Category: History

  • It Used to Be an Incline

    Remains of Castle Shannon Incline No. 2

    Why is there a narrow strip of forest between these two streets on Mount Washington? And, for that matter, why was the neighborhood laid out with two streets so absurdly close together, so that nothing fits between them but a narrow strip of forest?

    You already know the answer, of course, because you read the title of this article. It used to be an incline.

    Several inclines, of which two are still going, went up Mount Washington from the South Side. Only one went down the back slope of Mount Washington: Castle Shannon Incline No. 2, which began at the upper station of the Castle Shannon Incline on Bailey Avenue and ran down along Haberman Avenue to Washington Avenue (now Warrington Avenue) in Beltzhoover. This was more or less a cable-car line, like the ones that still run in San Francisco and ran all over Pittsburgh for a brief period before electric streetcars took over. It ran for a little more than twenty years; it opened in 1892 and was closed in 1914.

    Castle Shannon Incline No. 2 in operation
    Castle Shannon Incline No. 2 abandoned

    This picture of abandoned freight cars along the incline, taken in 1916, shows the cable in the middle of the track.

  • From Bathhouse to Movie Theater to Storefronts: Adventures of the Natatorium Building

    Strand Theatre

    About seven years ago old Pa Pitt published this big composite picture of the old Strand Theatre on Forbes Avenue across from Oakland. A little while ago Father Pitt came across this item in The Moving Picture World for August 14, 1915.


    New House in Oakland, Pa.

    Natatorium Building Being Remodeled—Will Be Made Into Up-to-Date Picture Theater—Located Between Atwood and Meyran Avenues—Designed to Seat 750 People—Those Who Are Interested in the New Project.

    Special to Moving Picture World from Pittsburgh News Service.

    OAKLAND is to have a new moving picture theater in the Natatorium building. The lower floors, being remodeled, show careful attention to details and give promise of a thoroughly up-to-date and practical theater. The building, between Atwood and Meyran avenues, runs to a paved alley way in the rear, and with this private alley complies fully with the city laws on the subject of exits. The plans call for the abandonment of the present swimming pool and the lowering of the auditorium floor to the Forbes street level. The present stone steps leading to the entrance will be done away with. The auditorium ceiling will be 24 feet high. The floors above the auditorium will not be disturbed by the alterations, although the stairs will be moved to the left of the entrance, and a new elevator lobby constructed. It will seat 750 persons.

    The owners of the Oakland Natatorium building are the Oakland Amusement Company; George H. Schwan is the architect; C. H. Keer Construction Company are the contractors, and the lessee is James B. Clark. The operation company will be the Rowland and Clark theaters, which also operates the Regent, in East Liberty, the Belmar in Homewood, the Arsenal in Lawrenceville, the Bellevue and the Oakland and the Schenley Photo play in Oakland, which latter house will be discontinued on the completion of the new house. Construction starts July 26, and the date set for the opening is November 1.


    Was this the building? None of Father Pitt’s sources had mentioned that it was a converted bathhouse, but once he had the name “Natatorium” it took only a short time to find this picture:

    This is from the Historic Pittsburgh site, which has an incredible collection of treasures. Unfortunately they are served up by a fiendishly complicated system that builds each picture from a mosaic of tiny pieces, so the high-resolution versions are impossible to get with any reasonable amount of work. Librarians often restrict access to public-domain works, either out of proprietary feeling or, more likely, out of a hope that it will make them less likely to get sued if they make a mistake about the copyright status. It is also true that “There may be a fee to acquire hi-res files,” according to the site FAQ, which adds a profit motive.

    At any rate, here’s our building, with a sign out front advertising “Turkish Bath—Swimming Pool,” and a huge painted sign on the side probably advertising the same (we can see only the bottom of the sign in this picture). We can also see the Iroquois Building across the street, and the Schenley Hotel in the distance. So, yes, the Strand Theatre was originally a high-class bathhouse.

    There is a slight mystery about the architect. The article above mentions George H. Schwan, a Pittsburgh architect more famous for his work in Akron. Other sources listed Harry S. Bair, the architect of the same company’s Regent Theater in East Liberty. Perhaps one was the architect of the original building, and the other of the renovations.

  • Whiskey Rebellion Flag

    Whiskey Rebellion flag with six stripes

    The Whiskey Rebellion was a feckless, doomed-from-the-start insurrection pushed mostly by people who were in the habit of insurrecting and didn’t know how to stop. The Treaty of Paris ending the Revolution was only eleven years old, and many of the men who had settled in the west country of Pennsylvania had fought in that war. Now the wicked Easterners, who were scarcely better than British, were imposing an excise tax on whiskey, the staple product that made farming profitable in the West. No taxation without representation! Well, we had representation, but… Liberty and no excise! It was time for another revolution!

