Looking Back: 12 Days that Changed Pittsburgh

As Pittsburgh celebrates the 200th anniversary of its incorporation as a city, we review 12 days that made the city what it is today – for its residents and the world.

In the 200 years since its incorporation as a city, Pittsburgh has made history many times and in many ways. Pioneers from the very beginning, its people have blazed important trails in endeavors of all kinds, from medicine and technology to politics, from industrial innovation to sports and the arts. Their achievements mark Pittsburgh as a hotbed of ideas and innovation, a city whose global significance belies its relative youth. This month, Pittsburgh begins a yearlong celebration of its bicentennial, beginning on March 18 with “Incorporation Day.” To join in that observance, we revisit a dozen days from the past two centuries that demonstrate why Pittsburgh claims a prominent place on the national and world stage. 

Photo by chuck beard


The City of Bridges gets No. 1

November 21, 1818  ——  The first time a president made an official visit to Pittsburgh, James Monroe had to be rowed across the Monongahela River. The next autumn, when workers finished the covered wooden Monongahela Bridge, they celebrated with cannon fire and a banquet that featured 10 toasts. Lewis Wernwag designed the span, and the owners charged tolls ranging from 2 cents per pedestrian to 37 cents for a six-horse freight wagon. The Great Fire of 1845 torched the bridge down to its stone piers. Luckily, John Roebling, a German-born engineer and inventor, was in town at that moment finishing a revolutionary canal-boat aqueduct over the Allegheny that was hung by his patented wire rope. To stretch a new deck over the old Monongahela piers, he used a similar suspension design. It was his first for a roadway, but one he would revisit throughout his career, culminating in his design for the Brooklyn Bridge. Heavier traffic loads eventually caused Roebling’s Pittsburgh span to sway, so in 1883 the city replaced it with Gustav Lindenthal’s Smithfield Street Bridge. Now the city’s oldest, it stands in the same spot as Wernwag’s original.

Nuns Open Mercy Hospital

January 1, 1847  ——  Until Irish nuns opened the city’s first hospital four years after arriving in Pittsburgh, poor people suffering from smallpox were isolated and treated in an old city coal shed. The Sisters of Mercy welcomed all, regardless of religion; while waiting for construction of a permanent hospital, they converted a large room in their convent into a sick ward. Among the sisters caring for and praying over their patients while they awaited the doctor was Sister Xavier, formerly Eliza Tiernan, daughter of a prominent city businessman. Decades
later, people still reminisced about how the wealthy young society belle, her hair newly shorn, became the first American to take the veil; the solemn ceremony was attended by many of the city’s business elite. The next January, the nuns courageously took in 19 patients during a deadly typhus epidemic and saved 15 of them. Four of the nuns, including Sister Xavier, succumbed to illness and were buried at the new Mercy Hospital, which opened that May.


GOP Holds Founding National Convention

February 22, 1856  ——  America’s two-party system was failing as the Whig party was torn apart on the question of slavery. An anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic movement dubbed the “Know Nothings” had risen abruptly in the Whig party’s place, attempting to change the subject and heal divisions. Another wing — calling themselves Republicans — came into play, arguing slavery was the nation’s real problem, especially because Democrats in southern states were bent on expanding the controversial institution westward and northward to build an unassailable power base for rich slave owners. Meeting in Lafayette Hall in Pittsburgh, the new party proclaimed a national platform: fight the expansion of slavery in territories outside the South, “resist and overthrow the present national administration” and send more guns to the “free-staters” in Kansas. Paradoxically, Pennsylvania’s only president, Democrat James Buchanan, would win the office that year thanks to the split among his opponents. But his party would be the next to fracture, handing the 1860 election to the Republican Abraham Lincoln.

