We Pittsburghers are always looking for something that sets us apart, some peculiar idiosyncrasy, however strange or vexing, that we can take pride in. Our freakish driving habits, the way we put French fries on foods that others are surprised to find them on, Sophie Masloff -- anything that could only happen here automatically inspires our affection.
So it is with the Monongahela River. You'd think that having a river which several West Virginia towns dump their sewage into would be bragging rights enough. But not so: It's a cherished belief among Pittsburghers that the Mon is unique -- or at least rare -- in flowing from south to north.
I've often heard it said that "the Monongahela and the Nile are two of the only rivers in the world that flows north." Which, I suppose, implies that we are somehow in the same league as the Nile's queen city, Cairo. And many's the balmy summer evening -- the air over Pittsburgh heady with the smell of date palms and the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer -- that I think it's true.
But what's also true, sad to say, is that northward-flowing rivers aren't that rare. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, four of the world's 10 longest rivers flow generally northward: the Nile, the Mackenzie-Peace (in Canada) the Ob and the Lena (in Siberia). In fact, NASA says that there are rivers flowing north on every continent. Europe, for example, has several north-flowing rivers in one country alone: While the armies of Germany always head toward France, many of its key rivers point north -- the Rhine, the Spree, the Elbe. There are also countless north-flowing rivers in South America, Asia and elsewhere, but be honest: Do you really care? Isn't it bad enough knowing the Germans have some?
Worse yet, even Cleveland can boast of a north-flowing river: The Cuyahoga flows southwest for much of its length, but turns north toward Lake Erie and ends up further north than where it starts. Heck, the Mon isn't even the only north-flowing river in western Pennsylvania: The often-overlooked Youghiogheny also flows north to McKeesport, where it joins with the Mon. The Genesee River flows north from Pennsylvania across western New York, and spills into Lake Ontario. If predictions about global warming are correct, one day the frozen rivers of Antarctica will all flow north
From a global standpoint, rivers don't appear to prefer one compass heading or another. The direction a river flows varies depending on the steepness of terrain and other local factors. As a Web site maintained by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center puts it, "Rivers, like most of us ... move to where there's less resistance." (We should note this page was penned by a public-sector employee.) Even some rivers whose general flow is southward have stretches in which a bend may take it from south to north. The Missouri flows northward for 100 miles through Montana -- it was probably looking for a Stuckey's -- before bending east and then southeast to meet up with the Mississippi.
So why do we think north-flowing rivers are so rare? NASA's theory is that "Part of the answer is probably related to our geographic chauvinism and our lack of curiosity -- we don't know much or care about distant places." (Take that, Pat Buchanan!) "Since there are no major rivers that flow northward [in the U.S.], we're convinced that this must be the way it is elsewhere."
Of course, that last little remark is only going to incur the wrath of local chauvinists: The Mon is a major river as far as we're concerned, just as the Yough is a major river as far as McKeesport is concerned. I've even heard it said that the Mon's northerly direction helped make Pittsburgh a key stop on the Underground Railroad -- it was a convenient way to escape the border state of West Virginia, as any right-thinking person would want to whether they were slaves or not.
So while the really key waterways -- the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the Ohio, for example -- all just happen to head south, the fact remains that Pittsburgh just isn't that unique. Not everyone can boast of the kind of toxicity levels the Mon has, of course, but in terms of its northward course, we're just not that big a deal.
We still have Sophie, of course. And I'm not even going to tell you about the other cities that use parking chairs.