Category: History

  • Pittsburgh in 1815

    This is a long item, but Father Pitt trusts that no excuse is needed: it is a detailed description of the city of Pittsburgh as it appeared when the author visited the place 205 years ago in 1815. It comes from a book by William Darby published in 1818 and entitled The Emigrant’s Guide to the Western and Southwestern States and Territories.

    PITTSBURG is in every respect the principal town, not only of the Ohio valley, but, New-Orleans excepted, of the whole waters of the Mississippi. It was created a city by the legislature of Pennsylvania, at the session of 1815–16. Travellers are almost always disappointed on entering this city; there is but one point of approach that affords a good view of the place; that is the apex of the coal hill, in the road from Washington in Pennsylvania. The city is built upon the peninsula between the Aleghany and Monongahela rivers; the ground plan is nearly in form of a triangle. The bottom upon which the town of Pittsburg was originally laid out, is now nearly filled with houses; a suburb has been laid out upon the Aleghany called the northern liberties, and another upon the Monongahela. The former, from the width of the bottom from the river to the hill, and from the circumstance of the turnpike road srom the eastward entering through it, is extending rapidly; the suburb upon the Monongahela cannot increase considerably for want of room between Ayres hill and the river.

    There are four other villages, however, that are virtually suburbs of Pittsburg; Birmingham, upon the left bank of Monongahela, opposite Ayres hill; Aleghany, upon a fine second bottom of that stream, opposite Pittsburg; Lawrenceville, two miles above Pittsburg, upon the same side of the Aleghany; and a street running along the left bank of Monongahela, opposite Pittsburg. When this city and vicinity was surveyed by the author of this treatise, in October, 1815, there were in Pittsburg 960 dwelling houses, and in the suburbs, villages, and immediate outskirts, about 300 more, making in all 1260, and including inhabitants, workmen in the manufactories, and labourers, upwards of 12,000 inhabitants.

    This city is literally a work-shop, and a warehouse for the immense country below, upon the Ohio and other rivers. On a cursory survey, when viewing the iron foundries, glass-houses, and other creative machinery, it is not easy to imagine where the products can be disposed of; but a review of the emigration over the mountains will soon remove this wonder. It will be useless to load the pages of this treatise with the names of the various owners of machinery, but a recapitulation of the objects of human wants must be interesting to every emigrant who intends to visit this real phenomenon.

    A large steam grist mill, capable of grinding into flour sixty thousand bushels of wheat annually. Three breweries, in which are made an immense quantity of beer, porter, and ale. One nail factory, including the manufacture of many other objects, in which are manufactured nearly 80,000 dollars worth of ironmongery annually. Two extensive air foundries, in which are cast excellent cannon and cannon balls, smiths’ anvils, sad irons, stoves, pots and kettles of all kinds, sugar boilers and cylinders cast, and the latter turned.

    Of ironmongery, are now made, sheet iron, nails and nail rods, shovels, tongs, axes, mattocks, hoes, adzes, drawing knives, cutting knives, vices, scale beams, plain bits, chisels, spades, and, in fine, every object necessary in a country of this kind.

    Locks, hinges, hasps, screws, but-hinges, bridle bits, buckles, and stirrup and saddle irons, are all manufactured. Waggons, carts, and drays, with every single substance that can enter their composition, and every tool, (perhaps saws excepted) necessary to their construction, are made in this city.

    In November, 1815, there were neither coach or harness maker in the city; if that is still the case, an excellent opportunity is offered to any person acquainted with either or both those occupations.

    Perhaps of all the wonders of Pittsburg, the greatest is the glass factories. About twenty years have elapsed since the first glass-house was erected in that town, and at this moment every kind of glass, from a porter bottle or window pane, to the most elegant cut crystal glass, are now manufactured. There are four large glass-houses, in which are now manufactured, at least, to the amount of 200,000 dollars annually.

    Pottery is carried on in Birmingham, where excellent stone and black ware are made; common red ware is also manufactured to great amount.

    To the above may be added, white lead, red lead, buttons, wheel irons, knitting needles, silver plating, stocking weaving, suspenders, boots, shoes, hats, saddles, bridles, bells, stills, copper kettles, brushes of every kind, curry combs, trunks, brass and iron candlesticks, and in fact an infinity of objects of daily demand, brought a few years past from Europe.

    Cotton and woollen cloth is also made extensively, consisting of blankets, vest patterns, hosiery, coarse and fine cottonade, and broadcloth.

