsburgh Steps
- Pittsburgh Orbit (article)
- Very Local (article)
- BikePGH – Steps We Take
- et al…
Some blogs are older and less updated, and others are constantly adding new content. That just goes to show how far-reaching and influential these steps actually are.
Okay, so nobody actually challenged me. I extend the Steps of Pittsburgh Challenge to myself. Admittedly, I’m not in the best of shape, and it will require a LOT of gas money and fancy parking. But I’d like to walk just a few of these historic steps myself. While city steps aren’t necessarily unique to Pittsburgh, what is unique is how many folks recognize their existence and continue to use them to this day.
Is there something in your area that hits a similar mark? Something you have yet to visit but have always thought to? While these steps are nothing new here in Pittsburgh, my desire to explore them is. And I extend to you a similar challenge to step outside your comfort zone and explore wherever it is you live.