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Charles Dickens recorded impressions of Pittsburgh on 1842 visit

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By Robert B. Van Atta
Sunday, March 31, 2002
 

One way in which impressions of the earlier days in southwestern Pennsylvania survived was through the journals and diaries of travelers, especially so when the author was a writer of renown.

One case was that of Charles Dickens, famed British author, on his visit to the United States in 1842, when the main line of east-west transport through the state was the Pennsylvania Canal with its rail portage over the mountains.

In his American trip notes, Dickens described Pittsburgh as beautifully situated on the Allegheny River, which was spanned by two bridges. But, he wrote, it had an ugly confusion of black buildings, crazy galleries, and stairs that always abut on water, whether it be river, canal or ditch.

He reported that berths were provided for first-class canal passengers' overnight travel. Lots were drawn to determine which shelf sleepers would occupy.

The three-tiered bunks were cot-like structures with wooden or metal frames over which pieces of canvas were stretched, quite close together.

Comfort and privacy aboard those boats were at a minimum, as were the sanitary facilities.

Dickens joined the canal-rail travelers in Harrisburg.

He compared Pittsburgh to Birmingham, England, with its iron works, prisons, arsenal, and the smoke that hung over the city.

The canal on which Dickens traveled extended beyond its downtown terminal and tunneled under Grant's Hill beneath the later U.S. Steel Building to the Monongehela wharf, where passengers were able to board steamboats to travel south on that river.

In most cases, first-class passengers were furnished with restaurant service that was excellent for that period. Dickens' evening meal featured a menu of salmon, shad, liver, steaks, sausages, ham, chops, potatoes, pickles, pudding and bread.

The same menu was offered for the two meals served each day, except that coffee and tea were served only at the evening meal.

Passengers ate their evening meal at 6 p.m., seated at a long table. After dinner, they read newspapers, talked or sought the services of a barber.

Those who remained inside the packets to watch the changing scenery from windows had experiences different from those who sat outside on the flat roof in deck chairs ducking nimbly every four or five minutes to avoid bumping their heads on low bridges.

Although canal travel had its imperfections, it also had good points, according to Dickens.

"Even the running up bare necked at 5 a.m. from the tainted cabin to the dirty deck to scoop up the icy water and plunge one's head into it, drawing it out all fresh with cold was a good thing.

"There was the fast brisk walk upon the towing path between that time and breakfast, when every vein and artery seemed to tingle with health," Dickens added, along with other examples of the beauty of the trip.

INN'S FAMOUS GUESTS

One of the inns where those early travelers stayed was Alexander Logan's, which had guests such as Dickens and, earlier, Vice President Aaron Burr. Logan became operator of the inn along the Allegheny River in 1803.

At one time, Logan owned all of later Logan's Ferry and Parnassus, the latter ultimately incorporated into New Kensington. The ferry came from later, when the Logan family operated the ferry across the river to what became Springdale.

Burr, best known for killing Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel, fled from New York City and stayed at the inn for a few days in that era of slow communications, where news of his deed had not penetrated.

THIS DATE IN HISTORY

Although there were not many historical events on past March 31 dates, those that did represented a wide range of history.

Starting in 1782, Indians killed and scalped settlers at Dutch Fork, near Claysville in Washington County.

In 1836, Union Township was incorporated and the Monongahela Navigation Company was chartered to begin building dams and locks on the Mon to improve navigability.

The Southwest Railroad from Greensburg was completed as far as Connellsville in 1873.

Seven striking miners were killed at Morewood, near Mt. Pleasant, in 1891 strike violence.

In 1934, famed actress Shirley Jones was born at Smithton.

MARINE HISTORY RECEPTION

The Marines are coming to Pittsburgh on April 11 to share their plans for the much-anticipated new U.S. Marine Corps national history museum at Quantico, Va.

The Marine Corps Heritage Foundation is the agency spearheading the museum effort. It will be represented at the reception, at 5:30 p.m. at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland, by two retired generals, foundation president Lt. Gen. Ron Christmas and former Commandant Gen. Carl E. Mundy.

Pittsburgh-area leaders of the effort are Mellon Financial chief executive officer Martin McGuinn and Allegheny County Executive James Roddey.

