Pittsburgh roots Research
9/28/2009
Pittsburgh isn't your run-of-the-mill family history destination. Here's how to move your research forward in the Steel City.

You probably think of Pittsburgh simply as the "Steel City" of the Industrial Revolution. But while maintaining the quaint, close-knit ethnic neighborhoods that were once mill towns and the historic landmarks that were once simply functional, the city has slowly grown into a cultural, clean and safe travel destination.

Pittsburgh's industrial heritage makes it a key genealogy destination, as well. Many families' journeys have led through Pittsburgh: The city was a magnet for European immigrants, especially during the "great migration" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, because of those abundant mill and factory jobs. Pittsburgh will attract masses of family historians this spring, when the National Genealogical Society (NGS) convenes here for its annual conference—and 100th birthday celebration. The May 28-31 gathering will honor the city's role in "Moving a Nation Westward" (see www.ngsgenealogy.org for program and registration details). Whenever you visit Pittsburgh, though, you'll find no shortage of places to explore history and your roots.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (4400 Forbes Ave., 412-622-3114, www.clpgh.org) is one of the nation's original public libraries, dating to 1895. It houses more than 4 million resources. For histories, records and directories of regional genealogical information, check the library's Pennsylvania Department of Genealogy www.clpgh.org/locations/pennsylvania/genealogy. Its resources include directories for Pittsburgh and surrounding cities dating as early as 1815, census records, immigration and passenger lists, and data on deeds, maps and cemeteries. While you're in this building, don't miss the library and offices of the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society (412-687-6811, www.wpgs.org), which boasts regional records unavailable elsewhere. For still more local information, pay a visit to The Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center (1212 Smallman St., 412-454-6000, www.pghhistory.org).

If you dare to delve into history as far back as the French and Indian War, take a stroll through scenic Point State Park (412-471-0235), where the city's three rivers—the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio—meet, and stop by the park's Fort Pitt Museum (412-281-9284). This was the key to what was then the "west" for both the French and British, just as Pittsburgh became an important departure point for later settlers heading to the Northwest Territory.

If this gets you in the mood to go museum hopping, you've come to the right place. Local steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Institute in 1895. Today, four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh www.carnegiemuseums.org thrive: the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (both $8 adult admission, both adjacent to the library at 4400 Forbes Ave., 412-622-3131), as well as the Carnegie Science Center ($14 adult general admission, 1 Allegheny Ave., 412-237-3400) and The Andy Warhol Museum ($8 adult general admission, 117 Sandusky St., 412-237-8300), celebrating the works of another of Pittsburgh's famous sons.

Once you've walked the libraries, you'll want to climb the mountain. Beginning in 1870, inclines—cable-powered boxes resembling trolley cars—transported mill workers from their homes atop Mount Washington, which overlooks the city from across the rivers, down the steep slope to their jobs at the riverside mills. Two remain in operation today: the Monongahela Incline (Station Square, 412-442-2000) and the Duquesne Incline (1197 W. Carson St., 412-381-1665).

If your ancestors lived in Pittsburgh, chances are they either worked in the steel mills or lived in a community of people who did. The Steel Industry Heritage Corporation (623 E. 8th Ave., 412-464-4020, www.riversofsteel.com) offers tours of the remaining mills May through November, either by bus or by boat. Be sure to make reservations in advance.

Today, the Nationality Rooms at the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning showcase the legacy of these immigrants (1209 Cathedral of Learning, 412-624-6000, www.pitt.edu/~natrooms). Construction began on the 42-story Gothic cathedral in 1926, and the 26 Nationality Rooms were completed from 1938 to 2000, each room dedicated to a different heritage. Adult admission to these rooms on the ground floor of the nation's tallest academic building is $3.

The railroad also was key to the thriving city's economy in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today, the city honors and celebrates that history at the restored Station Square www.stationsquare.com across from downtown. This historic site originally was the yards of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, but today houses an outdoor museum along the tracks, a hotel and 40-plus specialty shops (many of which feature art and other regional items) and restaurants. Both inclines are easily accessible from the station.

To let your inner child in on your historical trip, spend a day at one of the city's two historic amusement parks, open May through September. Kennywood Park's first roller coaster was built in 1902, and the park still features restored wooden rides today (4800 Kennywood Blvd., 412-461-0500, www.kennywood.com). General admission is $8 and ride-all-day passes range from $22.95 to $27.95. Or venture a bit farther from city limits to Idlewild Park, originally built in 1878 (50 miles from Pittsburgh on Route 30 E., 724-238-3666, www.idlewild.com). It features a water park and Story Book Forest, begun in 1956 to bring nursery rhymes to life. Fun Day passes are $19.95.

For lodging within walking distance of The Carnegie Library, try the Holiday Inn (University Center, 100 Lytton Ave., 412-682-6200). If you're looking to stay in the heart of downtown, consider the Ramada Plaza Suites and Conference Center (1 Bigelow Square, 800-225-5858, www.plazasuites.com). The Sheraton Station Square Hotel (7 Station Square Drive, 888-729-7705) offers an up-close view of the city from just across the river.

For a low-budget meal with a regional flavor, try one of the Primanti Brothers locations across the city (central downtown location: 2 S. Market Place, 412-261-1599.) Here you'll experience "The Original Pittsburgh Sandwich," featuring french fries and coleslaw in between the bread with the rest of your fixings. For Pittsburgh Magazine's choice for "Best Steak in Pittsburgh" in a casual downtown atmosphere, visit Ruth's Chris Steak House (6 PPG Place, 412-391-4800). You can combine upscale dining and a taste of history at the Grand Concourse (Station Square, 412-261-1717): This former train station has been converted into an elegant restaurant along the railroad tracks that offers its diners a chance to "take a step back in time."