Category: History

  • The Old Pike

    A very interesting book on the subject of the National Pike has just appeared at Project Gutenberg. The National Pike (now U.S. Route 40, and for substantial stretches Maryland Route 144) brought the East to the West, and passes through what are now the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh. Many milestones of the sort seen in the photograph still exist, and are lovingly maintained.

    The idea of a federally funded highway to the West was a product of the Jefferson administration; the right wing, of course, denounced it as a pinko plot. (The word for “pinko” in those days was “Jacobin.”)

    The author of the book, Mr. Thomas B. Searight, was the son of the Searight who operated a tollhouse west of Uniontown. That tollhouse is still there; it is built to the standard octagonal plan of the tollhouses on the National Pike.

    The Old Pike. A History of the National Road, with Incidents, Accidents, and Anecdotes Thereon. Illustrated. By Thomas B. Searight. Uniontown, Pa: Published by the Author. 1894.

    The same book scanned from the original at Google Books.

  • Pittsburgh Businesses in 1819

    Pittsburgh was already a thriving small city nearly two hundred years ago, as we can see from a directory to the city published in 1819. A few of the advertisements from the back of the book give us a good picture of the commercial landscape of the place.


    Taverns were common, of course, and what traveler would not be reassured by the name of this one?


    We are almost certainly meant to read this as “Spread Eagle Tavern.” Rebuses were common in advertisements throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Note the address, by the way. There were no address numbers in the Pittsburgh of 1819; advertisers had to give explicit directions relative to notable landmarks.


    We have forgotten in our days of central heating how important a good bellows used to be.


    As Pittsburgh grew more prosperous, homeowners kept up with the latest fashions. One popular fashion was to have mural wallpapers installed in the largest rooms of the house, and Pittsburgh was apparently not only a consumer but also a supplier of such decorations.”Third street,” by the way, is what we now call “Third Avenue.” Our numbered “avenues” were called “streets” in those simpler days; the numbered “streets” on our current map had individual names in 1819.


    Of course, the reason Pittsburgh existed in the first place was because the site controlled the access to the West by way of the Ohio River, and much of the business here catered to travelers embarking for the new countries to the west. Grocers like Mr. Cotter kept everything you would need to stock your boat for a long trip.

  • Very Early Map of Pittsburgh, 1759


    UPDATE: Another more intact copy of the map has surfaced; see below.

    Old Pa Pitt is very pleased to be able to present to you what must be one of the very earliest printed maps of Pittsburgh, perhaps the very earliest, printed only a month or so after the British founded the place on the ruins of Fort Duquesne. It can be found on the last page of the London Magazine: or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, for January of 1759. Unfortunately a bit of the page is torn, but the missing words do not affect the meaning very much. (The last line almost certainly reads, “The Arrows shew the Course of the Rivers.”) All friends of civilization owe a great debt of gratitude to the Google Books project for making possible research that would have taken decades of work and thousands of miles of travel in the old days of, say, ten years ago.

    ——Father Pitt has found another  copy of the same magazine in which the page is not torn. Here is the same map intact:


  • Point Park: An Error Corrected


    The Pittsburghers have committed an error in not rescuing from the service of Mammon, a triangle of thirty or forty acres at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela, and devoting it to the purposes of recreation. It is an unparalleled position for a park in which to ride or walk or sit. Bounded on the right by the clear and rapid Allegheny rushing from New York, and on the left by the deep and slow Monongahela flowing majestically from Virginia, having in front the beginning of the great Ohio, bearing on its broad bosom the traffic of an empire, it is a spot worthy of being rescued from the ceaseless din of the steam engine, and the lurid flames and dingy smoke of the coal furnace. But alas! the sacra fames auri is rapidly covering this area with private edifices; and in a few short years it is probable, that the antiquary will be unable to discover a vestige of those celebrated military works, with which French and British ambition, in by-gone ages, had crowned this important and interesting point.

    ——A Pleasant Peregrination through the Prettiest Parts of Pennsylvania, performed by Peregrine Prolix.

    Our author looked down on Pittsburgh in 1835 and recommended a park exactly the size (“thirty or forty acres”) of Point State Park (which is 36 acres). Seldom in the history of urban planning has a need for green space in a particular location been so obvious; certainly it is even more seldom that the crying need is actually met by enlightened urban planners, even if it took us till 1974.

  • An English View of Pittsburgh in the 1820s

    Museum of Foreign Literature and Science

    APRIL, 1829.

    From the Monthly Review.

    LETTERS FROM THE WEST: containing Sketches of Scenery, Manners, and Customs; and Anecdotes connected with the First Settlement of the Western Sections of the United States. By the Hon. Judge Hall. 8vo. pp. 385. London. Colburn. 1828.