    Except the gratifying reflection arising from the review of so much plastic industry, Pittsburg is by no means a pleasant city to a stranger. The constant volumes of smoke preserve the atmosphere in a continued cloud of coal dust. In October, 1815, by a reduced calculation, at least 2000 bushels of that fuel was consumed daily, on a space of about two and a quarter square miles. To this is added a scene of activity, that reminds the spectator that he is within a commercial port, though 300 miles from the sea.

    Several good inns, and many good taverns, are scattered over the city; but often, from the influx of strangers, ready accommodation is found difficult to procure. Provisions of every kind abounds; two markets are held weekly.

    The circumstance which has contributed most, after its relative position, to secure the prosperity of Pittsburg, is the enormous mass of mineral coal, that exists in its vicinity. The coal, like all other fossil bodies in the Ohio valley, rests in horizontal strata, about three and a half feet thick, of very pure bituminous coal. The strata are 340 feet above low water level, or about 290 above the level of Pittsburg; consequently a falling body from the moment of issuing from the mouth of the mine, until placed in the cellar of the consumer. The medium price, six and a quarter cents per bushel, or two dollars and twenty-five cents per chaldron.

    Coal abounds in every hill which rises more than four hundred feet above low water mark: where less than eighty or one hundred feet of incumbent earth rests upon the coal bed, the quality of the mineral is found greatly depreciated. It has been already noticed, that the coal strata are perfectly level with each other. In the neighbourhood of Pittsburg they are divided into three separate bodies; the first, and perhaps most extensive, is west of the Monongahela, the second, on the peninsula upon which the city stands, and thirdly, northwest of the Aleghany river. The supply of the city is taken principally from the beds of the second repository, though an immense quantity is also brought from the first.

    Two bridges are, by an act of the state legislature, to be built over the Monongahela and Aleghany rivers, in places best calculated to facilitate intercourse with the adjacent country, and to unite together the scattered and detached fragments of the same commercial community.

  • Fort Pitt Blockhouse in 1887

    In the nineteenth century, the Fort Pitt Blockhouse was used as a residence. It was surrounded by slum and warehouses. Guides to the city (like the guide this cut came from) always pointed it out, but a visit would not have been calculated to give a good impression of living conditions in the city.

  • A Visit to McKeesport in 1888

    McKeesport was the second city of Allegheny County, far enough from Pittsburgh to be a small metropolitan center in its own right, but near enough to be within commuting distance of the larger city. The economic engine of the city was the National Tube Works, which gave McKeesport the proud nickname “Tube City.”

    Metal tubing, however, was not the city’s only industry. For example, the Wernke Brothers produced carriages, wagons, and other vehicles.

    All that money had to be kept somewhere, and this was the First National Bank. Later bank buildings in McKeesport grew much grander.

  • Monongahela House

    Back in the 1800s the Monongahela House was Pittsburgh’s first-class hotel. Charles Dickens stayed here, which was not enough to give him a good impression of the city. The hotel went through several incarnations; this is how it looked in 1888.

    Source: Allegheny County Centennial.

  • One of the Oldest Buildings Downtown

    Pittsburgh is a colonial-era city, but downtown has been rebuilt so many times that not much is left from before the Civil War. This building probably dates from the late 1840s, making it one of the oldest remaining downtown. It probably came after the Great Fire of 1845, but it appears in this engraving of the Diamond as it appeared before 1852, which was the year the old courthouse in the middle was torn down.

    The building in the background, with smoke rising from its chimneys, is clearly meant to be this one. There are eleven columns of windows in the engraving instead of the nine columns of windows we see today, but old Pa Pitt suspects the engraver was working from a rough sketch and simply gave us his best guess.

  • Old Main

    Old Main at Holy Ghost College, now Duquesne University, as it appeared in 1888.

    Source: Allegheny County Centennial, a publication from which we’ll be featuring quite a few more pictures.

  • A Very Tall Building for 1888

    The Hamilton Building stood at 91 and 93 Fifth Avenue, which, if the addresses are the same, would put it right about where the May Building is now. The owner, a dealer in pianos and cottage organs, was obviously very proud of its astounding height. But the skyscraper age was about to begin, and in a few years this would be just another inconsiderable storefront downtown, soon to be replaced by a skyscraper itself.

    Source: Allegheny County: Its Early History and Subsequent Development, 1888.

