Reign of Error | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Reign of Error

History, as they say, is written by the winners. Or at least by the people who want you to think they've won. So it has been with the city's 250th birthday celebration so far. The emphasis is on the positive, as marketing campaigns and civic leaders stress Pittsburgh's rich history and promising future.

But what about history's losers? What about its villains? They're a part of the story, too, as are the city's many foibles and fiascos. Aren't we just as nostalgic for those, too? Do we remember the "Bridge to Nowhere" -- that testament to government ineptitude -- any less fondly than we do Isaly's or the Steel Curtain? And can we do justice to the progress of African Americans or labor activists without recalling everything they had to overcome?

In that spirit, we give you this alternate timeline: real events -- culled from numerous historic texts -- that stress the city's struggles and screw-ups. The point isn't to dwell on the negative, but to suggest that one of the things that defines this place is its habit of coming up with only-in-Pittsburgh problems ... problems only Pittsburghers could solve.

No history can be definitive, of course, but if you've ever found yourself thinking, "Things around here can't get much worse," you should be able to find evidence to the contrary somewhere below.


Nov. 27, 1758. Pittsburgh gets a name, its first recorded example of sucking up, and its first attempt to leave town -- all on the same day. Writing to William Pitt from captured Fort Duquesne, Gen. John Forbes pleads for a promotion -- and a chance to leave. (Doctors "unanimously agree that I must go directly for England," he says.) By the way, he tells Pitt, "I have used the freedom of giving your name" to the conquered territory. Forbes gets his transfer.


May 28, 1763. The family of William Chapman, whose home is under the protection of Fort Pitt, is killed by Indians. The attack is a prelude to Pontiac's Rebellion, an Indian uprising that will last for the next few years. During that time, Simon Ecuyer, commander of the fort, will negotiate with Indian chiefs and give them blankets as gifts -- blankets previously used by smallpox patients. Historian Howard Zinn later calls this "a pioneering effort at what is now called biological warfare."

1782. On a visit to Pittsburgh, John Bernard makes the first recorded complaint about Pittsburgh's air quality: "[A] cloud of smoke hung over [Pittsburgh] in an exceedingly clear sky, recalling to me many choking recollections of London."


May 19, 1794. In Pittsburgh's very first official election, two winners refuse to serve. Assistant burgess-elect Nathaniel Bedford and John McMasters, voted to the post of supervisor, both opt to pay a legally required fine instead. Future generations of politicians no doubt wish they'd made the same choice.


July 16-17, 1794. At the climax of the Whiskey Rebellion, a mob of 500 people attacks the home of John Neville, who was hated for his role enforcing the highly unpopular whiskey tax. Neville, along with two slaves and a handful of federal troops, is able to hold off the attackers for two days. Which doesn't bode well for their fortunes when the federal army marches in not long afterward. Arguably the city's first lesson in futility when it comes to fending off a tax increase greatly desired by the powerful.


Jan. 8, 1806. Tarleton Bates, Allegheny County's prothonotary and the man for whom Oakland's Bates Street is named, is gunned down in a duel by Thomas Stewart. Bates and a friend of Stewart's, Ephraim Pentland, were political rivals who'd conducted an acrimonious debate in the pages of local newspapers. This will mark the first and last time a county row officer ever commanded so much attention.


Dec. 6, 1806. More than a dozen Pittsburghers strike out to join Aaron Burr in his attempt to start his own western empire by going to war with Mexico. Among the participants: William Robinson, who has a North Side thoroughfare named for him. Burr is later charged with sedition; Robinson demonstrates his bitter feelings by developing the Mexican War Streets, and naming them after battles in which the U.S. Army triumphed over the country he once sought to conquer.


Feb. 13, 1817. Less than one year after being incorporated as a city, Pittsburgh has to dismiss its police force for lack of money. Pittsburgh goes without a dedicated "night watch" for two decades.


March 26, 1836. City council passes a bill to eliminate "the Hump" -- a steep incline around Grant Street. It takes the city only 75 years to achieve the goal.


