Sober Look at a West End Tavern
A sober look at our historic — if drunken — past still awaits at an empty tavern in Pittsburgh’s West End.
In the last post, we described the valiant efforts of the local Daughters of the American Revolution to save the Fort Pitt Block House, Pittsburgh’s oldest structure, more than a century ago.
Now, we look at what’s going on at the second oldest building in the city. The Old Stone Tavern in the West End is a book waiting to be read, says Paul Sentner.
He is president of the Pittsburgh Old Stone Tavern (POST) Friends Trust, which was formed in 2013 to study, buy, restore and re-use the building .
That all entails raising money, which hasn’t happened yet.
The tavern sits empty along a curve at the bottom of Greentree Road, where Woodville Avenue intersects. People pass by every few moments. Few know the derelict-looking saloon could tell stories played out 240 years ago and every year since.
An Older Story Yet
Sentner says the tavern’s storytelling may go back even further. It sits on land likely never plowed, at the intersection of two paths walked by prehistoric people. That means artifacts likely remain there undisturbed. So, why not get to reading the stories? If only it were so easy.
The people smitten by the tavern’s historic value do not own it.
“The DAR had an advantage because the block house was given to them,” Sentner notes.
He and his group are talking to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, representatives of the mayor and others to find a way to acquire the property from Lee Harris. He operates a masonry business on three sides of the tavern.
Harris bought it in 2009 for about $38,000, intending to clear it away and expand his operations.
Those aware of the tavern’s historic significance got word and voiced alarm. Harris held off the bulldozer and the city’s Historic Review Commission quickly designated it a historic site.
That means the owner has to get approval for any exterior changes. That includes changes that make it disappear.
“He’s been very helpful,” Sentner says of Harris, who is willing to sell.
POST also wants two additional parcels abutting the tavern, and the owner is willing to let them go, as well.
However, Harris will sell only if the sale includes the rest of his property — and he has to have a place to move his business. His father started it there in the 1940s.
It has taken time to arrange a deal and Sentner expects it to take longer yet. He noted they have many irons in the fire, not depending on any one source for funding property acquisition.
Limits of Historic Designation
The historic designation saves the building from sudden razing by humans, but it does nothing to stop slow demolition by wind, rain and frost.
So, even though the tavern has endured more than two centuries quite well, it can only sit in stasis so long.
Sentner imagines POST restoring it and then leasing it for perhaps a professional office, the rent going to maintenance costs.
In addition to raising funds to buy the property, he says they need money for engineers to determine safety and plan the restoration.
He also would like archaeologists to go over the entire property to read what bits of stories remain.
What stories are they likely to find? Now, that’s the interesting part.
Perhaps, we should first summarize the role of taverns in colonial America.
The terms tavern and inn were really interchangeable when the West End watering hole was constructed sometime around 1782.
Both provided roadside food, alcoholic drinks and a place to spend the night. As they still are, taverns tended to be the hangout for locals. Inns not so much.
By today’s standards, our forefathers were drunks.
Sobering Truth of Our Ancestors
Benjamin Franklin printed a “Drinker’s Dictionary” in 1737, listing slang terms for drunkenness. He found 228.
A story comes to us through a colonist’s journal about the drinking capacity of Daniel Elliott, who built the tavern.
Elliott accompanied a man downriver on a boat he rented to him, carrying supplies and a barrel of whiskey from Fort Pitt to a fort in Beaver. When they got back four days later, the barrel was empty.
That was notable, but not rare.
Government kept track of distilled spirits for tax purposes. The amount sold In 1770 — surely vastly under-reported — amounted to nearly 4 gallons per white man.
By 1830, it topped 5 gallons, or two shots a day per white man. Statistically, for every man who kept away from rum or whiskey, another was drinking four shots a day.
That doesn’t include what colonists drank in much greater doses: beer and hard cider. Apparently, nobody bothered to count them. “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” is not believed to have surfaced until the mid 20th Century during someone’s long, boring ride in an automobile.
That brings us to a point worth making.
Colonists did not arrive at roadside stops as we do, stiff and bored. They arrived physically exhausted and saddle sore. That was after traveling only 10 miles or so.
A ledger of transactions at the Old Stone Mill dating between 1793 and 1797 was found at the Carnegie Library. It lists the most common drink as a cherry toddy. Today, that is a hot, soothing beverage spiked with bourbon.
Real Men and Their Liquor
How did alcohol-laced men get work done?
They actually thought it made them better workers.
Through the 19th Century, construction workers walked off jobs if whiskey was not provided. A real man could hold his liquor.
Gen. George Washington made sure rum was in ample supply among his soldiers because it was generally thought alcohol would keep them alert.
By the time the tavern was 100 years old, consumption of hard liquor dropped off as the popularity of beer foamed over.
It’s estimated that half of American men regularly went to taverns in 1900, buying (we used to say rented) a half gallon of beer per day, six days a week.
Today, American men and women average one-sixth that daily rate.
Those going to the Old Stone Tavern didn’t just drink. It’s ledger frequently notes “lost at cards” next to patron names. Cockfights and dogfights were conducted outside in the back. Colonial horse races often began and ended at taverns. The West End establishment was no exception.
Now then, Pittsburgh, let’s talk about the Whiskey Rebellion.
No, we’ll save that for a later post.
It suffices to say it is a point of pride here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, but it could just as easily be a reason for shame.
Locals and others in the western regions of the Appalachian Mountains rose up to rebel again the new U.S. government when it tried to get a piece of the lucrative whiskey and rum trade.
Evidence of the insurrection is evident in the Old Stone Tavern’s ledger. The names of at least 60 people associated with fight against “unfair” federal taxes and a strong central government are listed.
It’s not surprising. Everyone had to go into the tavern to pay for the ferry ride across the Ohio River.
Next to the name of John Wood in July of 1794 is written “spy.” He was the attorney for Gen. John Neville, the federal tax inspector.
That same month, 500 armed men attacked Neville’s fortified home on Bower Hill. People were shot and people died.
Men from both sides passed through Elliott’s tavern. The stories it could tell.
- Get a photographic tour and details on the tavern history at the website of Pittsburgh’s Old Stone Tavern Friends Trust.
- Details of the Whiskey Rebellion
- Previous post on Fort Pitt Block House.
- To see innumerable Pittsburgh structures already razed or about to be go here.
Leon J. Pollom, writer/researcher