The Fort Pitt Museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. The museum explores the much older (obviously) Fort Pitt.
You probably already know this: The Fort Pitt Museum, located in historic Point State Park, tells the story of Western Pennsylvania’s essential role during the French & Indian War, the American Revolution, and as the birthplace of Pittsburgh.
But do you know what actually happened inside the gigantic Fort Pitt? Or that Pittsburgh was once part of Virginia during Fort Pitt’s time? Yes, seriously.
We’ve got those stories and many more surprises for you thanks to the experts at the Fort Pitt Museum — Exhibit Specialist Mike Burke, Director Alan Gutchess, and Education Manager Kathleen Lugarich.
Let’s go back in time with these 50 facts about the museum and the fort itself presented in chronological order.
50 facts about Fort Pitt
- Fort Pitt was one of five forts in Downtown Pittsburgh. First was a wooden stockade called Fort Prince George, then Fort Duquesne, Mercer’s Fort, and Fort Pitt. Those four were in what’s now Point State Park. The fifth was called Fort Lafayette or Fort Fayette, and it sat near today’s Convention Center.
- Some things never change, like flooding at the Point. Colonel Hugh Mercer advised Colonel Henry Bouquet against building on the site of Fort Duquesne because of flooding, but Bouquet felt that securing the Point was more important than dealing with flooding.
- The Point’s strategic location at the forks of the Ohio River helped shape the course of history.
- The British Army began constructing Fort Pitt in November 1759. It was the most state-of-the-art fort in North America.
- 2.1 million handmade bricks were used in the construction of Fort Pitt and its buildings, making it the largest fort in North America.
- The fort was a five-sided structure with a bastion at each corner.
- The fort was built to house 1,000 troops but only 700 lived there at a time — though it did get cozy when the fort was under siege during Pontiac’s uprising in 1763, Burke said.
- Fort Pitt provided housing for soldiers and officers, along with kitchens. Some soldiers lived outside the fort’s walls with their families.
- Women consisted of a quarter of the population living outside the walls of Fort Pitt around the early 1760s.
- Next to the fort stood a 10-acre plot called the King’s Garden (where the Wyndham now sits). In addition to providing food for the fort, the garden also included recreation areas, like a lawn bowling area.
- The fort housed areas where soldiers could make gun powder, parade in front of officers for review, and keep prisoners.
- Fort Pitt was only under attack during Pontiac’s Rebellion. Other than that, it was “pretty mellow,” Gutchess said.
- During Pontiac’s Rebellion, an effort to drive the settlers out of the region, Native Americans attacked Fort Pitt, but found it too well-fortified to be overtaken. After two months, the siege ended with Colonel Henry Bouquet’s victory at the Battle of Bushy Run in 1763.
- Other than that, instead of being a place for conflict, Fort Pitt was seen as a place for diplomacy. “Fort Pitt functions as a place to regulate commerce between Europeans and Indians, a place for diplomacy,” Gutchess said.
- As an important economic outpost, more than 200,000 deer hides a year passed through Fort Pitt for trading. Other traded items included firearms, cloth, and silk ribbons.
- In 1772, the British army abandoned Fort Pitt and let it fall to private ownership. That created a power vacuum, which led to …
- “a brief time when Fort Pitt and Pittsburgh was not in Pennsylvania. They were in Virginia,” Gutchess said. Yes, you read that right. Thanks to a dispute over land ownership around 1774, Virginia troops showed up and claimed Pittsburgh as their own. Pennsylvania was unhappy, but they didn’t do anything more than write “nasty letters,” he said. Pittsburghers even started to identify as Virginians, rather than Pennsylvanians.
- During his time asserting Virginia’s claim, British Governor Lord Dunmore renamed Fort Pitt as Fort Dunmore.
- But that didn’t last long. Dunmore’s hero status quickly turned to villain status when the American Revolution kicked off. The Virginians backed off. Fort Pitt became Fort Pitt again. And Pittsburgh became part of Pennsylvania again.
- The Continental Army began using Fort Pitt as its western headquarters around 1777, housing troops and supplies to defend the new United States.
- As a place for diplomacy, Fort Pitt was known for treaties. In fact, the first treaty between an American Indian Nation and the U.S. government was signed at Fort Pitt. Known as the Treaty of Fort Pitt, the September 1778 agreement promised the U.S. military access to the Ohio Country, and it assured the Delaware Nation their own state and their own representation in Congress. It was intended to create peace, though it fell apart just months later.