    Our author commences his tour at Pittsburgh, formerly the ultima Thule of travellers, but now the vestibule through which they approach the great states of the West. It is favourably situated at the head of the Ohio, and the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers. The scenery around the town is charming. A circle of hills encloses it, from various points of which the three rivers just mentioned may be seen winding through the country.

    “The city lay beneath me, enveloped in smoke—the clang of hammers resounded from its numerous manufactories—the rattling of carriages and the hum of men were beard from its streets—churches, courts, hotels, and markets, and all the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of busy life were presented in one panoramic view. Behind me were all the silent, soft attractions of rural sweetness—the ground rising gradually for a considerable distance, and exhibiting country seats, surrounded with cultivated fields, gardens, and orchards. On either hand were the rivers, one dashing over beds of rock, the other sluggishly meandering among the hills; while the lofty eminences beyond them, covered with timber, displayed a rich foliage, decked and shadowed with every tint of the rainbow. Below the town, the Ohio is seen, receiving her tributary streams, and bearing off to the west, burthened with rich freights. The towns of Allegheny on the right hand, and Birmingham on the left—the noble bridges that lead to the city in opposite directions—the arsenal, and the little village of Laurenceville, in the rear, added variety to the scene.”—pp. 22, 23.

    The smoke of Leeds or Manchester is a pure atmosphere, compared with the masses of soot sent forth by the Pittsburgh coal. Even the snow that falls there is said to be tinged with it! The principal manufactures of this town consist of iron and glass ware. It is the principal place of deposit for goods destined for the western country. It is moreover a port of entry, a distinction which seems to have occasionally puzzled the Italian custom-house officers, if we are to believe an anecdote related by Mr. Clay, on the floor of Congress:—

    “‘To illustrate the commercial habits and enterprise of the American people, (he said) he would relate an anecdote of a vessel, built, and cleared out at Pittsburgh for Leghorn. When she arrived at her place of destination, the master presented his papers to the customhouse officer, who would not credit them, and said to him, “Sir, your papers are forged; there is not such a port as Pittsburgh in the world; your vessel must be confiscated.” The trembling captain laid before the officer the map of the United States—directing him to the gulf of Mexico—pointed out the mouth of the Mississippi—led him a thousand miles up it to the mouth of the Ohio, and thence another thousand up to Pittsburgh. “There, Sir, is the port whence my vessel cleared out.” The astonished officer, before he had seen the map would as readily have believed that this vessel had been navigated from the moon.’”—pp. 36,37.

    ——Museum of Foreign Literature and Science, April, 1829, quoting from the Monthly Review. From the description, we can tell that the writer stood on the Hill, which was then not much settled, and looked westward.

  • Pittsburgh in 1816

    The English reformer William Cobbett published the journal of his friend Thomas Hulme, who visited the western parts of the United States in 1816. Mr. Hulme began, of course, in Pittsburgh, the gateway to the West, and on June 4 and 5 took a tour of the city.

    Took a view of Pittsburgh. It is situated between the mouths of the rivers Allegany and Monongahela, at the point where they meet and begin the Ohio, and is laid out in a triangular form, so that two sides of it lie contiguous to the water. Called upon Mr. Bakewell, to whom we were introduced by letter, and who very obligingly satisfied our curiosity to see every thing of importance. After showing us through his extensive and well conducted glass works, he rowed us across the Monongahela to see the mines from which the fine coals we had seen burning were brought. These coals are taken out from the side of a steep hill, very near to the river, and brought from thence and laid down in any part of the town for 7 cents the bushel, weighing, perhaps, 80 lbs. Better coals I never saw. A bridge is now building over the river, by which they will most probably be brought still cheaper.

    This place surpasses even my expectations, both in natural resources and in extent of manufactures. Here are the materials for every species of manufacture, nearly, and of excellent quality and in profusion; and these means have been taken advantage of by skilful and industrious artizans and mechanics from all parts of the world. There is scarcely a denomination of manufacture or manual profession that is not carried on to a great extent, and, as far as I have been able to examine, in the best manner. The manufacture of iron in all the different branches, and the mills of all sorts, which I examined with the most attention, are admirable.

    Price of flour, from 4 to 5 dollars a barrel; butter 14 cents per lb.; other provisions in proportion and mechanic’s and good labourer’s wages 1 dollar, and ship-builder’s 1 dollar and a half, a day.

  • Modern Chivalry, by Hugh Henry Brackenridge

    The first “Great American Novel” came, not from Boston, or from Philadelphia, or from New York, but from Pittsburgh, where Hugh Henry Brackenridge published the first part of his Modern Chivalry in 1792.

    Yes, we have a literary tradition 220 years old, and when it comes to the Great American Novel we have Boston, Philadelphia, and New York beat. From the ordinary reader’s point of view, it’s a rambling shaggy-dog tale that goes nowhere and has a great deal of enormously clever fun getting there. From the historian’s point of view, it’s an unrivaled view of life as it was lived in western Pennsylvania in the early years of the Republic.

