David Bradford, Whiskey Rebellion Leader

David Bradford

In rural Pennsylvania, resistance to high taxes and heavy-handed government drives political partisanship and mistrust of elites in the big cities.  A description of early 21st-century politics?  Well, yes, but it’s a description that has a long history in our state.  I’m talking about the Whiskey Rebellion.

I promise that I will write a blog post on the Rebellion itself, soon. But as research the subject, I keep coming across colorful characters whose stories I feel I must tell before treating the Rebellion as a whole.  My subject today is David Bradford: lawyer, big-time land-owner, conspirator, Revolutionary War general under Washington, and friend of the Marquis de Lafayette.  Yes, another one.  I’m starting to think there was hardly a landed gentleman anywhere in Pennsylvania who didn’t know the (apparently super-friendly) Marquis. 

David Bradford comes to Western Pennsylvania

For decades, the colonies/states of Pennsylvania and Virginia had disputed their borders in the west. Finally, in 1781, Mason and Dixon drew their famous survey line in favor of Pennsylvania.  That same year, David Bradford arrived in Washington County.  Bradford was born in Elizabethtown, NJ, and raised in Maryland, but he had family connections in southwestern Pennsylvania.  His family were founders of the academy that later became Washington & Jefferson College, and his sisters married prominent local attorneys.  Bradford gained admittance to the bar and, by 1783, became Deputy Attorney General for Washington County.

He served in both the Pennsylvania and Virginia General Assemblies, by virtue of being a landowner in both states, In 1788, he married Elizabeth Porter and that same year built one of the first stone houses west of the Allegheny Mountains.  More about the house later.  Interestingly, he bought four slaves in 1789, but freed them in 1793.  More about Bradford and slavery later, too.

The Whiskey Rebellion

Call me crazy, but, so far, Bradford’s life story sounds to me like he was a guy who would definitely not be rocking any boats – let alone escaping in one. He doesn’t sound like someone who would lead a rebellion and become a fugitive from justice. 

But David Bradford was an independent thinker.  In the early 1790’s, he increasingly disapproved of the centralized-government approach of Washington, Hamilton and the other Federalists.  Of particular concern in southwestern Pennsylvania was the excise tax on whiskey.  Congress approved the tax on March 3, 1791, and by 1794 several Pennsylvania counties were in full-blown rebellion. 

Bradford whole-heartedly agreed with the rebellion and assumed leadership of the insurrection in Washington County.  In early August of 1794, he led a militia of 5-7000 men on a march to Pittsburgh to protest the tax. 

That had President Washington gnashing his wooden teeth.  Washington ordered a federal militia to the west to put down the rebellion, and led the troops himself as far as Bedford, PA. 

Whiskey Rebellion: These guys make our 21st-century militias look like kittycats

Bradford’s escape

Legend has it that Bradford escaped out a back window of his house mere minutes before Alexander Hamilton knocked at his door to arrest him.  He galloped by horse to McKees Rocks, where he set off down the Ohio River by boat, firing shots at his federal pursuers on the shore.

The real story is both more boring and more interesting.  Bradford made his way rather leisurely to Pittsburgh on the advice of friends,. He sailed down the Ohio from there, completely unmolested by federal troops, who apparently had no interest in inflaming the situation by arresting a prominent local attorney and former member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. 

Bradford’s departure may not even have been motivated by imminent arrest.  Around the same time as the rebellion, Bradford had argued a case that an enslaved Washington man ought to be freed because his owner had failed to properly register him.  He won the case and the embittered slave-owner threatened him with death. 

Regardless of his motivations, Bradford escaped the justice of the young U.S. government by re-settling in Spanish Louisiana.  In 1797, he completed construction of a new home, which he originally named Laurel Grove and is now called The Myrtles Plantation. It is reputed to be haunted; if you’re interested in that sort of thing, read more HERE.  Once the house was completed, he brought his wife and their five children from Pennsylvania to Louisiana, where he and Elizabeth had five more children. 

