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How Pittsburgh ‘Saved’ the Whales, For a While

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


When Racism Greeted

A Black Musical Genius

In Pittsburgh



Perhaps the most significant black artist ever to perform in Pittsburgh was pelted with stones, rotten eggs and curses of “Nigger!”

You haven’t heard of this?

Well, community shame tends to have a short shelf life. And, it did happen a long time ago.

It was May 16, 1843. The protagonist of this story was the most important name in American music you never heard of: Francis (Frank) Johnson.

People who know the evolution of American music know about him.

Johnson, we’re told, had uncanny skills with a new instrument — the keyed bugle. That was a bugle with keys like a flute. Later, valves replaced the keys, leading to the cornet and trumpet.

A keyed silver bugle like the one Frank Johnson used to delight audiences.

He also was a whiz on violin. He combined those skills with genius-level composition talents. That fueled a cultural force that started the Brass Band Era.

Frankly, I’m not a fan of brass bands and marches, but for a long time, it was THE  music of America; roughly between the mid 1800s and early part of the 20th Century.

A Divided Nation

Johnson, probably born in Philadelphia, was a free black traveling a divided nation. Much of it kept imported Africans and their offspring as slaves.

In nonslave states and territories, free blacks were seen by poor native-born whites and Irish immigrants as taking jobs away from them.

Then, as now, America was quite polarized. People had points they wanted to make to the stupid people on the other side.

There were those who thought slavery was wrong. Often, the same people favored restrictions on alcohol, and thought women should be allowed to vote.

Others — probably more — thought women could not vote responsibly, alcohol was a daily staple that should not be taken from free men, and black slaves were personal property that no American should have to give up to do-gooders.

It was into that rift that Frank Johnson and his bands played.

Not that he didn’t escape occasionally. Before coming to Pittsburgh, Johnson achieved great fame when he played for an 18-year-old woman in London.

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Originally posted 2017-05-16 00:52:15. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

You Think You Know Penguin Hockey?

So you think you know all about the Penguins and hockey?

Or maybe, you don’t know anything about sliding a disk on ice and bumping into people. No problem.

This quiz will interest, surprise and amuse you as the Penguins huddle around the Stanley Cup.


1. Hockey was introduced to Pittsburghers in 1895 when they went to see
2. The name ''hockey'' comes from
3. The first pucks were
4. That first hockey exhibition game in Pittsburgh was played where?
5. Duquesne Gardens opened in 1899, joining Forbes Field and Pitt Stadium as an entertainment center in Oakland. That was its second life. Previously, it was
6. The Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets, an amateur club, won national titles in 1924 and 1925. The city's first hockey title generated so much buzz that it ranked slightly below what sport?
7. To keep players, fans, pucks and beers separate, Duquesne Gardens was the first hockey venue in the world to install what?
8. Pittsburgh attracted top Canadian talent to its teams in the early 1900s because
9. Ever the promoter, the owner of the Yellow Jackets hired a beautiful Norwegian Olympic figure skater to entertain the crowd between game periods in 1936. She was enthusiastically received and this led a group of fellow hockey club owners to start
10. The Yellow Jackets team was so good it was divided into two stinging insect teams. The other was

If you got three correct, congratulations! You’ve gotten a hat-trick. That term is applied to anyone scoring three goals in a single game. It’s origins are disputed, but you can read about it here.  Surprisingly, no one claims it originated in Pittsburgh. If you find out otherwise, keep it . . . well, under your hat.

If you got four correct, that’s pretty amazing. But, surprisingly, lots of hockey players have scored four goals in a game. 

You say you got five? Now your in the ranks of people like Wayne Gretzky and someone named Mario Lemieux. Forty different players in the NHL have done that over the past century, some more than once.

Six? Now that’s been done only six times, mostly in the 1920s.

If you got more than six, you have bested everyone who has swung a stick in the NHL, and are hereby inducted into the Hall of Fame.



The Casino at Schenley Park

The Casino at Schenley Park

Ice polo team on “Duck Pond” at Storrs, Connecticut, 1890s.

