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Lewis & Clark: Beneath the haze, a town's wonders hint at the heady days to come

Second of a series

Sunday, July 20, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pity poor Meriwether Lewis.

(Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette illustration. Click image for larger version.)

More on Meriwether Lewis' Pittsburgh

Online Map:
Pittsburgh circa 1803

1803 -- It happened in Pittsburgh

He comes to Pittsburgh in the summer of 1803 expecting his keelboat to be ready in five days and what does he find? A boat with its ribs still showing, a boat builder overly fond of his liquor and a frontier town still learning and yearning to be civilized.

Not that he complained about the town during his six weeks here, mind you.

Although Lewis, one of history's best-known travel writers, frequently derided his boat builder, he had nothing negative to say about Pittsburgh, for which, all things considered, we should be eternally grateful. In fact, he had nothing to say about Pittsburgh at all, probably because he was entirely familiar with it, having been stationed in Western Pennsylvania while he was in the Army.

For a portrait of the Pittsburgh that Lewis encountered in 1803, then, we must turn to other sources, and to another traveler of the day, one Thaddeus M. Harris, a Harvard-educated, Unitarian minister who later served as Harvard's librarian.

Meriwether Lewis' Pittsburgh

Part One: 200 years later, it's still one wondrous road trip

The rest of the series


"It contains upward of four hundred houses, several of them large and handsomely built of brick; forty-nine are occupied as stores and shops," he wrote in his journal on April 15, 1803.

Harris also took note of Pittsburgh's two newspapers, the Gazette and Tree of Liberty; its two glass factories, producing window glass and bottles; and three religious congregations, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Seceder (he overlooked the fourth, German Evangelical).

The city's shipbuilders had "[s]everal vessels now on the stocks," and Pittsburgh's cabinetmakers caught his attention with their black walnut, wild cherry and yellow birch furniture, which he described as "very strong and handsome."

But the good reverend, it seems, was charitably guilty of a sin of omission. He failed to mention what was all too obvious to John Scull, editor of the Gazette, as historian Leland Baldwin reported in his 1937 book, "Pittsburgh: The Story of a City, 1750-1865."

"Stables, backhouses [outhouses], hencoops, pigsties, stagnant ponds, and slaughterhouses vied with each other for olfactory attention," Baldwin wrote.

"Those townspeople who opposed sanitary measures on the ground that they would entail higher taxes were sarcastically drubbed in the Gazette of June 3, 1803: 'A little clean dirt, more or less, is neither here nor there -- it is believed to be wholesome, and some folks have no objection to the smell of warm tripe and garbage, to wading through puddles of green, stagnant water, to skating over dabs of ordure.'"

With hogs and dogs running loose in the streets, Lewis would have had many dabs to dodge, if not great heaping piles from horses and stray cows. There was an ordinance against free-ranging pigs but it was little enforced. In January 1804, nuisance dogs were so numerous that a tax of 25 cents each was levied -- if the owner could be found.

Then there was the smoke, which even before 1800 hung over the city like a black, low-lying cloud on days without wind. Every house had one or more coal fires burning year-round, with the smoke piped up the chimney or sometimes simply out of the side of the house.

It was, Baldwin wrote, "no wonder that strangers from the wood-burning East complained of the 'sulphurous vapors.'"

The air was so bad that, in 1813, it drove away the one man who, more than any other, elevated the city's intellectual and literary life -- the enterprising, Quaker-born bookbinder Zadok Cramer. Cramer, who came to Pittsburgh in 1800 at the age of 26, published almanacs, primary school textbooks, catechisms, songbooks and German- and French-language books, which he sold in his bookstore.

Situated on the east side of Market Street between Front Street (now First Avenue) and Second Street (Boulevard of the Allies), Cramer's store carried stationery, quill pens and playing cards and was the first to sell wallpaper west of the mountains, a sure sign of the town's growing sophistication.

Lewis hired a pilot, known to us only as T. Moore, to guide the keelboat, but he may have dropped in to pick up a personal copy of Cramer's own book, "The Navigator," the popular guidebook for travelers on the Monongahela, Allegheny, Ohio and Mississippi rivers. It was Cramer who published the first account of the Lewis and Clark expedition when he brought out the "Journal of Patrick Gass" in 1807. From it, he drew information about the Missouri and Columbia rivers, which he added to "The Navigator" in 1808. Five years later, he died of tuberculosis in Pensacola, Fla.

A fort town evolves

If Pittsburgh was smelly and smoky, at least there wasn't much of it to sully. The town stretched from the Point to Grant's Hill, which rose just east of Grant Street.

Pittsburgh had been laid out in two stages, in 1764 and 1784, but by 1803, most of the streets were still narrow, unpaved and often muddy, and some were interrupted by large ponds. Locust, poplar and willow trees provided shade over the brick or gravel sidewalks, and flower and vegetable gardens grew between houses. Most were two stories, the older ones made of logs and the newer ones frame or brick.

