Kane Was Able

Originally posted 2016-05-25 12:11:04. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

As rabid supporters  of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders gnash their teeth, it may be time to look at John Kane.

No, not John McCain. John Kane. Is he a candidate? No, he’s dead. Has been since 1934.

Kane was a one-legged, uneducated laborer who picked up a paint brush late in life and did everything “wrong.” 

I bring up the Pittsburgh artist because the most common adjective used on social networks these days is “stupid.”

It may be just as common on television, but I don’t watch that.

“Stupid” describes other political camps in the least forgiving way possible. Although one would think you are born stupid, there is an underlying belief that others make you that way (college, parents, National Rifle Assn., etc.) And, you are just too  . . . too . . ., well, stupid to know any better.

A better word would be “naive.” (I am college-corrupted, so I know.)

The word is far more forgiving, but of course these are not forgiving times.

Naiveté was both celebrated and laughed at in the time of John Kane. In fact, it was his claim to fame.

Moving, Moving on Up

Kane was quite young when his peasant family moved from Ireland to Scotland. His father hoped to find good work to improve their lot. The boy was only 9 when he insisted he be permitted to quit school and go to work in a shale mine. Good thing he did because his father died the following year.

Mrs. Cain (spelling before Ellis Island)) then married a man who soon left for America to seek opportunity . In 1879,  19-year-old John followed and joined his stepfather in Pennsylvania.

“I was always on the lookout for better jobs,” Kane wrote in his autobiography. 

“The wages interested me the most. The amount of work, the hardness of it, the hours and all like that, didn’t worry me a bit.”

He worked in McKeesport, Connellsville and Braddock, and then went to Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

Kane labored for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, a tubing factory, a coal mine and a steel mill. He was a construction worker and street paver.

He was powerfully built,  so, if the economy was good, he always got hired. That ended  late one night after he returned to Braddock.

An unlit B&O train surprised Kane and companions as they cut across a rail yard.  He pushed a cousin out of the way, but Kane’s leg got caught and the train severed it five inches below the knee.

Takes Leg Loss in Stride

Recovery took months for the 31-year-old and he came to depend on charities like the Salvation Army.  He became so good at walking on a wooden leg, though, that few ever noticed a limp until his later years.

Still, he had trouble finding work. The B&O Railroad finally gave him a low-paying job as a night watchman.

At 37, Kane married Maggie Halloran. After the births of two daughters, he needed more money. Kane started painting railroad cars for the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks.

“I . . . became in love with paint,” he wrote.

At noon, while others were eating, Kane painted  pictures on the sides of boxcars. He said the foreman didn’t mind as long he painted over the creations after the lunch break.

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Zoom In, Zoom Back

Originally posted 2015-12-16 23:03:30. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

[media-credit name=”Library of Congress” align=”aligncenter” width=”3300″]SHORPY_4a25743a[/media-credit]

It may not look like much from a distance, but there’s plenty  to see here, if you zoom in — into Pittsburgh’s past.

Go ahead. You are a spy satellite from the future. Click on the photo and when you come back, I’ll tell you what I see.

Today's view of the Pittsburgh skyline as seen from a similar angle.

[/media-credit] Today’s view of the same skyline as seen from above and behind PNC Park.

What I See

We are on Monument Hill looking out over Exposition Park toward downtown Pittsburgh. According to my watch, it’s a little before 1910.

I immediately notice that in those days wild sumac trees crowded undeveloped slopes.  Wait a minute. They still do that now.

Something else hasn’t changed much. A lot of space is dedicated to baseball.

PNC Park today sits a little to the left of its predecessor. Exposition Park hosted the first World Series in 1903 between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Americans.  PNC Park still awaits its first World Series game.

The Pirates played their last game at Exposition Park on June 24, 1909,  in front of 5,545 people. That may be what we are watching here. The stadium could seat 10,000. The next day, they moved to Forbes Field newly built in Oakland. It could hold twice as many fans.

That was good because a thousand or more fans were relegated to standing in the outfield during big games. They formed a gallery similar to those at golf tournaments.  Ball into the crowd? No problem. Automatic double.

It was also good because the Allegheny River tended to stand in the outfield, as well. There are accounts of players in knee-deep water, of them making diving catches that were . . . well, rather splashy.

Semi-professional teams used the field after the Pirates left. The players at the well-attended game outside the stadium do not appear to be children, but the small outfield makes one wonder.