    And then President Washington sent an army and, well, you know… We weren’t really serious about rebelling…

    The “flag with six stripes” is often spoken of as raised by the rebels—the six stripes representing the six counties of the West. They had other flags as well; the elaborate one preserved at the Century Inn is the model for all the “Whiskey Rebellion” flags sold by historical souvenir specialists. But the six-striped flag seems to have been the most common. Old Pa Pitt does not know of any surviving examples, so his reconstruction above is speculative. Other speculative reconstructions add a canton with six stars, but that would turn a hastily improvised banner into a craft project. Since only the stripes are mentioned in our sources, Father Pitt suspects only the stripes were used. The reconstructed flag is an SVG file that can be used at any size without loss of resolution (not that there’s much to resolve), and—like all of Father Pitt’s illustrations—it is released into the public domain with a CC0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

    The story of the Whiskey Rebellion is best told by Hugh Henry Brackenridge, who was caught up in the middle of it and did his best to avert a civil war while also keeping himself alive—the latter of which was at least as difficult as the former. Brackenridge was Pittsburgh’s and the nation’s greatest literary figure in President Washington’s time, and he tells the story with the narrative skill of a practiced novelist and the humor of a famous wit.

    Incidents of the Insurrection

    This new carefully printed edition of Incidents of the Insurrection is the first in a series of important Pittsburgh books issued by the Franklin Head, a joint venture between Father Pitt and his old friend Dr. Boli.

    Independence Day is a good day to reflect on the blessings we enjoy because of the surprising collective wisdom of the rabble we call our Founding Fathers. They bought us independence from Britain by a successful rebellion, but they also understood that perpetual rebellion is hell on earth. When we remember Washington and the rest today, we should remember that independence was one of their gifts, but orderly representative government was an even greater gift, and one they were just as willing to fight for.

  • Crawford Grill

    Crawford Grill

    Here is the Crawford Grill three years before it closed, from a picture Father Pitt took in 2000 with a cheap but capable Russian camera called a Lomo Smena 8M. This was the second Crawford Grill, which opened in 1943; the first, which stayed open for a few years after the second opened, had been in the long-since-demolished part of Wylie Avenue on the Lower Hill.

    The Crawford Grill was legendary in its time, and it is still a legend among jazz lovers today. It was the last holdout from a whole street of jazz clubs that flourished in the first half of the twentieth century.

    Note, by the way, the name at the top of the façade—“Sochatoff Building.” The Hill was a glorious mix of ethnic groups, a place where all races and languages came together and had a good time—Greek and African and Lebanese and Russian and Jewish and German and Chinese.

    Of course, the word used by the Powers That Be for that kind of neighborhood was “slum,” and it was the mission of good government to eliminate slums.

    It would be oversimplifying things to say that the Hill collapsed because the authorities hated the idea of a place where different races came together in harmony. But it would not be false. There were other forces involved, but that was the biggest one. The destruction of the Hill was deliberate policy, proudly announced and boastfully acknowledged. Slums must be cleared. And the residents? Well, they’d just better not go off and make another slum somewhere else, because we’ll be watching. How can you tell whether a good neighborhood is turning into a slum? Well, if you see races mixing, that’s an infallible sign. Much public policy in the middle twentieth century was determined by the desirability of keeping races separate.

    The Crawford Grill thumbed its nose at that segregation. People of all races and classes gathered there because the music was first-rate, and the food wasn’t bad either. The entire Lower Hill, including the original Crawford Grill, was destroyed to create an arid modernist wasteland, but the new Crawford Grill stayed open. Cut off from downtown and with much of its original heart ripped out, the Hill withered and the other jazz clubs faded, but the Crawford Grill stayed open. The 1968 riots after Martin Luther King was assassinated destroyed much of what was left of the business district, but the Crawford Grill stayed open. Even after the rest of the Hill had reached its lowest point, the Crawford Grill remained.

    It finally closed in 2003, not from lack of business, but because the building required major repairs that were beyond what seemed reasonable to spend. In fact the club was successful enough that it moved to Station Square—but it lasted only three years there. The Freighthouse Shops part of Station Square was also in decline, though perhaps no one recognized it yet, and the traffic could not support the new club’s considerably higher expenses.

    The building still stands today, isolated and forlorn. That splendid Victorian house to its left is gone now, replaced by a vacant lot. A group of neighborhood preservationists bought the building years ago, but no one has been able to do anything with it. It just sits there, with a state historical marker in front of it to remind us that it was something great once upon a time.

