Be vewy, vewy quiet.
We’re hunting a diamond.
Once again, it’s time to zoom in and zoom back in time.
Click on the high-resolution photo below twice, until it enlarges to its maximum. Then, scroll around like a spy drone from the future.
After that, come back and I’ll tell you what I saw.
You’ll be going to downtown Pittsburgh in 1909.
Nothing unseemly is going on through the office windows, so feel free to peek.
It’s how we learn about Pittsburgh’s past. You may see your great-grandfather talking to his horses, or a great-aunt sweeping sidewalks with her long hemline.
What I Saw
First of all, is anyone not wearing a hat?
I don’t think so.
Don’t count the modern-looking guy next to the two wagons on the left. He is wearing a small cap.
Besides, he is one of the Now Then, Pittsburgh readers who went beyond just looking into the past. He actually went.
If you check later today or tomorrow, another time traveler may be walking there. Probably someone with a cell phone and leggings.
Diamond Bank, the focus of this photo, is a forerunner of PNC Bank. It still stands as an office building even as skyscrapers crowd around it.
PNC built several of those at PNC Plaza, but no longer owns this building.
It’s name does not come from the gem stone or someone named Diamond. It comes from Market Square.
Well, the Scots who layed out this city saw things differently than English settlers who came a little later in greater numbers.
Scots saw a square of public ground not as a square, but as a diamond. Same shape, tilted view and a different name.
So, what we call Market Square was Market Diamond to them.
That didn’t sound right to English-oriented Pittsburghers. They struggled and went with different variations over the generations: Diamond Market, Diamond Market Square, Diamond Square, Diamond Square Market. The North Side, originally Allegheny City, went through similar linguistic contortions over what is now Allegheny Commons. It added Diamond Park to the mix.
How Forbes Avenue Came to Be
Ironically, descendants of the first Scot settlers did the most to wipe out the last significant remnant of “diamond” in Market Square.
With the city about to celebrate the bicentennial of when the English came to establish a fort here, they got the mayor to honor Scottish contributions. Well, one of them.
The main street to the marketplace was called Diamond Street because of where it went. Mayor David L. Lawrence changed the name in 1958 to Forbes Avenue. Gen. John Forbes was the Scot who wrested this area from the French.
Now, he actually got here by way of a path that became Penn Avenue, but no one was about to mess with William Penn’s street.
Besides, those of Scottish ancestry couldn’t care less about the loss of Diamond Street. Scottish diamonds are not forever.
Paul Thompson, a promoter of occasional kilt wearing in Pittsburgh and a native Scot, says Scotland itself is filled with squares, at least these days.
He is president of the St. Andrew’s Society of Pittsburgh.
Thompson noted southern Scotland, in particular, is far more English now than Celtic. As it happens, Google reports several communities in Northern Scotland still have diamonds at their centers.
Scottish Highlanders — complete with bagpipes and kilts — were part of Forbe’s expedition.
Highlanders live in the North. Not only did they midwife Pittsburgh’s birth, one came later to ensure its adult success — Andrew Carnegie.
He was born less than a mile from Forbes, but Forbes was born in the manor house. Carnegie was born 77 years later in a weaver’s cottage. After he became rich in Pittsburgh, he bought the manor and opened it to the public as a park. It was Carnegie’s most satisfying expense of money.
Bashing the Now-Beloved Wabash Terminal
The Diamond Bank Building is only about six years old in the 1909 photo.
The ornate Wabash Train Terminal further down Liberty Avenue was built at the same time. It is no longer with us.
Many Pittsburghers today lament that architectural loss.
They say it was unjustly demolished to make way for the mid-century modern Gateway Center buildings.
Not quite true.
It spent most of its life looking pretty bad. In fact, after operating only two years it was under court-ordered management.
Built by wealthy New Yorker George Jay Gould, it was a largely failed attempt to break into the eastern railroad market monopolized by the Pennsylvania and the New York Central railroads.
Of course, it may have been the infamous Curse of King Tut’s Tomb that did him in.
Gould visited the cramped digs of Tutankhamen in 1923. Then he died of pneumonia. His railroad station took a bit longer.
Under receivership, it continued passenger service until 1931. Then it did only freight. Two fires combined to destroy the freight warehouse in 1946. The ruin stood downtown for seven years.
Then, it was cleared for continued construction of Gateway Center, the city’s first downtown renaissance project.
The Wabash tunnel under Mount Washington has proved to be as much of a money pit as the train station.
Various public-funded efforts to make use of the tunnel have been fruitless. The curse apparently does not care whose money it wastes.
Wabash, by the way, is an English phonetic spelling of a French phonetic spelling of an Indian name for a river in the Midwest. Got it? Doesn’t matter.
So, what did you see in the 1909 photo? Use the comment section below for a debriefing on your spy activities.
- Market Square and Scottish diamonds here
- St. Andrew’s Society of Pittsburgh
- The Forbes-Carnegie connection.
- The inglorious history of the Wabash Tunnel.
- The high resolution photo and thousands of others are available at Shorpy.com. It takes photos from the Library of Congress originally shot on large glass plates and digitally enhances them.
Leon J. Pollom, writer/researcher