    Brackenridge kept adding to his book until at least 1815, and made numerous corrections throughout his life. This first posthumous edition is thus probably the closest to what he intended the thing to be, although in spite of its the printer’s “great pains to expunge” the mistakes of previous editions, this one has more than its share of errors.

    Modern Chivalry: Containing the Adventures of a Captain and Teague O’Regan, His Servant. By H. H. Brackenridge, late a Judge of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh, 1819.

    Volume I.

    Volume II.

  • Billy Baxter’s Letters

    In the late nineteenth century Pittsburgh had a thriving publishing industry, nourishing some writers who would make names in the world. Mr. William J. Kountz, Jr., might well have become one of America’s most popular humorists, except that he died at the age of not quite thirty-two, having written only enough to fill a little book of less than a hundred pages.

    But that little book of Billy Baxter’s Letters went everywhere. It was distributed as a promotion by the Duquesne Distributing Company of Harmarville, a maker of liver tonics, or what Pittsburghers today would call “pop.” Father Pitt himself has two copies, and Project Gutenberg has helpfully digitized the book here:

    Billy Baxter’s Letters (Project Gutenberg)

    A good scanned copy of the book can also be found at Google Books:

    Billy Baxter’s Letters (Google Books)

    The sketches are in the form of letters from “Billy Baxter” of Pittsburg (so spelled in those days) to his friend Jim. Mr. Baxter writes about the ordinary things that might happen to a Pittsburgh gentleman of 1899, such as getting drunk and spending a good deal of money:

    Yesterday at 2:30 I had a hundred and ten dollars; this morning I’m there with a dollar eighty, and that’s the draw out of a two-dollar touch. If there is any truth in the old saying that money talks, I am certainly deaf and dumb to-day. Besides I have a card in my pocket which says I’ve opened up a running account of thirty-two forty at George’s place. I wonder if this George is on the level, because I’ll swear I don’t think I was in there at all. I’ll bet he stuck the forty on anyway. You know me, Jim; I am one of those bright people who tries to keep up with a lot of guys who have nothing to do but blow their coin. I stood around yesterday and looked wise, and licked up about four high-balls; then I kind of stretched. Whenever I give one of those little stretches and swell up a bit that’s a sign I am commencing to get wealthy. I switched over and took a couple of gin fizzes, and then it hit me I was richer than Jay Gould ever was; I had the Rothschilds backed clear off the board; and I made William H. Vanderbilt look like a hundred-to-one shot. You understand, Jim, this was yesterday.

    Looking at the Google Books version, Father Pitt turned up a strange anomaly. Several good illustrations are included in the book, all in the same style. Here’s one:

    This is from the Google Books copy. Father Pitt’s copy has this illustration:

    Why a new illustration? All the others are the same in both editions. In fact the only other difference is that Father Pitt’s copy has a letter, missing in the Google Books copy , from Admiral Dewey, thanking the publishers for the book, along with this notice:

    We also sent a copy to His Royal Highness, Albert, Prince of Wales, and, having heard nothing from him, it now looks as though Al were going to snub us. Under the circumstances, when he runs for King we can’t be for him.

    The change in illustrations is a mystery; both are good, and there was no reason to abandon one for the other. The only explanation Father Pitt can come up with is that perhaps the original plate was damaged, and the original artist was not available to replace it.

  • What Mr. Carnegie Did for You

    The name “Carnegie” is everywhere in Pittsburgh: four museums, libraries everywhere, a great university, among other things. Just how much did Andrew Carnegie spend on gifts to the people of Pittsburgh? A 1915 guide to the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon) tallies it up:

    It sounds like quite a bit of money. But how much was that worth in 1915? The same guide gives us an interesting point of comparison:

  • John Quincy Adams in Pittsburgh

    John Quincy Adams, Daguerreotyped in 1843, the year he visited Pittsburgh. Could a new two-volume edition of Modern Chivalry be among the books on the table behind him?

    An interesting pamphlet has just appeared on Project Gutenberg:

    Ex-President John Quincy Adams in Pittsburgh (1843)

    It consists of a speech by Wilson McCandless (who gave his name to the Town of McCandless, Allegheny County’s most perfectly square township) welcoming Mr. Adams, Adams’ speech in reply, and some correspondence between the two men.

    McCandless sent Adams the new edition of Modern Chivalry by Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and it’s very interesting to read Adams’ opinion of the work. He had read and loved it as a young man, and he expects it to be a permanent part of the world’s literature. Whether it has lived up to that expectation is debatable; it is not always in print like the works of Hawthorne, but on the other hand it is reprinted often enough that it could not quite be called forgotten. At any rate, Pittsburgh has at least the honor of having made one of the first substantial contributions to American fiction, and can claim a literary culture well over two centuries old.