Mary Pattison Irwin – Rope Way – by Gloria Forouzan
Cover image by Ken Petri – 2010
Years of painstaking research have resulted in enough threads to weave together an account of the remarkable life of this woman, Mary Pattison Irwin. May is a fitting month to remember Mary, as it’s a time when our nation recognizes mothers. In 1784 Ireland’s Viceroy held a gala ball at Dublin Castle. Entering the magnificent ballroom glittering from hundreds of candles’ light, Mary Pattison, who’d journeyed from her small village in Northern Ireland, likely thought herself in a dream.
At the ball Mary’s gaze fell on Major John Irwin, unfortunately no written account of their meeting exists. John, an Irish veteran of the American Revolution, was likely charming admirers with tales of his time with George Washington.
Mary was 30 years old, engaged to a doctor, but, by evening’s end, she knew John promised the future she desired. She called off her engagement and within months, took an astounding leap of faith and married Major Irwin. Early in 1785 they left Ireland for America. When Revolutionary War veterans were promised land in the United States’ hinterlands, they emigrated, 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. As Mary knew wagons and boats needed rope.
It boggles the mind that over two centuries ago this woman from tiny Cookstown, County Tyrone, astutely foretold that rope making would lead to prosperity. Keep in mind that during that era Pittsburgh was a remote, backwater outpost. Unlike many of his contemporaries, John listened to and respected Mary’s counsel. He agreed with her analysis of the profitability of making rope. He registered their business in 1794 as John Irwin & Wife. Listing a woman on an official business document was highly unusual in that era.
As their ropery prospered so did their family, they had four children. Unfortunately, John never recovered from the grievous 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, she knew that both her own family and workers relied on her. Her business acumen is evidenced by her relocating the ropewalk to ever larger sites due to the growing demand. At the time employers partially paid work crews with daily rum rations.
No doubt this led to problems in Pittsburgh work sites. Mary was the first employer in Allegheny County to end the rum ration. When John Irwin died in 1808, Mary immediately re-registered the business as Mary Irwin & 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 as her ropery generated great wealth for future generations of Irwins. The world she succeeded in was all male, from workforce, to suppliers and clients.
Mary Pattison Irwin was one of Pittsburgh’s first industrialists. She succeeded in business as a single mother 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.
By 1812 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 Avenue, Ridge and Brighton Road (formerly Irwin Avenue). The homes surrounding Rope Way were owned by Mary’s descendants, Holdships, Irwins, BF Jones, and Nevins. Mary Pattison Irwin’s remarkable legacy merits our recognition.