April 10, 1845. A fire -- allegedly touched off by an Irish laundrywoman trying to heat water for clothes -- rips through Downtown Pittsburgh, destroying some 1,200 structures. Newspapers can barely describe the devastation; as the Pittsburgh Post explains, "We write in the hurry, confusion, and excitement of the terrible time, and under the physical weariness caused by laboring to save the furniture ... of one of the editors."


Jan. 7, 1850. Pittsburghers elect Joseph Barker as mayor -- despite the fact that Barker is sitting in jail at the time. Barker, known for his anti-Catholic, anti-foreigner screeds, had been jailed for inciting a riot by making such a speech. Shortly after being elected, he fines the city's Catholic bishop $20, allegedly for blocking a sewer. Thanks to such stunts -- and to a squabble with city council in which each branch of government ran its own police force -- Barker doesn't last long in office.


Sept. 17, 1862. An explosion rips through the Allegheny Arsenal, a Lawrenceville munitions factory making ammunition for the Civil War. Nearly 80 employees -- mostly female, because they were supposedly more tractable and less likely to smoke than men -- are killed. The cause remains a mystery, though some witnesses later charge that management was too cheap to practice even minimal fire-safety procedures -- like putting straw down on stone paths to reduce the danger of horseshoes causing sparks.


January 1868. James Parton famously describes Pittsburgh as "Hell with the lid taken off." In the 140 years since, no local ad agency or marketing campaign has found a catchier slogan.


May 23, 1870. The state finally passes a law allowing Pittsburgh to operate its own paid fire department. Firefighting was previously handled by volunteers, who occasionally got into fistfights over who had the right to put out a blaze.


July 19, 1877. Pennsylvania Railroad workers, rejecting layoffs and dangerous understaffing, begin rioting, torching railroad facilities and much of the Strip District. The governor -- then touring the state on a car provided at the railroad's expense -- sends in troops from Philadelphia. More than two dozen Pittsburghers are killed; Allegheny County taxpayers end up paying the bill for damages to company property.


July 23, 1892. Anarchist Alexander Berkman tries to assassinate H.C. Frick in Frick's office. Berkman's attempt was a gesture of support for the workers then locked in the famous 1892 Homestead strike against Frick and Andrew Carnegie. But as numerous historians later observe, while Berkman's bullet merely wounds Frick, it kills public sympathy for the strikers.

Oct. 14, 1897. The Pittsburgh Leader reports on the upside of huge fish kills in the Monongahela River, ascribed to pollution leaking from coal mines. "At Hazelwood ... 500 fish were taken out of the river by a crowd of Hungarians [wielding] clubs [as the fish] floated about in a stupefied state."


1900. The U.S. Census reports that one out of every five Pittsburgh boys ages 10-15 is working a full-time job. Labor laws are passed in the following decade, generously limiting boys under the age of 16 (and girls under age 18) to a workday of 10 hours. But early laws are specifically written to exempt glass factories, which were Pittsburgh's largest employers of child labor.


March 31, 1901. The US Steel Corporation, a merger between Andrew Carnegie's holdings and those of J.P. Morgan, is created. The transaction creates an entire generation of "Pittsburgh millionaires," whose reputation for wealth is exceeded only by their reputation for bad taste. The deal also results in a schism between Carnegie and Frick. Years later, when Carnegie tries to have a deathbed reconciliation, Frick replies, "Tell him I'll see him in Hell, where we both are going."


Jan. 30, 1902. The Biddle Brothers, John and Ed, escape from the Allegheny County Jail with the help of Katherine Soffel, the warden's wife. Both on death row, the brothers nevertheless attracted a legion of female admirers, including Soffel, who used to read to them from the Bible. The brothers were gunned down by a posse shortly after their jailbreak; Soffel got 20 months. She is played by Diane Keaton in a 1984 film of the event.


1903. Muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens publishes Shame of the Cities, an attempt to wake up residents of Pittsburgh and other cities to municipal corruption. It didn't work: Steffens tried to unmask the corrupt partnership of political boss Christopher Magee and contractor William Flinn, but as Steffens admitted, "I have seen Pittsburghers grow black in the face denouncing the [corrupt] ring," but when asked about Magee, residents would say, "Chris was one of the best men God ever made."

