An alternate history of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh has been called a “mosaic”, “hell with no lid” and “the Paris of Appalachia”.
East Liberty-born poet Jack Gilbert describes the city in his poem “In Search of Pittsburgh” as being made of “bricks and weary wood / Ox and sovereign spirit / an outgrowth of America”.
These characterizations loom as well-acted section titles in Ed Simon’s hugely satisfying and insightful An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, which posits that his hometown is “a place that matters…a place that matters…a place that matters.”
Now living in Washington, DC, Simon holds a Ph.D. in English from Lehigh University and his essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Salon, The New Republic and The New York Times. Its narrative approach succeeds in tracing sometimes lesser-known aspects of the region historically, with the chronology of these stand-alone pieces spanning from prehistory to the modern era. His overview effectively argues that “Pittsburgh has always been more Pennsylvania, but not Pennsylvania,” with a foothold in the Northeast, Midwest, and Appalachia.
Simon blends historical sources with captivating insights, blending quotations from scholars with nuanced and revealing analysis. Each of the stories is around 1,000 words, or the time it would take to eat a few cuts of “Police Station Pizza” in Ambridge, not far from where the Harmonists, who get their moment in a chapter called “Harmony” , finally installed. Each chapter, dedicated to the lesser-known past of Pittsburgh’s fires, bloodshed, and prehistoric intrigue, features a well-versed author comfortable with his writing voice.
Beginning in 300 million BCE with “A Leaf Turned to Coal,” Simon guides readers through the primeval landscape of what would become Pittsburgh, on the “long-forgotten continent named Laurasia,” located “on the edge of a shallow temperate sea that spanned the flat Midwest basin. With humans not yet on the scene, the area was populated by all manner of insects, “millipedes that grew over six feet, with smooth eyeballs the size of softballs…dragonflies which had twice the wingspan of a dove”. Simon cites biochemist Nick Lane’s book Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World that “giantism was unusually common in the Carboniferous.” The megaflora of this era became the coal that eventually fueled the coke ovens and industrial boom of the region, with the burial of plant matter helping to “raise atmospheric oxygen levels throughout this period, just as combustion still lowers them today”.
The earliest pieces pass through the pre-Clovis people who settled Meadowcroft outside Avella 19,000 years ago, making it the oldest continuously occupied settlement in North America, until the Iroquoian peacemaker Deganawidah. He attempted to broker peace between the tribes before Columbus, when the lives of these indigenous peoples were “defined by famine, pestilence, war and death”.
Simon examines the Quaker William Penn, its namesake state becoming “the greatest individual land claim in the entire world”, and notes: “Pittsburgh has always been liminal as a frontier, its geography as ambiguous as its discovery… Much of the history of Pittsburgh is a shortcoming. Simon’s balanced, easy-to-digest approach is a winner that throws no punches at some of the city’s best-known ancestors.
While the Battle of Monongahela leaves Daniel Boone as a witness to General Braddock’s 1755 rout by the French and Indians, calling it “a baptism of blood”, a young George Washington describes the British reaction as “struck with a such panic that they behaved with more cowardice than is possible to conceive.At a time of English colonization and renunciation of the treaties concluded with the local tribes, Simon is the most angry with Colonel Henry Bouquet. He would “conceive of something heinous, an indisputable war crime and aid in ethnic cleansing and genocide”, i.e. biological warfare in the form of blankets given as peace offerings to local tribes and inoculated with smallpox, which “had killed millions.” Indians over the previous two centuries.
In “‘Beautiful Dreamer'”, Simon criticizes Stephen Foster for being part of a long line of imitators, rather than innovators, in American music. Elsewhere he describes Andrew Carnegie as “a proletarian” due to his life’s arc from rags to riches. In “A Nativist in Market Square,” readers meet the Reverend Joseph Barker, who briefly became mayor of Pittsburgh based on bigotry targeting Catholics and immigrants. “The Great Railroad Strike” considers 1877, when the labor movement first gained a foothold. Simon wonders if, without the intervention of President Rutherford B. Hayes, the country could have evolved towards socialism. Simon calls Henry Clay Frick “an enemy of equality” and adds that his would-be killer, Alexander Berkman, claimed at the industrialist’s death that Frick had been “deported by God”.
Part III’s “Rise, Fall and Reinvention” includes Evelyn Nesbit and her role in the first “Crime of the Century”. Simon says Rachel Carson switching from English to biology at Chatham University was a world-changing moment. Frank Lloyd Wright disdained Pittsburgh’s architecture, saying it would be cheaper to abandon the place and rebuild elsewhere. But that would remove what DH Lawrence called “the spirit of place,” or what Simon refers to as “transcendental” in our geography, “the dazzling birth of lights that is Pittsburgh.”