Tag Archives: Pittsburgh history

The Great Commoner: William Pitt

He was called The Great Commoner but ended life a Lord. HIs government positions ranged from a cornet in the Army to Lord Privy Seal to Prime Minister to Groom of the Bedchamber (not as sexy as it sounds). He suffered from severe gout starting at a very early age. And the greatest city in the world  — OK, in the United States; oh, all right, the greatest city in Appalachia – bears his name. I’m talking about William Pitt the Elder, First Earl of Chatham.

The Pitt family

The origin of the Pitt family fortune comes from a gigantic diamond discovered by Pitt’s grandfather Thomas Pitt while he was governor of Madras in India. Thomas Pitt sold the diamond to the Duke of Orleans for the equivalent in 2021 USD of more than twelve million dollars. More than enough to put his son Robert in Parliament as a Tory MP from 1705 until 1727.

William Pitt was Robert’s second son. That meant that his older brother, another Thomas, inherited the Pitt estate. William had to do what most younger sons did in eighteenth-century Great Britain: serve in the church or the army. Pitt chose the army, obtaining a cornet’s commission in the King’s Own Regiment of the Horse. But he never saw battle or left Great Britain. Bored, he ran for Parliament and was seated in 1735, though still an army officer.

The Great Commoner as a young Patriot

Although his father had been a Tory, Pitt joined a Whig faction called the Patriots. They were critical of Prime Minister Walpole’s government. In particular, they were eager for glory and thought Great Britain should enter the War of Polish Succession. Ever hear of that war? Me neither, until exactly today. That should tell you how little it was worth the loss of British lives and treasure.

In my opinion, Walpole had the better position when he said “There are fifty thousand men slain in Europe this year, and not one Englishman.” By staying out of war, Walpole also managed to reduce both taxes and the national debt.

The Patriots did badger the government into a mini-war with Spain in the late 1730s. They were incensed that, when the Spanish caught British smugglers, they treated them badly. That war did not go well for Great Britain and was more or less abandoned. So, our friend Pitt was wrong about a lot of things early in life, as so many of us are.

Pitt’s political rise

Through his friend the Prince of Wales (the future George III), Pitt gained the positions of Vice Treasurer of Ireland and Paymaster General in 1846. Here, he performed exceptionally well. It was common for men in the paymaster role to skim off a commission for themselves in addition to their salary. Pitt refused to do that. His honesty earned him the love and respect of the common people of Britain, and his nickname The Great Commoner.

Pitt had his political ups and downs for the next decade or so. But, by 1757, he was Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons. He again proved his worth by revamping the British strategy in the Seven Years War. Under Pitt’s guidance, Great Britain allied itself with Frederick II of Prussia. Frederick’s little Prussian force managed to keep French forces pinned down in Europe. That gave Great Britain the freedom to successfully attack the French elsewhere in the world: West Africa, the Caribbean, North America. The British gained Pittsburgh, Guadeloupe and Quebec in 1758 and 1759. With their victory in Montreal in 1761, the war was essentially over. Pitt claimed to have “won Canada on the banks of the Rhine.”

Pitt and the Americans

But success came at a price. The war was costly for Great Britain. As every American school child knows, the British attempted to tax first stamps and then tea, to pay for their expensive North American victory. The American colonists, of course, objected violently. Pitt was an ally to the colonists, arguing in Parliament against the stamp and tea taxes. Later, as the War for Independence loomed, he tried unsuccessfully to convince Parliament to make concessions to the rebellious Americans and correctly warned that the colonies could not be held by force.

Pitt and Pittsburgh

William Pitt the Elder died at age 69 on May 11, 1778. His legacies were his status as one of Great Britain’s most highly-regarded statesmen; his son, William Pitt the Younger, who became Britain’s youngest Prime Minister in 1783 at age 24; and, of course, the city that bears his name.

Following his victory at the Forks of the Ohio River in November of 1758, General John Forbes wrote in a letter to Pitt dated November 27, 1758, “Sir, I do the honour of acquainting you that it has pleased God to crown His Majesty’s Arms with Success over all His Enemies upon the Ohio…I have used the freedom of giving your name to Fort Du Quesne as I hope it was in some measure the being actuated by your spirits that now makes us Masters of the place.”