Steffens largely blamed railroads and other corporations for the city's graft. While there had always been corruption, he wrote, "it was occasional and criminal till the first great corporation made it business-like and respectable."


June-November 1906. Local newspapers begin a campaign for cleaner air, publishing dozens of articles and editorials. In a desperate attempt to make wealthier residents care about the issue, Pittsburgh Sun takes the unusual tack of lamenting air pollution's effect on "dainty white dresses" and "handsome French poodles."


June 25, 1906. Harry K. Thaw, son of a Pittsburgh rail baron, guns down architect Stanford White at a Madison Square Garden dinner party. Thaw was jealous of White's relationship with Thaw's wife, chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit. Thaw's lawyers pioneered the insanity defense, and it worked: Thaw ended up being committed to a mental hospital.


1906-1907. The Russell Sage Foundation conducts the famous Pittsburgh Survey, a progressive-minded attempt to study working and living conditions in the city. Researchers find deplorable working and living conditions, with employees and their families living in fear of industrial spies and industrial accidents. On the bright side, though, the report finds that "There is no city in the country ... where strict Sabbath and liquor legislation is more strenuously enforced."


April 6, 1909. A cable on the city's now-gone St. Clair incline slips, and one of its two cars crashes. Two teen-age boys are killed -- the only fatalities ever caused by mechanical failure on a Pittsburgh incline. A photograph of the wreckage later becomes a popular postcard image.


July 14, 1909. The largely immigrant workforce of McKees Rocks' Pressed Steel Car Company goes on strike. Tensions boil over the summer, until an all-out riot breaks out in August, when 11 employees are gunned down by state police.


1910. A newly published book, Work Accidents and the Law, reports that work accidents account for 20 percent of deaths among Pittsburgh males -- but 40 percent of deaths among recently arrived southern and eastern European immigrants.


March 21, 1910. A grand jury hands down corruption charges against some 40 city councilors. The indictments help fuel a successful 1911 reform to reduce the size of council to just nine members, thereby streamlining the process of purchasing politicians.


Sept. 15, 1910. Financier Andrew Mellon files for divorce from his wife, Nora. In the ensuing legal action, it is revealed that Mellon surreptitiously listened in on his wife's conversations ... but such facts are hard to come by in Pittsburgh, where local papers -- who rely on Mellon for financing -- play down the story.


Nov. 4, 1913. Joseph G. Armstrong is elected mayor. In the next few months he will ban boxing, and require that men and women sit in separate sections of movie theaters. He doesn't last long.


1914. The book Wage-Earning Pittsburgh finds that prostitution is rampant in part because legal work for women pays so poorly. Some of the book's research suggests educational campaigns directed at union members, who could prevent "the daughters of working people [from] soliciting debauch[ery]." Others suggest the solution just might be for employers to pay women better.


Dec. 4, 1914. City council votes to cut its salary in response to an economic downturn. Nothing like this will ever happen again.


June 2, 1919. Two bombs explode in Pittsburgh, part of a string of bombings in eight cities that take place on the same day. One goes off at the Squirrel Hill home of a PPG executive, the other near the Sheraden home of an immigration official. No one is hurt, and the bombers are never caught -- but the bombings prompt the "Palmer Raids," which often short-circuit civil rights and target leftists and Eastern European immigrants.


Aug. 26, 1919. Guards protecting a mine gun down an unarmed union activist, Fannie Sellins, and a miner during a demonstration. While Sellins appeared to be shot from behind, a coroner's inquest finds that the guards acted in self-defense, and praised guards for "the successful protecting [of] property."

April 21, 1924. Beloved stage actress Eleonora Duse dies in Pittsburgh, allegedly after being locked outside the Syria Mosque stage door in the rain before an April 5 performance. Some Duse fans blame Pittsburgh itself, which Duse's biographer describes as "the most horrible city in the world."