Bradford’s later life

Elizabeth Bradford repeatedly petitioned George Washington to pardon her husband. But Bradford remained a fugitive from justice until 1799, when President John Adams issued a pardon.  Meanwhile, though, Bradfod prospered in Spanish Louisiana.  By the time he died of yellow fever in 1807, he owned 1050 acres in Louisiana, 3155 in Pennsylvania, 4282 in Virginia, 2000 in Kentucky and 9000 in Ohio.  Apparently, a little boat-rocking doesn’t do much damage to land-rich lawyers!

In the early 1800s, Bradford sold the stone house on Main Street in Washington, PA, but it still stands. After stints as a general store, a furniture store and home to the 19th-century American Realist novelist Rebecca Blaine Harding Davis, the house was beautifully restored in the 1960s and named an historic landmark.

The David Bradford House: a Whiskey Rebellion site

Al and I had a delightful time touring the house and gardens last week.  The log cabin in back of the house is not the original log cabin where Bradford conducted his law business, but it is an 18th-century Washington log cabin moved from elsewhere.  Our tour guide, Laney Seirsdale, was friendly, enthusiastic and very knowledgeable, and shared with us many tidbits of information about Bradford, the house, and life in late-18th-century Pennsylvania.  And the tour cost only $5!  Afterward, we had a very nice lunch at a bakery/café down the street Chicco Ballacco.  I’m become kind of a connoisseur of iced chai lattes during this overheated summer, and theirs is among the best. 

The Bradford House is located at 175 S. Main St., Washington, PA.

Stay tuned for my post on the Whiskey Rebellion. It’s coming, I promise! Meantime, in case you missed it, here’s a link to my previous post on Albert Gallatin.

Sources

Bradford House Historical Association; The Bradford House: A National Historic Landmark; Washington, PA; 2015

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiskey_Rebellion

http://www.maptherebellion.com/neatline/show/the-whiskey-rebellion#records/10

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bradford_(lawyer)


Albert Gallatin

“Immigrants: they get the job done”

These two guys had a lot in common, but they would soon be enemies

He was an orphaned immigrant who made good in the young United States, becoming Secretary of the Treasury and founding a bank.  He was an early abolitionist, an advisor to George Washington, and a friend of the Marquis de LaFayette.  No, I’m not talking about the toast of 21st-century Broadway, Alexander Hamilton.  I’m talking about Albert Gallatin.

Gallatin’s career included three terms in the U.S. Congress and 13 years as Treasury secretary under both Jefferson and Madison. He helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent and served as minister to both France and England.  Yet – similar to Hamilton before the Chernow biography and the hit Broadway musical – Gallatin doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.  A quick Amazon search for books about Gallatin gave me 26 results, a more respectable number than I expected.  A search for books about Hamilton gave me 100 results before I stopped scrolling. That’s counting coloring books, children’s books and books about his wife, Eliza Schuyler, and her sisters, but not counting wall calendars, sketch books, blank books and something called 499 Facts About Hip Hop Hamilton.

Yeah, this is a real book

Like pre-Chernow Hamilton, Gallatin deserves to be more famous than he is.

Gallatin’s early life

Abraham Alphonse Albert Gallatin was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 29, 1761.  By 1770, his parents had died, but they left a substantial estate and a relative made sure that Albert received an excellent education.  At age 18, Albert set off for the New World with a friend and business partner, Henri Serre.  The two young men had the notion of setting themselves up in business in Boston, but their inability to speak English was an impediment. 

After a business failure and a stint as a French tutor at Harvard, Gallatin and a new partner, Jean Savary, headed to the western frontier as surveyors.  Young Albert fell in love with the Monongahela Valley in southwestern Pennsylvania, and, when he received his inheritance in 1786, he bought 370-3/4 acres in present-day Fayette County, which he named Friendship Hill. 

Gallatin’s dream was to establish an industrial community on the banks of the Monongahela River, similar to what he remembered of his birthplace, Geneva.  He purchased 650 acres along the river, about a mile from his estate. There, he established a glass works, a gun factory, a distillery, a saw mill and a grist mill in the town that he named New Geneva. 

New Geneva in the 1790s. The river at left is the Monongahela. The stream with the covered bridge is George’s Creek.