Ice polo team on “Duck Pond” at Storrs, Connecticut, 1890s. Note ball rather than puck.


These Canadian students inside the Casino at Schenley Park were the first  ice hockey players seen by Pittsburghers. They played with a puck rather than a ball. Local students quickly switched over.

These Canadian students inside the Casino at Schenley Park were the first ice hockey players seen by Pittsburghers. They played with a puck rather than a ball. Local students quickly switched over.







Originally posted 2016-05-31 16:12:16. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Black Waiters, Soldiers of Self-Emancipation

black, black

Ready to Swoop to the Rescue

You probably don’t know this. Squads of black men and women in uniform routinely patrolled Pittsburgh and other key points of the Underground Railroad, often rescuing runaway slaves as they were about to be apprehended. They are overlooked because they  wore uniforms of waiters and porters, chambermaids and laundresses. In fact, that’s what they were. Their heroics appear in anecdotes all along the emancipation route between Pittsburgh and Niagara Falls, The goal of people fleeing the South was to get to the falls and go more than half way across the bridge to Canada. If they did that, they would be something they had never been before — free. No one could claim them as property in Canada. Martha didn’t get the chance to cross the bridge. According to newspaper accounts, she safely made the tense, secretive journey to Niagara Falls and was talking to her husband in front of one of the main hotels. A carriage pulled up and a man got out. He looked at the young African-American and she at him. “How do you do, Martha?” he asked, reaching out to shake her hand. She backed away, turned and ran faster than witnesses had ever seen a woman run. Martha ran through Prospect Park toward the ferry dock at the base of the falls. “Stop! Stop her! $100 to he who catches her,” the man bellowed with a Southern accent. He was her owner. Several men took up the challenge, but found themselves unexpectedly confronted by black men in hotel uniforms. They placed themselves between Martha and her pursuers. black waiterShe “outran them all, even the husband,” wrote one eyewitness, and “plunged down the ferry steps by hops instead of steps.” The ferry was gone. A lone boat at the dock was too big for her to push off. But, she leaped into it, followed by her husband. The hotel waiters pushed it off with a handspike and it glided just out of reach of the pursuers. Martha and her husband “sent up a glad and defiant hurrah,” loud enough to be heard over the roar of the falls. They rowed through the dense mist and over the roiling river toward Canada. Fifteen minutes later, they reached the Canadian shore. The waiters went back to folding napkins. But, they would have kept a wary eye scanning doorways. Most were escaped slaves. Continue reading

Originally posted 2016-02-10 11:33:03. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Dear Price of Dear Whoevers


We’ve been looking at surprising things you don’t know about 1816. That was the year Pittsburgh got big enough to become a city.

So far, we’ve learned:

  • There was no summer that year.
  • The City of Bridges had no bridges yet.
  • Public love-making was quite popular (waltzing).

Now we look at another surprise: You paid nothing to mail a letter. You paid a lot to get one.


Pittsburgh-Bicentennial-FeatureMail service was very different.

There were no stamps, and you didn’t have to pay a cent to send a letter on its way.

Nice! Free mail!

Not quite.

You had to pay if you wanted to read your incoming mail, and it wasn’t cheap.

That’s right. Postage was paid on the receiving end.

It was expensive because  mail was transported over rugged wilderness in wagons and stage coaches, and then a lot of it sat unpaid for in deadletter offices. The local post office advertised the names of all those who had not picked up their mail in the hopes someone would tell them to come to town and get it.

Those ads are a great resource today for genealogists tracking people over geography and time, but back then it only added to postage costs.

Today, a 49-cent stamp will send a one-ounce letter anywhere in the country.

In 1816, taking inflation into account, you paid the equivalent of $1.73 in Pittsburgh.

That’s if the letter traveled no further than 40 miles. Anything over 500 miles, say from Boston,  cost you $5.21 in today’s dollars.

Oh, and we’re talking just a single-page letter folded and sealed, not even an envelope.

A two-page letter would cost twice as much. Three pages. . . well, you get the idea.

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Originally posted 2016-03-30 09:25:11. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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