Feb. 26, 1927. How unpopular is prohibition in Pittsburgh? A city police lieutenant and two patrolmen are convicted of assaulting two federal prohibition agents.


April 24, 1927. The Pittsburgh Symphony plays a Sunday evening concert in direct violation of the state's "Blue Laws," which prevented such performances on a Sunday. Police issued 10 citations on the complaint of the "Sabbath Association." The matter ultimately went to the state Supreme Court, which threw out the citations on a technicality; the stage legislature legalized Sunday concerts in 1933.


Feb. 10, 1929. John Barcoski, a part-time coal-miner living in McDonald, is beaten to death by Coal and Iron Police -- private security forces paid by companies but acting with government authority and government immunity. The case, along with countless other grievances, results in the "police" force being abolished in 1935.


June 25, 1929. In a special election, voters approve a plan to merge city and county governments by a two-to-one margin. The measure fails anyway: The measure had to pass by a two-thirds majority in at least one half of the municipalities in the county. Historians will conclude this provision was inserted by a shadowy local politician (or group of them) looking to protect political fiefdoms.


December 1931. Paul Mellon, son of the banker and Treasury Secretary, starts working at the family banking business. He demonstrates little interest in the work, telling reporters after his first day, "I didn't do much, really. Just looked around." Mellon, whose family launched companies like Gulf Oil, Koppers and Carnegie Steel, will later start a chain of restaurants that goes belly-up. It's an early suggestion that the Mellon name will decline in local significance in the years ahead.


January 1932. Father James R. Cox leads a jobless "army" from his parish -- the sprawling "Hooverville" that occupied the city's Strip District -- to Washington, D.C., seeking unemployment relief from Hoover himself. He doesn't get it.


Sept. 11, 1932. Pittsburgh Courier publisher Robert L. Vann famously predicts that blacks will be "turning the picture of Lincoln to the wall" and voting Democratic in the coming election.


March 27, 1933. Charles Kline is ousted as the last Republican mayor of Pittsburgh. He had recently been sentenced to 6 months in prison for malfeasance.


Feb. 14-15, 1936. The Post-Gazette reports on the scope of illegal gambling in the city, estimating that there are 5,000 people writing numbers, but that the profit margins are low because of all the kickbacks they have to pay to police. A cop explains to the paper that the situation has its upside: "If this numbers racket is put out of business, it will mean a lot more work for the police and the courts," he explains with flawless logic.


March 17, 1936. Pittsburgh is inundated in the St. Patrick's Day Flood. Water rises more than 46 feet above low level -- considerably higher than any previously recorded flood. One contributing factor: "the walling up of the rivers by factory walls and similar construction." The flood helped spawn a spate of dam-building projects that were at the heart of the city's first Renaissance.


June 13, 1936. Mayor William McNair, the first Democrat elected to the post in a quarter century, gets arrested trying to stop local magistrates from holding hearings on allegations of police corruption. Within four months, he'll be out of office.


March 17, 1937. US Steel officials sign a contract with the Steelworkers union in a conference room. A portrait of H.C. Frick is reportedly removed for the occasion because executives "[d]idn't think he could stand it."


May 1937. State legislators hold hearings about why the city schools, which have 11,000 black students, have not one black teacher among a faculty of 3,400. "In no other northern city with a Negro population as large ... is there an all-white teaching force," testifies black civil-rights activist Maurice Moss. The city hires its first black instructor -- a music teacher -- the next fall.


April 29, 1940. The New York Times publishes a letter from Samuel Harden Church, the president of the Carnegie Institute, suggesting a quick way to head off further Nazi aggression. Church told the Times that "competent Americans" had authorized him to offer $1 million to anyone who could kidnap Hitler and bring him to justice. The idea is not embraced; a group of Ohio college students later offers a $3.23 reward for anyone willing to capture a warmonger like Church.


March 22, 1946. The Wabash Terminal building -- a once-grand railroad station that had long been unoccupied -- burns down. City officials "enjoyed the fire," one of them later conceded: It opened the door for a redevelopment of the Point.


December 1947. Black demonstrators protest Gimbels, Kaufmann's and other Downtown department stores, citing hiring discrimination by retailers. By month's end, stores are hiring black workers.