Hamilton again…

But politics soon distracted Gallatin from New Geneva.  He was selected as a delegate to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention in 1790, and was subsequently elected to the state legislature.  By 1793, he was elected by the legislature to the United States Senate – where he and Hamilton became instant enemies. 

Gallatin objected to Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s financial plans for the United States, such as the plan to federalize the states’ Revolutionary War debts.  He became such a thorn in the side of Hamilton’s Federalist Party that the Federalists raised an objection to Gallatin’s election as Senator, because he had only been a citizen for 8 years. The Constitution required 9 years.  In a vote along partisan lines, Gallatin was expelled from the Senate. 

But Albert Gallatin’s political career was far from over.  Storms were brewing on the western frontier, and Gallatin would be a key figure in the coming crisis. 

Watch for my next post on the Whiskey Rebellion, coming soon!

Sources

Murray, Meridith A. To Live and Die Amongst the Monongahela Hills: the Story of Albet Gallatin and Friendship Hill. Eastern National, 1991.


Eleven 18th-century Buildings in Allegheny County

After visiting the Old Stone Tavern last summer, Al and I got curious about how many other 18th-century buildings still exist in the Pittsburgh area.  We discovered that there are at least eleven, and we visited all of them, either on the trail for previous blog posts or over the past two weeks.  Our trip took us all over the county, from Bethel Park to Leetsdale. 

FORT PITT BLOCKHOUSE (1764)

The Blockhouse is the oldest authenticated building west of the Allegheny Mountains.  Originally constructed in 1764 as one of five defensive redoubts for Fort Pitt, it is the only still-standing remnant of the fort.  It was spared when the rest of the fort was demolished in 1795 because it was already in use as a residence by Isaac Craig.  The sturdy little building continued as a home for about 100 years.  By the late 19th century, Mary Schenley owned it and was persuaded to donate it to the DAR.  The DAR opened it as a historical site and museum in 1894.  The blockhouse stands in the middle of Point State Park, but it is still owned and operated by the Fort Pitt Society of the DAR. 

Pre-pandemic, the museum was open in the summer from 10:30-4:30, Wednesday through Sunday.  Winter hours are shorter, and you should call the Society to check on current hours of operation. 

1795 map of Fort Pitt, showing Blockhouse as Bouquet Redoubt
Blockhouse in 1893, still surrounded by other residences & industry
Early 20th-century: caretaker’s house in front of Blockhouse after it became a museum
Fort Pitt Blockhouse today

NEILL LOG HOUSE (1765)

The Neill log is the oldest building in Pittsburgh that was originally built to be a home. 

John Neill (or Neal) immigrated from Ireland in 1736 and settled near present-day Harrisburg.  He later brought his wife, Margaret, and seven children from Ireland to the New World, where he and Margaret had two more children. Two of his sons established homesteads near Indiana, PA.  His son Robert bought 262 acres on the present-day site of Schenley Park and built the log cabin that stands there today on East Circuit Road, right up against the golf course.

Robert Neill helped to establish a Conestoga-wagon trade route between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and was a wagoner on that route.  He and his partner, Jack Andrews, were several times attacked by Indians as they traveled back and forth. 

One evening, they were starting down the hill near the present-day corner of Murray and Forbes Avenues, when an Indian threw a wasp’s nest at one of their horses.  The wasps began to sting the horses and passengers, the horses bolted, and Neill and Andrews raced for the log house just ahead of their attackers.  The party of Indians then besieged the house for an hour before giving up. 

Neill sold the homestead to John Reed, another wagon trader, in 1787 (some sources say 1795), and moved to Market Square.  The house eventually passed to James O’Hara, who left it to his granddaughter – Mary Schenley again – in his will.  Mrs. Schenley donated the cabin to the City of Pittsburgh in 1883.

The log house was taken apart, all but the chimney, and completely rebuilt on site in 1969. 

The Neill log house is behind a fence near the golf course.
This moment stands at the bottom of the steps leading to the log house. Sounds like someone I’d like to know more about.

