McKeesport today bears little resemblance to the city commemorated in its history museum. It’s no longer the nation’s leading producer of steel pipes, nor the commercial and industrial center of the Mon Valley Region. Although these houses remain unoccupied, one thing’s for sure: Their construction was very, very sturdy to have survived this long.
Another casualty of the mining decline — the number of residents in this town took a deep dive. McKeesport’s population has shrunk, as it has in every census since 1950. From a World War II high of 55,355, the city has lost roughly two-thirds of its residents, to about 19,000 today.
History of McKeesport, PA
David McKee was born in Scotland in 1710. His parents were strict Presbyterians and deeply religious and for that reason they were persecuted. About 1750 David McKee and several of his brothers, with their families, came to America.
Therefore, in lieu of any authentic information on the subject other than the report before mentioned and the Supreme Court record, David McKee and his family must have arrived at the mouth of the Youghiogheny sometime between April 2nd, 1768, and December 25th, of the same year. With David McKee came his wife, Margaret, his five sons, Robert, James, Thomas, David and John, and his two daughters, Mary and Margaret.
When the Proprietors’ Land Office was opened on April 3rd, 1769, to receive applications for land in the “New Purchase,” which included southwestern Pennsylvania, David McKee was present on the opening day and filed his application for 306 acres of land at the junction of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers. Two days later his two sons, Thomas and Robert, filed their applications, the former for 253 acres adjoining David McKee’s land on the south, and the latter for 285 acres adjoining David McKee’s land on the east.
The prompt action of David McKee and his two sons in taking up all the level land between the two rivers, and some not so level, at least gives us a hint as to the purpose they had in view when they journeyed westward to the frontier of Pennsylvania. The McKees were not the only pioneers interested in procuring lands at the mouth of the Youghiogheny. Samuel Sinclair, Jacob Zeinnett and Peter Keyser followed the McKees, and the first named made application for the land across the Youghiogheny from the David McKee property, later known as the “Forks of the Youghiogheny.”
While the early settlers were clearing their land and tilling their fields, David McKee decided that a ferry across the Youghiogheny and Monongahela Rivers would be profitable, and two ferries were promptly placed in operation.
On February 5th, 1795 the first public announcement regarding the new town was made and it took the form of an advertisement appearing in the Pittsburgh Gazette, reading as follows:
“A NEW TOWN is laid out by the subscriber on the spot known for many years past by the name of McKee’s Ferry. The ground intended for the Town is delightfully situated on a fine level point at the junction of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny River about 16 miles from Pittsburgh by water and 12 only by land; the plan on which the town is to be improved consists of upwards to 200 lots of 60 ft. front and 120 feet deep, each lot having the advantage of a street and an alley 20 feet wide, for the convenience of stables, etc. The principal streets are 80 feet in width the others 60. Near the center of the town is a large Area or Square intended for a Public Market House; 48 of the lots front the 2 rivers, Monongahela and Youghiogheny. Four lots will be given by the subscriber for the use of a place of worship, and a Seminary of Learning. The situation of the place is so well known in the western country that it needs no enconium that can be given it, but for the information of those persons below the mountain who may wish to become purchasers, it may be necessary to premise that its situation is one of the best in the western country for trade and commerce, having the advantage of the 2 rivers, Monongahela and Youghiogheny flowing under its banks, being near several grist and saw mills close to what is known as the Forks of the Yough settlement, which is indesputably the richest we have; it is at least 12 miles nearer Philadelphia than Pittsburgh is; it has public roads laid out from it in different directions; the price of each lot is $20.00 and $1.00 ground rent to be paid annually. To avoid disputes the lot each purchaser is to possess is to be decided by a lottery, which will be held on the spot on the first day of April next. Each purchaser at the time of receiving his ticket is to pay $10.00 and the residue when he draws his number and gets his deed. The majority of persons present at the drawing are to choose the persons who shall draw the tickets, which persons shall point out the four lots to be appropriated to public uses prior to the drawing. Tickets may be had of John Hannah, merchant, Pittsburgh; Andrew Swearingen, Washington; John Taylor, Esq., Greens Burgh; James Wallace, Esq., Carlysle; Peter Whiteside, merchant, Mercersburg, and of the subscriber on the premises. John McKee
On March 26th, 1795, announcement was made that 187 tickets for the drawing of lots had been sold, and that any person desiring a clear deed for any lot drawn, free and discharged from the ground rent of $1.00 a year, could secure the same by paying an additional sum of $10.00, thereby making the purchase price of each lot $30.00.
While the selling of the lots in the new town took the form of a lottery, yet there were no blanks, and uncertainty existed only in the location of the lots. Lotteries were common at that time and no opprobrium was attached to such affairs, even churches financing building operations in this manner. Following the sale of the lots in the new town, John McKee obtained from his father and mother a deed for all their interest in the location and at once prepared to patent the land.
During the time limit set in the advertisement for the delivery of the deeds for lots in the new town, only 41 persons responded, but in the following three months 60 additional lots were paid for and before the end of the year 1796 a total of 133 deeds had been delivered. As the consideration mentioned in all of these deeds is $30.00, it appears that the populace did not take kindly to the English idea of a ground rent, and chose rather to pay the full purchase price and receive a clear title to their lots.
The records disclose that during the year 1796, several persons who had not participated in the drawing, purchased choice lots which had not been drawn, and paid as much as $100.00 each for them. The total amount realized from the venture, including the sum received from the sale of the tickets, was approximately $4500.00.
Settled in 1795 and named in honor of John McKee, its founder, McKeesport remained a village until 1830 when coal mining began in the region. Large deposits of bituminous coal existed. McKeesport was incorporated as a borough in 1842 and as a city in 1891.
McKeesport rose to national importance during the 1900s as a center for manufacturing steel. The city’s population reached a peak of 55,355 in 1940. It became part of the Pittsburgh industrial complex, with steel production as the dominant activity.
When did McKeesport start declining?
McKeesport began experiencing considerable unemployment as the steel industries in the Pittsburgh area declined in the 1980s. The Mon Valley and the community of McKeesport never recovered from that second crisis. By 1986, population loss had left five hundred abandoned homes throughout McKeesport and over half a million dollars lost in tax income.
The city, with the help of regional development agencies, has conducted efforts to revitalize the former mill sites. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the state’s poverty rate was 31.4% in 2017, compared to 13.4% for the United States as a whole. In recent years East McKeesport has established organizations in order to help people in the community who are in the need of assistance. Meals on Wheels delivers meals at low cost to citizens who are unable to prepare nourishing foods for themselves.