When Pittsburgh Became City, Summer Never Came

The world looked a little different in 1816 for William Turner, English landscape painter, after eruption of Mount Tambora.

Was the Burgh Advancing Too Much?

Looking up the Ohio River toward the just-chartered city of Pittsburgh in 1817

Looking up the Ohio River toward the just-chartered city of Pittsburgh in 1817

1816 is the year Pittsburgh became a city. No offense to the city, but that year sucked.

It had no summer. In fact, that is what the year is called: The Year With No Summer.

It’s also called Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.

It was the same for the entire Northern Hemisphere. Why?

Many attributed it to Pittsburgh, and places like it. People were getting too removed from nature and God. They were “advancing” too much.

Preachers and newspapers maintained God was saying, “Whoa!”

Pittsburgh-Bicentennial-Feature

There were frosts every month that year.

Since few of us today are farmers, we wouldn’t see the significance of that. But crops hardly grew.  Those that did, did not ripen.

In 1816, that meant famine in Europe. Food production was already out of whack there because of Napoleon’s armies marching around.

On this continent, farms were in the midst of a transition.  Original multi-crop subsistence farms that settlers created to feed and clothe their families were giving way to larger single-crop operations that fed towns and cities.

The Year With No Summer was more than they could handle.

New England farmers and those working hilltop spreads abandoned debt-ridden fields by the thousands and headed west where weather was warmer and soil easier to work. Go West, failed farmer!

That was good for Pittsburgh. Everyone going west stopped here first.

early-settlers

 

Conestoga Wagons had curved bottoms to get over rough roads without getting stuck on a boulder. The covered wagons of Wild West fame were ordinary flat-bottomed farm wagons. The wagons that hauled freight over the Allegheny Mountains are named after the Conestoga River in Lancaster County where they were made by Mennonites. The river is named after a famously friendly tribe massacred by Indian haters. See that story here. Note the bells mounted above the horses.

Pennsylvania’s Conestoga Wagons had curved bottoms to get over rough roads without getting stuck on a boulder. Covered wagons of Wild West fame were ordinary flat-bottomed farm wagons. Conestogas, which hauled freight over the Allegheny Mountains, are named after a river in Lancaster County. They were made by Mennonites. The river is named after a famously friendly Indian tribe massacred by Indian haters. The bells mounted above the horses warned travelers to get out of the way.

Tedious Travel Across Pennsylvania

Weary farm families must have been heartened to get here, get out of their wagons and board a boat for Ohio.

Even today, crossing Pennsylvania is tedious. In 1816, there were no trains, no canals. Just a few muddy or rocky roads clogged with lumbering wagons.

You would harness a few horses to a wagon loaded with your belongings and family, gotten in line behind hundreds of large white, blue and red Conestoga wagons, and taken a deep breath.

Each of the Conestoga wagons, the equivalent of today’s tractor-trailer trucks,  had a half dozen huge horses to inch freight to Pittsburgh, A thousand Conestogas a month creeped up and down the Alleghenies.

It took at least two weeks to get to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia.

The Legislature approved the charter making the borough of Pittsburgh a city on March 18.

Given that information traveled only as fast as people, it’s likely no one in Pittsburgh knew about it until April. 

Wagoners tended to smoke cheap cigars made of locally grown tobacco. Maybe they liked them. Maybe they kept mosquitoes at bey. Pennsylvania was notorious for mosquitoes and malaria before farmers drained much of the standing water. Inexpensive cigars came to be called stogies because of their association with Conestoga Wagons.

Storms were more severe in the

Storms were more severe in the “summer” of 1816 as captured in this painting of one approaching Weymouth Bay in England by John Constable.

Traveling, Sleeping With Wagon Men

If you were with an impoverished farm family headed for the Midwest, you spent your days trailing behind these wagoners, and nights sleeping among them.

They typically stayed at wayside inns. They probably went to wayward inns, too, but that’s a story for another time.

Wayside inns were country taverns where you bedded on the bar room floor in front of an open fireplace, on a bunk you brought with you.

Stage coach passengers and their drivers stopped at the better hotels in towns. They paid more.

Each town was laid out with a square at its center. It was not for ornamental reasons like today.  It was for travelers.

Taverns were placed in two or more of the corners. Freight wagons spent nights in the squares. Horses were blanketed, fed and bedded there.

Currier & Ives print of a wayside inn in Sudbury, MA, made famous in the epic (read that

Currier & Ives print of a wayside inn in Sudbury, MA, made famous in the epic (read that “long”) poem “Tales of the Wayside Inn” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Feeding off its literary fame, the inn still operates.

Most of the early European  settlers here were Scots. They call   public common areas diamonds rather than squares.

In 1816, many of those diamonds were in towns like Greensburgh, Chambersburgh and Ebensburgh. All lost their “H” in an attempt to standardize place name spelling. Pittsburgh lost its “H” for a while, too. Burghers complained enough to get it back.

In June that year, heavy blankets were needed for horses on the frost-covered diamonds. Logs or coal burned hot in the taverns.

Two to three inches of snow fell at Pittsburgh. Frost and ice accounted for much of the crop damage. In mid June, a correspondent in Erie reported “the season has been dry and frosty for weeks. It appears as if we should have no crops in these parts — the corn has been all killed by the frost of the 9th, and until very lately lake Erie was not navigable for the ice.”

It may be that God was punishing Americans for a lack of humility, as preachers claimed. If so, he used a volcano on the other side of the world to do it.

Mount Tambora in Indonesia

Mount Tambora in Indonesia

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It was one of the largest eruptions ever recorded.

Mount Tambora in Indonesia blew up the year before, sending a blanket of dust and gases 27 miles into the stratosphere. It didn’t help that the sun was in a phase when it was not particularly active.

Looking through the haze, people could gaze directly at the sun. Many saw sunspots for the first time. They blamed the lack of summer on those sunspots, or solar storms. In reality, there were fewer sunspots than normal.

The smoke continued to rise above the volcano for a few years, but summer reappeared here in 1817.  Pittsburgh has had one ever since.