TITLENURE (1770)

Located at 3215 Kennebec Rd. in Bethel Park, this private home is registered with the Pittsburgh Historic Landmarks Foundation, but Al and I were unable to find any historical information about it.

WYCKOFF-MASON HOUSE (1775)

This log house, at 6133 Verona Rd. in Penn Hills, was built in 1775 by Isaac Wyckoff.  It is still a private home and is operated as an Air B&B.  See the Air B&B site for pictures of the lovely, authentic colonial-era interior.

Wycoff Mason House

WOODVILLE (1780)

Virginia native John Neville arrived in Pittsburgh in 1774 to command the Virginia troops at Fort Dunmore (later remained Fort Pitt), and started construction of his home, Woodville, around the same time.  His home at Woodville survives on Washington Pike and was occupied until 1975.  The house opens for tours only on Sundays, but Al and I spent an enjoyable hour poking around the grounds last fall when we followed Chartiers Creek from its source in Washington County to where it empties into the Ohio River at McKees Rocks (see this blog post).

Neville later built another home, Bower Hill, near the current location of Kane Hospital and Our Lady of Grace Church.  At the time, Neville was one of the largest landowners in Western Pennsylvania.  He owned 10,000 contiguous acres in present-day Mt. Lebanon, Scott, Carnegie, Rennerdale and Bridgeville.

Woodville

THE OLD STONE TAVERN (c. 1782)

See my earlier blog post about this fascinating site.  1782 is an approximate date for the Tavern’s construction.  It may date as far back as the 1750s. 

WALKER-EWING-GLASS LOG HOUSE (c. 1785)

This is the “settler’s cabin” that Settlers Cabin Park is named after.  A small cabin with a very sturdy chimney, it sits just inside the park on Pinkerton Run Rd.  The site is lovely, with a pretty little stream running in the wooded valley below and a chicken coop nearby where we saw a teacher giving a talk to a group of preschoolers.  The children were much more enchanted by the chickens than by anything that their earnest teacher had to say!

The cabin is said to have been built in the 1780s by John Henry, a Scots-Irish fur trader who came to Western Pennsylvania around 1760. In 1772, Isaac and Gabriel Walker migrated to Western Pennsylvania from Lancaster and acquired a 437-acre estate which they named “Partnership.”  In 1785, they bought the nearby Walker-Ewing-Glass cabin from Henry.

I had to include one picture of myself so you know I was really there
And here’s the house. The setting is very pretty.
The house wasn’t open when we went, but we got this shot of the interior through a window.
The chimneys on these old log houses were extremely sturdy!

WALKER-EWING HOUSE (c. 1790)

Gabriel Walker built this second house around 1790. It stand less than a mile from the first house, on Baldwin Rd. near Noblestown Rd.   It is thought to have originally been more a hunting cabin than a primary residence. 

The Gabriel brothers had some hair-raising adventures in the Western Pennsylvania wilderness.  In 1782, their estate was raided by Indians, who killed two of Gabriel’s sons and abducted another son and two daughters.  The abducted children were returned 21 months later.

In 1794, Isaac and Gabriel were arrested as Whiskey Rebellion conspirators, and taken to Philadelphia. They were released after grudgingly paying the hated tax. 

Isaac Walker gave the house to his daughter Jane and her husband Robert Ewing as a wedding gift in 1817.  William and Jane’s son, Isaac Ewing was born in 1811, married Margaret Drake in 1834, and raised seven children with her.  As of 1889, he was still living in the Walker-Ewing House.  It was noted that he was a member of the United Presbyterian Church and a registered Democrat.

Ewing descendants lived in the house until 1973, when descendant Mrs. Robert Grace donated the house and land to the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.  She must have had a change of heart, because she later bought the house back and donated it to Pioneers West Historic Society.  The Society maintains the house to this day. 

Here I am in front of the Walker-Ewing house. It also stands in beautiful surroundings. Those Walker brothers knew how to site a homestead!
This rope-y looking thing we saw hanging from a vent in the house’s foundation is actually a the shed skin of a black snake.
This was their well, right outside the front door

THE JOHN FREW HOUSE (1790)

Also called the Sterrett House.  Located in Pittsburgh’s Westwood neighborhood at 1566 Poplar Street, this is still a private residence.  The original stone section of the house and the stone springhouse date to about 1790.  The Greek revival addition dates to 1840. 

