The remarkable legend and legacy of this enterprising woman and industrialist merits our recognition.

By Gloria Forouzan

Photo: One of the only remaining traces of Mary Pattison Irwin’s life is this brick-sized headstone in Lawrenceville’s Allegheny Cemetery, which simply reads “Mary.”

On the surface, it seems like the only remaining trace of her life is a brick-size marker in Lawrenceville’s Allegheny Cemetery with one word on it: Mary. Yet those who are familiar with Northside streets might still hear her name carried in the wind’s whisper when passing Rope Way, or riding down Brighton Road, known for years as Irwin Avenue.

Years of painstaking research have resulted in enough threads to weave together the legend of the remarkable life of Mary Pattison Irwin. May—a time when our nation recognizes mothers—is a fitting month to remember her.

In 1784, Ireland’s Viceroy held a gala ball at Dublin Castle. Mary Pattison, who’d journeyed from her small village of Cookstown in what is now Northern Ireland, likely thought herself in a dream upon entering the ballroom. 

According to family lore, the ball is where Mary met her future husband. Mary’s gaze fell on Colonel John Irwin. John, an Irish veteran of the American Revolution, was likely charming admirers with tales of his time with George Washington. While no known written account of their meeting exists, Mary’s great-great-great-great grandson, Hugh Nevin Jr., described it to WESA: Mary was 30 years old and already engaged to a doctor, but by evening’s end, “they ditched the party and ran off.” Not long after this, Mary and John left Ireland for America.

When Revolutionary War veterans were promised land in the United States’ hinterlands, they emigrated, first moving to Philadelphia and then settling in Pittsburgh in 1787. Their granddaughter wrote that when Mary first laid eyes on the three rivers she predicted the huge land and water traffic about to begin; she knew wagons and boats needed rope. 

In this 1808 advertisement placed in an issue of the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, Mary Pattison Irwin lists the types of rope for sale at her manufactory. Courtesy of Heinz History Center

John listened to and respected his wife’s counsel. He agreed with her analysis of the profitability of making rope and registered their business as “John Irwin and Wife.” Listing a woman on an official business document was highly unusual in that era.

As John and Mary’s ropery prospered, so did their family; they had four children. Unfortunately, John never recovered from the bayonet wounds he suffered at the 1777 Paoli Massacre. With each year, his ability to work diminished. Mary took on all aspects of running the business, knowing that both her own family and workers relied on her. She moved the ropewalk to ever larger sites due to the growing demand.

At the time, some employers partially paid work crews with daily rum rations but Mary may have been the first employer in Allegheny County to end the rum ration. 

When John died in 1808, Mary immediately re-registered the business as Mary Irwin and Son. She sustained a highly successful enterprise despite operating in a society that limited women’s freedom to engage in commerce. She must have been an able leader, because her ropery generated great wealth for future generations of Irwins. The world she succeeded in was all male, from its workforce to its suppliers and clients. 

This map, circa 1903, showcases Rope Way in the Northside, formerly Allegheny City. Courtesy of the author

Mary Pattison Irwin was likely one of Pittsburgh’s first industrialists and succeeded in business as a single mother over 200 years ago. She also played a role in our nation’s history, making the rope for the steamboat New Orleans in 1811. It was the first boat of its kind to travel from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Thousands soon took advantage of this new mode of transportation to move people, products, and goods.

In the early 1800s, Mary wanted to retire; she’d prepared her oldest son, John, to take over the business. But Commodore Oliver Perry intervened and convinced her to make the rope for the navy he was assembling for the upcoming battle on Lake Erie. Mary agreed, and personally oversaw its manufacture. When she retired, her son moved the ropery to the Northside; his Rope Way is still there. It’s bounded by Western, Allegheny, and Ridge Avenues, and Brighton Road (formerly Irwin Avenue). The homes surrounding Rope Way were owned by Mary’s descendants: the Holdships, the Irwins, B.F. Jones, and the Nevins.

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