It Ain’t Easy Saving the Past

Originally posted 2016-05-04 18:39:52. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

So, you want to preserve an old historic building? Of course not. You want someone else do it.Blockhouse1

Let’s look at two examples where people did come forward.

First we’ll detail the effort, setbacks and determination of a group of women who ensured the Fort Pitt Block House was not broken up and dumped into a hole somewhere. They also kept it from being moved out of context to Schenley Park.

Then, we’ll look at a tavern that served drinks for at least 234 years before anyone outside the West End noticed its age. It was 2011-04-30-west-end-old-stone-tavern-02about to bow before a bulldozer when local preservationists stepped up to the bar.

They want it to be preserved and studied. Maybe for a tourist attraction, maybe for a cool professional office. So far, all that’s been delivered to their table is bulldozer protection. They can take heart in knowing it wasn’t easy for the block house saviors, either.

Rich Women vs. Rich Men

The block house saga was a story of rich women donning their hats (striking by today’s standards), meeting rich and powerful men in their corporate and political domains, and not taking “No” for an answer. Well, sometimes they did. Then, they made the most of it.

We are talking about the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

They were actually granddaughters and great-granddaughters of men who fought in the revolution. True, those men helped create a new Democratic nation, but that was not their prime motivation.

They wanted personal wealth.  They got it and gave it to their descendants.

It came from speculating on land, Indian land. There’s a reason why George Washington, a surveyor, died the richest man in the country.

Those who fought in the Revolution, or otherwise advanced the cause, were promised Indian land when it was over.

Land-hungry colonists thought their British overlords were too protective of Indian treaties. The Indians, not surprisingly, didn’t think Britain protected them at all. Americans also did not want to pay taxes to cover the war that had driven the French out of their way in Indian territory.

So, the Revolution flared. It created what was considered “old money” by the time the local DAR chapter formed in 1891.

Appreciating their rich roots, members took on a never-ending project: obtain, restore and display the Fort Pitt Block House.

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Unwelcome Immigrants

Originally posted 2015-12-09 23:55:36. Republished by Blog Post Promoter


“Within a few blocks of the skyscrapers of the Point, I have seen a company of Syrians weaving almost unceasingly for four days (doing) a desert dance that celebrated the return of one of them to Jerusalem.”


What? Have Syrian refugees arrived in Pittsburgh? Has Mayor Bill Peduto made good on his pledge to welcome them here,  even if fearful Pittsburghers do not.

No, refugees are not dancing at the Point just yet.

The opening quote comes from a comprehensive study of Pittsburgh immigrants and their working conditions, which was done in 1907.

So, what other “foreigners” did the writer see? Let’s look at his complete description. It includes the grandparents or great-grandparents of most Pittsburghers today:

Greek Orthodox Priest

Pittsburgh Greek Orthodox Priest

“You do not know the Pittsburgh district until you have heard the Italians twanging their mandolins around a construction campfire, and seen the mad whirling of a Slovak dance in a mill town lodge hall; until you have watched the mill hands burst out from the gates at closing time; or thrown confetti on Fifth Avenue on a Halloween.

“Within a few blocks of the skyscrapers of the Point, I have seen a company of Syrians weaving almost unceasingly for four days a desert dance that celebrated the return of one of them to Jerusalem. (An Irishman thought it a wake).

“A possum swings by the tail at Christmastide in front of that Negro store on Wylie avenue; long-bearded Old Believers (Russian Orthodox) play bottle pool (a form of billiards) in that Second Avenue barroom; a Yiddish father and five children lie sick on the floor of this tenement; an old Bohemian woman once cleaned molds as a girl in the ironworks of Prague.

“That itinerant cobbler made shoes last winter for the German children of the South Side, who were too poor to pay for them, and stuffed the soles with thick cardboard when he was too poor to buy leather. Here is a Scotch Calvinist, and there a Slavic free thinker; here a peasant, and there a man who works from a blueprint; engineers, drag outs, and furnace-men from the mill district; there a Russian exile with a price on his head.”

Immigrants Not Wanted

But, America has never welcomed  immigrants. They come anyway. They are desperate. and they are needed. They can earn a living.

In 1907, factory owners wanted them in the worst kind of way. They didn’t have enough workers to keep up with demand for steel, glass, tin, bottles, cigars, you name it.

Factory workers already here, they hated immigrants.  They passed it on to their families around the dinner table and their neighbors on the stoops. Why?

According to Alois B. Koukol, secretary of the Slavonic Immigrant Society in 1907, they didn’t like how Slavics acted.

“The bosses know them chiefly as sturdy, patient, and submissive workmen; their fellow workmen hate and despise them largely because of this patience and submissiveness to the bosses and their willingness at the outset to work at any wages and under any conditions,”Koukol explains in the study.

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How Pittsburgh ‘Saved’ the Whales, For a While

Originally posted 2015-11-24 23:06:29. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Whale oil lamp

[/media-credit] Whale oil lamp

Before Oil Came From the Ground

Most of us are dimly aware (no pun intended) that before electric lights, but after candles, the civilized world got around at night with oil lamps.

