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The Allegheny River

June 2023
1min read

Watershed of the Nation

Photographs by Jim Schafer, text by Mike Sajna; Pennsylvania State University Press; 304 pages.

The Nile, we learned in grade school, was the cradle of civilization. It took this reader some years to understand that each river is indeed the cradle of its own civilization—ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny in every corner. All American rivers sweep their voyagers to new places, all of them, it seems, claim title to “highway to the West,” all nurtured Indian tribes along their banks, all saw the rise of “civilization” —towns and cities and industries that eventually turned their backs to the rivers and blotted them from sight. These days we have to get to know our rivers all over again, and The Allegheny River is a good place to start.

The author, Mike Sajna, writes, “If the story of the United States were to be told by river, one could hardly imagine any waterway filling the role better than the Allegheny.” He dismisses for this role the Mississippi, the Hudson, and the Ohio, all of which surely have their propagandists, and he sets out to show us his Allegheny, traveling it in many seasons on dozens of trips, “by canoe, by towboat, by pleasure boat, by excursion boat, on foot, by car, and by plane.”

On Sajna’s sojourn upriver from Pittsburgh to the Allegheny headwaters in Potter County, he summons up the shades of all manner of people who played out their destinies along these waters: Rachel Carson, who on walks with her mother along the riverbanks learned to cherish what she later fought to save; the renegade Simon Girty, who led Indian war parties against frontier folk in Revolutionary days; Edwin Drake, whose oil strikes transformed American industry; and Ida Tarbell, born in a riverside oil town, who became the journalistic scourge of monopolies and trusts. There were riches to be made from mining salt deposits along the river (in fact, it was a salt-well driller who first struck oil in Natrona), and there was wealth in the thick stands of timber, which gave mid-nineteenth-century Pennsylvania temporary title as the nation’s greatest lumber producer. “As beautiful and wild as the forests surrounding the upper Allegheny River appear to be,” Sajna writes, “it must be pointed out that they are only about one hundred years old, mere shadows of the primeval woodlands that once blanketed the mountains.”

One of the delights of this ambitious volume is the author’s ability to shift easily from tour guide to historian (we lack only an index). The photographer who accompanied him along the river, Jim Schafer, has a keen eye for the presence of man and industry as they have shaped the Allegheny. In other of his photos we are simply left to enjoy the play of light against water and the gauzy mist as it clings to the hills.

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