Frew House today
Frew house in 1936

TORRENCE HOUSE (1790)

Located at 121  Colson Drive in Pleasant Hills, this private home is registered with the Pittsburgh Historic Landmarks Foundation, but Al and I were unable to find any historical information about it.

JAMES POWERS HOMESTEAD (1797)

Located at 108 White Gate Road in O’Hara Township, this private home is on the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation register, but Al and I were unable to find any historical information about it.

SOURCES

http://www.fortpittblockhouse.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neill_Log_House

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wyckoff-Mason_House

https://historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt%3A00afq9167m#page/1/mode/2up/search/walker-ewing

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Pittsburgh_History_and_Landmarks_Foundation_Historic_Landmarks


Letters to Country Girls: 19th century self-help

Flyleaf of Letters for Country Girls

Self-help books have been popular since Sebayt (“Teaching”) was written in Egypt in 2800 BCE.  Written in the form of a letter of advice from father to son, it is the oldest known example of a genre that includes Hesiod’s Works and Days, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the Book of Proverbs, Machiavelli’s The Prince and Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.  Human beings, bless our far-from-perfect little hearts, are self-improvers.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, “savior vivre” books were indispensable guides for men who wanted to know how to behave in polite society.  But the genre really exploded in the United States in the 19th century, which saw the publication of books on topics from cookery and homemaking, to business success, weight loss and self-medication. 

Jane Grey Swisshelm’s contribution to the self-help genre was her Letters to Country Girls.  The Letters started as a series of columns in her newspaper, The Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter.  She meant to write only a dozen columns, but the feature was so well-received that Jane ultimately wrote more than twice that number and collected them into her first published book in 1853. 

Marcus Aurelius, an early self-help writer. His Meditations has been a lodestar for me in times of trouble.

The purpose of the Letters

Jane specified that she was not writing for middle-class city girls, whom she dismissively described as “these drawling concerns who lounge around reading novels, lisping about fashion and gentility, thumping on some poor hired piano until it groans, and putting on airs to catch husbands.”  Her intended audience was girls growing up on the farms of Western Pennsylvania, young women who churned butter, made their own clothing, and might not see town more than monthly or a big city once in a lifetime.  She respects these young ladies, thinks them worthy of bettering themselves, and sees herself – a young farm wife herself, before she became owner/editor of a Pittsburgh newspaper – as singularly positioned to advise them. 

The letters are written in an intimate, conversational style, with touches of breezy, sometimes scolding humor.  They read less like newspaper columns than like letters from a wry, loving aunt only a few years older than the recipient.  Jane provides advice on a wide range of subjects:  how to keep worms from peach trees, build a wire fence, make different colored dyes, cook peach butter and ketchup, even how to make papier-mache furniture tops and artificial flowers and grapes to adorn readers’ parlors. 

“Get yourself a nice little sprouting hoe”

She was adamant, from her first letter, that every young woman must have her own hoe.  “Some day when you go on an errand to the village, and ride a horse to be left at the blacksmith’s, just get the man of the anvil to make you a nice little sprouting hoe!  You can send him a couple of pounds of butter for it.”  She goes on to describe to her readers how they may trick a husband or brother into making a handle for the hoe.  “Don’t patch (his) coat until the handle is in the hoe!  If that does not do, go to the woodpile some day, about eleven o’clock, and work very busily until they come in for dinner.  It will not be ready, you know; and they can put a handle in the hoe while you get dinner.” 

With your hoe, she advises her reader, you can dig up woodland wildflowers and small trees to beautify your yard, or a little tansy to keep the worms away from you peach trees, and transplant wild berries and grapevines into your garden.  It has other uses: “Sometimes it will do for a cane to help you to spring over muddy places and across runs.  When you clamber up steep places you can hook it fast to a tree, bush, or projecting root, to help you up….If you meet a snake, you have a weapon to kill him with…In fact, of the two, a little hoe, as a companion in a morning walk, is decidedly preferable to a full-grown beau.”  Jane thus anticipates the guy-code “bro’s before ho’s” by 150 years, and turns it on its head: “hoes before beaus.”