- The deteriorating Fort Pitt was decommissioned in 1792, and there were orders to destroy the fort so it couldn’t be used against the new government.
- But that never happened. Instead, the fort got picked apart. Pittsburghers used remnants of the Fort to build their own homes. Much of the fort was earthen, so it sort of melted back into the ground.
- The barracks were used into the early 19th century, and historians think that was the site of Pittsburgh’s first brewery, called the Point Brewery.
- The idea to commemorate the Point dates back to the 1830s. The 1836 book “A Pleasant Peregrination Through the Prettiest Parts of Pennsylvania” warned that celebrated military works would soon fade away. Pittsburgh Mayor Jonas McClintock called for the development of a wharf, promenade, and park in 1838.
- Designs for the Point were far different from the Point we know today. Think lighthouses, a giant beehive, and a spire, Lugarich said. Planning began in earnest in 1938, but it was stalled because of the war.
- Eventually, in 1954 Charles Stotz created the design we know today, featuring the green space and historic preservation.
- A small archeological dig of the site didn’t turn up much other than sewer pipes and trash — a fact that confounds even today. Gutchess believes there are “millions of artifacts” buried beneath Fort Pitt.
- Though the digs didn’t turn up too much, they were successful in confirming the location of historic Fort Pitt.
- The last remaining building of Fort Pitt is the Fort Pitt blockhouse, which is open to the public to visit. Operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution, it’s a historic gem. “It’s miraculous that this building still stands,” Gutchess said, especially through fires and the industrialization of the Point.
- Even before it officially opened, Fort Pitt’s temporary exhibits went on view in 1968 and attracted nearly 156,000 visitors.
- The museum was officially founded on June 30, 1969 as a state-run institution.
- Designed in the shape of one of the five original bastions of Fort Pitt, the museum is called “one of the most unique museums in the world.”
- A 1969 Pittsburgh Press article described the museum as “one of the significant accomplishments of Pittsburgh’s Renaissance.”
- One of the museum’s first curators, Rex Lohman, said: “It seems to me that a museum has a unique opportunity (and a unique responsibility) to destroy the idea that the past is dead.”
- A 1970 exhibition included everyday tools and household items used by Pittsburghers in 1750 to 1850, such as a mitten drier, a feather bed smoother, and wooden hay forks. In an article about the exhibit, the Post-Gazette wrote: “People in this push-button world can go to the Fort Pitt Museum in Point State Park and get a glimpse of how it was to live in unautomated early America.”
- Over the years, other exhibits have featured Revolutionary War music, sketches, military drills, commerce signage, and an exploration of river traffic.
- The museum has flooded many times over the years, from heavy rain and snowmelt. Collections are moved offsite for protection during flooding. Repairs from Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 added up to $240,000.
- The landmass of the Point isn’t exactly what it was in Fort Pitt’s days. It’s been raised and widened — and that could be why it was so hard to find artifacts.
- In 2000, the museum added a second floor. The architect used historic references to create a soldier’s viewpoint from the windows. “They will see what a soldier saw when he looked out over Fort Pitt … [the scene] is elegant and very rural. You see trees, grass and rivers. It’s kind of a counterpoint to the hustle and bustle that’s behind you in the city,” architect Roger Weaver said in an interview.
- It closed in 2009 because of a lack of funding.
- The museum reopened in 2010 as part of Heinz History Center (which is a part of the Smithsonian).
- In 2013, the museum acquired a cannon to use for living history demonstrations, which mirrors the type of artillery used by the British in the late 1700s.
- Today, you can explore interactive exhibits, artifacts, replicas, miniatures, mosaics, artwork across the museum’s 12,000 square feet.
- Check out the 16-foot diorama depicting Pittsburgh around 1765 — you’ll spot it on the first floor of the museum.
- The museum staff works with members of the Shawnee, Delaware, Seneca, and Cayuga communities to tell their story of the region, inviting representatives to speak to students and the public.
- Learn more this weekend at a 21+ Night on June 29 featuring a presentation from Virginia Stotz, daughter of Point State Park’s designer Charles Stotz.
- Also don’t miss “Fort Pitt 50 Family Day” on June 30, featuring throwback admission prices of $0.50 for adults and $0.25 for kids.
- Or visit any other day (the museum is open year-round daily except on select holidays), and you can take a guided tour on Saturdays and Sundays in the summer.
- And check out the museum’s living history demonstrations, where you can hear the musical sounds of an 18th century army band and experience the roar of a recreated cannon.