Lewis would have been able to tell at a glance which had been built with the dirty white bricks (mortar-clad, perhaps) salvaged from Fort Pitt, the town's oldest landmark, which had been abandoned by the British in 1772. Part of the old officers' quarters was being used as a malt house, probably for Gen. James O'Hara's Point Brewery.

Three of the fort's five earthen ramparts had been eroded by floods, and the "brick wall called the revetment, which supported two of the ramparts facing toward the town, and against which the officers and soldiers used to play ball, [was] gone, so that the earth all around had assumed the natural slope," Gazette owner and editor Neville B. Craig recalled in 1850.

Just as the fort blended into the landscape, so too did its officers commingle in the town, becoming some of Pittsburgh's earliest entrepreneurs and leading citizens. In addition to the brewery, O'Hara opened a glass factory on the south shore of the Monongahela with Craig's father, Maj. Isaac Craig. He also operated a sawmill, gristmill and tannery.

The elder Craig, with Col. Stephen Bayard, had purchased three acres of land at the Point, including the fort's blockhouse, today the only building in the triangle known to survive from Lewis' day. Although Craig had built a Dutch-gabled house attached to the blockhouse in 1785, it was in the older structure that his son Neville was born two years later.

According to a map depicting Pittsburgh in 1795, both Craig and O'Hara were by then living on Water Street (which faced the Monongahela River and no longer exists), on each side of the only boatyard that appears on the map. It was just south of where the Post-Gazette parking lot is today. All of these sites are now occupied by the Fort Pitt Bridge ramps leading to the Parkway East.

There were no bridges in 1803, but the 2,000 or so people who lived here could take ferries across the Monongahela and Allegheny. Getting to them, however, was a challenge.

"The ferries across the two rivers were reached by perilous descents from the plateau on which the town was built and by circuitous paths across the mud flats," Baldwin writes.

Lined with keelboats and flatboats, the bank of the Monongahela also bustled with the arrivals and departures of long-distance travelers.

By 1803, boats and sea-going ships were being built in several yards, up the Allegheny as far as Plum Creek and up the Monongahela as far as Brownsville.

But most of the river activity was on the Mon, causing Pittsburgh's development to grow first along its south shore. By 1803, the business center had shifted from Water, Front and Second streets to Market Street, which led to the Diamond (now Market Square), where the courthouse and one of the town's three public markets were.

New century, new markets

If Lewis spent any time at all in the Diamond, it's a good chance many of the conversations he overheard and entered into were about local and national government.

Pittsburghers were "so much Engrossed with political discussions that those of oppisite sentiments can hardly think or speak well of each other," banker and newcomer John Thaw wrote in an 1804 letter.

The same could be said of the city's two feuding newspapers -- Scull's conservative, Federalist-leaning Gazette and John Israel's pro-Jefferson Tree of Liberty, both weeklies.

On July 16, 1803, the day after Lewis arrived in Pittsburgh, the front page of the Tree of Liberty was covered with the names of people who owed taxes on their Donation and Depreciation lands. Lewis also could have read, buried on page 3, what he already knew -- that the United States had obtained "the full right to and sovereignty over New Orleans, and the whole of Louisiana."

To Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, the Louisiana Purchase meant new markets for its products, new territory for migrating settlers and more men building more ships and boats to carry them downriver.

In 1804, about 50 men were engaged in boat building and about 30 in shipbuilding. Another 28 worked in a tin factory, 30 in a nail factory, 30 in the ropewalks and 12 in a cotton factory, all manufacturing goods that could be used to make boats, ships, rigging and sails.

A carpenter earned 70 cents per day in 1800; to put that in perspective, beef, pork, mutton and venison were selling for 3 to 5 cents a pound in 1801. Chocolate, a luxury item, sold for 40 cents a pound in 1807.

While most Pittsburgh working men and their families were Americans whose ancestors came from the British Isles and Germany, the city's population also included free blacks, slaves and newly arrived indentured servants.

Charles Richards, a free black man, ran a bakery in the 1780s and by 1795 was keeping a log tavern at the northwest corner of Ferry and Second streets (Stanwix and Boulevard of the Allies).

And although a state law in 1780 mandated the gradual abolition of slavery, there were still 79 slaves in Allegheny County in 1800, the year the county, which had stretched from the Allegheny River to Lake Erie, was reduced to its present size.

By then,there were many towns, including Connellsville, Greensburg, Washington, Brownsville, Meadville and Butler, and many smaller settlements in between.

Writing in 1868, lawyer Henry Marie Brackenridge recalled the first day of court in Butler in 1803, in a newly raised, two-story log building that still lacked doors, windows and chinking. The place was packed. Men "clambered up the walls, and placing their hands and feet in the open interstices between the logs hung there, suspended like enormous Madagascar bats."

One fellow, "big John M'Junkin," made it to the floorless second floor, with "a foot on one joist and a foot on another, directly over the heads of their honors, standing with outstretched legs like the Colossus of Rhodes."

The sheriff was called, the room was cleared, there was order in the court. Civilization was coming to Western Pennsylvania, one day at a time.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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