19th-century housekeeping advice

Jane provides advice on efficiencies and economies in housekeeping, not because she believes that housekeeping should be the center of a woman’s existence, but because she understands that it must be done – and, if it is completed efficiently, her readers will have something to spare for self-care and self-improvement.  She admonishes her country girls to keep their bodies as clean as their teapots and to care for their complexions as carefully as their carpets. 

Love of nature

Jane also urges her girls to cultivate a love of nature.  Modern urban people might assume that that would have come naturally to our rural ancestors, but the tone of Jane’s letters hints that country people of 200 years ago saw nature mostly as something they must conquer or hold at bay via endless drudgery.  Jane urges her readers to awaken to the beauty around them.  She especially advocates cultivating a love of flowers.  And she writes this about humble moss: “See how thickly it covers the old rotten log, as if it would hide its decay from those tall forest lords who now stand where it once stood…while this old tree that perhaps bore the very acorn they sprang from, is mouldering to dust at their feet.  The green leaves it once bore, the rough bark that protected it, are gone; but the beautiful moss creeps over and covers it up so lovingly.  Moss is like the mantle of charity, too, for it covereth a multitude of faults.”

She wants her readers to tend to their souls, as well as their bodies.  Jane is an advocate of reading, but not for pure entertainment.  She is scornful of city ladies who lounge around reading romantic novels.  She advocates instead for daily Bible reading, and for forming Reading Societies, where country folk can socialize and discuss serious books and current events. 

A picture of Jane taken around the time she was writing the Letters

Feminism in the Letters

Jane writes from a feminist perspective.  In letter #10, she excoriates men who see their wives and daughters as they see their farm animals.  The women in their families are resources, to be worked to exhaustion in the fields and barns, and then come back to the house to cook, churn and scrub while the men rest from their labors.  Women had no vote in the 19th century, and little legal recourse.  A woman’s labor and property belonged to her husband.  Jane points out that the legal situation encouraged men to see women as property.  “If Sallie has no right to hold office in church or state – if she is to submit to me in all things, of course I must be wiser than she, and better too.  She is ‘heaven’s last best gift to man’, an’ mighty useful one can make her!”  But, she goes on, “let one presume to use her mental powers – let her aspire to turn editor, public speaker, doctor lawyer – take up any profession or avocation which is deemed honorable and requires talent, and O! bring the Cologne, get a cambric kerchief and a feather fan, unloose his corsets and take off his cravat!  What a fainting fit Mr. Propriety has taken!”

But…

Jane was a farmer’s wife herself, and understood how hard the work was.  She didn’t object to a woman helping out with the men’s work on the farm.  In #14, she writes, “If you have plenty of help in the house, there is nothing unfeminine or unhealthy in tossing hay, or raking grain.”  But her point is that such assistance should go both ways.  “When she requires his assistance at her work, let him return the favor.”  She is ever an advocate for a marriage of equals, where husband and wife support each other, ever an advocate for women getting enough relief from drudgery to have a life of the soul and the mind, ever an advocate for education and self-improvement. 

The book is a genuine delight, and available to read on Google Play for free.  Just follow this link: https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=Rt4-AQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&pg=GBS.PA7

A sampling from my own self-help library, from the sublime to the somewhat ridiculous. Why do I still own Dr. Spock?!

Sources

Swisshelm, Jane Grey; Letters to Country Girls, New York:  J.C. Riker, 1853.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-help

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140805-the-ancient-roots-of-self-help


The Pittsburgh Fire of 1845

Downtown Pittsburgh from bottom of Coal Hill (Mt. Washington), during the fire.

In this time of plague, it seems fitting to remember how people survived past calamities.  And we are approaching the anniversary of a great local catastrophe:  the Pittsburgh fire of 1845, a turning point in my upcoming novel Righteous.

