Sharing Archival Images of Pittsburgh History
    The “Boys’ Reading Club” in old Hazelwood, early 1900s (image: Historic Pittsburgh).

    The “Boys’ Reading Club” in old Hazelwood, early 1900s (image: Historic Pittsburgh).

    Facebook has its shortcomings, for sure, but for those willing to forego participation in the culture and misinformation wars, the platform is emerging as a kind of free hyper-local journalism for Pittsburghers deprived by the pandemic of their accustomed in-person lectures and continuing-education events.

    Bookish history and culture aficionados who might in better times present talks and slideshows in church basements and suburban libraries find they can do nearly as well by posting to Facebook.

    Fort Pitt Blockhouse with the Pennsylvania Railroad  Warehouse and Freight Station, late 1940s (image: Historic Pittsburgh).

    Fort Pitt Blockhouse with the Pennsylvania Railroad Warehouse and Freight Station, late 1940s (image: Historic Pittsburgh).

    Some of us have been doing this for a decade or more, long before the pandemic, because Facebook makes it simple. They accept most anything and display it decently. Then, too, in Pittsburgh especially, there are vast, meticulously managed photo archives where images and information can be harvested.

    More than that, some people—and you know who you are—have a need to write and publish in the face of a tight and stingy local freelance market.

    Mind you, there’s no money in Facebook publishing, but there is satisfaction to be had and shared camaraderie, even if the writer never actually meets many of the audience members.

    The 1913 Strip District  explosion (image: Historic Pittsburgh).

    The 1913 Strip District explosion (image: Historic Pittsburgh).

    Facebook allows one to have as many as 5,000 “friends” and an unlimited number of “followers.” The author has no control, however, over where the presentation shows up and who reads it, but one’s success can be measured roughly by how many individuals “like” and “share” the material.

    You’re reading this because The Strip! asked me to recount my experiences of doing this since 2009. There’s nothing fancy about it, just a consequence of working for 50 years in regional journalism, being old and lonely, and staying up most of the night with chronic insomnia, passing the time—against all medical advice—clicking through digital archives such as provided by the Library of Congress and the University of Pittsburgh’s Historic Pittsburgh.

    Here are a few such historical “finds” that were well received, each with at least a few hundred likes and shares.

    The Brookline Connection archive features a little-known, short-lived casino and hotel—with bridal suite—that used to sit atop the giant Penn Incline, running from Penn and 17th up through the Hill District. The reality was that cash-heavy swells from the shops and businesses in the Strip District in the early 1900s would ride up there for gambling, drinking, and other forms of misbehavior, until it burned down.

    Remnants of the Point Bridge across the Mon River, 1970s  (image: Chuck Shane/Library of Congress).

    Remnants of the Point Bridge across the Mon River, 1970s
    (image: Chuck Shane/Library of Congress).

    The Strip District also was the locus of disaster in 1913 when several blocks of buildings just simply blew up because of the strange brew of chemicals that manufacturers, brewers, and shopkeepers were heedlessly pouring down their drains. One day, spontaneous chemistry occurred—and boom!

    During the Great Depression, there once was a shantytown along Penn Avenue near 17th Street. When economic conditions improved, city authorities burned it down.

    Chuck Shane, publisher of The Strip!, was active in the founding of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (as a partner in the publishing firm VanTrump, Ziegler, and Shane, Inc.) and a noted photo-documenter of historic structures during the 1970s. The Library of Congress holds many of his photos, including the massive steel and concrete structure that once anchored the original Point Bridge, across the Mon River. It was so enormous that engineers found it easier to just leave it in place rather than remove it.

    To say that Pittsburgh was a railroad town—at the same time it was becoming a steel town—is quite the understatement. Historic Pittsburgh’s images of the Strip, Downtown, and the Point document what a crowded, rusty, oily place it was, well into the 1950s.

    You can’t know Pittsburgh properly without knowing its libraries. Perhaps the most Pittsburgh-y photo in the local archives is that of the “Boys’ Reading Club” in old Hazelwood. The lads gathered in the shadow of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Mill to borrow books—which then were scarce and very expensive—from traveling librarians who visited from the Main Library in Oakland.

    These are all relatively lightweight and casual references. Much better, deeper, and more detailed local work on Facebook comes from, for instance:

    Mark Houser, author of the book MultiStories: 55 Antique Skyscrapers and the Business Tycoons Who Built Them.

    Susan M. Morris, who contributes fabulous entries from her Historical Dilettante blog (see: historicaldilettante.com), which amount to detailed, lavishly illustrated book chapters.

    John Schalcosky, founder of Facebook’s “The Odd, Mysterious, and Fascinating History of Pittsburgh,” provides delightful—and often bizarre—glimpses of the city’s history.

    William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh-based writer, editor, and historian. Contact him at pghnews.351@gmail.com.
    Photos courtesy of William McCloskey