Pittsburg City

Camp County, Texas

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Pittsburgh City Hall is located at 200 Rusk Street, Pittsburg, Texas 75686.
Phone: 903-856-3621.


pittsburg tx dontown commercial historic district

Beginnings

Pittsburg [†] is located in far northeast Texas, 60 miles southwest of Texarkana, in central Camp County. The East Texas timberlands are heavily forested with softwoods and hardwoods on undulating terrain. The fertile land is drained by Big Cypress Creek, which forms the northern and eastern edges of the county.

Spanish explorers traversed the area as early as 1542, but there were no strong attempts at permanent settlement until the 1820s. Lured by inexpensive and fertile lands, Anglo American settlers moved steadily into Mexican Texas under the empresario colonization system. The immigration rate increased significantly by the 1840s, particularly after Texas became annexed to the United States in 1846. Among these settlers was William Harrison Pitts, who arrived from Georgia in 1854. He settled on a tract of land that now comprises most of the incorporated area of Pittsburg; his family joined him several years later. A community began to form around the Pitts' homestead, which was named Pittsburg for its most prosperous and influential family. As his landholdings grew, Pitts set aside 50 acres for the town's development. (The Pitts Family Cemetery is included within the nominated district's boundary. The earliest burial dates from 1862 and marks the beginning of the period of significance for the district. The 1862 grave belongs to Sarah Richardson Harvey Pitts, W.H. Pitts' third wife. Nothing else of the Pitts homestead remains intact.)

Agricultural activities thrived around Pittsburg because of the area's fertile soil and abundance of natural resources. Ultimately, agriculture impacted the social, economic, and cultural character of the area. In the mid- to late nineteenth century, cotton was the dominant cash crop. As the agricultural economy diversified, the main crops in the area were corn, cotton, cotton seed, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, peaches, wheat, watermelons, and vegetables. Until the late 1870s, transporting crops was a difficult task, as everything had to be shipped overland to larger transportation hubs. Steamboat transport was available 45 miles away in Jefferson, the second largest water port in Texas. Products available only at Jefferson, brought in by steamboat, were purchased for the return trip to Pittsburg. It was a four-day round trip. Nonetheless, Pittsburg continued to grow, adding more businesses to support the thriving agricultural economy and increased population. By 1858, a two-story store was erected on Quitman Street and sold hardware, groceries, boots, shoes, and clothing. By 1861—just seven years after W.H. Pitts settled there—Pittsburg had a general merchandise store, a combination post office and saloon, a ten-pin alley and bar, the Pittsburg Hotel, a drug store, three dry goods stores, two blacksmith shops, two wagon shops, a tailor shop, one grocery store, four physicians, a Methodist Church, a Baptist Church, a Masonic Lodge, and Burnt Academy School with 65 students. Pittsburg had an appointed postmaster and served as the post office for 2,400 people in the surrounding greater area by 1870; the population of Pittsburg itself was 750.

During these first few decades of Pittsburg's existence, it was part of Upshur County. The town of Gilmer, nearly twenty miles to the south, was the county seat. The growing population and improvements in civil life in Pittsburg required more interaction with the seat of government. A trip to Gilmer could be a daunting task in a horse-drawn wagon over twenty miles of muddy roads, littered with tree stumps, and across creeks that were sometime flooded and impassible. When Cypress Creek flooded, it could be weeks before citizens could travel to the courthouse to take care of legal matters. As the population grew, it became apparent that there was a need for local government more centrally located than Gilmer. In April 1874, State Senator John Lafayette Camp introduced a bill that created a new county from the northern part of Upshur County, one which now bears his name. W.H. Pitts offered $50 toward a new courthouse, which was likely the deciding factor in the election of Pittsburg as the seat of the newly organized Camp County.

In 1880, a property tax was levied to build a proper courthouse. A year later, a $9,800 contract was awarded to D. P. Smith to build a new two-story brick courthouse (razed), located on vacant lots at the east end of the main thoroughfare on Jefferson Street at the intersection of Tapp Street. As Pittsburg's initial development predates the formal organization of the county, the spatial layout of the community resulted in the lack of a traditional courthouse square, and the courthouse's almost subordinate relationship to the commercial core of the community.

The designation of Pittsburg as the new county's seat of government was a pivotal moment in the community's growth. The timing also happened to coincide with another monumental event in the town's history—the arrival of the railroad. The first railroad to arrive in Pittsburg was the East Line & Red River Railroad (known locally as the Katy) that connected to the port town of Shreveport, LA. It arrived in December 1877. The second railroad to reach Pittsburg was the Texas & St Louis Railroad (known locally as the Cotton Belt) in 1880. It connected Pittsburg to Texarkana. With easier access to additional northern markets, continued growth and expansion became the norm for the small city, and shipment of agricultural products flourished. Most activity centered in the railroad district with its produce storage buildings, mills for processing products, and associated facilities such as food grading facilities and factories producing lumber and wood packing crates. In 1879, Camp County shipped 9,000 cotton bales at a value of $400,000. By the late 1800s, cottons gins dotted the countryside. Pittsburg added a cotton compress and a cotton seed oil mill in 1884, as well as a planing mill, a grist mill, and a tannery. These were quickly followed by a foundry, brick yard, canning plant, and a fertilizer mixing plant.