Pittsburgh’s great fire is almost forgotten now, but for many years, the city commemorated the date by ringing out 1 – 8 – 4 – 5 on the old City Hall bell at noon on the anniversary, April 10.  Articles about the fire appeared regularly in newspapers on the anniversary date, major ones appearing on the 25th anniversary in 1870, and following the similarly-devastating flood in 1936. 

Origin of the Fire

Whenever there was a fire in a major city in the 19th century, some poor Irish woman always seemed to get the blame.  But the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow in Chicago turned out to be apocryphal, and the origin story of the Pittsburgh fire is also in doubt.  The story goes that the fire was started by Ann Brooks, an Irish washerwoman who worked for Colonel William Diehl on Ferry Street (present-day Stanwix Street).  Mrs. Brooks was said to have started a fire to heat water for Col. Diehl’s laundry.  She left it unattended and a spark ignited a nearby ice shed. 

We don’t know whether Mrs. Brooks was really to blame, but it is undisputed that the fire started somewhere near the corner of Ferry and Second Streets and that it destroyed 60 acres, about 1/3 of the young city.  Estimates of the total damage range from $6 million to $20 million.  The best estimate is about $12 million, or $267 million in 2020 dollars. 

The fire started on Ferry Street (present-day Stanwix St.) between 2nd and 3rd Streets.

Pittsburgh’s Preparedness (or not)

Also undisputed is that the city of Pittsburgh was as unprepared for the 1845 fire as our nation has been for the current pandemic.  In 1844, the city built a new reservoir on Bedford Avenue to replace the old one that stood at the current location of the Frick Building.  But the water mains and pumps were inadequate, leading to poor water pressure.  The city had no municipal fire department.  Six competing volunteer fire companies provided protection. They were well-intentioned but very poorly trained and equipped. 

Conditions were against the city, too.  Houses and businesses stood shoulder to shoulder, and the air was thick with flour dust, coal dust, soot and cotton fibers from the city’s many mills and factories.  Sources say that no rain had fallen in anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks.  6 weeks of no rain in a Pittsburgh spring seems implausible, but all sources agree that it had been a dry spring and the reservoir was very low. 

1845 map of Pittsburgh. Burnt area circled in blue; the red dot is the site where the fire started.

The fire spreads

The day of the fire was warm and windy.

A volunteer fire company arrived on Ferry Street soon after the ice shed fire was reported, but by then the flames had spread to the nearby Globe Cotton factory.  Still, the fire could have been controlled at that point had the fire fighters not been hampered by low water pressure and their own rotted hoses 

The fire raced up Second and Third, nearly destroying Third Presbyterian Church.  The wooden spire of the church caught fire and the church was only saved by fire fighters cutting off the spire and letting it drop to the street.

The flames reached their peak in Pittsburgh’s first and second wards between 2 and 4 p.m.  Winds blew the fire south and east, destroying the city’s pride and joy, the elegant Monongahela House Hotel, as well as the Courthouse and Western University, predecessor to the University of Pittsburgh.  The wooden Monongahela Bridge also burned, to be replaced by the first Smithfield Street Bridge. 

Western University before its destruction by the fire
The original location of Western University of Pittsburgh is now occupied by the parking garage for Oxford Center

Bank of Pittsburgh

The Bank of Pittsburgh, built entirely of stone and metal, was supposed to be fireproof.  The head cashier calmly locked the bank’s cash, books and records in the vault before vacating the building and standing on the street with other onlookers.  When the building’s zinc roof melted, the interior burst into flames and was entirely gutted.  The vault itself was fireproof, and the bank’s valuables remained intact, but the destruction of the building caused panic.  People who had been merely observing the fire rushed home to try to save their possessions.  Soon, carts full of boxes, furniture and other property clogged the chaotic streets.  Most of these goods ended up abandoned, and either burned or stolen.  Some people escaped across the Monongahela Bridge before it burned.  Some fled northeast to the present-day Hill District, and courageous ferry operators transported many others to safety.

Bank of Pittsburgh was located on Fourth Avenue between Market & Wood Streets. I’d like to imagine that it stood on the present-day location of one of my favorite downtown pizza restaurants, Ephesus….
but it was probably on this end of the block, across from the Union National Bank building

Destruction of wharf and Pipetown.

