Everything Else

Exploring the Belly of the Burgh in 1866, Part 1

Pittsburgh, as it would have looked to Parton for the brief time the smoke cleared a little. See credit lines at end of post.

Time travel is possible. Come with me and we’ll join James Parton as he takes a train to Pittsburgh 149 years ago.

James Parton
James Parton

You might be surprised.

Proud Pittsburghers will tell us about the health benefits of smoke.  We’ll go deep into a coal mine under Mount Washington and talk to Mr. Gallagher, a contented miner.

We’ll sit with otherwise well-behaved men and boys as they hoot and holler at a show downtown. We’ll go into factories and see Pittsburgh strongmen make window panes, glass bottles and giant cannons.

We also will go up to the Hill District and see what caused our guide to write the most famous line of all about Pittsburgh — You know, the one about looking “into Hell with the lid taken off.”

Now Then, Pittsburgh presents highlights of Parton’s research in a series of posts beginning with this one. You can read his complete article in Atlantic Monthly.

It was published in January 1888, 14 months after his visit. Don’t be thrown by his spelling of the city. He may have put Hell into the city’s description, but he was among many outsiders who insisted on getting the “H” out of it.

Coal for the fires below came from the hill upon which the artist stood above the Monongahela. Coal transport is the main purpose of the train crossing the bridge. Just beyond it is the Smithfield Street Bridge. The large hotel at the downtown end is where Parton stayed.
Coal for the fires below came from the hill upon which the artist stood above the Monongahela. Coal transport is the main purpose of the train crossing the bridge. Just beyond it is the Smithfield Street Bridge. The large hotel at the downtown end is where Parton stayed.

Part One: Hell’s Not So Bad

And Parton begins thusly:

There are three cities readily accessible to the tourist, which are peculiar, — Quebec, New Orleans, and Pittsburg, — and of these Pittsburg is the most interesting by far.

On that low point of land, fringed now with steamboats and covered with grimy houses, scarcely visible in the November fog . . .

It is curiously hemmed in, — that small triangle of low land upon which the city was originally built. A stranger walking about the streets on a summer afternoon is haunted by the idea that a terrific thunderstorm is hanging over the place. Every street appears to end in a huge black cloud, and there is everywhere the ominous darkness that creeps over the scene when a storm is approaching.

Continue reading…