Looking down on the crystal clear panorama of Pittsburgh’s skyscrapers, the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, and the football cathedral known as Heinz Field, it’s difficult to picture this city any other way.
But at the turn of the 20th century, this now gleaming metropolis was known as Smoky City and Hell With the Lid Off.
Pittsburgh then was a city of steel mills and smoke stacks that belched forth copious clouds of noxious fumes, smog that shrouded neighborhoods, and soot that clung to houses, clothing and lungs.
Often when the noontime whistle blew, the air was as black as midnight.
Pittsburgh’s residents worked long hours, were chronically ill and often died prematurely. Many were Eastern European immigrants who came to the city between 1880 and 1920, sometimes pouring through Pittsburgh’s train terminal at the rate of 20,000 a day. These dream-seekers came clutching the required letters of invitation and $15 in cash, both usually from family members who had already made the long journey across the Atlantic.
“Fifteen dollars was a small fortune back then,” explains Pittsburgh-area attorney Joseph Bielecki, an expert in Eastern European history who comes from Slovak and Polish stock. He is our guide today on a daylong bus tour of Pittsburgh.
“The workers (in the mines and mills) were only paid about $2 a week, and $15 was worth even more in Eastern Europe.”
Our guided tour is part of the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International Conference, which meets every two years. In between, the organization provides historical, cultural and genealogical resources to those who want to explore their Czech, Slovak and Rusyn ancestral roots and build their family trees.
As we cross one of Pittsburgh’s 446 bridges, we see in the distance a half-dozen tall, slim stacks silhouetted against the horizon, testaments to the robber barons/philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie who made their millions thanks to the grueling work of immigrants like my husband’s grandfather. Like many immigrants from what is now the Slovak Republic, he arrived in Pittsburgh, then continued his journey to outlying areas to mine the coal that fed the furnaces in the mills nonstop. He eventually found employment in a steel mill in northeastern Ohio.
“Steel required lots of labor and lots of materials,” Bielecki tells us. “Coal was a vital ingredient and the mills required vast amounts. In the mines, one wagon held one ton of coal, and the flatbed barges held many thousands of tons. The furnaces (in the mills) heated to 900 or 1,000 degrees.”
The immigrants labored long hours under hazardous conditions with no health insurance, retirement plans, workman’s comp or any government office looking out for their safety. When workers were killed on the job — sometimes several a day — there were no death benefits; widows and children were on their own.
“These people suffered a great deal of hardship and we are the beneficiaries,” Bielecki adds.
Eastern Europeans, as well as numerous other ethnic groups, left their mark on Pittsburgh — its churches, food, architecture and art. They lived in many of the city’s 90 distinct neighborhoods, which are separated by rivers, ravines and bridges. Many of the homes sat amid the noise, grime and pollution, close to the mills.
Today, the steel mills of the “Sou’ Side,” where most were located, are gone, replaced by apartments, condos, shopping malls and expanses of green. Still, though, there are pockets of poverty in the area. One of those is Braddock, just 10 miles from downtown Pittsburgh. At mid-20th century, the town had 20,000 middle-class residents. Today, Braddock has 2,000 residents, a 40 percent poverty rate and one small steel mill.
But other neighborhoods have been re-born. Millennials are moving in and trendy restaurants, coffee shops and specialty shops are popping up in well-preserved, architecturally beautiful, turn-of-the century buildings. The University of Pittsburgh campus is buzzing, museums abound, the city’s sports teams are beloved, and the unemployment rate is 5.5 percent, down from 9.5 percent in 2010. Visit www.visitpittsburgh.com. For more photos and commentary about Pittsburgh, visit www.facebook.com/elouiseondash.
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at firstname.lastname@example.org