Photo by chuck beard

Iron Workers Win

February 13, 1865  ——  Before the days of steel mills, skilled workers called puddlers stirred molten pig iron to strengthen it into wrought iron. When factory owners cut wages in an 1858 downturn, the puddlers formed the Iron City Forge of the Sons of Vulcan and chose 20-year-old Miles Humphreys as their leader. The Civil War soon boosted demand, temporarily solving the wage problem. As fighting wound down in 1864, however, the owners cut wages again, and the Sons of Vulcan went on strike. After eight months, Humphreys and B.F. Jones, owner of American Iron Works (later J&L Steel), hammered out the country’s first union contract, setting wages for puddlers on a sliding scale based on the price of iron. Humphreys went on to Harrisburg to serve in both the state House and Senate, then returned to become Pittsburgh’s fire chief, a post he held well into the next century. After numerous mergers and reorganizations, the successor unions to the Sons of Vulcan eventually were forged into the United Steelworkers of America.

Westinghouse Strikes Gas

May 22, 1884  ——  No matter how rich he became, George Westinghouse remained an inventor at heart. Try to imagine a Carnegie, a Frick, a Mellon or another of the city’s industrial titans erecting a giant wooden derrick in his wife’s flower garden to drill for natural gas. Wealthy East End neighbors implored Westinghouse to paint it sage green to at least help it to blend in better. He struck gas at 3 a.m. at Solitude, his comically misnamed estate, with such force it blew the rig off the well. The roaring hiss of escaping gas forced onlookers to shout to be heard, and at night a column of flames at least 40 feet high provided enough light to read a newspaper a half-mile away. Many more derricks arose, and Westinghouse — who already had revolutionized railroads with his airbrake and signaling apparatus — formed a utility company and laid pipelines to supply homes and factories. The new fuel was undependable; leaks led to explosions and wells went dry. But there were lessons to apply to another power source the indefatigable inventor went on to conquer next: electricity.

Instant Millionaires!

February 26, 1901  ——  When Andrew Carnegie agreed to sell his steel company to J.P. Morgan, the enormous profit added to the bankroll that funded libraries, concert halls and other philanthropic gifts still bearing his name in Pittsburgh and beyond. The sale also netted a huge windfall for dozens of junior partners and managers who until then had been unable to capitalize on the true value of their stakes. Henry Oliver, who knew Carnegie when both were telegraph messenger boys, now had $13 million. He and others set sail on a tour of Europe. Henry Clay Frick went on a skyscraper-building spree. Alexander Peacock, a former sales manager at the company, commissioned a dazzling Highland Avenue mansion in which to throw parties; when he found out a neighbor had two gold-plated pianos, he bought six. The nouveau-riche Pittsburgh millionaires snapped up paintings, real estate, champagne and Cuban cigars, as well as diamonds and gold baubles for their wives and mistresses. Besides driving a turn-of-the-century economic boom, they followed their boss’s charitable lead, giving millions to universities, hospitals, churches and other worthy causes.

KDKA Airs The First Commercial Radio Broadcast

November 2, 1920  ——  KDKA did for radio what Netscape did for the internet. Tinkerers and hobbyists had been using radio for years to chatter with each other while corporations looked for ways to monetize the technology. After each workday, Westinghouse engineer and inventor Frank Conrad broadcast a nightly show from his Wilkinsburg garage for anyone willing to listen to his borrowed phonograph records and his sons playing piano. His boss had a eureka moment: Make more shows like that, and sell more radios for people to tune in. Conrad set up a transmission studio on the roof of the company’s factory in East Pittsburgh and launched KDKA on election night. An announcer read the returns as Warren G. Harding swept to victory; someone played a banjo to break the monotony. Harding would die unexpectedly three years later, but not before getting his own radio for the White House. By the end of the decade, millions of homes would have theirs, too.

Mellon, Lawrence Align

January 7, 1946  ——  The two men credited with the Smoky City’s renaissance had little in common. Richard King Mellon was a blue-blood Republican commanding a family corporate and banking empire worth billions. David L. Lawrence was a Democrat party boss and political kingmaker who rose from working-class roots to the mayor’s office. The two had never met. But on his inauguration day, the new mayor received a call from the magnate requesting a private meeting. Aides marveled that “Colonel Mellon” skipped the car and walked across Grant Street to Lawrence’s office, bearing a welcoming gift of 13 acres of family land in Shadyside and $100,000 to put a recreation center there. The alliance between the Lawrence administration and the Mellon-led Allegheny Conference on Community Development soon would champion transformational projects from Gateway Center and Point State Park to — at last — effective pollution control.