When the city of Pittsburgh was officially chartered in 1816, it adopted a seal based on the Pitt coat of arms. The original seal was lost in the 1845 fire and had to be recreated from memory. The three gold coins, called bezants, are loosely based on Byzantine coins, and symbolize honesty. The blue and white checks are the Pitt family livery colors. The Castle simply symbolizes a city. Pitt’s city.

Sources

Lorant, Stefan. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. Lenox, MA: Authors Edition, Inc., 1988.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Pitt,_1st_Earl_of_Chatham

https://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1182.html

https://phlf.org/dragons/teachers/docs/William_pitt_city_seal_project.pdf

Fort Ligonier

George Washington started it.

Beginning with Washington’s disastrous, accidental skirmish at Jumonville Glen, about fifty miles from Pittsburgh, the Seven Years War turned into a world-wide battle that built and broke empires. By the end of the war, Prussia had barely survived and Great Britain dominated India, North America and the West African slave trade. France was on the road to revolution and Spain on its way to irrelevance.

Last week, Al and I visited an important Seven Years War site: Fort Ligonier, in Ligonier, PA.

The war didn’t begin well for the British in North America. The 1755 Braddock expedition towards present-day Pittsburgh ended in the death of General Braddock and a disorderly retreat (read my short story about the Braddock expedition HERE). But, by 1758, the British prepared to once again try to gain possession of the headwaters of the Ohio River. They learned from the catastrophic Braddock expedition that they would need a supply depot and a point of refuge in case their new effort also ended badly. In short, they needed a fort.

Construction of Fort Ligonier

The only British forts between Carlisle and present-day Pittsburgh were Forts Loudoun, Lyttleton and Bedford, all too small and too far from the forks of the Ohio to suit British purposes. The British placed General John Forbes, a Scotsman, in charge of this latest attempt to dominate the interior of the great North American continent.

He chose as the site for his new fort a rise fifty feet above Loyalhanna Creek, halfway between Bedford and Pittsburgh. He named it Fort Ligonier, in honor of his superior, Sir John Ligonier. Ligonier, a Huguenot refugee, had risen through the British military ranks to become the overall commander of the British army.

Forbes was determined to succeed where Braddock had failed, in dislodging the French from the forks of the Ohio. In early September of 1758, 1500 men began construction of Fort Ligonier under the management of Major James Grant, Ensign Charles Rohr and Colonel James Burd.

The French Defeated

Of course, the French knew the British were coming. On October 12, they sent a party to attack Fort Ligonier while it was still under construction. By that time, 6000 British and colonial troops manned the fort – making Ligonier briefly the largest community in Pennsylvania after Philadelphia –  and they easily defeated the French.

The French suffered other blows in October of 1758. That same month, Forbes sent Colonel Henry Bouquet, along with George Croghan and a contingent of colonials, to a peace conference with France’s Indian allies. The result of the Easton Conference was a treaty between Great Britain and the Iroquois, Lenape, Mingo and Shawnee peoples. The Indians would abandon their alliance with the French if and the British promised to prevent white settlement west of the Alleghenies. We see how well that second part worked out, since I am writing this from the suburbs of Pittsburgh.

The French understood that they could not hold Fort Duquesne against Forbes’ force, especially without their Indian allies. The Forbes expedition set off from Fort Ligonier on November 15, 1758, with no tents and limited supplies, intending to move fast. On November 25, they arrived to find that the French had blown up and mined the fort, and then abandoned it. The future site of Pittsburgh, and the gateway to the vast North American interior, was theirs.

Decline and rebirth of the fort

Fort Ligonier served as a refuge for white settlers fleeing their homes during Pontiac’s rebellion in 1763. But, by 1766, it no longer had a purposes and Arthur St. Clair was appointed civilian caretaker. The fort slowly fell into ruin. In 1794, James Ramsey bought large tracts of the land originally owned by St. Clair. His son, John Ramsey inherited the land and in 1817 laid out the town he named Ramseyville. The town changed its name to Wellington not much later, and finally to Ligonier.

