The Pipeline That Saved Pittsburgh

In the summer of 2020, health restrictions due to the ongoing pandemic kept most Americans from going to the movies. Though it was eventually released via streaming services, producers had hoped the movie Greyhound starring Tom Hanks would become a summer blockbuster. The movie’s plot focused on a single ship, the USS Keeling, and its captain battling U-boats in the Spring of 1942. The bulk of the film covers just 52 hours when a small group of destroyers protected 37 merchant ships through the Black Pit, the mid-ocean gap in the North Atlantic where air cover could not provide protection from enemy submarines and where allied ships were the most vulnerable.

The film was based on a 1955 novel by C.S. Forrester, who is better known for his 1935 novel The African Queen, which became a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, and a series of novels about the fictional Horatio Hornblower, an 18th century English sea captain during the Napoleonic Wars.

What does any of this have to do with Pittsburgh? Virtually the entire movie is set at sea, comprised entirely of action scenes between the surface ships and rarely seen submarines. C.S. Forrester was himself a British subject born in Egypt. He moved to the United States during World War II and eventually settled in California, but it is unclear if he ever visited western Pennsylvania even just in passing. Yet, the fictional story of convoy HX25 and the Battle of the Atlantic in early 1942 has everything to do with Pittsburgh’s story of economic transformation and change in the latter half of the 20th century. But you will have to trust me on that for the moment. Hang on.

When the United States formally entered World War II in December 1941, much of Europe had been at war for over two years. Until then, the United States pursued neutrality in the conflict, but the Roosevelt Administration had gradually pushed the limits on how much support it provided to allies in Europe. Greater and greater amounts of Lend-Lease American goods were flowing across the Atlantic by 1941, but neutrality had effectively shielded not only American-flagged merchant ships but the near waters of the Atlantic Coast from U-boat attacks. Even after Pearl Harbor and the mutual declarations of war between Germany and the United States, European battlefields and the war at sea felt very distant to most Americans at the end of 1941.

Yet, the impact of the war soon reached the American homefront. On January 14, 1942, the long-range German Type IXB submarine U-123 — one of the largest and most advanced submarines at the time — torpedoed the Norwegian tanker the SS Norness just 60 miles east of Montauk, the easternmost point of Long Island in New York.

SS Pennsylvania Sun burning after being torpedoed amidships by a torpedo by U-571 on July 15, 1942. Naval History and Heritage Command

Three days earlier, the Norness had taken a load of oil from the fuel piers at the Esso refinery in Bayonne, New Jersey, and was transiting alone to Halifax, where it would join a convoy to cross the Atlantic and bring fuel to the United Kingdom. Unescorted and unarmed, the ship could not defend itself. The ship’s lone gun mount had just been installed, but it was not expected to pick up any ammunition for it until it reached Halifax. The ship and its vital cargo sank within the hour, and rests a half-mile from where the ocean liner the Andrea Doria sank in 1956.

With the onset of war, the flow of American supplies to Europe was critical to the war effort. American allies were desperate to increase the flows of supplies coming across the Atlantic no matter the costs, and the Germans were intent on making that cost very high. German U-boats had perfected their technology and tactics in attacking surface ships, especially lightly armed merchant vessels. The United States severely lacked the ships and planes, let alone the experience and the manpower, it needed to protect merchant shipping from the U-boat threat. The Battle of the Atlantic is the name given the fight between allied navies focused on moving men and materiel from North America to Europe and a German Navy, which had become very effective at preventing safe passage.

The sinking of the SS Norness was the second ship sunk during one of the most successful German naval operations of World War II. Unhindered by American neutrality, on December 8, 1941, the commander of the German Navy’s U-boat fleet began planning unlimited operations against American shipping. The original plan, for what the Germans called Operation Paukenschlag (Drumbeat), was to immediately deploy virtually the entire German submarine fleet off the American coast. The expansive plan had to be scaled back because of pressing needs for the submarines elsewhere. But beginning with just five submarines that crossed the Atlantic in early January 1942, by summer the German Navy had sunk 233 ships, including nearly 22% of the American fleet of tankers, mostly in the North Atlantic approaches to American ports. No U-boats were sunk, or even damaged. So lopsided were the results, the campaign would be described as the German Navy’s Second Happy Time.

Britain and Russia needed American supplies of everything from ammunition to food, but one of the more pressing needs was for fuel. Crude oil sourced in the American southwest was one of the primary sources of the commodity still accessible to the allies at the time, while American refineries concentrated in the northeastern United States were critical to transforming the raw fuel into supplies for ships, tanks, planes, and both American and allied industries.