Few of us know that initially most of that oil came from harpooned whales whose blubber had been boiled.

So, it was a great relief to the whale population when someone in Pittsburgh turned light-bearing people away from whales, and toward  the foamy sludge bubbling up around salt wells.

It seems incredible now, but then our forefathers and foremothers didn’t see any  value in the petroleum oozing out of the ground.

Samuel M. Kier was different. He was a visionary who historians call the Grandfather of the American Oil industry.

But, hold off, he wasn’t an historic visionary right away.

His  first vision was to use crude oil to cure all health ailments. For a price.


So-called patent medicines (they were neither patented nor regulated in any way) were in their prime in 1848.  That’s when Kier discovered the petroleum that Mother Nature spewed forth onto his shoes could perform amazing wonders.

Just drink it, or apply it to the affected areas, and the lame could walk, the blind could see. It also was a good lubricant.

Suffering from’s the King’s Evil? It’ll take care of that, too.

Oh, you don’t know if you have King’s Evil or not?

Well, it’s tuberculosis. Millions had it then.

Maybe that’s why it had so many names. Consumption was one. People wasted away as it consumed them.

Ignorant, superstitious victims used to think they could be cured by a monarch touching them, or by touching a coin that the monarch touched. It was proof to them that God ordained the king to be king.

Well, they didn’t know about Kier’s Genuine Petroleum.

Actually, Kier’s wife, Nancy, had a lot to do with him bottling the remedy. She was suffering from the King’s Evil, and her doctor prescribed a medicinal oil from Kentucky that looked and smelled familiar.

Kier had it analyzed.  It was identical to the stuff contaminating his salt works.


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Exploring the Belly of the Burgh in 1866

Originally posted 2015-11-04 17:49:27. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Time travel is possible. Come with me and we’ll join James Parton as he takes a train to Pittsburgh 149 years ago.

James Parton

James Parton

You might be surprised.

Proud Pittsburghers will tell us about the health benefits of smoke.  We’ll go deep into a coal mine under Mount Washington and talk to Mr. Gallagher, a contented miner.

We’ll sit with otherwise well-behaved men and boys as they hoot and holler at a show downtown. We’ll go into factories and see Pittsburgh strongmen make window panes, glass bottles and giant cannons.

We also will go up to the Hill District and see what caused our guide to write the most famous line of all about Pittsburgh — You know, the one about looking “into Hell with the lid taken off.”

Now Then, Pittsburgh presents highlights of Parton’s research in a series of posts beginning with this one. You can read his complete article in Atlantic Monthly.  It was published in January 1888, 14 months after his visit. Don’t be thrown by his spelling of the city. He may have put Hell into the city’s description, but he was among many outsiders who insisted on getting the “H” out of it.

Coal for the fires below came from the hill upon which the artist stood above the Monongahela. Coal transport is the main purpose of the train crossing the bridge. Just beyond it is the Smithfield Street Bridge. The large hotel at the downtown end is where Parton stayed.

Coal for the fires below came from the hill upon which the artist stood above the Monongahela. Coal transport is the main purpose of the train crossing the bridge. Just beyond it is the Smithfield Street Bridge. The large hotel at the downtown end is where Parton stayed.

Part One: Hell’s Not So Bad

And Parton begins thusly:

There are three cities readily accessible to the tourist, which are peculiar, — Quebec, New Orleans, and Pittsburg, — and of these Pittsburg is the most interesting by far.

On that low point of land, fringed now with steamboats and covered with grimy houses, scarcely visible in the November fog . . .

It is curiously hemmed in, — that small triangle of low land upon which the city was originally built. A stranger walking about the streets on a summer afternoon is haunted by the idea that a terrific thunderstorm is hanging over the place. Every street appears to end in a huge black cloud, and there is everywhere the ominous darkness that creeps over the scene when a storm is approaching.

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When the City of Bridges Had None

Originally posted 2016-03-09 13:56:29. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Pittsburgh-Bicentennial-FeatureA city grew up between the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, and yet no one ever crossed over the rivers.

How could that be?

Well, that’s because people crossed on top of the rivers, not over them.

That’s vastly different than what Pittsburghers have come to expect, living in the City of Bridges.

The official count is 446 bridges within city boundaries, three more than Venice, Italy.

Most of those bridges carry people hilltop to hilltop, avoiding the descent and ascent of crossing gorges. Only 40 or so are over the three rivers. Still, that’s quite a few compared with other cities where residents are accustomed to traveling well out of their way to get to a crossing.

So, we are quite familiar with bridges. We know next to nothing about ferries — any more.

Let’s explore.

To begin with, you had to go down to the ever-changing river bank. You could walk. You could ride your horse, keeping an eye out for skittishness. The horse likely had done this before. It knew it was not all that safe.

IMG_4005 - Copy.JPG.opt446x257o0,0s446x257

Ferry operations in Pittsburgh often had a tavern on one side of the river or the other. Patrons didn’t “have one for the road.” They had one for the river.

John E. Parke, a local judge, included ferry experiences in his memoirs written in the 1860s.

He died in 1885 at the age of 81. Parke nearly died at age 11 trying to cross the Allegheny River.

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