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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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Line Up to Celebrate Cityhood

Originally posted 2016-06-08 12:41:07. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Pittsburgh-Bicentennial-FeatureThe Steel Borough. The Borough of Champions. Iron Boro Beer. 

None of those ever existed.

That’s reason enough for a parade, right?

Pittsburgh will mark its 200th year as a city on Saturday, July 9 with a celebratory procession downtown — including more than 400 descendants of its many mayors– followed by music and fireworks at Point State Park.

Pittsburgh could have remained a borough, but before we get into that, I should point out there is a good reason entire colleges are devoted to the study of public administration. It’s well outside the realm of common sense and consistency.

In 1816, Pittsburgh had a population somewhere around 7,000.

It sought the city designation from the state (You could call it a commonwealth, but it’s a distinction without a difference).

Most states don’t have boroughs, but Pennsylvania does. Pittsburgh didn’t want to be one any more. Philadelphia was a city. Pittsburgh wanted to be one, too.

Forty-seven years earlier, Pittsburgh had been a town or a township (sometimes they’re the same thing). The declaration making it a borough said it would be a borough “for ever.”  

Borough, burgh, burg, etc. all derive from a really old European word meaning fort. That tells you something about how safe it was in the good ole days.

It also explains why Gen. John Forbes looked over the Point  in 1758 and named the site Pittsburgh. Pitt was his English boss in London who sent him to oust the French and erect a fort. We call it Fort Pitt. Forbes, a Scot, was thinking Pitt’s Fort.

This sea urchin was alive when Pittsburgh became a city 200 years ago. He is know for pointed observations, but attempts to interview him proved unsuccessful.

This sea urchin was alive when Pittsburgh became a city 200 years ago. He is known for pointed observations, but attempts to interview him proved unsuccessful.

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Coal: Exploring Belly of the Burgh in 1866

Originally posted 2015-11-17 22:34:24. Republished by Blog Post Promoter


James Parton

James Parton

We are accompanying James Parton, a well-known author in his day, as he explores Pittsburgh in an article he wrote for Atlantic Monthly 149 years ago.

He has already experienced a day with only about 30 minutes of daylight, and a night that inspired him to write of looking “into Hell with the lid taken off.”

Now, he ventures into the darkest dark. He follows a mule and a “black white boy” into a coal mine under what is now Mount Washington.

Let’s join him.

Coal Made It All Possible

The “great fact” of Pittsburg is coal.

Iron and copper can better afford to come to coal to be melted, than send for coal to come and melt them. All those hills that frown down upon Pittsburg, and those that rise from the rivers back of Pittsburg, have a stratum of coal in them from four to twelve feet thick. This stratum is about three hundred feet above the water’s edge, and about one hundred feet from the average summit of the hills. . .

To observe the whole process of getting coal out of the hills, it is only necessary to walk half a mile from the city. Cross one of the bridges over the Monongahela, walk up the hill that rises from the banks of that tranquil stream, and you behold, in the side of the hill, a round hole about large enough for a man to stand upright in.

In "A Family Coal Mine, a Pittsburgh Sketch," children remove coal from an abandoned mine on Coal Hill (Mount Washington). The wood engraving by Harry Fenn appeared in an 1871 issue of Every Saturday magazine.

In “A Family Coal Mine, a Pittsburgh Sketch,” children remove coal from an abandoned mine on Coal Hill (Mount Washington). The wood engraving by Harry Fenn appeared in an 1871 issue of Every Saturday magazine.

This cavity has smooth walls of coal, and there is a narrow railroad track in it. The air within is neither damp nor chilly, and often delicate flowers are blooming about the entrance.

Strangers usually enter this convenient and inviting aperture, which may lead into the hill a mile, or even three miles. (Parton’s GPS unit was off. The transit tunnel through the wider base of the hill, for instance,  is only about two-thirds of a mile.)

After walking a hundred yards or so, strangers usually think it best to go no farther. It is as dark in there as darkness itself, and as silent as a tomb. The entrance shows like a distant point of light. The visitor listens for the sound of the pickaxe, or the rumble of a coal-car; but nothing breaks the horrid silence of the place, and, re-tracing his steps, he sees with pleasure the point of light expanding into a round O.

Reassured, he peers again into the mountain’s heart, and discerns in the far distance, a speck of light. This speck slowly, very slowly, approaches. A low and distant rumble is heard.

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