The modern refining industry had begun in Pittsburgh a century earlier when Samuel Kier developed a process in the 1840s that cracked Pennsylvania crude oil into a distilled product that could be used for lighting. He later opened America’s first oil refinery in Downtown Pittsburgh in 1853. When oil was discovered at the Drake Well northeast of Pittsburgh in 1859, oil was ported in barrels to Pittsburgh and the number of refining operations in the city increased.[1] For a period, Pittsburgh had the world’s greatest concentration of refining industries, but before the end of the 19th century, the American refining industry shifted to the east coast, where the demand for distilled fuels was the greatest. Then as Pennsylvania crude production waned, ever greater oil discoveries on the Gulf Coast became the nation’s primary source for petroleum.

At the beginning of the war, there were no pipelines bringing Gulf Coast oil to the northeast. Refineries concentrated in Delaware, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania received over 95% of their oil supplies from the Gulf Coast via oceangoing tankers. The rapid success of U-boats against civilian tankers forced gasoline rationing all along the east coast by the end of January 1942. The scale of the losses at sea were kept secret so as to prevent widespread panic, but war planners knew that the flow of oil was crucial to both the war effort and the American economy.

To safely get oil to the eastern United States, the federal government initiated a crash program to construct two 1,400-mile pipelines — the largest construction project of the war other than the Manhattan Project and the Alaska Highway. The goal was to provide a means to get American oil to American refineries but protected from the unvanquished U-boat threat at sea.

Inch Pipelines. HAER

Construction was financed by the federal government and a nonprofit collective called War Emergency Pipelines (WEP), Inc. was formed by 11 of the largest private oil companies in the country — a list that included Standard Oil of New Jersey, Gulf Oil based in Pittsburgh, Shell Oil, and the Atlantic Refining Company — to operate the new pipelines. The public-private partnership to build and operate the pipelines was later called “the most amazing government-industry cooperation ever achieved.”

The Big Inch pipeline being laid through Pennsylvania in 1942–43.

Completed in just 11 months, the “Big Inch” was a 24-inch diameter pipeline that transported crude oil from East Texas oilfields to Illinois and then to eastern Pennsylvania, where the line split to bring product to refineries concentrated in New Jersey and Delaware. The complimentary “Little Big Inch” was a 20-inch pipeline that delivered refined products, including gasoline, heating oil, diesel, and kerosene. The final weld was completed in 1943, and for the remainder of the war, the inland pipelines safely moved vital petroleum products to the northeast.

Immediately after the war, the United States began divesting itself of the economic assets it had acquired during the war. The Texas Eastern Transmission Corporation (TETCO) was incorporated in early 1947 to purchase the Inch pipelines. Built for just under a hundred million dollars, the pipelines were sold as surplus after the war for 143 million dollars — making them one of the few exigent wartime projects that had appreciated in value.

But TETCO was not planning to continue pumping oil and refined products through the pipelines. Without the U-boat threat that spurred their construction, ships were again a viable transportation mode for liquid fuels. There was an alternative use for the pipelines that presented a tremendous arbitrage opportunity for energy producers of the Gulf Coast. The pipelines were going to be immediately converted to transport natural gas.

Natural gas was a byproduct of the extensive oil production in Texas. Then and now, so much natural gas is produced along with the extraction of oil, that much of the freed gas is flared away, essentially thrown away and generating no profit. There were plenty of uses for natural gas in northeast states, but unlike oil there existed no technology or infrastructure in place to move natural gas by sea. The repurposed pipelines provided an entirely new supply of natural gas to regional energy markets across the northeast.


1947 was a critical period for Pittsburgh’s economy. The end of the war had portended a rapid collapse of the industrial orders that had rapidly pulled the region’s economy out of the depression, providing full employment and economic growth for nearly five years. A brief 1946 recession coupled with national strikes in coal and steel industries all compounded to create a postwar recession concentrated in Pittsburgh. The long postwar expansion to come was not yet apparent, and whether Pittsburgh could compete in a new peacetime economy was a challenge that was the focus of an entirely new organization: the Citizens’ Committee on Post-War Planning –soon to be renamed the Allegheny Conference on Community Development (ACCD).

The most immediate economic threat facing Pittsburgh’s peacetime economy was energy. Though much of the Pittsburgh economy was powered by the abundant coal sourced from northern Appalachia, natural gas has been a crucial part of the region’s economy since the Haymaker Brothers accidentally found natural gas while drilling for oil in nearby Murrysville — a discovery credited with birthing the modern natural gas industry in 1878. But by the middle of the 20th century, the natural gas supplies readily accessible in Pittsburgh were rapidly depleting, precisely when the region was competing for postwar investment and growth.

On February 3, 1947, a winter blizzard and plunging temperatures forced Pittsburgh utilities to announce overnight curtailments of natural gas supplied to industrial users ranging from 25 to 100 percent. Some factories were forced to shut down and some open-hearth furnaces in the Mon Valley were briefly fueled with tar to prevent more costly cold shutdowns.[2] With layoffs mounting, the Pittsburgh region was increasingly seen as an uncompetitive location for new investment because of insufficient and inconsistent fuel supplies. Not just jobs, but the economic future of Pittsburgh was being put at risk.

