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  • Writer's pictureTammy Pasterick

City of Smoke

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Pittsburgh's Strip District, June 1906.

"Karina Kovac heard the harsh caw of a crow passing overhead as she began her walk to work. She looked up at the early morning sky and frowned. The gray cloud of soot greeted her as it did every morning. No matter the time of day or season, the eerie mass hung, thick and heavy, casting its dismal shadow over her, darkening her mood."

—from Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash

When Mark Twain visited Pittsburgh in December 1884 to promote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he made a stop in Mount Washington to get a bird’s eye view of the city by moonlight. As he peered down on the "lake of fire and flame," he famously said the city "looked like a miniature hell with the lid off." It's no wonder Twain's grim description of Pittsburgh stuck for decades to come—there was truth to it.

Between 1870 and 1920, the population of Pittsburgh grew almost sevenfold as European immigrants poured into the city. Many came from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany as in previous decades, but the most common sources after 1870 were poor, rural areas in Eastern and Southern Europe. Immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, Italy, and the Balkans left their homelands to find work in Pittsburgh's steel mills, coal mines, and factories. Carrying only the bare essentials, they journeyed across the Atlantic in search of prosperity and settled in a region smothered in smoke.

Pittsburgh was destined to became a bustling industrial city largely because of its favorable geography and geology. Two navigable rivers—the Monongahela and the Allegheny—met in the middle of a forest and combined to form the Ohio River. This was a logical meeting point for settlement, trade, and industry. The existence of an impressive coal seam near the center of this confluence proved to be particularly advantageous. It was this bituminous coal that would later fuel the region's hundreds of steel mills and darken its skies.

View of the point, downtown, and rivers. Engraving published by Charles Magnus, 1860.

As the Steel City boomed through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it become known for its smoke, grime, and filth. Its perpetually dark sky often necessitated the use of street lamps during the day. But for many of the city’s workers, smoke was a sign of progress and prosperity. In fact, by 1900, Carnegie Steel was the country’s largest steel company with three million tons of capacity. When J.P Morgan formed the U.S. Steel Corporation the following year by financing the merger of Andrew Carnegie's steel company with seven others, it became the largest private company in the world, controlling the majority of U.S. steel production.

By 1910, Pittsburgh produced 25 million tons of steel—more than 60 percent of the nation’s total. It was the height of the city's golden age of steel. But working conditions in the steel mills of Pittsburgh were brutal, and company owners were largely unsympathetic. Men worked twelve-hour shifts, seven days per week, in front of furnaces heated to over 2500°F. Persistent noise, stifling air filled with mineral dust and furnace exhaust, and unsafe equipment made the mills especially hazardous. According to a profile of Andrew Carnegie in The Economist, fatal accidents in the steel mills accounted for 20% of all male deaths in Pittsburgh in the 1880s. Injured workers were often let go and forced to pay their own medical bills, while the dead were easily replaced by the countless immigrants arriving to the region every day.

Steelworkers circa 1900.

The immigrants who came to Pittsburgh brought their languages and traditions with them, creating a culturally diverse city. Unfamiliar accents, exotic foods, and striking architecture could be found in the ethnic neighborhoods of the South Side, Polish Hill, Bloomfield, and Squirrel Hill. Immigrants built these tight-knit communities with their family and friends from the "old country" and were often reluctant to socialize with outsiders. Even workers in the mills remained largely segregated with a strict racial hierarchy placing Northern and Western European Whites at the top, Blacks at the bottom, and everyone else somewhere in the middle. Supervisors were often Irish while Slavs, Hungarians, Serbs, and Blacks performed the most dangerous and grueling work.

Despite the harsh working conditions in Pittsburgh's steel mills, immigrants continued to write to their families and friends in Europe about the opportunities in America. The promise of prosperity enticed many young, healthy workers to trade a life of poverty in their homeland for a chance at the American dream. And while some immigrants were satisfied with their new lives within a few years of their arrival, others suffered disappointment, unthinkable hardships, and even death. But no matter their fates, all of Pittsburgh's immigrants learned to live under an oppressive, smoky sky—in a city that looked like a miniature hell with the lid off.

"He quickly raised his crowbar and knocked the hole out in the furnace door. He watched as glowing red fluid gushed from the door into the ladle waiting in the eight-foot-deep pit below the furnace. The heat was so intense that his already damp work shirt was soon drenched and clinging to his body. Sparks flew, singeing the hair on his arms. Janos imagined this was probably what hell looked like, glowing red flames all around. He half expected to see the devil crawl out of that raging pit."

—from Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash

Painting of steelworkers. Unknown origin.


A native of Western Pennsylvania, Tammy Pasterick grew up in a family of steelworkers, coal miners, and Eastern European immigrants. Her debut novel, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash, is being released by She Writes Press in September 2021. Visit to learn more.

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