  • Pittsburgh in 1851

    This view of Pittsburgh appeared in A Pictorial Description of the United States, an expensive book published in 1851. Father Pitt has not seen it before. Every once in a while he runs across what we may describe as an undiscovered historical image of the city, which he will publish here for your enlightenment.

    Although the original caption describes the image as a view “from the northwest,” it appears to be from the southwest, on the south bank of the Ohio just downstream from the Point. This book has trouble with directions: it lists Washington (Pennsylvania) as twenty miles north of Pittsburgh.

    “This is the greatest manufacturing town of the west,” says the book, “and has furnished a large proportion of the steamboats which navigate the Mississippi and its branches. It occupies a low point of land, at the junction of the Allegany and Monongahela rivers, whose united stream is named the Ohio. It is three hundred miles west from Philadelphia, eleven hundred from New Orleans, by land, and over two thousand by water, yet has almost daily communication with it by steamboats. A part of the city now covers Ayres’ hill, and part of the sides of two other eminences; while four small towns, Allegany, Sligo, Manchester, and Birmingham, at short distances, occupy points on the banks.

    “A bridge of eight arches, and fifteen hundred feet long, crosses the Monongahela, erected in 1818, at an expense of one hundred thousand dollars; while four bridges cross the Allegany, as well as the noble aqueduct of the Pennsylvania Canal. The city contains about seventy churches, and the population, in 1850, was 80,000.”

    Note that the great fire of 1845, which destroyed the original Monongahela bridge, is not mentioned, although the population figure for 1850 is given. Consider for a moment what a crowded place the city was when 80,000 people lived in the area now occupied solely by downtown, with only a few straggling up the Hill.

    The rest of the description is worth reading to get a notion of what Pittsburgh was like, or what people in Boston (where the book was published) thought Pittsburgh was like, in the middle of the 1800s.

  • The Great Fire of Pittsburgh, 1845

    View of the Great Fire of Pittsburgh, by William C. Wall (1846)

    In 1845 a catastrophic fire swept through the booming Western city of Pittsburgh. Much of the city was destroyed, including the covered wooden Monongahela bridge, where the Smithfield Street Bridge is now. William C. Wall, a local painter of some skill, saw an artistic and financial opportunity and painted small views of the destruction, which seem to have been reproduced as prints (prints of great catastrophes being very popular among some of the more morose and sentimental Victorians). The next year he created a larger painting with a view of the fire; though he obviously did not have the fire in front of him as he painted, he seems to have depicted fairly accurately the extent of the conflagration—note the area to the west of the bridge that was spared the flames, an area that included the Burke Building, which still stands today.

    These three paintings hang together in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s gallery of “European and American Art ca. 1820-1860.” Finding that there seemed to be no good reproductions of them on the Internet, old Pa Pitt took these, which give a fair impression of the pictures as they appear on the wall.

    Pittsburgh After the Fire from Birmingham, by William C. Wall (1845)

    Pittsburgh After the Fire from Boyd’s Hill, by William C. Wall (1845)

  • A Tiny Piece of Pittsburgh History

    In the time of the French Revolution there was a positive mania in France for descriptions of the newly independent United States, and it occurred to Father Pitt that some of those books might contain valuable and hitherto undiscovered descriptions of late-eighteenth-century Pittsburgh. Here is a curious little story from a footnote in one of those books, a Nouveau voyage dans les Etats-Unis de l’Amérique septentrionale, fait en 1788, par J.-P. Brissot (Warville), Citoyen Français; that is, New Voyage in the United States of North America, Made in 1788, by J.-P. Brissot (Warville), French Citizen. It describes a mixed-race family who became one of the leading households in the young city, and no other apology is necessary for the dated language used to describe the races of the characters. Father Pitt provides a new translation below—the first time, as far as he knows, this passage has ever appeared in English. Note, by the way, that the book manages to spell the name of the place two different ways.

    “There exists at Pittsbourg on the Ohio a white woman of French origin, brought up in London, and taken, at the age of twelve years, by pirates who made a living by taking children and selling them in America to work for a fixed time. —Certain singular circumstances caused her to marry a negro who bought her freedom, and who took her out of the hands of a white man, a barbarous and libidinous master, who had done everything he could to seduce her. —A mulatta produced by that union married a surgeon from Nantes who had established himself in Pittsburgh. —This family is one of the most respectable in that city; the negro runs a very good business, and the mistress of the house makes it her duty to receive and give good treatment to foreigners, and especially to French people whom chance has brought that way.”

    A much longer excerpt, including this footnote, is at Dr. Boli’s Random Translations.