"During the decades before and after 1700," begins the county's own official history, "the region we know today as Western Pennsylvania and Allegheny County was a vast wilderness inhabited only by wild beasts and wandering bands of Indians."
Given such a promising start, how did we end up with what we have today? For the same reason that has been the driving force behind almost all of Western Pennsylvania history: People got sick of the commute.
Originally, all of southwestern Pennsylvania was part of Westmoreland County. Established in 1773, Westmoreland's boundaries included pretty much everything west of Laurel Ridge. The county seat was established in Greensburg, future home of some of the world's most spectacularly unsuccessful shopping malls. From there, its domain stretched out to encompass all of what we think of as Fayette, Washington, and Allegheny counties.
That's a lot of territory to handle -- even for an efficient enterprise like a county government. But initially, the task was made easier by the fact that hardly anyone lived in the area.
That changed as settlers moved west and the frontier got pushed back, and with it the aforementioned wild beasts and wandering bands of Indians. So in 1781, all the land south of the Ohio River and west of the Monongahela River was carved off to form Washington County. And once people got a taste of life out from under Greensburg's oppressive boot heel, there was no stopping them. Fayette County was formed soon after and, in 1788, Allegheny County as well.
"The people of Pittsburgh ... were irked by the necessity of having to travel to Hannastown or Greensburg to transact county business," write Solon and Elizabeth
Buck in their book The Planting of Civilization in Western Pennsylvania.
I suspect "irked" is an understatement, given how much people complain when they're in line in front of me at the counter of most county offices today. But the length of commute explains much of our region's political history -- like the fact that we have so many municipal governments. Given the primitive roads and difficult geography, carrying out even the most routine functions of government could require difficult journeys. One way to shorten the trip, naturally, was to install a new municipal government closer to home. We don't have separate municipal governments for places like Wall and Wilmerding, or Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair, because people in those places hate or distrust each other. That part came later. We have them because the roads were even more perilous back then than they are today.
The same is true at the county level. Pittsburghers were calling for a county of their own in the mid 1780s, ensuring a quick walk to the office where they could appeal their property-tax assessment. Eventually, the state agreed to create a new county, carving out much of the land that had been Washington and Westmoreland counties, and adding territory north of the Ohio.
You'd think Pittsburgh would be the natural location for the county seat. But oddly enough, at first the state intended to put the county seat over on what we now call the North Side -- just outside Pittsburgh's boundaries at the time, and on the opposite side of the river from where all the people lived. The move was later rejected by the state's somewhat creepily named Supreme Executive Council. As one state delegate, quoted in Story of Old Allegheny City, objected: "[T]he people will have to cross the river to attend the court, the [courthouse and jail] being on the west side [of the river], and there is not a soul to commit, unless it is the bears, for there is not a soul living on that side of the ... Ohio." Plus, no one had figured out a way to build light-rail service over there -- a problem we are only just now, thankfully, beginning to solve.
No doubt with the approval of the bears, the proposed location for the jail and courthouse was changed to the Golden Triangle in 1791. This may have been the first, and last, efficient decision made in the history of Allegheny County government.