The reception for prospective donors to the Heritage effort will include hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar. For more information or reservations, contact the Foundation in care of NFM Group Inc., 3 Gateway Center, Suite 1340N, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.

SEPARATE STATE FOR WEST

In earlier days, there was an effort to establish a separate state west of the Alleghenies in Pennsylvania.

In March 1759, months after Gen. Forbes' expedition had reclaimed Fort Duquesne from the French and renamed it Fort Pitt, a Maryland newspaper noted a letter urging "a royal charter with proper encouragement to settle a new colony on the Ohio by the name of Pittsylvania."

In 1780, one of the Virginia county courts in the disputed area of southwestern Pennsylvania drew up a petition for a new state rather than the area becoming Virginia or Pennsylvania.

Proponents included Col. William Crawford, Canonsburg founder John Canon and Brownsville founder Thomas Brown. However, Pittsburgh was against it, and the effort failed.

Advocates of the new state believed they would receive better treatment from a state capital in the Ohio Valley than from Philadelphia or Richmond.

PITT CURRICULUM HAS CHANGED

In 1795, the curriculum at Pittsburgh Academy, which shortly became Western University of Pennsylvania (and eventually the University of Pittsburgh), was quite broad.

It included English grammar; writing; arithmetic; bookkeeping; Latin; Greek; French; rhetoric; geography; mathematics; introduction to natural, civil and ecclesiastic history; astronomy; natural philosophy; logic; moral philosophy; and chronology.

UNIONTOWN PROS AND CONS

In 1784, the first Fayette County prothonotary, Ephraim Douglass, wrote:

"This Uniontown is the most obscure spot on the face of the globe. I have been here for seven or eight weeks without one opportunity of writing to the land of the living … so cold that a person not knowing the latitude would conclude we were placed near one of the poles …

"The upper part of this edifice (distillery) is the habitation of your humble servant … fumigated by that of two stills below, exclusive of the other effluvia that arises from the dirty vessels in which they prepare the materials for the stills …

"Its soil (the country around) is excellent … the town is really beautiful … the general curse of the country, disunion, rages in this little mudhole … they have no pursuits at all except obtaining food and whiskey."

PERRY MUNITIONS FROM CITY

When Adm. Perry was building and equipping his fleet on Lake Erie in the War of 1812, he obtained much of his ironwork, cordage and cannon balls from Pittsburgh.

The transportation of such supplies to Erie was aided by the unusually high level of water on the Allegheny River and French Creek in the summer of 1813, in those days before navigation dams.

In 1814, the federal government opened Allegheny Arsenal along Butler Street near later Lawrenceville. It became an important Pittsburgh industry until after the Civil War.

SPORTS HISTORY

Although many experts agree that Pennsylvania has been eclipsed by Florida and some other states as the primary breeding ground for college and pro football talent, many of the earlier football stars remain in the news.

Mike Ditka of Aliquippa, after his stardom at Pitt and Dallas, stayed in the news with his pro head-coaching position and now television commentary. Jack Ham is still heard from well after his Johnston, Penn State and Steelers career.

Dick Hoak of Jeannette is still familiar as a longtime Steelers coach after his career with Jeannette High, Penn State and the Steelers.

Not as familiar are Arnie Galiffa of Donora and Army; Babe Parilli of Rochester, Kentucky and pro Packers and Patriots; Chester (Cookie) Gilchrist of Har-Brack and the pro Bills and Broncos; and Mercury Morris of Pittsburgh, West Texas State and the Dolphins.

Other examples: Jim Mutscheller of Beaver Falls, Notre Dame and the Colts; Leon Hart of Turtle Creek, Notre Dame and the Lions; Ted Kwalick of McKees Rocks, Penn State, and the 49ers; Bill McPeak of New Castle, Pitt and the Steelers; Doug Crusan of Monessen, Indiana and the Dolphins; Rich Saul of Butler, Michigan State and the Rams; Richie McCabe of Pittsburgh, Pitt and the Steelers; Ralph Cindrich of Avella, Pitt and the Patriots; Chuck Drazenovich of Brownsville, Penn State and the Steelers; and Bert Rechichar of Rostraver Township, Tennessee and the Colts.

These are just a sampling of many, some now dead, but a reminder of when southwestern Pennsylvania was in the football forefront.

 

 
 


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