Oct. 30, 1948. Some 17 residents of Donora die in a 12-hour period, due to emissions from the American Steel and Wire Works zinc-plating facility. Concerns about Donora's air are nothing new: The company first settled a lawsuit about its air quality some 30 years before. But it isn't until the mid-1960s that state officials began passing clean-air laws.


April 21, 1949. At a rally of 250 communists at the North Side's Carnegie Music Hall, several thousand anti-communist demonstrators go crazy. "The crowd broke completely out of control, jostled police, newspapermen and Communists alike, smashed windows in trolleys and tried to overturn a taxicab," the Post-Gazette reported the next day. No actual Communists were hurt.

July 5, 1949. City council introduces legislation to use six acres of city-owned land in Highland Park to build the Civic Arena. Residents oppose the plan, and because they are wealthy and have the means to defend themselves, the Civic Arena gets built in the Hill District instead.


Aug. 31, 1950. Steve Nelson, a member of the Communist Party, is arrested and charged with sedition. Nelson's arrest, along with others, was prompted by Judge Michael Musmanno's visit to a communist bookstore earlier that summer. Shocked to find communist propaganda in a communist bookstore, Musmanno orchestrated a trial of local communists conveniently timed to boost his run for higher office. Nelson is found guilty and gets 20 years, but the verdict is later overturned.


June 28, 1951. White teen-agers at the Highland Park pool accost Alexander J. Allen, the head of the local Urban League, when he tries to swim in the pool. "[L]ifeguards sat idly by" as Allen was forced out of the pool, the Pittsburgh Courier later reported. Pittsburgh pools weren't segregated by law, but whites would accost blacks who tried to swim in "whites only" pools. As the Courier put it, police told Allen "that he had a perfect right to use the pool but that they could not guarantee his safety. ... 'But remember,' they cautioned. 'You are not being refused admission.'"


Sept. 23, 1959. Nikita Krushchev, the head of the Soviet Union, receives the keys to the city ... the same city that only a few years ago was tossing suspected communists in prison.


Nov. 2, 1962. US Steel announces layoffs of several thousand middle-managers and technicians, including some of the company's most skilled workers. The event, called "Black Friday," will be dwarfed by later layoffs. But it's an early sign that when layoffs do come, they will come without much warning -- or much thought.


Dec. 17, 1966. Mayor Joseph Barr asked county officials "to consider giving greater financial support to the City, to cover those services used by suburbanites," reports Pittsburgh: A Chronological & Documentary History. "The county responded that it would consider this request." Barr is, presumably, still waiting to hear back.


April 21, 1967. State officials announce that they will finally complete work on the Fort Duquesne Bridge -- better known as the "Bridge to Nowhere." Though much of the bridge was completed in 1963, the northern side was left hanging because of delays building the ramps. The structure was finally completed in 1969, but not until at least one Pittsburgher tried driving off the end of it to see if he could reach the other side.


April 5-8, 1968. The assassination of Martin Luther King touches off riots in the Hill District. A curfew is declared, and the National Guard is called in. "Guardsmen with fixed bayonets marched 30 abreast through the Hill," The New York Times reports. "They were stoned and pelted with bottle from rooftops." Nearly 600 people are arrested; 164 fires started, "and arson was suspected in all of them."


August-September 1969. A series of demonstrations is held at the US Steel Building and Three Rivers Stadium construction sites, seeking more economic opportunities for black workers on big-scale developments. Still waiting to see how that turns out.


Jan. 20, 1970. The apogee of campus protest comes when archconservative Sen. Strom Thurmond appears at Carnegie Mellon University's Skibo Ballroom -- and demonstrators pelt him with marshmallows. "I've never seen anything like it," Thurmond confesses to the school's student paper.


Jan. 12, 1971. Mayor Pete Flaherty and several aides go around Pittsburgh city streets, picking up garbage personally because some 1,000 city employees called in sick that day, protesting work changes affecting garbage collectors.


