Exploring the Belly of the Burgh in 1866, Part 2

How a Man Came to Write a Famous Line About Pittsburgh

We are accompanying James Parton, a well-known author in his day, as he explores Pittsburgh 149 years ago.

He has already experienced a day with only about 30 minutes of daylight. Parton’s fame as a biographer would fade with time, but he is about to go to the Hill District where he will be inspired to write one line remembered to this day.

Let’s join him.

James Parton
James Parton

There is one evening scene in Pittsburg which no visitor should miss. Owing to the abruptness of the hill behind the town, there is a street along the edge of a bluff, from which you can look directly down upon all that part of the city which lies low, near the level of the rivers.

On the evening of this dark day, we were conducted to the edge of the abyss, and looked over the iron railing upon the most striking spectacle we ever beheld.

The entire space lying between the hills was filled with blackest smoke, from out of which the hidden chimneys sent forth tongues of flame, while from the depths of the abyss came up the noise of hundreds of steam-hammers.

There would be moments when no flames were visible; but soon the wind would force the smoky curtains aside, and the whole black expanse would be dimly lighted with dull wreaths of fire.

Two boys enjoy the view of the Strip District from the North Side in 1925, 59 years after Parton viewed it from the opposite side, from the Hill District. That’s a lot of carbon wafting into the atmosphere.

It is an unprofitable business, view-hunting; but if any one would enjoy a spectacle as striking as Niagara, he may do so by simply walking up a long hill to Cliff Street in Pittsburg, and looking over into — Hell with the lid taken off.

Okay, that’s the line —– Hell with the lid taken off.

It’s particularly loved by those marketing or otherwise emphasizing the city’s transformation. A headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette two years ago is typical:

‘Hell With the Lid Off to Most Livable’ — How Pittsburgh Became Cool.

The story notes that today it’s almost commonplace for sources that bestow best-of titles to home in on Pittsburgh’s finer qualities, giving high marks on everything from bars and ballparks to fun places and real estate prices. It adds that the region repeatedly rates among the best places for brains, roller coasters and robotics, starting a business, buying a house, raising a family, retiring and more.

But, some around the country are tired of hearing Pittsburgh gloat about its transformation. They no longer question  it’s livability, so they question if it was really all that bad to begin with.  They just want to respond to the city’s marketers, so they say Parton’s nighttime description is a love letter to the city — not a criticism.

While it is certainly more positive than one might expect, those seeing it as a compliment must not have read much of Parton’s travelogue. If they had, they may have gotten attuned to the subtleties of Victorian sarcasm.

But, let’s rejoin the author:

Pittsburgers Shrug at the Smoke

Such is the kind of day of which Pittsburg boasts. The first feeling of the stranger is one of compassion for the people who are compelled to live in such an atmosphere.

When hard pressed, a son of Pittsburg will not deny that the smoke has its inconveniences.

He admits that it does prevent some inconsiderate people from living there, who, but for the prejudice against smoke in which they have been educated, would become residents of the place.

He insists, however, that the smoke of bituminous coal kills malaria, and saves the eyesight.

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