In the nineteenth century, Ligonier was known for agriculture, coal, stone and lumber. By the early twentieth century, interest in the historical fort began to grow. In 1927, John Jacob Hughes purchased the former site of the fort and presented it as a gift to the local Daughters of the American Revolution.

The DAR erected a monument at the site of the fort in 1934, and by 1946 a Fort Ligonier Memorial Foundation came into being to explore a reconstruction. The reconstructed fort opened in 1954, almost exactly 200 years after Forbes first conceived of a supply depot above the Loyalhanna.

Our visit to Fort Ligonier

Al and I had a wonderful time visiting the fort. The reconstruction is meticulous, and the museum has much improved and expanded since our last visit several years ago.  The museum features what my husband tells me is an excellent miniature model of the fort, as well as a reconstruction of St. Clair’s parlor. The historical exhibits on the two galleries are very informative from both the micro view of the Forbes expedition and the macro view of the Seven Years War. Don’t miss George Washington’s pistols, a recent museum acquisition.

We had a delicious lunch at Carol & Dave’s Roadhouse in downtown Ligonier (think before your order wine; their pours are very generous!). And then we enjoyed the shops in Ligonier’s shopping district. Al loved the Toy Soldier Gallery. I bought some fancy loose tea at Crumpets Tea Shop (they made a blend just for me!), and started my Christmas shopping at My Honeybee. I’m old enough to be pretty jaded by gift shops, but My Honeybee was definitely special. The clerks in both shops were super-friendly. Ligonier benefits from their proximity to a Mellon estate. The shops are high-end but not overly pricey and there’s not a chain store to be found. This trip was so worth the 90-minute drive from Pittsburgh!

Here’s a sampling of our photos of taken at the fort.

Coming up…

The trip to Ligonier made me curious about so many people who were part of the Forbes Expedition. Was the Pittsburgh suburb of Upper Saint Clair named after John or Arthur St. Clair? Why? How did George Washington get in trouble again at Loyalhanna Creek? And why is Pittsburgh’s Grant Street named after Major James Grant? These questions and more will be answered in future posts. Also, this fall Al and I will be travelling the final sections of the National Road in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Stay tuned!

Sources

Lorant, Stefan. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. Lenox, Massachusetts: Authors Edition, Inc., 1988.

Stotz, Charles Morse. “The Reconstruction of Fort Ligonier: The Anatomy of a Frontier Fort.” Bulletin of the Association For Preservation Architecture, Vol. VI, No. 4 (1974), 2-103

https://forbesroadbook.com/historical-context/

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Years%27_War

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

http://www.halloween-lifestyle.com/2017/10/31/the-strange-history-of-monongahela-house-pittsburghs-first-haunted-hotel/

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:

Temperanceville

In my last post, I blogged about the Pittsburgh area’s oldest tavern building.  This week, I continue with the history of the neighborhood where the Old Stone Tavern stands.  The history of Old Temperanceville is both fascinating, and very, very typical of Pittsburgh communities.    

19th century map of Temperanceville

Early Temperanceville History

The present-day West End of Pittsburgh was part of St. Clair Township in the 18th century.  In 1800, the northern and western sections of St. Clair broke off into Chartiers and Union Townships.  Much of the land in Chartiers was owned by a gentleman named West Elliott (yes, the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Elliott is named for his family).  Mr. Elliott was a gambler and he sold the land encompassing present-day West End in 1835 to pay off gambling debts.  The new owners, Isaac Warden and John Alexander, laid out the town of Temperanceville in 1837.  The deeds to the lots that they sold included a clause stipulating that no liquor may be sold on the parcel, or the lot would revert back to Warden and Alexander.  Nevertheless, by the mid-1800s, several saloons flourished in Temperanceville.

The little town grew quickly.  Businesses sprouted up to support the nearby coal mines, blast furnaces and iron mills.  By the 1870s, Main, Wabash and Steuben Streets were paved roads, and Temperenceville businesses included the Sheffield Iron Works, Haller & Beck Salt Works, Duff’s Sawmill, Wood’s Rolling Mill, Hall’s Plow factory, Wightman Glass, and Taylor Salt & Chemical.  A coke oven operated at the corner of Main & Woodville Streets. 