There was little prospect at the time — decades before the development of hydraulic fracking would again increase the production of northern Appalachian natural gas — that regional supplies of the fuel could be sustained, let alone expanded. Though the conversion of the Inch pipelines was originally conceived to connect Gulf Coast natural gas with northeastern markets, sheer geography favored Pittsburgh. Along their original route, the pipelines passed just south of the city where they roughly followed the path of Pennsylvania’s southern border. At their closest point, the pipelines came within 50 miles of Downtown Pittsburgh.

As an emergency measure, natural gas had begun to flow northward through the pipelines in December 1946 to get fuel to parts of Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia.[3] But there did yet not exist the infrastructure to get pipeline gas to Pittsburgh. In fact, the permanent conversion of the pipelines to bring natural gas to Pennsylvania was still in doubt.

Surprisingly, vested interests in Pennsylvania did not want the new fuel supply at all. Despite the nearly existential economic threat the natural gas shortage posed to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania regulators initially sought to withhold permits necessary to allow natural gas to be transported over Pennsylvania rivers and streams. Even as fuel shortages forced greater layoffs, the Pennsylvania state senate proposed a bill to prevent the sale of the Inch pipelines and their conversion to transport natural gas. Proponents argued that the conversion of the Inch pipelines would “wreck economic havoc on the state.”[4]

Editorial Cartoon in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 5, 1947

Pipeline officials blamed the coal industry and its fear of additional competition from natural gas in energy markets for the political opposition, while unions feared the potential loss of jobs for coal miners. Only the severity of the natural gas shortage facing Pittsburgh during the winter of 1947 forced legislators to relent. On February 4, 1947, Pennsylvania legislators gave up their attempt to block the sale of the pipeline and its conversion to transport natural gas.[5]

The construction of the Inch pipelines and their postwar conversion to transport natural gas came at an incredibly fortuitous time for Pittsburgh. The environmental costs of extensive coal usage were no longer deniable in Pittsburgh by the mid-1940s. Not only did pipeline-supplied natural gas prevent future industrial shutdowns, but it enabled efforts to clean the air and improve the region’s quality of life. Even though coal was inexpensive and plentiful, regional leaders were taking action to limit soot in the air — something that could only be accomplished by widespread reductions in the use of coal.

Coal was ubiquitous in the Pittsburgh economy. Regional electricity supplies were almost entirely produced by coal-fired electric plants and coal was the primary feed product for the industrial coke essential to the cluster of integrated steel production that defined Pittsburgh. Coal use came with a cost. One of the major factors contributing to poor air quality in Pittsburgh was the widespread use of coal in home furnaces that were incapable of reaching the high temperatures necessary to limit soot exhaust.

Pittsburgh sat atop the vast seam of soft bituminous coal that extended across 11,000 square miles of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. The Pittsburgh seam was nearly inexhaustible, mostly close to the surface, and relatively inexpensive to extract. But western Pennsylvania coal was soft bituminous coal that produced excessive smoke and soot, unlike the harder anthracite coal of eastern Pennsylvania. More than anything else, the widespread use of bituminous coal gave Pittsburgh one of its indelible monikers as the Smoky City.

Pittsburgh had long accepted the environmental costs of its heavy reliance on coal because of the jobs and the prosperity that came with it. But as the nation emerged from World War II, a coalition of business and government leaders took up the challenge of reducing soot in the air. The city of Pittsburgh passed a comprehensive smoke control ordinance in 1941 and created a Bureau of Smoke Control to enforce the new law. Smoke in Pittsburgh was “declared to be a public nuisance,” enabling public enforcement action to control it, but the law was held in abeyance until after the war. Democratic Party boss David Lawrence made full implementation of the 1941 ordinance a key promise of his first campaign for mayor in 1945. Lawrence took office in January 1946, and on October 1 of that year, the deferred regulation came into effect. New rules required the use of smokeless fuels such as anthracite coal, natural gas, or fuel oil rather than bituminous coal wherever possible within the city.

Business leaders working through the newly formed Allegheny Conference on Community Development (ACCD) urged businesses to comply with the new regulations. The collaboration of public and private sector leaders gets the bulk of the credit for Pittsburgh’s rapidly improving atmospheric conditions. By 1948, visibility in Downtown had improved 67%, and continued to improve as coal use declined.[6] Much of the region’s success in removing coal soot from the air resulted from the conversion of industrial and residential uses of coal to natural gas, a fuel that had recently been in such dire shortage across southwestern Pennsylvania. Virtually none of Pittsburgh’s shift away from coal could have taken place when it did without new supplies of natural gas provided by the repurposed Inch pipelines.

