Poles of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh is situated at a point where the Allegheny River from the north and the Monongahela River from the south join to form the Ohio River. The terrain is an appealing mix of hills with panoramic views ranging from 715 to 1240 feet in elevation and narrow valleys spanned by many bridges. There are more than 1,700 bridges in Allegheny County. This river metropolis was originally the domain of the warlike Iroquois Indians. Poles were among the frequent visitors to this area since colonial times when Pittsburgh (Fort Duquesne) was the first fortification west of the Allegheny Mountains. As early as 1729, trader, explorer and interpreter, Anthony Sadowski ventured into areas of Western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, then known as the "Gateway to the West". Considered by many pioneers a tough and rowdy place during the colonial era, Pittsburgh had a reputation as the "drinkingest town" in the west. The census of 1790 listed 32 families of Polish descent living in Pennsylvania. They were members of the Polish Socinian, Moravian Brethren and Mennonite religious sects who settled in the southeastern corner of the state. In 1758, Christian Post, a Moravian missionary born in Chojnice, Poland, worked among the Indians at Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) and Kukuskies (New Castle). During the Revolutionary War, 23 Poles from Pennsylvania served in General George Washington’s Continental Army and Militia. Extant colonial records indicate a handful of Poles made Western Pennsylvania their home. It would be a number of years until a noticeable migration of Poles would arrive to this region.

Because of Pittsburgh’s geographical location, boat building was the earliest of industries started in order to transport goods downstream on the Ohio River. By 1800, Pittsburgh boatyards were constructing vessels sturdy enough to cross the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Mississippi River through New Orleans. River traffic, in addition to Conestoga wagons and pack horses from the east, was heavy. The pioneers sought a better way of life than the Atlantic coast cities could afford them, with their crowded cities and high taxes. Many chose to move westward for a freer life. Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania was the destination of many of these early pioneers. The expansion of new industries brought prosperity and an influx of mostly Anglo-Saxon immigrants. In 1810, the population of Pittsburgh was 4,768. Small groups of Poles began arriving in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania after the Polish Insurrections of 1830 until 1848. By the year 1852, there were a large number of Poles who lived on the South Side of Pittsburgh, and the first Polish Mass was held at St. Michael’s Church (German – 1848) by Father Stanislaus Parzyk on November 20th of that year.

As more immigrants arrived, new Polish neighborhoods were formed in Lawrenceville and the Strip District in close proximity to new industry at that time. The Poles from this area traveled across the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh’s North Side and worshipped at St. Wenceslaus Church (Bohemian – 1870). In 1860, the city’s population was 50,000.


American5,79939.45Kreiner (Slovanian)6.04
Bohemian20.01East India1.01
Brazilian10.01West India1.01
Croatian (Horvat)2992.04Portuguese1.01
Cuban20.01Puerto Rican18.12
Hungarian (Magyar)5743.91Turk53.36

Nationality Report, Homestead Steel Works, Howard Axle
Works, Carrie Furnaces, October 8, 1919

Chart One – Nationality of Pittsburgh Area Steelworkers


It was not until the year 1875 that the Poles built their own parish, St. Stanislaus Kostka on 21st Street in the Strip District. During the mass migrations from Poland to the United States in the 1870’s, it is estimated about 152,000 Poles left the provinces of Poznan, Bydgoszcz and Silesia. Many settled in the areas around Pittsburgh and Erie. They were mostly well educated "intelligentsia" escaping the Kulturkampf campaign going on in the Prussian partition at that time. It was this group who would provide a leadership base for Polish immigrants that followed. During the 1870’s, Pittsburgh was becoming one of the most heavily industrialized sections in the United States, producing two-fifths of the nation’s iron and half of the nation’s glass. The area around the city had numerous industries and manufacturing operations, including 60 petroleum refineries, 46 glassworks, 7 large steel mills, and mines that were producing 20% of the nation’s coal. By 1880, Pittsburgh’s population was 156,000, the majority being of Anglo-Saxon descent. In 1881, Poles arriving in Pittsburgh numbered 5,614. This new wave of immigrants led to the eventual establishment of Pittsburgh’s second Polish parish, St. Adalbert’s on the South Side, in 1884. A large number of "Gorale" arrived during this same period and settled in the Laurel Highlands of Fayette County near Uniontown. In 1887, the third Polish parish would be founded in Western Pennsylvania — St. Joseph in Everson.

By the year 1900, immigration to Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania from Poland and Austria-Hungary was 114,847. From Russia (Partition?), and the Baltic states 90,787. Within the City of Pittsburgh, the estimated Polish population for the year 1903 was 50,000. The city was now producing 50% of the nation’s open hearth steel. The average steelworker was paid $1.50 a day and worked 87 hours a week. Most of the Eastern Europeans worked in the open hearths, which involved the longest hours and the highest risk of accident. They normally worked 12-hour shifts, but sometimes were forced to work the dangerous 24-hour "long turn", where accidents involving molten steel and heavy machinery were common. Most Poles who settled within the city limits of Pittsburgh worked in the steel mills. Biographer James Parton once described Pittsburgh at night as "hell with the lid taken off," a phrase that stuck until smoke control laws went into effect in the 1940’s. Chart One shows the ethnic diversity of the Pittsburgh area steelworkers during this time period.

Most Poles living outside of the city were employed as coal miners in Pennsylvania’s largest industry during the turn of the century. Poles and Slovaks were almost 33% of the work force at bituminous mines in Allegheny, Fayette and Westmoreland counties in 1910. These counties, along with Beaver, Cambria and Washington, is where the largest concentration of Polish-Americans live in southwestern Pennsylvania today. Erie County leads the list in northwestern Pennsylvania. From 1900 to 1914, the number of Poles immigrating to Pennsylvania was 337,000. By the year 1920, Pittsburgh was the largest Pennsylvania community of immigrant and second-generation Poles, they numbered 200,000. The official U.S. Census for 1920 listed the total population for every group living within the City of Pittsburgh at 588,343. The Polish population of Pittsburgh was at its height during the 1920’s and 1930’s.

After World War II, the Pennsylvania Polonia had gradually assimilated into the larger "American" society. However, religion and the "ethnic" parish remained an intrinsic part of Polonian culture well into the 1970’s, at which time they had succeeded in establishing 58 Roman and 11 National Catholic churches in the western half of Pennsylvania. By the 1970’s, the majority of Pittsburgh’s Polonia lived in suburbia, far removed from the old ethnic neighborhoods, yet found themselves pulled back to the old parish for funerals and weddings. Pittsburgh’s Poles are 95% Roman Catholic, 3% Polish National Catholic and 2% Protestant. In the 1970’s, studies showed that more "Eastern" Europeans lived in Pennsylvania than any other state and more than half of those were in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. According to the ethnic studies program at the University of Pittsburgh in 1975, the Polish population of Pennsylvania was 1.1 million and 175,000 lived in southwestern Pennsylvania. The U.S. Census of various groups of "Eastern" European descent living in Pittsburgh included the following in 1970:

1. Poles 72,432
2. Slovaks 69,593
3. Serbo-Croatians 25,842
4. Ukrainians 11,668
5. Russians 11,643
6. Czechs 6,264
7. Slovenians 5,979

With the arrival of the 1990’s, the Roman Catholic Church in Pittsburgh experienced closings and mergers of many ethnic churches, resulting in new worship sites. Chart Two summarizes changes in Polishbparishes that have occurred with the Diocese of Pittsburgh.