Sixteen miles northwest of Pittsburgh, the borough of Ambridge stretches for two miles along the east shore of the Ohio River. At this point, the Ohio flows almost due north. The borough occupies the wide floodplain close to the river's edge and a relatively flat shelf of land approximately forty feet above the shore.
In 1824, George Rapp and his Harmonist followers returned to Pennsylvania after ten years in southern Indiana, purchasing three thousand acres on the Ohio River ( BE46; and see Harmony, Butler County). Though the Harmonists had their greatest material success in Economy, their social and intellectual influence on the development of Beaver County and western Pennsylvania throughout the nineteenth century was profound. They are perhaps America's most important and successful experiment in early-nineteenth-century Christian communal living. While no major new Harmonist buildings were built in the area after 1834, the group brought observers to the region from around the world.
In 1900, the American Bridge Company, then a subsidiary of Carnegie Steel, bought the Berlin Iron Bridge Company and constructed what evolved into the largest bridge-building plant in the world. The American Bridge Company became a subsidiary of United States Steel c. 1901. Located downstream from some of the largest steel producers in the world, the big, new plant had plenty of available material to fabricate. The company imported thirty thousand cars of slag from the Carnegie furnaces at Homestead to bring the floodplain up to the level of the railroad tracks. Within two years, fourteen buildings were erected, including the enormous Main Bridge Shop (270 × 776 feet), and the Engineers' Offices on the hillside above. The American Bridge Company's 4,000 workers needed housing. Using a contraction of the company's name as its title, the Ambridge Land Company graded and paved streets with firebrick, set curbs and sidewalks, and built sewer and gas lines to 970 lots on the plateau above the plant. The company offered discounts on the lots and bonuses to those who could complete a new house in less than a year. Most of the brick houses are two-and-one-half-story vernacular versions of the Colonial Revival style.
The borough's plan extended south from the grid pattern already established in Economy. The Ambridge Land Company arranged for a two-story, hipped-roof police and municipal building (1910; 1003 Merchant Street) of cream-colored brick, with pedimented dormers on all elevations. Foliated and classical ornament, including dentils, swags, lintels with keystones, and corner quoins, enliven its facade. The company also reserved lots for churches, parks, and schools. Free lots had been reserved in 1903 for the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Catholics. The supervisory personnel lived on Park Road between 4th and 8th streets because of its river overlook and larger lot size. Foremen and skilled workers generally lived on Maplewood Avenue, one block east of the river. East of Merchant Street along Melrose Avenue, Irish laborers occupied houses similar to middle management's but on smaller lots. Unskilled German and Slavic workers tended to live on Glenwood Drive and Olive Lane, often in row houses. While the design of the housing stock does not reflect national origins, the borough's two dozen churches by their numbers and their architecture reveal the workers' various ethnic and religious backgrounds, especially Holy Ghost (Russian) Orthodox Church of America (1907–1914; 210 Maplewood Avenue) and St. Stanislaus Polish Roman Catholic Church designed by W. Ward Williams (1926–1927; 558 Beaver Road).
In 1926–1927, the Woodlawn-Ambridge Bridge ( BE49), built by the Ambridge Land Company, opened the area south of the river to Ambridge employees. The new borough was also linked with heavily populated Allegheny County to the south via a small streetcar system that began operating in 1906 using the Harmonists' empty laundry building as the generating plant. Ultimately, Ambridge's shopping district served 35,000 people, and its commercial district prospered. Ambridge lost population during the Great Depression, but during World War II, the Ambridge Navy yard, built on sixty-four acres of reclaimed marshland adjacent to the plant, employed 12,000 people. During the late 1950s, temporary wartime housing was removed and the population began to move farther from the dense commercial areas. Shopping malls and convenience stores nearer to the new homes brought steady decline to Ambridge's retail street. Yet, few other communities in western Pennsylvania retain such distinctive physical traces from each phase of their economic development as Ambridge. Today, heritage tourism at Old Economy and brownfield reuse of the former industrial sites are reinvigorating the riverside town.
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