The pipeline conversions immediately shifted the economics of energy in southwestern Pennsylvania. Natural gas supplies went from being Pittsburgh’s Achilles’ heel to a new competitive advantage. New natural gas pipelines from Texas to the northeast was not a new idea, but before the war the idea was opposed by Texas senators. Texas politicians saw the natural gas as a factor that could promote industrial development in the state; exporting the fuel to other regions would only benefit regions outside Texas in the long run.[7] Only superseding wartime priorities — and the successes of the German assault on shipping in early 1942 — trumped parochial concerns in Texas. The Inch pipelines did in fact accelerate the flow of natural gas out of Texas, and few regions benefited from the new fuel supplies more than Pittsburgh did.

Expanded natural gas supplies even inverted the normal relationship between increased environmental regulation and business costs as the price of natural gas in Pittsburgh rapidly deflated. Despite the region’s unvanquished supply of coal, by the end of 1948, per BTU costs of natural gas were lower in the Pittsburgh markets.[8] Regional industries needed little prodding to rapidly convert away from coal.

The new supplies of natural gas became ever more crucial to Pittsburgh’s economy during the postwar expansion that was just beginning. When a February 1949 regulatory ruling risked diversion of just a third of Pittsburgh’s allocated natural gas supply to other cities, the production from over 400 local factories were said to be at risk of shutting down. Mayor David Lawrence argued that “America’s entire economy will be thrown out of line if Pittsburgh does not get the additional gas.”[9]

The national infrastructure to move natural gas by pipeline expanded through the 1950s, but the Inch pipelines continued to be a vital part of energy supplies in western Pennsylvania. When TETCO announced plans in 1954 to reconvert just the Little Big Inch to transport liquid fuels again, the city of Pittsburgh filed suit in federal court to keep the pipeline dedicated to natural gas.[10] The city eventually lost that legal battle by 1957, but by then the reduced supplies were offset by the expansion of regional storage facilities for natural gas. Large-scale storage of natural gas allowed for excess gas supplies available in warmer months to meet recurring demand spikes in winter.

Most likely natural gas pipelines would eventually have been constructed to bring natural gas from the Gulf Coast to the northeastern United States, and those pipelines would have supplied Pittsburgh along their path. But without the accelerated wartime construction of the Inch pipelines, new natural gas supplies available in Pittsburgh would certainly have been delayed by many years or even decades. Pittsburgh’s economy might not have survived the depressed investment that would have been inevitable until new natural gas supplies were available.

It was not even guaranteed that the Inch pipelines would have been constructed during the war. The pipelines were built solely because of the dire losses German submarines inflicted on American and allied tankers close to American coasts in early 1942, but those losses did not continue for long. The United States began a crash shipbuilding program and quickly learned tactics to effectively battle the submarine threat. By early in 1943 most allied shipping losses were in distant cross-Atlantic routes and the German U-boat fleet was taking heavier and heavier losses as allied navies grew larger and more proficient in anti-submarine tactics. On May 24 of that year, wolf packs of German U-boats were temporarily withdrawn from the North Atlantic, and would never again regain the initiative.

If the construction of the Inch Pipelines had not begun so quickly — spurred entirely by the unprecedented success of Operation Drumbeat — it is more than possible the submarine threat to intracoastal tankers would have been vanquished before they were approved. So maybe, just maybe, Pittsburgh’s postwar Renaissance was destined more than anything else by the success of just a few German submarines in the cold winter and early spring of 1942.


[1] A. Michael Sulman, “The Short Happy Life of Petroleum In Pittsburgh: A Paradox in Industrial History,” Pennsylvania History 30 (January 1966): p. 51.

[2] “Gas Shortage Forces District Plants to Curtail,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 4, 1947, p. 1.

[3] “Gas Starts Flow Through Pipeline,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 6, 1946, p. 1.

[4] “State Is Able To Block Gas From Big Inch,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 27, 1946. p. 2.; “Proposal to Delay Sales of Inch Pipelines Dropped,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 5, 1947. p. 1.

[5] Ibid

[6] Davidson, C. I. “Air Pollution in Pittsburgh: A Historical Perspective.” Journal of the Air Pollution Control Association 29, no. 10 (1979): 1035–41

[7] Dudley Dillard, “Big Inch Pipe Lines and the Monopoly Competition in the Petroleum Industry,” The Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics Vol. 20, №2 (May, 1944), p. 120 footnote.

[8] Joel A. Tarr and Karen Clay, “Pittsburgh as an Energy Capital,” in Energy Capitals: Local Impact, Global Influence (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014), 24.

[9] W. L. Russell, “Demand Slice — City to Lose 50 Million Feet of Gas,” Pittsburgh Press, February 20, 1949, 2

[10] City of Pittsburgh v. Federal Power Commission.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store