Salk’s Polio Vaccinations Begin

February 23, 1954  —— Uncharacteristically, Dr. Jonas Salk forgot to bring the lollipops. The University of Pittsburgh scientist, already celebrated for his work on the influenza vaccine, typically gave treats to the children he injected to soften the needle’s sting. Instead, the sole reward for the 137 children gathered in the gym at Arsenal Elementary School that morning — the first in what soon would
become a nationwide, then global, wave of inoculations — was that they never would be crippled by polio. The disease struck 58,000 Americans in 1952, when Salk’s first human trials began at the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children in Leetsdale. Volunteers there heroically agreed to be guinea pigs despite knowing the shots would never help them to walk again. By 1961, U.S. cases had plummeted to 1,300 as another nightmare disease succumbed to the advances of medicine.

pirates photo © corbis images


Bucs Win Best Ballgame Ever

October 13, 1960  ——  With their 10th pennant in 12 years, the Yankees were a superpower. Their opponents, the Pirates, were returning to the World Series for the first time since 1927. In the legendary seven-game series — still the only one of that length ever to end with a walk-off homer — the Bronx Bombers dominated in their three wins, posting gaudy final scores of 16-3, 10-0 and 12-0. The Bucs managed three wins too. Fans who jammed into Forbes Field for Game Seven witnessed a wild afternoon finale with four lead changes and not one strikeout. In the bottom of the ninth, tied at 9-9 after another Yankees rally, leadoff hitter Bill Mazeroski stepped to the plate and blasted a high fastball beyond the left-center field wall. Superstitious Pirates fan and part-owner Bing Crosby had fled to Paris to listen on the radio so as not to jinx his team. Overcome with euphoria, Bing banged a bottle of scotch against the fireplace mantel and almost burned down the apartment. Later, as throngs filled Downtown to celebrate, Mazeroski and his wife, Milene, retreated to a deserted Schenley Park at sunset for a quiet moment, with only squirrels for company.


The Pulitzer Goes to a Son of the Hill

April 16, 1987  ——  The Pulitzer Prize awarded to “Fences” — August Wilson’s play about a Hill District garbageman and retired Negro League slugger frustrated by the chances he never got — honored a brilliant playwright and master of dialogue. It also was an acknowledgement of the endless daily struggle for dignity and respect in black communities that, like the Hill, were overlooked or bulldozed in the name of urban renewal. Wilson dropped out of high school when a teacher falsely accused him of plagiarism. He never stopped learning, though, whether browsing the stacks of the Carnegie Library — which eventually awarded him a diploma, the only one it has ever conferred — or listening to the cares and cadences of his neighbors. “Fences” grossed a record-setting $11 million in 1987 and won Tony Awards for Wilson and lead actor James Earl Jones. The 2010 revival won more Tonys, including for Denzel Washington, who has agreed to direct all 10 plays of Wilson’s Century Cycle for HBO. The project is underway, with Paramount expected to film “Fences” later this year in Pittsburgh.

Photo by Richard Cook


Pittsburgh Welcomes the World

September 24, 2009  ——  It probably was the only time a White House press secretary has mentioned the Terrible Towel in his remarks. Robert Gibbs surprised many when he announced the next summit of presidents, prime ministers and heads of state from 20 leading nations would convene in Pittsburgh. In the midst of a global financial crisis, new President Barack Obama had reached back for his campaign theme of hope, pitching the economic optimism of Pittsburgh’s rebound from steel crash to burgeoning sectors of health care, technology and education. The Golden Triangle went into virtual lockdown, and clashes between police and protesters grabbed some of the headlines. But overall, the city was judged ready for its close-up. The summit generated 7,000 stories from American media outlets, according to the Allegheny Conference, and many more in the international press. Each one was a valuable opportunity to get out the message: Pittsburgh is back.

Mark Houser, the university editor and an adjunct professor at Robert Morris University, is a former longtime reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. His free audio walking tour of Downtown Pittsburgh history and architecture is available in 11 languages at rmu.edu/tourpittsburgh.


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