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Pittsburgh’s Forgotten Tunnel

Originally posted 2016-01-27 13:03:52. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Present day bus and light rail vehicle on south side of transit tunnel.

Present day bus and light rail vehicle on south side of transit tunnel.

Pittsburgh’s most persistent myth may be that the transit tunnel under Mount Washington was once a coal mine. It never was.

That errant community memory stems from an otherwise long-forgotten tunnel nearby.

It doesn’t help when people who should know better repeat the transit tunnel legend as fact. Pittsburgh Magazine just did it in a piece on Pittsburgh tunnels:

 “The one-time coal-mine-turned-tunnel was upgraded in 1904 and used by as many as 600 streetcars a day at its peak”

Sorry,  as much as we all like the idea of repurposing old things, the transit tunnel started out as a tunnel. It never has been anything else.

How We Forgot

Perhaps, we should explain the origins of the myth.

Back when Mount Washington was just a hill, it had a less marketable name, Coal Hill.

It got the name soon after Fort Pitt was built at the Point. Fort dwellers and those living in shanties around the fort dug coal out of the hillside for subsistence heating.

The trees were already gone, stripped away and burned. Coal was carried across the Monongahela River in canoes and later ferried in flat boats.

But, they didn’t just walk to the base of the hill and start digging. That would have been too convenient.

They had to climb three-quarters of the way up the steep hillside to find and excavate coal. Then, they slid it down.

The coal — compressed remains of ancient swamps — was in a layer that was very large, but not particularly thick. It ranged from a few feet to not much more than the height of a miner.

But the Pittsburgh Coal Seam, as it came to be known, enabled a community to grow around the fort, and then flame into an industrial power.

It lay about 100 feet down from the top of Coal Hill. There was no coal at the level of today’s transit tunnel.

That tunnel, now used by the “T” light rail system and buses, was dug to replace a train tunnel that indeed had been a coal mine.

That mine was far up the northern slope, or downtown side, of the hill. On the southern side, the valley floor is much higher. So, the mine was only about half way up that side.

Now let’s explore the business of carrying coal and people through or over Mount Washington. It required so many contraptions to operate, and so much patience to use, that it is hard for modern minds to fathom.

This is why we went to a lot of trouble to ride through or over Mount Washington. Many workers walked this every day. It is a 1910 view of Indian Trail Steps, named after a path that followed the same route. Believe it or not, people took horses and wagons on the trail before these steps stopped them.

This is why we went to a lot of trouble to ride through or over Mount Washington. Many workers walked this every day. It is a 1910 view of Indian Trail Steps, named after a path that followed the same route. Believe it or not, people took horses and wagons on the trail before these steps stopped them.

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Pitt, Why the Hogwarts-Like Cathedral?

Originally posted 2016-02-03 00:12:02. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Just Ask

Why did Pitt decide to build a high-rise to house itself? At the time it was built, I would guess it might have been relatively easy to spread out with lower buildings instead. I’m not aware of any other similar high-rise universities. Was high-rise a fad? — Wayne Narr, Houston


The Answer

There are four main reasons why a towering Hogwarts-like Cathedral of Learning is in Oakland to astonish the eye.

  • Oakland was already running out of room in the 1920s.
  • A tenacious visionary came from Davenport, Iowa.
  • Pitt was fully private then. It had no accountability to taxpayers and the people they elect.
  • Wealthy families contributed millions to make it happen. They overcame faculty opposition, the Great Depression and technical difficulties of blending Gothic architecture with a modern skyscraper.
Young people who grew up associating education with Harry Potter's Hogwarts are drawn to the vaulted confines of the Cathedral of Learning. Public tour information is available here.

Young people who grew up associating education with Harry Potter’s Hogwarts are drawn to the vaulted confines of the Cathedral of Learning. Public tour information is available here.

It took 11 years to build. What did we get for their efforts?

Well, we got a quirky skyscraper comfortably standing amid every city planner’s dream: greenspace.

After 90 years, the 535-foot tower is still the tallest education building in the Western Hemisphere. Granted, few have wanted to take higher learning so literally.

John Bowman did.

He was chancellor in 1921, having just come from the University of Iowa.


John Bowman

Pitt was already 137 years old. It was following an ambitious 1907 plan for a 42-acre campus on the side of Herron Hill.

But,  it had built only five relatively modest, classic Greek-style buildings. That architect envisioned underground escalators that would get students up and down the steep slope.

Bowman, remember, was from Iowa. A hillside campus did not appeal to him. Even if it would look like Greek temples perched between escalators.

It was right after World War I and enrollment skyrocketed. Temporary wooden buildings were set up.

Bowman looked down from Herron Hill and  imagined a single Gothic tower rising from a flat, 14-acre area known as Frick Acres.

It wasn’t exactly empty. It included nice homes, gardens, and tennis courts.

Frick Acres before it was cleared to make way for the Cathedral of Learning

Frick Acres before it was cleared to make way for the Cathedral of Learning

But, Bowman got help. Andrew and Richard Mellon liked the idea. That made other important people like it. Frick Acres  residents did not go willingly, but they could not stop “progress.” The Mellons bought the land and gave it to the university.

Pitt, with institutional grandeur, attributes the following statement to Bowman:

“The building was to be more than a schoolhouse; it was to be a symbol of the life that Pittsburgh through the years had wanted to live. It was to make visible something of the spirit that was in the hearts of pioneers as, long ago, they sat in their log cabins and thought by candlelight of the great city that would sometime spread out beyond their three rivers and that even they were starting to build.”

Blah, blah . . . Yeah, he was a romantic. And, a marketer.

A far more believable quote is attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright, the famed architect whose work is as far removed from a Gothic tower as one can get.

“It is the largest ‘Keep Off the Grass’ sign I have ever seen,” he grumbled.

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Pittsburgh’s Worst Flood Ever? See What That Really Means

Originally posted 2016-05-18 11:12:57. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

The following film clips preserve flickers of a disaster that is fading from memory.

Few of today’s Pittsburghers and Johnstowners were around in 1936 when  much of the Mid Atlantic region flooded like never before or since.

It was March, after a particularly cold and snowy winter.

Heavy rain combined with melting snow and ice to make what became known as the St. Patrick’s Day Flood. It actually occurred over two or three days.

The flood was in the midst of the Great Depression. Petitions for projects to control and slow the amount of water flowing toward Pittsburgh went unheeded by a cash-strapped Congress for years — until after the disaster.

Actually, it wasn’t until after it happened again to a lesser extent in 1937.

Even then, floodgates of money didn’t open wide. Enough funding trickled through in the 1940s and 1950s to build dams, locks and other projects on tributaries to the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.

Several small upriver towns disappeared from the map after they were sacrificed for Pittsburgh. High water is stored where they once stood.

Extensive river flooding has not occurred since, making these flood films all the more stark to modern Pittsburgh eyes.



Cleaning Up

Flood Control


A few notes:

  • The first 1936 newsreel estimates damage at $25 million in Pittsburgh. It was actually $250 million, or the equivalent of $4.3 billion today. It is said 100,000 structures were destroyed.
  • The danger of typhoid was real, but no cases developed. A boil-water advisory may have prevented an outbreak.
  • The final death figure was estimated at 69 in Pittsburgh. More than 500 were injured.
  • Electricity was out for eight days. It was quite cold, but most homes were heated by coal furnaces that did not use electric blowers, so houses had heat — if they weren’t flooded.

How Pittsburgh ‘Saved’ the Whales, For a While

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

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 2017-05-16 00:52:15. 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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