The Slums of Temperanceville

This is not a photo of the slum area of Temperanceville, but it is a good depiction of what a 19th century slum looked like.

Life in a boom town isn’t always pleasant.  The town flooded frequently, most catastrophically in 1874. Most of the streets were still dirt, and turned to rivers of mud after a rain or snow.  Cows and chickens roamed the streets and free-ranging pigs rooted in the garbage.  Sensible people knew to avoid the shantytown along River Road (present-day West Carson Street) at night.  One woman who often had to go back and forth between West End and downtown Pittsburgh described it this way: “It required considerable courage to make a trip in comfort and safety to Saw Mill Run after nightfall…the only illumination after leaving the Smithfield Bridge came from the glare of the blast and puddling furnaces…the absence of gas lights and police in this district made it a refuge for toughs, who were dangerous to meet at all times, but particularly so after they had received a pay and were full of drink…Needless to say, if a passerby happened to get killed, it was an easy matter to throw his body into the river.”

Late 19th-century housing

A local official described the slum housing that climbed up the hillside from the Ohio River:  “half a thousand people living there under conditions that were unbelievable – back-to-back houses with no through ventilation; cellar kitchens; dark, unsanitary, ill-ventilated, overcrowded sleeping rooms, no drinking water supply on the premises, and a dearth of sanitary accommodations…In one apartment, a man, his wife, and baby, and two boarders slept in one room, and five boarders occupied two beds in and adjoining room.  In another apartment of the three rooms, the man, his wife and baby slept in the kitchen, their two boarders in a second room; and the third room was sub-let and occupied as a living and sleeping room by five persons – a man, his wife and child, and two boarders.”

The single water pump in this section served 91 households, a total of 568 people.  It was located 75 steps below the top row of houses.  Drainage chutes for both storm water and human waste dropped to open wooden gutters running between the houses. 

Temperanceville Becomes West End

Temperanceville was absorbed into the City of Pittsburgh in 1872, and continued to grow, from a population of 2768 in 1880 to 3725 by 1900.  Slavs, Hungarians, and Poles joined the English, Irish and Germans in the neighborhood.  Small industries gave way to commercial buildings like banks, shops and real estate offices.  The West End became a shopping, transportation and entertainments center for the Crafton/western Pittsburgh area.  Wooden houses were replaced by the tall brick row houses seen today in the neighborhood.  The West End boasted many social clubs, fraternal lodges, churches, choral and drama societies, and a dance school and baseball league. 

German Evangelical Church dates to 1864. Now the Jerusalem Baptist Church
Late 19th-century buildings.
Some beautifully restored 19th-century architectural detail

The neighborhood endured a period of decline in the late 20th century, but shows signs of bouncing back.  The lovely old Carnegie Library, dating to the 1890s, still stands and is a lively community hub.  Local businesses include a yoga studio, a stone and tile showroom, an art gallery and an antique store.  I had a delicious vegetarian panini and iced chai latte at Café 412, a pretty little coffee shop in Main Street.  Life in old Temperanceville sure has improved since the days of wooden gutters and wandering pigs!

West End is one of the earliest Carnegie Library branches, dating to the 1890s.
Charming Cafe 412 serves a great lunch at a reasonable price.
A nice side trip from West End takes you up to the West End Overlook, for a slightly different view of the Point than what you get from the more-famous Mt. Washington.

Sources

A special shout-out to Emily Ahlin and Maria Joseph of the West End branch of Carnegie Library. The history closet at the West End branch was a wealth of information. Thanks!

Lawrence, Peter, A Geographical History of West End and Elliott and the Neighboring Southwest Pittsburgh Area: City of Pittsburgh Planning Department, 1973.

Fording, Arthur M., Recollections and Reminiscences of West End – Pittsburgh, PA: Self published circa 1950.

Pittsburgh’s Oldest Tavern

Early History of Temperanceville

In our search for lost Pittsburgh neighborhoods, Al and I recently visited old Temperanceville. The community was founded on temperance but is also the home of Pittsburgh’s oldest tavern building.

