If there’s an official history of Pittsburgh, it’s of great people doing heroic deeds — from the early military expeditions of George Washington to the world-changing inventions of George Westinghouse.
But there’s another narrative that Ed Simon — who grew up in Point Breeze and now lives in Northern Virginia — tells in his book, “An Alternative History of Pittsburgh.”
The Carnegies and Fricks are here, of course. But so are the lesser-known heroes and villains whose paths meld in this crucible at the forks of the Ohio, helping to forge the steel spine of this young country. It’s deftly told in brief essays in chronological order that gradually reveal a place at the literal and figurative crossroads of the vast interior of America.
It starts at the beginning.
Literally, the very beginning — with creatures emerging from the primordial muck in a tropical, prehistoric Pennsylvania. The local flora and fauna trended towards gigantism, with 3-foot-long scorpions and spiders with 2-foot-long legs. The dead trees and plants would “sink into the silty soil, like eternal, beautiful corpses, petrifying into statues.” There, vast millennia of compression turned them into bituminous coal that would power Pittsburgh for the next several hundred years.
“People call that the dinosaur chapter,” says Simon. “What happened 300 million years ago is in part why Pittsburgh is what Pittsburgh is.”
An argument emerged, Simon notes, that Pittsburgh’s history was impossible to disentangle from its geography, its topography, its geology — the rivers and mountains. The vast canopy of green that stretched in all directions along the Allegheny mountains concealed centuries of blood, revenge, even cannibalism.
Then something changed. A Mohawk chief named Hiawatha decided the bloodshed must end after an Onondaga chief killed his daughters. He was the first disciple of a shaman named Deganawidah, whose Code of Peace (fueled by Hiawatha’s forgiveness) led to the Iroquois Confederation — bringing five nations to coexist together in a consensus-driven rule of law that kept the peace for centuries.
The Code of Peace was “arguably more democratic than anything produced in ancient Athens,” says Simon. Its fundamental tenet (six centuries before the Declaration of Independence) was that “one’s as much Master as another and since Men are all made of the same Clay, there should be no Distinction or Superiority among them.”
Colonists arrived, of course, bringing with them guns, alcohol and smallpox-laden blankets, in an all-too-successful attempt at biological warfare aimed at reducing the native population.
The first, real, world war began in Western Pennsylvania, with the British General Braddock’s humiliation (in what is now Braddock). A smaller French force and their Native American allies showed that British units’ rigid rows of traditional European battle formations wouldn’t work in a forested wilderness, where every rock and tree could conceal a sniper.
The French and Indian War would eventually span the planet, from the Monongahela to Mumbai, setting the two great empires against each other. It was a global conflagration that would dislodge the French from most of North America and set the economic and political conditions that would result in the French and American revolutions.
Pennsylvania was, as it is now, a fairly incoherent place — divided deeply by the Allegheny Mountains, and the cultures of Philadelphia (Quaker, settled, orderly) and Pittsburgh (immigrant, individualist). Failed attempts at forming a separate Western Appalachian colony named Vandalia and Westsylvania illustrate this divide.
“The sibling rivalry between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, between East and West, goes back a lot further than the Flyers and the Pens,” says Simon.
The Whiskey Rebellion and the great Great Railroad Strike of 1877 sent Eastern Pennsylvania troops to conquer restive Western Pennsylvanians, a pattern that would play out again and again.
For the love of whiskey
One fascinating chapter is about an Iroquois named Handsome Lake, who crossed paths in Pittsburgh with a barrel of whiskey for which he sold everything he had. While deep in the delirium tremors of withdrawal, he had a religious vision. It became known as the Code of Handsome Lake or the Longhouse Religion.
It’s a novel religion that merges Christianity and Quakerism with an earlier Iroquois understanding of cosmology, says Simon. Handsome Lake preaches that alcohol is a tool of European colonialism, and to be avoided.
“It’s arguably one of the first kind of sobriety movements that emerges in the United States,” notes Simon, “in which people who suffer from alcoholism are kind of granted a degree of agency and self-determination over their own affliction.”
In the years before the Civil War, Pittsburgh became home to a free black man from West Virginia, Martin Delany — one of the most daring and heroic figures of this tortured era. He would settle in the Hill District, treating Pittsburghers during the cholera epidemics of 1833 and 1854, when doctors and residents fled the city. He was one of the first three Black men to be admitted to Harvard Medical School, though white students conspired to throw him out.
Delany returned to Pittsburgh and started a newspaper called The Mystery, longing for an African homeland for freed American slaves — examining ideas that would later be explored by Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X.
“He is positing a very revolutionary, very radical vision of black independence and black self-determination,” says Simon. “Obviously, he’s writing against the slave-owning aristocracy of his native South, which is an obvious target. And then he felt that there was a degree of condescension from white liberal abolitionists, who saw the issue as a means for their own kind of moral growth.”
Delany became the first African-American field-grade officer in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. But aside from a historical marker near PPG Place Downtown, he is barely remembered in Pittsburgh today.
The ugliest depths of the American character would become manifest in Pittsburgh as well, like the ranting street preacher of Market Square, the Reverend Joseph Barker. His ferocious anti-Catholic diatribes frequently landed him in prison for inciting riots. While in prison, he was elected Mayor of Pittsburgh in 1850.
“Barker was sort of this bizarre, buffoonish, clownish, awful figure,” says Simon, noting there isn’t much information about him.
As mayor, he was a disaster — starting his rival police force that would fight the regular police and harass the growing Irish Catholic population.
“He’s this kind of loudmouth, obscene guy who won’t shut up, who riles up violence against ethnic minorities,” explains Simon. “When I was writing the book in 2019 and 2020, it was hard not to see some parallels (to today). And at the time, the fact that he lost the next election, I took as a favorable omen, perhaps that things can kind of self-correct a little bit.”
Now, Pittsburgh is among the most Catholic cities in America, with a Catholic mayor. “So there’s this kind of final revenge against this mayor,” notes Simon.
There’s plenty more in “An Alternative History of Pittsburgh,” from the musical sparks that flew when Duke Ellington met Billy Strayhorn, to a city at war with its largest employer in the Homestead Strike of 1892, to Nazi saboteurs seeking to destroy a vital economic artery.
And of course, there’s Joe Magarac (“jackass” in Croatian) — the folklore/“fakelore” mill hunk of incredible strength, whose origins are suspect but who became an icon of immigrant worker power nonetheless.
Simon writes with a lively, piquant style that finds sharply observed details in unexpected places. We can say with confidence that “An Alternative History of Pittsburgh” will be on our ultimate Pittsburgh bookshelf list the next time it’s updated. It’s available at independent bookstores in Pittsburgh and online at Belt Publishing.