March 5, 1974. District Attorney Robert Duggan is found dead in his home just days after a grand jury sought his financial records. Duggan apparently committed suicide with a shotgun nearby, but questions remain: Was he done in by the mob, with whom he may have been in cahoots? Or did it have something to do with the fact that Duggan was married to Cordelia Scaife, the sister of Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife? We may never know -- though we hope Scaife sees the irony in drawing unfounded conclusions about mysterious deaths.


June 13, 1974. A bomb explodes in the Gulf Building Downtown. No one is hurt, but the 29th-floor explosion does an estimated $1 million in damage. No one is ever charged with the act, though an anonymous caller claimed responsibility for the Weather Underground, and said the bomb was a response to Gulf's exploitation of Africans in Angola, where the company operated oil fields.


Sept. 27, 1974. After a protracted legal and political battle, Skybus is "deader than a doornail," announces county commissioner Tom Foerster. Skybus, an automated bus system on an elevated guideway, was the subject of dispute between union workers and Port Authority management, and between city officials and the county. Too bad -- the Skybus would have been a perfect hybrid: All the romance of a bus, and all the practicality of a monorail.


May 25, 1979. Charles Owen Rice, a Catholic priest with a lifelong commitment to economic equity and anti-war organizing, writes a column in the Pittsburgh Catholic about the closing of a steel mill in Youngstown, Ohio. "Can the Youngstown syndrome possibly affect the much larger Steel City of Pittsburgh?" he asks. "Indeed it can. ... What the corporation decides and does is more important to us than who will be our governor, our Senators, or our president for the next 20 years."


Nov. 27, 1979. Pittsburgh catches the Youngstown syndrome: US Steel announces plans to eliminate 13,500 jobs and shut down 15 steelmaking facilities. While there have been other layoffs and shutdowns in previous years, this is the beginning of the end for Pittsburgh's primacy in steel.


April 24, 1980. The Daily Number comes up "666," and it is soon revealed that the balls were tinkered with -- apparently with the collusion of Nick Perry, host of the popular local show Bowling for Dollars. Perry maintains his innocence, but the scandal forever tars him, and links televised bowling with Satan.


Dec. 16, 1984. Activists angered by steel-mill shutdowns invade a Christmas pageant dinner at Shadyside Presbyterian Church. The activists throw water balloons filled with dye and skunk oil at congregants, including children. Strangely enough, this does not inspire much sympathy for the workers' cause.


Jan. 28, 1985. At a public meeting, steelworkers and community members begin a campaign to save the Dorothy 6 blast furnace at US Steel's Duquesne Works. Workers spend much of the next year standing guard outside the plant 24 hours a day, in order to prevent the company from dismantling the furnace in secret. But while the furnace is modern, consultants determine it can't survive, and the campaign fails.


Nov. 4, 1997. Despite a massive PR campaign on the part of regional leaders, voters across southwestern Pennsylvania overwhelmingly reject the "Regional Renaissance Initiative." The initiative would have raised the sales tax by 1 percentage point in order to pay for infrastructure and new stadiums, but voters despised the idea of building a sports facility with their tax money. Guess what happened next.


Oct. 4, 1999. Mayor Tom Murphy announces plans to acquire 62 Downtown properties and relocate 125 businesses -- all part of his plan to rejuvenate the Fifth/Forbes corridor. Arguably, the plan represents an improvement over his efforts to bring a new Lazarus and Lord & Taylor Downtown: This time, the new retail never showed up in the first place, so the city got vacant storefronts with much less effort.


June 26, 2002. After a lengthy public drama which involved drunken public behavior -- and claims that he had nearly exposed himself in public -- county Common Pleas Judge H. Patrick McFalls Jr. pleads with a state judicial board to get his job back. "I ... know everybody is watching me," McFalls said ... an acknowledgement that arguably came a bit too late.


Sept. 1, 2006. Mayor Bob O'Connor dies in office, just months after being sworn in. His replacement is Luke Ravenstahl. Though the youngest big-city mayor in America, Ravenstahl begins his tenure with a city anxious to be united and to act in harmony. That lasts about two weeks.