19th-century map of Temperancville (present-day West End)

The American Indians seldom traveled to the area that would later become Temperanceville and then Pittsburgh’s West End.  They preferred the mouth of Chartiers Creek in modern-day McKees Rocks.  Like all of western Pennsylvania, the site of Temperanceville was disputed territory in the 1750s, claimed by both the British and the French.  Traders from both countries tramped the wooded hills and rafted up and down the rivers and creeks, trading with the Indians.  One of the earliest traders was Peter Chartier a Frenchman who lent his name to Chartiers Creek and the former Chartiers Township from which Crafton, Sheraden, Temperanceville and other western communities were formed.

The history of Temperanceville predates our nation.  Before the American Revolution, the mouth of Saw Mill Run was the home of the saw mill that almost certainly supplied the lumber for Fort Pitt.  In our nation’s earliest history, the area also boasted a boat yard, stables and an inn. These would have been conveniences for travelers heading south on Washington Pike or west on Steubenville Pike.  The inn, The Old Stone Tavern, still stands and is one of the oldest buildings in the City of Pittsburgh.

History of the Old Stone Tavern

Most historians don’t think so!

Architectural historians dispute the age of the Old Stone Tavern.  The cornerstone gives a date of 1752, but that is probably inaccurate.  1756 is another proposed date, but that is also suspect.  Few Europeans settled the area before the 1760’s and the French & Indian war raged in the 1750’s.  It seems unlikely that anyone would have made the investment to put up a stone building in the middle of a war zone. In pre-Revolutionary Western Pennsylvania, most all buildings in Western Pennsylvania were log or frame. Stone would have been an expensive luxury. 

Dates as late as 1819 were proposed until a ledger from the tavern was found, with entries starting in 1793.  Current consensus is that the Old Stone Tavern was built sometime between 1782 and 1793. An addition on the back dates to the Civil War era.  Perhaps the cornerstone refers to a humbler tavern building that first stood on the site. 

The Old Stone Tavern today

The tavern has a colorful history.  The ledger helped to establish as fact the legend that the it was a meeting site for members of the Whiskey Rebellion.  The ledger lists the names of 89 Whiskey Rebellion participants, as well as 109 known veterans of the American Revolution, and 16 known veterans of the War of 1812.  President Grant visited the tavern in 1869. 

Less proven are rumors that George Washington, Arthur Saint Clair and Charles Dickens slept at the tavern, along with a legendary duel fought there in the early 19th century.  Also unproven are the inevitable ghost stories. Ghost stories center around the use of a small room in the tavern as a holding cell for prisoners being transported along the Washington Pike. 

The tavern operated continuously from circa 1782 until 2008.  It was a toll plaza for the Washington Pike, a stage coach stop, a social center, reputedly a brothel for a time, and a Prohibition-era speakeasy.  Dog fights, political rallies and boxing matches were held there.  It just missed destruction in a refinery fire in 1873. The 1874 Saw Mill Run flood swept away a grocery store only a block away but merely licked the tavern. 

As a young girl growing up in Banksville and riding the old 36C West End Greentree bus out of downtown, I passed The Old Stone Tavern many times and never noticed it. Reading a book or daydreaming about boys.  I had no idea that a piece of lively Pittsburgh history passed right outside the bus window .

The Future of the Old Stone Tavern

The tavern was designated a historical landmark in 2009, and the Pittsburgh’s Old Stone Tavern Friends Trust is raising funds for an ambitious project to restore the old building into a restaurant and tavern.  Plans for the tavern and surrounding area also include a museum, distillery and tasting room, and community green space.  Find out more HERE.

Coming Next on the Blog

COMING SOON:  More Temperanceville history, our trip to Temperanceville, and tracing the path of Saw Mill Run.   

Sources

A special shout-out to Emily Ahlin and Maria Joseph of the West End branch of Carnegie Library. The history closet at the West End branch was a wealth of information. Thanks!

Lawrence, Peter, A Geographical History of West End and Elliott and the Neighboring Southwest Pittsburgh Area: City of Pittsburgh Planning Department, 1973.

Fording, Arthur M., Recollections and Reminiscences of West End – Pittsburgh, PA: Self published circa 1950.

Informational flyer from Pittsburgh’s Old Stone Tavern Friends Trust