Was the Burgh Advancing Too Much?
1816 is the year Pittsburgh became a city. No offense to the city, but that year sucked.
It had no summer. In fact, that is what the year is called: The Year With No Summer.
It also is called Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.
It was that way all over the Northern Hemisphere. Why? What happened?
Many attributed it to Pittsburgh and places like it. People were getting too removed from nature and God. They were advancing too much.
Preachers and newspapers maintained God was saying, “Whoa!”
There were frosts every month that year.
Since few of us today are farmers, we wouldn’t see the significance of that. But crops hardly grew and those that did, did not ripen.
In 1816, that meant famine in Europe. Food production was already out of whack there because of Napoleon’s armies marching around.
On this continent, farms were in the midst of a transition. Original multi-crop subsistence farms that settlers created to feed and clothe their families were giving way to larger single-crop operations that fed towns and cities.
The Year With No Summer was more than they could handle.
New England farmers and those working hilltop spreads abandoned their debt-ridden fields by the thousands and headed west where weather was warmer and soil easier to work. Go West, failed farmer!
Ironically, that was good for Pittsburgh. Everyone going west stopped here first.
Tedious Travel Across Pennsylvania
They must have been heartened to get here, get out of their wagons and get onto a boat headed for Ohio.
Even today, crossing Pennsylvania is tedious. In 1816, there were no trains, no canals. Just a few dirt roads clogged with lumbering wagons.
You would have harnessed a few horses to a wagon loaded with belongings and family, gotten in line behind hundreds of large white, blue and red Conestoga wagons, and taken a deep breath.
Each of the Conestoga wagons, the equivalent of today’s tractor-trailer trucks, had a half dozen huge horses to inch freight to Pittsburgh over a muddy, dusty or rocky trail. A thousand Conestogas a month creeped up and down the Alleghenies.
It would take you at least two weeks to get to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia.
The Legislature approved the charter making the borough of Pittsburgh a city on March 18 of Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.
Given that information traveled only as fast as people, it seems likely no one in Pittsburgh knew about it until April. Seems odd to us because we’re obsessed with immediacy. They didn’t have that problem.
The wagoners tended to smoke cheap cigars made of locally grown tobacco. Maybe they liked them. Maybe they keep mosquitoes at bey. Pennsylvania was notorious for mosquitoes and malaria before farmers drained much of the standing water. Inexpensive cigars came to be called stogies because of their association with Conestoga Wagons.
Sweet-toned, pear-shaped bells were mounted above each horse, presumably to break the monotony of the road. The freight haulers didn’t have radios in those days.
Traveling, Sleeping With Wagon Men
If you were an impoverished farmer headed for the Midwest, you not only spent your days trailing behind these wagoners, you also spent your nights sleeping among them.
They typically stayed at wayside inns. They probably went to wayward inns, too, but that’s a story for another time. The wayside inns were country taverns where you bedded on the bar room floor in front of an open fireplace on a bunk you brought with you.
Stage coach passengers and their drivers stopped at the better hotels in towns, and paid more.
“When a village was laid out along the pike there was usually a public square in its center, and at least two corners of this public square were set apart for taverns. This square (generally called a diamond) was not intended as a place of ornament as it usually is now, but was for special purposes,” wrote local historian John Newton Boucher in 1908.
“There the wagons laden with freight stood overnight, and as a general rule in all kinds of weather, the horses were blanketed, fed and bedded in the public square. Upon these wagons were transported nearly all the goods between Philadelphia and Pittsburg.”
The above excerpt was published when Pittsburgh temporarily lost the “H” at the end of its name. The “H” is how the original Scot settlers spelled it. And, they pronounced it Pittsboro.
Scots also called public common areas diamonds rather than squares.
In 1816, many of those diamonds were in towns like Greensburgh, Chambersburgh and Ebensburgh. All lost their “H” in the attempt to standardize place name spelling. Only Pittsburgh complained enough to get it back.
In June of The Year Without a Summer, heavy blankets were needed for horses on the frost-covered diamonds. Logs or coal burned hot in the taverns.
Two to three inches of snow fell at Pittsburgh. Frost and ice accounted for much of the crop damage. In mid June, a correspondent in Erie reported “the season has been dry and frosty for weeks. It appears as if we should have no crops in these parts — the corn has been all killed by the frost of the 9th, and until very lately lake Erie was not navigable for the ice.”
The problem may have been God punishing Americans for lack of humility, as preachers claimed, but, if so, he was using a volcano on the other side of the world to do it.
In fact, it was one of the largest eruptions recorded in human history.
Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted the year before, sending a blanket of dust and gases 27 miles up into the stratosphere. It didn’t help that the sun was in a phase where it was not particularly active.
Looking through the atmoshperic haze, people could look directly at the sun. For many, the haze enabled them to see sunspots for the first time. They blamed the lack of summer on those sunspots, or solar storms. In reality, there were fewer sunspots than normal.
The smoke continued to rise above the volcano for a few years, but summer reappeared here in 1817. Pittsburgh has had one ever since.