Pittsburgh’s Pot Past

As Pittsburgh makes marijuana possession a little less illegal, it is interesting to note that bales of cannabis once came here by the boatloads.

A local businesswoman  ordered the bales and processed them downtown for customers who shipped them around the world.

Perhaps, I should explain. Mary Irwin made rope.

In all likelihood, the hemp that lined the riverbanks would not have been particularly good for smoking. Bummer.

Farmers would have hybridized their cannabis to maximize stalks and stems, giving rope makers lots of fluffy fiber to work with.

Cut-away of cannabis stalk shows fiber that draws rope makers.

Cut-away of cannabis stalk shows fiber that draws rope makers.

Today, law requires hemp growers for such industrial purposes to use plants hybridized to ensure a minimum of THC.

That’s the compound in the leaves and flower tops that expands people’s minds and/or makes them stupid.

Those who grow cannabis for inhaling purposes develop plants with a maximum of leaves,  flowers and, of course,  THC.

Mary Irwin didn’t know about THC. Oxygen hadn’t even been discovered yet.

It was the late 1700s. Her husband, John, a disabled Revolutionary War vet, set up a rope-walk along the Monongahela just before he died. It may be John did so in name only, and that Mary initiated the startup business and did the actual work.

Rope-walks were used to spin fiber into cordage and then twist and wrap that into lengths of rope.

That involved walking backwards while your hands worked. Rope length was determined by how far back you could walk without running into something.

So, river banks were good places to work, particularly in Pittsburgh. It only had about 1,500 people at the time.

Mary set out to meet the increasing demand for rope.

One sailing vessel alone could use more than 20 miles of rigging. Coal mines and wells needed rope, too. Church  bells wouldn’t ring without it.  Canal boats tethered to mules needed the twisted hemp. And, I suppose you couldn’t have hangings without rope.

Rope-walk workers knew how to advance in their jobs. They pulled strings.

Mary had her young son, also named John, to help. They started on the north bank near what is now the Smithfield Street bridge. The quality of Irwin rope combined with the growing need caused her to move repeatedly to larger . . .  er . . .  longer locales.

She moved closer to the Point, first on the Monongahela River and then the Allegheny River. In 1812, a young man with boyish looks showed up at her business. He was about to become the nation’s heroic darling, the object of its patriotic zeal.

Mary Helps Win Battle of Lake Erie

He introduced himself as Oliver H. Perry. The Navy captain was in town to get supplies to take on the English. He was to attack them where they were strongest: on the sea.

Perry needed rigging for U.S. ships being built on the shore of Lake Erie, and he needed it pronto.

Oliver Hazard Perry

Oliver Hazard Perry

Mary obliged. She was not young, but it was a huge, important order, so she personally supervised the work.

The rope went up to Lake Erie in 1813 to join the War of 1812 by way of the Allegheny Valley. That, and the fact that Perry made the U.S. Navy look good, accounts for names like Perrysville and Perry High School in that valley.

“We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Mary Irwin’s rigging hung above Perry as he penned his famous line,  “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

He is better known for another line — but, it’s someone else’s soundbite, “Don’t give up the ship!”

Perry knew a good line when he heard one.

He was told that a wounded, dying friend, Capt. James Lawrence, shouted those words from belowdecks as the English boarded his shot-up vessel.

The words didn’t do any good. The crew gave up the ship anyway. But, Perry ensured the statement of American resolve and toughness lived on.

He created a personal battle flag emblazoned with “Don’t Give Up the Ship!”

Perry famously flew it on his flagship in a war closely monitored by American journalistic cheerleaders. Perry and another captain, Jesse Elliot,  won Congressional honors for their Lake Erie triumphs.

Perry did not get promoted to commodore until later, though. That came in exchange for him not embarrassing Congress or the Navy by insisting that Elliot be court-martialed.

It seems Perry thought Elliot was a coward and was deliberately late to the fight.

Perry, with his battle flag "Don't Give Up the Ship" after he gave up his ship in the battle of Lake Erie. Perhaps the painter and other patriots thought Perry was true to his motto because he got another ship to win back the one he abandoned.

Perry, with his battle flag “Don’t Give Up the Ship” after he gave up his ship in the battle of Lake Erie. Perhaps the painter and other patriots thought Perry was true to his motto because he got another ship to win back the one he abandoned.

So, he became a Commodore Perry. His brother, Matthew, was another one, the one who famously (infamously?) forced Japan to end two centuries of seclusion.

That allowed Western businessmen to introduce Japan to capitalism. Saiya nara Shoguns.

The War of 1812,  a continuation of the American Revolution, occurred while Napoleon tried to take over Europe. England stopped that, but was half-hearted in North America as the young United States grabbed more land from British allies.

Those allies were Native Americans, so . . .

The U.S., aspiring to be great, also hoped to take all of Britain’s Canada, but gave up on that idea. It would need a professional army rather than militias to realize such ambitions. And that would take — excuse the term — taxes.

Cannabusiness Goes Up in Smoke

Back in Pittsburgh, Mary retired from the hemp trade.

Like America, her son was all about expansion.  John took the rope-walk to a 10-acre tract on the North Side (then Allegheny City), near where the National Aviary is today.

Then, he had trouble. He kept lighting up the cannabis.

When customers wanted waterproof rope, John soaked it in tar. That placed open-flame tar vats close to fluffy hemp. The hemp  was easily scattered and blown around the shop.

The peculiar odor of burnt cannabis hung over the North Side during the summer of 1836 after his rope-walk burned to the ground.

No matter. John rebuilt it.

No sooner was it complete, than John experienced a flashback. The new walk also burned down.

That pattern repeated in Allegheny until 1862 when the company moved to Smoky Island. I’m not kidding. That was its name.

At that time, the island was likely a peninsula jutting into the Allegheny roughly where the Carnegie Science Center sits today. It was barely set up on Smoky Island when fire followed. John sold the machinery and retired.

The new owners took the equipment to McKeesport where they reportedly did well with a very large operation until. . . Yeah, it burned down. From there the trail of Mary’s rope-walk is lost in New Jersey.

Want to learn more?


Pittsburgh’s marijuana decriminalization?

War of 1812?

A followup post reports modern Pittsburghers honoring Mary and digs deeper into her relationship with her husband.

Leon J. Pollom, writer/researcher

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