This depiction of the Mon Wharf was created in 1825, 20 years before the fire. In 1840, the Monongahela House replaced the building second from left.

The flames raced along the Monongahela Wharf, destroying the docks, the warehouses and any boats that hadn’t cast off down the river in time.  The destruction at the docks might have been contained if a barrel of liquor hadn’t fallen and burst right in the path of the flames, igniting nearby straw and the rest of the liquor warehouse.

The fire followed the Monongahela River towards Pipetown, an industrial suburb that lay below what was then called Boyd’s Hill (now called simply The Bluff, the present-day home of Duquesne University).  There it randomly spared many factories while destroying others, including the city gas works, Miller & Co. glass works, and Dallas Iron Works.  Finally, around 6 in the evening the winds died down, and by 7 p.m. the fire had burned itself out on the slope of Boyd’s Hill.

Cost of the catastrophe

Downtown Pittsburgh after the fire

The fire destroyed 10-12,000 buildings, displacing 2000 families, or about 12,000 people.  A sampling of the businesses burned to the ground include the offices of the Daily Chronicle newspaper, the garage and all equipment of the Vigilant Fire Co., the Weyman Tobacco Factory, six drugstores, 4 hardware stores, 5 dry goods stores, 2 book shops, 2 paper warehouses, 5 shoes stores and 3 livery stables.  Every insurance company in the city except one was bankrupted. 

Incredibly, only two people died in the fire – out of a population of about 20,000.  Lawyer Samuel Kingston returned to his house on 2nd St. to rescue his piano.  He fell into the basement of his house, was trapped there and died.  A Mrs. Maglone or Malone was also reported missing the day of the fire, last seen at a shop on 2nd St.  A set of bones found in a store at the corner of 2nd and Grant on April 22 were believed to be hers.

Recovery

Pittsburgh rose from its ashes almost immediately.  The state provided a moratorium on state taxes and $50,000 in relief ($1.7 million in today’s dollars).  Donations came from other parts of the country and all over the world.  Individual contributions of note include $500 from future president James Buchanan, $25 from future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and $50 from former president John Quincy Adams.  The city of Wheeling, WV, contributed 100 pounds of flour and 300 pounds of bacon. 

Property values skyrocketed, and a construction boom started on April 14, only 4 days after the fire.  By June 12, while many streets were still blocked with fire debris, 500 new buildings were either completed or in progress.  Fine buildings of brick or stone replaced the destroyed wooden tenements. 

Pittsburgh came back from the great fire bigger and better.  I have faith that we will emerge from our current calamity renewed, refined and strengthened. 

The ruins of the Courthouse
This marker are 415 Smithfield St is all that is left downtown to remind Pittsburghers of the great fire.

And an aside…

A tidbit about the Monongahela House that I can’t bear to leave out, but that didn’t fit into the flow of my overall fire narrative:  Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley all stayed at the rebuilt Monongahela House in the years following the fire.  Garfield and McKinley slept in the same bed that Lincoln had used – and all three men were assassinated!  The furniture from the “Lincoln Room,” including the unlucky bed, passed into the hands of Allegheny County when the Monongahela House was torn down in 1935.  The County placed the furniture in a small museum on the grounds of South Park.  The furniture was subsequently stored in a warehouse in South Park, where it didn’t come to light again until 2006.  The bed is now in the possession of the Heinz Pittsburgh History Center.

The Monongahela house as rebuilt in 1847
Site of Monongahela House today. (Looking opposite direction from the old picture above. The picture above was taken looking away from Smithfield St. Bridge; this one is taken looking towards the bridge)

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fire_of_Pittsburgh

https://www.heinzhistorycenter.org/blog/western-pennsylvania-history/of-bells-and-fire-artifacts-recall-april-10-1845

http://www.steelcactus.com/PGHFIRST_1.html

My friend and former work colleague, Gary Link, has written a series of novels that take place in mid-19th-century Pittsburgh.  The Pittsburgh fire is the central event of the first book in the series, The Burnt District:


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