While most of those industries clustered near the railroad tracks, other businesses began to fill in along Quitman/Jefferson streets, stretching eastward towards the new county courthouse. The vast majority of these were housed in one-story, wood frame buildings, but by 1885, the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps indicate a small handful of more substantial brick buildings, including Pittsburg's first bank, Camp County Bank (extant, 124 Jefferson). Among the businesses along this main thoroughfare in 1885 were four saloons, nine groceries, six general stores, two doctors, one dentist, three drug stores, three dry goods stores, a photo gallery, an ice cream shop, a barber, several restaurants, three hardware and saddle shops, a cobbler, and a jeweler. As Pittsburg grew, it was necessary for the city to develop fire zones that made it illegal to build or move wooden structures within the proscribed limits. Created in 1893, this fire ordinance encouraged the downtown development of more permanent brick structures. As a result, by the time the 1896 Sanborn Fire Insurance map was created, the vast majority of the buildings along Quitman/Jefferson between the railroad tracks and the courthouse were constructed of brick. They display uniform setback along the main thoroughfare and most of them filled the entire lot from front to back, meaning their secondary facades uniformly lined the rear streets (Church and Marshall).

By 1890, Pittsburg had a population of 1,203. A year later they voted in favor of incorporation that included an area of one-and-a-half square miles. Significant economic growth continued during the last year of the nineteenth century, brought on by cash crops, development of the railroads, commerce within Camp County and Pittsburg, and land development and construction. The town continued to be primarily a supply and shipping point for farmers. A barrel factory developed for the construction of barrels for shipment of cane syrup, and F.E. Prince opened the Prince Basket & Crate Company, which constructed fruit and vegetable containers for local use and shipment to other producing areas. Electricity came to Pittsburg in 1897, and a franchise was granted to Southwest Telegraph & Telephone Company to build a telephone system in 1899.

Pittsburg welcomed the twentieth century as a thriving, highly commercialized center of agricultural growth with the infrastructure required to develop, support, and nurture a growing city. The city ice house was in full operation, lights were being installed in the city, water wells were bored providing commercial water at the rate of 100 gallons per minute, telephone lines were installed, and telephones were being put in homes and businesses. In 1901, the Cotton Belt Railroad added a new brick passenger depot (extant, 170 W. Marshall). The area's ability to produce an abundance of agricultural products, including timber from the surrounding forests, continued to drive the economy. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Pittsburg added a furniture factory, a textile manufacturing mill, the Pittsburg Creamery, a broom factory, and the Jim Baugh Mattress Factory. The community even organized the Northeast Texas Fair Association, hosting an annual display of farm and orchard products, livestock, poultry, and textile work that brought more than 10,000 visitors to the city. The Carnegie Library (lost to fire in 1939), the many lodges, well-funded churches, and community rooms all demonstrated that there was growing leisure time, along with spendable income for life outside of work.

The growth in population necessitated the construction of larger civic amenities. In 1925, a handsome post office building (extant, 145 Jefferson) was constructed at a cost of $55,000. In 1927, a new two-story brick fire station was built at 132 Jefferson Street (extant). It had an electric siren on top of the building that was incorporated into the design of the building. It housed public restrooms, fire station, living quarters on the second floor for the fire chief and his family, a training room, jury room, and a dorm room for a relief fireman. The 1881 courthouse was no longer adequate for handling county business, and in 1928, the County Commissioners hired the architectural firm of Smith and Praeger from Paris, Texas, to design a new, three-story brick and concrete-frame Classical Revival building (extant, 126 Church). Charles Chappell of Pittsburg was hired as Associate Architect and contractors Wentzel and Wood received the contract for the construction.

As happened all over Texas, however, an economy based on agriculture could not sustain the community's prosperity. By the 1910s, the cotton industry had dried up from depleted, overworked soils and the boll weevil infestation. A thriving sweet potato industry had replaced cotton as the most profitable crop, but it, too, was wiped out in the 1930s, in large part because of the potato weevil and resulting crop embargo. Then the combination of the Great Depression, mechanization, industrialization, east Texas oil discoveries, and World War II impacted local farmers. Increased emphasis on livestock and livestock products resulted in fewer and larger, less labor-intensive farms. Increased industrialization pulled more employment to urban industrial centers. Overall, the agricultural products that made Camp County and Pittsburg a thriving agricultural growing, packing, and shipping center, declined through the 1930s and 1940s, along with the farming and agricultural life style. As a result, Pittsburg became more dependent on industry, retail goods, and services provided to its own residents.

The relationship between Pittsburg and Camp County began to change as the population shifted from rural to urban. From 1940 to 1960, the population for the county fell from 10,285 to 7,849. However, the population of Pittsburg grew during this same period; by 1960 nearly half of the county's population lived in Pittsburg. By 1982, ninety-seven percent of the county's income from agriculture was generated by livestock and livestock products, with a mere three percent or less coming from crop production. In 1988, Pittsburg had 107 rated businesses; at least twenty-two were industrial and included the powerhouse Pilgrim Industries. By 2010, Pittsburg had a population of 4,347.

Adapted from: Leslie Wolfenden and Carlyn Hammons, THC staff (based on survey and historic context prepared by the Camp County Historical Commission and the Pittsburg Main Street Program), Texas Historical Commission, Pittsburg Commercial Historic District, Pittsburg, Camp County, Texas, nomination document. 2012, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.


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