Time travel is possible. Come with me and we’ll join James Parton as he takes a train to Pittsburgh 149 years ago.
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.
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.
When the traveller has satisfied himself that the black clouds are only the smoke-covered hills that rise from each of the three rivers, still he catches himself occasionally quickening his steps, so as to get back to his umbrella before the storm bursts. During our first stroll about the town, some years ago, we remained under this delusion for half an hour; and only recovered from it after observing that the old ladies who sat knitting about the markets never stirred to get their small stock of small wares under cover.
Pittsburg announces its peculiar character from afar off. Those who approach it in the night see before them, first of all, a black hill, in the side of which are six round flaming fires, in a row, like six fiery eyes. Then other black hills loom dimly up, with other rows of fires half-way up their sides; and there are similar fiery dots in the gloom as far as the eye can reach.
This is wonderfully picturesque, and excites the curiosity of the traveller to the highest point. He thinks that Pittsburg must be at work behind those fires, naked to the waist, with hairy chest and brawny arms, doing tremendous things with molten iron, or forging huge masses white-hot, amid showers of sparks. No such thing.
These rows of fires, of which scores can be counted from a favorable point, are merely the chimneys of coke-ovens, quietly doing their duty during the night, unattended. That duty is to convert the waste coal-dust at the mouths of the mines, where it has been accumulating for a century, into serviceable coke. These are almost the only fires about Pittsburg that are always burning, night and day, Sundays and holidays.
The approach to the city by day is even more remarkable. The railroad from Cincinnati, after crossing the Ohio several miles below Pittsburg, has an arduous work to perform. Its general design is to follow the course of the river; but as the river is always bending into the form of the letter S, and carrying the hills with it, the railroad is continually diving under the hills to make short cuts.
This is unfavorable to the improvement of the traveller’s mind; for the alternations from daylight to darkness are so frequent and sudden, that he is apt, at length, to lay aside his book altogether, and give himself up to the contemplation of the November drizzle. . .
Was there ever such a dismal lookout anywhere else in this world? Those hills, once so beautifully rounded and in such harmony with the scene, have been cut down, sliced off, pierced, slanted, zig-zagged, built upon, built under, until almost every trace of their former outline has been obliterated, without receiving from man’s hand any atoning beauty.
The town lies low, as at the bottom of an excavation, just visible through the mingled smoke and mist, and every object in it is black. Smoke, smoke, smoke, — everywhere smoke!
Smoke, with the noise of the steam-hammer, and the spouting flame of tall chimneys, — that is all we perceive of Pittsburg from the side of the hill opposite the site of Fort Duquesne. . . The two tributary rivers are spanned by many bridges, light but strong, some of which are of great elegance. Over one of them the train crosses the Monongahela, alive with black barges and puffing tug-boats, and enters soon that famous depot, the common centre of all the great railroads meeting here. . .
. . .There can never be any dandies here. He would be a very bold man indeed who should venture into the streets of Pittsburg with a pair of yellow kids upon his hands, nor would they be yellow more than ten minutes.
All dainty and showy apparel is forbidden by the state of the atmosphere, and equally so is delicate upholstery within doors. Some very young girls, in flush times, when wages are high, venture forth with pink or blue ribbons in their bonnets, which may, in highly favorable circumstances, look clean and fresh for half a mile; but ladies of standing and experience never think of such extravagance, and wear only the colors that harmonize with the dingy livery of the place.
These ladies pass their lives in an unending, ineffectual struggle with the omnipresent black. Everything is bought and arranged with reference to the ease with which its surface can be purified from the ever-falling soot.
Lace curtains, carved furniture, light-colored carpets, white paint, marble, elaborate chandeliers, and every substance that either catches or shows this universal and all-penetrating product of the place, are avoided by sensible housekeepers.
As to the men of Pittsburg, there is not an individual of them who appears to take the slightest interest in his clothes. . .
During the autumn, they have about thirty such days as the one we are about to describe. Pittsburg is proud of them. No other city can exhibit such a day. . .
On waking in the morning, while it was still as dark as midnight, we became gradually conscious that the town was all astir. The newsboys were piping their morning song at the door of the hotel; the street cars were jingling by; the steamboat whistles were shrieking; those huge Pennsylvania wagons, with their long lines of horses, were rumbling past; and in the passages of the hotel frequent steps were heard, of heavy-booted travelers and of light-footed chambermaids.
” Ah,” we thought, ” this is Pennsylvania indeed ! What energy mania indeed ! What energy, what a fury of industry! All Pittsburg at work before the dawn of day!. . .
. . . A match was felt for and found, the gas was lighted, and the first duties of the day were performed with that feeling of moral superiority. . . of a person who dresses by gaslight. . .
Descending to the lower rooms of the hotel, elate with this new vanity, we were encouraged to find the gas all alight and turned full on, just as we had left it the evening before. The dining-room, too, was brilliantly lighted, and full of people taking sustenance.
Hardly prepared to go so far as to take breakfast by gas-light, . . . we nevertheless deemed it a wise precaution to buy a newspaper or two, thinking it probable that in such a place the newspapers would be all bought and done with by daylight.
Then we strolled to the front door, and out into the street. It was still dark, though there were some very faint indications of daylight. Everything, however, was in full movement, —stores open and lighted up, drivers alert, newsboys vociferous, vehicles and passers-by as numerous as if it were broad day.
It is not pleasant to stumble about out of doors before daylight . . .in a strange place. The valuable idea now occurred to us . . to overcome the gloom of the twilight in breakfasting. This fine idea was realized. . .
. . . We left the dining- room, and looked about for a seat close to a window, where perhaps the large-type headings of the news might be made out by the aid of a glass. There was just light enough for that, and we sat awhile waiting for more. It came with such strange and tantalizing slowness, that it occurred to us, at last, to see what time it was. One glance at the watch dispelled our (feelings of) moral superiority. It was a quarter to nine!
It was a still, foggy morning. There being no wind to drive away the smoke issuing from five hundred huge chimneys, the deep chasm in which Pittsburg lies was filled full of it, and this smoke was made heavy and thick by being mixed with vapor.
At eleven o’clock that morning all the gas in the stores was lighted, and the light was as necessary as it ever can be at night.
At ten minutes past noon, we chanced to be in a bookstore, where the bookkeeper’s desk was situated directly under a skylight, which in any other city would have flooded the desk with a dazzling excess of light. Even there, the gas was burning with all its force from two burners, and all its light was required.
Toward two o’clock the heavy masses of smoke lifted a little; the sun appeared, in the semblance of a large, clean, yellow turnip; and, for the first time that day, it was possible to read without artificial light. This interval lasted half an hour. By three o’clock, it was darker than ever, and so remained till night came to make the darkness natural; when, the streets being lighted, Pittsburg was more cheer- ful than it had been all day.
Next: “Hell With the Lid Taken Off”
Then, as Now, Pittsburghers See it as a Blessing