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History

Exploring the Maridon

Most people do not associate Asian art with Butler, Pa. However, the only museum dedicated to ancient and contemporary Chinese and Japanese art and culture in western Pennsylvania is tucked away on a residential street in this city of around 14,000 — epitomizing the concept of “hidden gem.” The Maridon Museum is home to the …

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Mount Oliver Incline, Circa 1895

When the mount oliver inclined railway was built in 1872, it was Allegheny County’s second incline, and an average one-way ride cost six cents. Its cars traveled from 12th Street, South Side, to its eponymous height— from which this photo was taken—gaining 377 feet of elevation over 1,600 feet of track and depositing riders at …

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Light in Darkness

I can’t really say if I found Ernie, or if Ernie found me. When I volunteered for a writing project at the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center in 1992, he was the first person I met. An engaging, bespectacled gentleman in his early 70s, Ernie was one of about 200 Holocaust survivors living here at the time. …

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Wabash Park ice skating, 1917

On the wintry afternoon of Jan. 20, 1917, pittsburghers of all ages enjoyed ice skating at Wabash Park in Pittsburgh’s West End. Regularly a grassy swath, it was apparently flooded and frozen for the season. The park is still there, as are a number of the park-facing homes along Wabash Street. An icy Sawmill Run …

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Home Library Group

Coke oven smokestacks loom as members of a boys’ reading club pose in an what is likely a factory slum along the Monongahela where workers lived to be near their jobs at the Jones & Laughlin Steel Mill in Hazelwood. Six years earlier, steel titan Andrew Carnegie, himself a self-educated working boy who found inspiration …

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Heinz, 1903

The H.J. Heinz company was founded in 1888, and by the turn of the century had a vast processing plant on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Known for progressive employee benefits—especially those for women—Heinz offered free medical care, a swimming pool and gymnasium, weekly manicures, a reading room, classes and lectures. Occasionally, workers enjoyed carriage rides through …

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The Little Block House That Could

The first question a visitor usually asks is: “So… what was this place?” As curator of the 250-year-old Fort Pitt Block House, sometimes I feel that I have the most interesting job in the world. I get to take care of the only structure left of Fort Pitt and the oldest building in Pittsburgh. The …

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Vox Humana

I met the great oral historian and journalist Studs Terkel when I was 18 years old. I didn’t know much about Studs back then, only that he was a writer and a pretty famous one, and since I wanted to be a writer, too, it was probably a good idea to go see him. I …

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Clan Carnegie

The fact that the Carnegie Museum complex in Oakland happens to be located on Forbes Avenue wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy except that Andrew Carnegie and Brigadier General John Forbes both hail from the small town of Dunfermline, Scotland. Forbes named our city, Carnegie put it on the map, and both longed to return to Scotland. …

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The Watery Part of the World

The standing watch was sent below for wet- weather gear, and the clattering of their feet on the ladder awakened me. I headed above deck, blinking in the light and trying to align the fair skies behind us and the gentle roll of two-foot waves with the urgency of the crew laying out the line—called …

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The Search for the Lost Archives

A lifeguard’s strong dark arms buoy his young, light-skinned pupil, as other children in the pool cheer their friend’s attempts to swim. The undated, black-and-white photo from the archives of the Pittsburgh Courier is part of a century-long storyline about the lives of African Americans that the newspaper chronicled. It is also part of a …

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Money, Power & Purpose

Harvard played its final game of the 1911 baseball season the day after graduation. With Harvard up 4-1 and one out to go, team captain and star pitcher Charles B. “Chick” McLaughlin called time, for a substitution at first base. A lanky redhead came off the Harvard bench. He had failed to make the team …

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Taking Wing

Not all the thousands of people who regularly pass beneath her glance up, but occasionally, one will stop for a better look. She hangs from the ceiling of the Landside Terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport with her name, Miss Pittsburgh, written on her nose. Further back, on the fuselage of this very old airplane, are …

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The Business of Politics

The year was 1955, the place the long bar at the Carlton House Hotel. Standing as bookends were Pirates sportscaster, Bob “the Gunner” Prince and KDKA newscaster, curly-haired Bill Burns. Both men were serious drinkers, but the Gunner, resplendent in a canary yellow blazer with an ever-present screwdriver in hand and another waiting in the …

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The Wright Way to Fly

A top Kill Devil Hill on North Carolina’s windswept Outer Banks stands a massive granite monument that reads: “In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright. Conceived by genius; achieved by dauntless resolution and incomparable faith.” Wilbur Wright would have had a problem with the word genius, it …

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Smilin’ Charlie Schwab

The Christmas season was in full flush Dec. 12 1900 at the University Club in New York, where the city’s financial and industrial elite gathered to honor Charles Michael Schwab, the president of Carnegie Steel. A youthful 38, Schwab already had held the position for three years. Attendees included railroaders William Vanderbilt, Chauncey Depew and …

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The Short, Happy Life of the WASP ascendancy

Once upon a time in America, when the going was good, there emerged what looked like a ruling class. We’ll call it the WASP Ascendancy. Standing for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, WASP was coined by University of Pennsylvania sociologist E. Digby Baltzell (1916–1996). This WASP Ascendancy traces a soft 20th century parabola reaching its apogee in …

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Mike Benedum: A Character portrait in Oil

Pittsburgh and steel are virtually synonymous. Less well known is Pittsburgh’s rich heritage in the oil business. In 1854, inventor and businessman Samuel L. Kier built the nation’s first oil refinery as a crude, five-barrel still 100 feet from today’s U.S. Steel Building. In 1859, Colonel Edwin L. Drake drilled the first oil well and …

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Henry Clay Frick: Blood Pact

Among the great fortunes of Pittsburgh’s Golden Age (1870–1910), that of Henry Clay Frick stands third, bested only by Andrew Carnegie and the Mellons. But the extraordinary aspect of the Frick fortune was not its size. Carnegie, Heinz, Mellon and Westinghouse were all entrepreneurs who exercised ultimate control in their operations. Frick started as an …

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Slavery’s Shadow

As the celebratory sun sets on Pittsburgh’s 250th anniversary, an exhibit has opened at  the Heinz History Center that shows an area of shadow older than the city itself: slavery. Pittsburgh’s membership in the league of heroic Northern cities that helped with the Underground Railroad remains, but without its pristine, stainless status. Instead, western Pennsylvania …

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A Very Short History of Pittsburgh

Geography comes first. Close upon the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, one gets a sense of westward flowing waters, but a map of Western Pennsylvania shows the Allegheny flowing south and the Monongahela north, almost at right angles to the Ohio. A fourth river, the Potomac, comes into play by bringing the coast …

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H.J. Heinz: Relish Success

In the second half of the 19th century, as Pittsburgh emerged as one of America’s great cities, it did so on the back of heavy industry; steel predominantly, but also glass, oil and all manner of heavy machinery. Indeed, four of the five men novelist Edith Wharton dubbed the “Lords of Pittsburgh” built their fortunes …

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