When word got out that Oakland’s beloved hot dog institution “The O” was closing, it took no time for The Odd, Mysterious & Fascinating History of Pittsburgh to chime in on Facebook. It was originally called “The House of Beef,” notes Odd Pittsburgh, showing an early photo of a worker carrying at least a dozen dogs on one arm, and another pretending to eat them.
If there’s odd, mysterious and/or fascinating history of Pittsburgh to be found anywhere, Odd Pittsburgh (as it’s also known) is on the case.
OddPittsburgh is many things: It’s a Facebook account (with 125,000 followers), a Twitter account (with 21,500 followers) and an Instagram account (with 22,000 followers). It’s a podcast, The Pittsburgh Oddcast, and a show on KDKA radio (Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m.). It’s all done, pretty much for fun, by John Schalcosky.
“Pure curiosity — that’s literally all it was,” says Schalcosky. “I went to film school and UCLA for music. Nothing to do with history. While I was in the film industry, living in Hollywood — it’s such a historic town — I kept looking at buildings and wondering what places used to be. I’d look it up, and find out, ‘Oh, this place used to be the Copacabana, which is boarded up, but is this cool thing that I remembered from old Bugs Bunny cartoons.’ How come no one knows it? It kind of bothered me. When I moved back to Pittsburgh, I started doing the same thing.”
It started with a strange story that Schalcosky read about the Allegheny River.
“Why don’t people know that the Allegheny River was named after an ancient race of giant people called the Allegewi that once inhabited Western Pennsylvania?” asks Schalcosky.
“The earliest origination of this naming of the river goes back to Zadok Cramer, and he had a navigational journal that he published here in Pittsburgh,” says Schalcosky. “He published them every year. The earliest you can find is 1802. Even then, it references earlier history. He’s talking almost like it’s no big deal.”
Cramer relates legends of the Lenni Lenape (or Delaware) people, who fought the giant Allegewi and pushed them out.
To get a little weirder, Schalcosky kept finding references to extremely tall people discovered in Western Pennsylvania archaeological digs.
“In 1921, the curator of the Carnegie Museum himself, William Jacob Holland, was out on an archaeological dig in Verona, and discovered 9-foot-tall people buried in a cave,” says Schalcosky. “There were two of them. It was such big news that it appears in the annual of the Carnegie Museum, it’s in all the newspapers, and they even put it on display.”
“Now, if you just Google 9-foot-tall people, you’ll find that none exist. It’s a legitimate weird story that has a Pittsburgh connection.”
“It’s not the only time it happened,” he adds. “In 1914, Westmoreland County, they came across 40 skeletons — two of which were of gigantic size. In the McKees Rocks burial mound, of the 38 skeletons they found there, one of which — they called ‘the Chief’ — was a guy who was like eight and a half feet tall.”
“How crazy is that?” asks Schalcosky. “That was the first story I was reading about. I thought that can’t be true, but it appears in every single history of Pittsburgh. And yet nobody told me that in school. I need to know more.”
What’s considered historic is, of course, subjective.
“When you talk about Pittsburgh history, most people think about Fort Duquesne or something,” says Schalcosky. “I’m talking about on this day, April 20, 1972, Pink Floyd played in Oakland at the Syria Mosque and played the entire ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ album, just 35 days before they’d go to Abbey Road Studios to record the album. I think that’s historic.”
Along with fascinating stories, Schalcosky loves discovering old photos of historic Pittsburgh. A current project involves the first World Series between Boston and Pittsburgh in 1903. To find them, he had to look outside the usual places.
“If you look at the Historic Pittsburgh website, or search any Pittsburgh-based institution, you might find two or three photos,” says Schalcosky. “But if you look in the Boston Public Library, their archives, there are a hundred.”
Doing this doesn’t make him any money. He works in life insurance for a living.
“It’s our history, public history,” says Schalcosky. “So I try to always keep it for free, for everyone to see, and share and remember and comment.”
Right now, he’s colorizing a lot of photos for the first time, using a colorization program from MyHeritage.
“I’m planning on doing a series of posts, showing events in color,” says Schalcosky. “Like the 1874 Butcher’s Run flood in the North Side, which killed like 60 people in Spring Garden. It was a bad, bad event. There’s photos of the aftermath that were taken in 1874, which are some of the oldest photos of Pittsburgh.”
He’s also working on a history of hockey in Pittsburgh. It may become a book.
“Through a lot of research with the Society for International Hockey Research, we’re able to prove once and for all that the birthplace of professional hockey began in Pittsburgh, and not in Canada or Michigan,” claims Schalcosky.
Odd bits of history, of course, are of immediate interest.
“There were 18 teams here at one time,” says Schalcosky. “There were even five women’s teams. It was kind of like ‘A League of their Own,’ except for World War I — men were off fighting in WWI, and women formed these professional hockey teams.”
A recent episode of the Pittsburgh Oddcast featured the all too relevant 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in Pittsburgh, along with a story from 1908 that “drives fear into the heart of every Yinzer” — a tale of plummeting backward down the hill on a broken Incline. It also features prophecies of Pittsburgh’s future, made in 1928.
As far as the 1918 influenza pandemic goes, “Allegheny County was one of the hardest hit counties in the whole U.S.,” says Schalcosky. “When all was said and done, there were close to 4,000 people who were killed. And it affected people between the ages of 20 and 40.”
History can teach us a lot about resilience, in the face of the unthinkable.
“On St. Patrick’s Day, I was looking at a picture of my great-great-great-grandmother,” says Schalcosky. “She was born in Ireland in 1835, left at 12 years old during the Potato Famine, settled in Pittsburgh for a bit, moved to Sandusky, Ohio, and worked as a maid and a nanny.”
After living through the Civil War, his ancestor was widowed and left with eight kids. Then she survived World War I and then the pandemic of 1918.
“There are bad things that happen, like a pandemic, but people do get over it,” says Schalcosky with optimism. “If you can live through all this stuff, like my great-great-great-grandmother, you can probably get through this time period.”