    If old Pa Pitt were writing a short story for a literary magazine, he would end it by telling you that, late at night, neighbors still hear the wail of a saxophone from somewhere in the heart of the building. That would be the proper ending for the story. As it is, he has only the optimistic hope to offer that some day the neighborhood will come together and the doors will open and the jazz will flow again.

  • The Point in 1967

    The Point in 1967

    In 1967, the Point had been cleared and the Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt Bridges had been built. But the old Manchester and Point Bridges were still standing. The Manchester Bridge was still in use; the Fort Duquesne Bridge was famously the Bridge to Nowhere, with no approaches on the North Side end. It was built in 1963, but did not open (with actual ramps on the north end) until 1969. The Fort Pitt Bridge, on the other hand, had opened in 1959, so the Point Bridge was an abandoned hulk. Both the Point and Manchester Bridges were finally taken down in 1970.

    This old slide, taken by the late Donald Bailey in 1967, was badly overexposed to begin with, and it had been stored in bad conditions, but we were able to get a recognizable image out of it with some work in the GIMP. We thank Mr. Bailey’s heirs for donating some of his pictures to the public.

  • Fifth Avenue in 2001

    Fifth Avenue

    How things have changed in two decades! Fifth Avenue at the turn of our century was a busy and fairly low-class retail district, instead of the somewhat less busy but much tonier row of specialty boutiques it is now. Above, we look eastward toward the shiny new Lazarus department store, soon to go bust. At this point there were four department stores downtown, which proved to be about four more than the traffic could support. Below, the G. C. Murphy five-and-dime store, which proudly claimed to be the world’s largest variety store, and Candy-Rama, whose sign was probably bigger than the store itself. Note also the last incarnation of a hat shop (formerly Tucker & Tucker) that had been at the same location for decades.

    Murphy’s
    Fifth at Smithfield

    One thing has not changed at all: Pittsburghers have always been inveterate jaywalkers. Note the crowds crossing before the light has changed.

    Fifth Avenue, Kaufmann’s on left

    On the left, Kaufmann’s, the biggest department store there ever was in Pittsburgh, with fourteen floors of everything. On the right, Lord & Taylor, which didn’t last very long here.

    Old Pa Pitt has gone rummaging in old boxes of slides and binders of negatives, so you will see more of these old pictures over the next few weeks. The pictures in this article were taken with a pair of Communist cameras: a Soviet Zenit-B and an East German Praktiflex.

  • Duquesne Baseball Team, 1892 or 1893

    Duquesne baseball team

    The borough (later city) of Duquesne was only three or four years old when this picture was taken, if the dating in family tradition is correct, but it already had a baseball team with spiffy jerseys. One of the players—possibly the boy on the ground in front with the dark jersey—is James W. Estep (1879–1948), son of George Estep, one of the founders (and later two-term burgess) of Duquesne, and it was James’ late grandson who provided us with this picture, for which Father Pitt is very grateful.

    Old Pa Pitt knows nothing of the history of this team, and he would be delighted if any readers could enlighten him.

  • PCC Car and Schoolhouse, Bethel Park

    Schoolhouse Arts & History Center

    This old school is now a community center for Bethel Park. In front is a Pittsburgh PCC car, the ideal Art Deco streetcar that dominated Pittsburgh transit for a generation, restored to its Pittsburgh Street Railways livery. (It was one of the last PCC cars to run in Pittsburgh, and had been repainted in the 1980s Port Authority livery.) Yes, we do have quite a few pictures of it, because old Pa Pitt is an unashamed fan of PCC cars, which always look to him like trolleys that would run on the planet Mongo in the old Flash Gordon serials. More modern, but less futuristic, trolleys still run on the Silver Line just a block away.

    PCC car
    PCC car
    Schoolhouse
  • The 1877 Point Bridge

    Point Bridge

    From an old postcard (the back bears a 1906 postmark), this picture gives us a good idea of the scale of freight traffic on the Monongahela. The first Point Bridge was built in 1877 and replaced in 1927; the second one was closed in 1959 but stayed up for eleven more years.

  • A Distinguished Beard: George Estep, Burgess of Duquesne

    George Estep, burgess of Duquesne

    George Estep was one of the founders of the borough of Duquesne and was burgess—the equivalent of mayor—twice. He was elected to the council in the first elections held in the new borough, and immediately began squabbling with the other members, leaving a trail of court cases all the way up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and beginning a political tradition that has been lovingly preserved in Duquesne to the present day. His lush growth of beard distinguishes him in the group portraits of Duquesne founders.

    This photograph has never been published before, as far as old Pa Pitt knows, and he thanks the family for preserving it for us.