Category: History

  • Hugh Henry Brackenridge on Duels

    Hugh Henry Brackenridge was a remarkable man: author of one of America’s first novels, founder of what became the University of Pittsburgh, and urbane wit in what was still a rather rough little city across the Alleghenies from civilization. Here is a letter he sent to the Gazette in 1797 on the subject of duels, which were then a notorious plague in Pittsburgh. It was reprinted in a review pasted in the end-papers of an 1846 edition of his Modern Chivalry, so Father Pitt regrets that the source is secondary and not easily identifiable. “Mr. Scull” was the editor of the Pittsburgh Gazette.

    Mr. Scull—The Age of Chivalry is not over; and challenges have been given even in the midst of a yellow fever which, one would think, was killing people fast enough already. The fear of God or the law, are usual and just grounds of refusing. But I will give you a sample of the way in which I get off with some of my challenges, in the following letter and answer on a late occasion; but omitting the name of the challenger, as I have no inclination to trouble him with a provocation.

    PITTSBURGH, October 15, 1797.

    Sir—I will thank you to take a walk with a friend and meet me at the back of the graveyard about sunrise to-morrow morning. After what has happened, you know what I mean.

    Your humble servant, &c.

    PITTSBURGH, October 15, 1797

    Sir—I know what you mean very well; you want to have a shot at me, but I have no inclination to be hit, and I am afraid you will hit me. I pray thee therefore have me excused.


  • Fort Duquesne

    This marker sits right in the middle of what was once Fort Duquesne, the French attempt to hold a vast inland empire that the British coveted. The British attempts to dislodge the French began a world war unprecedented in its scale; we call it the French and Indian War, but in other parts of the world it’s known as the Seven Years’ War. The marker shows the plan of the fort and the French names of the rivers; note that the French, logically enough, considered the Allegheny a part of the Ohio, and the Monongahela a tributary. Had the outcome of the war been different, not only would Pittsburghers—or rather Duquesnois—speak French, but we would have only two rivers.

  • Old Stone Tavern, West End

    If the date “1752” found etched in a cornerstone is correct, then this is the oldest building in the English colonies west of the Alleghenies. That date would make it older than the Fort Pitt Blockhouse by twelve years. Father Pitt tends to doubt the authenticity of the date; but there is no doubt that this is a very old building, almost certainly from the 1700s, and one that ought to be preserved at all costs.

    Update: The building is now generally regarded as dating from 1782, which is still very old for a stone building in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s Old Stone Tavern Friends Trust is trying to get enough money together to preserve this building. If you have extra money sitting around and were wondering what to do with it, here is a suggestion.

  • Cleaning Up After the 1936 Pittsburgh Flood

    Here we have a short film, whose source is unidentified, of some of the cleanup after the St. Patrick’s Day Flood in 1936. It seems to be amateur footage, but it’s good enough to show us what a mess everything was. (It seems to be impossible to embed correctly on, so you’ll actually have to leave this site to see it. But hurry on back.)

  • Well Dressed in German, Too

    In the 1890s, a department store in Pittsburgh that made any pretense to customer service would need a multilingual staff. Here’s an 1892 advertisement for Kaufmann’s from the Volksblatt, one of three German daily newspapers in Pittsburgh at the time. From this advertisement we can gather that a gentleman could be a gentleman with or without a cigar, but no gentleman who pretended to fashion would venture forth without his stick.

  • Washington and Guyasuta

    With one of the grandest views in North America spread out before them, real-estate magnate George Washington and Chief Guyasuta discuss their plans for the construction of Heinz Field. The sculpture, a bronze by James A. West, is called “Points of View.” Father Pitt suspects the title may be a pun of some sort.

  • Fort Pitt Blockhouse

    Old Colonel Bouquet was proud enough of his little blockhouse that he carved his name in the stone above the door. Or rather he had one of his minions do it, because officers don’t have to do things like that for themselves.

    The rafters in the roof are almost all original. When the fort became superfluous in the late 1700s, the little building was sold off and ended up a private dwelling.

    Eventually the Daughters of the American Revolution bought the place and stripped away the later accretions. Now the blockhouse  looks much as it did when Col. Bouquet was in charge.

    Bouquet, by the way, may have been proud enough to put his name on the blockhouse; but finding that he had the honor of naming the fort and the little trading town that instantly appeared beside it, he chose to name them both after William Pitt, prime minister at the time, who was largely credited with the British victories against France all over the world.

  • “The Rosary” by Ethelbert Nevin

    After Stephen Foster, Ethelbert Nevin is Pittsburgh’s most famous composer. Like Chopin, Nevin seldom attempted anything longer than five minutes or so (Chopin did a couple of piano concertos, but who remembers them nowadays?). Also like Chopin, he died young (at the age of 39, just like Chopin). Unlike Chopin, he has been almost forgotten, but when he died in 1901 he was one of the great names in light classical music. “Narcissus” and “Gondolieri” remained in the parlor-piano repertory until people forgot how to play pianos and stopped building houses with parlors.

    One of Nevin’s most famous compositions was “The Rosary,” Here is a recording (MediaFire link) by the great viola player William Primrose, accompanied by the mediocre conductor Charles O’Connell and the Victor Symphony Orchestra. This recording was taken from a beat-up 78-RPM Victor Red Seal record, and the conversion to MP3 has muddied it a bit. If you want the original WAV file, it’s here (another MediaFire link), but be aware that it’s nearly 15 megabytes. The surface noise is not too distracting, and the performance brings out all the sentimentality that made “The Rosary” such a big hit.

    It appears that this recording has been allowed to lapse into the public domain. If there is a copyright owner who objects to Father Pitt’s making it available here, Father Pitt will be happy to remove it.

  • Pittsburgh, Leader of All

    Just in time for the Pittsburgh Summit, a rousing march by Alma Y. Johnson to use as our anthem. It was originally published in 1926 by Ms. Johnson herself. Click on the pictures for full-size JPEG pages that you can print and carry to your piano or parlor organ. The cover alone is worth your time: it bears a sketch of the Pittsburgh skyline as it appeared in 1926, and its black-and-gold colors show us that some things never change.








    These are the lyrics, reprinted as they are punctuated in the original:


    1. The Spirit of Progress took wing
    O’er America’s land coast to coast,
    From the East where of Pilgrims they sing
    To the West, where of wonders they boast
    From the North, where the lake waters gleam
    To the South, where the Rio Grande flows,
    And came to the place of her dreams,
    Where the fire of genius glows.



    Oh! Pittsburgh, City born of skill,
    The child of river and of hill,
    Heir to blessings from on high
    The promise of time gone by.
    Comrade gay to all who thrive
    The hope of those who bravely strive,
    Father of Industry, Patron of the Arts,
    Pittsburgh! Leader of all.


    2. The deeds of thy children are known
    Where courage and faith have joined hand,
    Thy standard of learning has flown
    On the breeze, over ocean and land
    Thy steel, bright and true, spans the world
    ’Cross river and mountain and glen
    Thy banner of Progress unfurled
    Leads on the souls of men.




    Note: This music is in the public domain, so anyone can reproduce or perform it in public at any time and for any reason.

  • The Old Custom House

    Click on the picture to enlarge it.

    The old custom house in Pittsburgh as it appeared in 1857, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. In the middle nineteenth centuy, Pittsburgh was making its transition from a rather grubby industrial town to a magnificently grubby metropolis; note the difference in scale between the custom house and its neighbors.