The South Side in the Old Days, Pittsburgh history (no Hemingray info)

[Trade Journal]

Publication: The Commoner and Glassworker

Pittsburgh, PA, United States
vol. 25, no. 19, p. 14-15, col. 1-4


A Reminiscent Article of Interest to Every

Glass Man, Especially the Old Birmingham

Veterans Some Prominent

Characters Recalled.

Birmingham, which was named after the famous manufacturing city of England by Dr. Bedford, who had come from there as one of the very first settlers on what is now called the South Side, Pittsburg, rapidly attained success of its own after the same general fashions of the British city. Particularly did this success follow the pursuit of the glass industry. Many people do not know that Birmingham once displayed a regular forest of chimney stacks over an imposing array of glass factories, most of which have since been moved to other localities because of increased taxes and lack of room. The narrow strip of available territory reaching along the southern shore of the Monongahela river was not sufficiently large to contain the great glass industry and so many companies had to leave.

Among the first of these glass factories was that of Charles Ihmsen, which was located on the site of the present South Side High School at South Tenth and Carson streets, about the year 1830. After some years Thomas Atterbury obtained the property, while he was succeeded in turn by George A. Macbeth, who some years ago moved the plant to Charleroi, Pa. It is curious to know that the various glass factories in those days were dubbed with nicknames by the mill workers and the population of Birmingham generally. They were seldom spoken of by their firm names. For instance, because of the fact that the Ihmsen factory was always kept whitewashed, it earned the title of "White House," by which name it was known all over the country; in fact, glassworkers of the present day still refer to it under that appellation.

Other well known glass works in the days of old Birmingham were styled the Dolly Varden, located on Tunnel street; Circus, Seventeenth street; Jenny Lind, Twelfth street; Grecian Bend, on the Bluff; the Blood Tub, Pride street; Dandy Jim, Soho; the Crib, or Box, Tenth street; the Bush, Eighth street; Butcher's Block, and the Buzzard's Roost, on Seventeenth street. It is difficult to learn at this late day just how these different factories received their suggestive titles, but some of the names will explain themselves.

Philip Arbogast, a name well known in the glass trade, made the first experiments at the Dolly Varden works for the purpose of encasing underground telegraph wires in glass, says Hargrave Coleberry in an interesting article bearing on South Side glass history. He obtained his patents about the year 1877-8. Mr. Arbogast was not only an expert work man in this very interesting and difficult occupation, but he was of an inventive mind as well. So it was that he conceived the idea of imbedding telegraph wires in glass sections, to be laid end to end, and joined by non-conducting ligaments, the whole to serve the unique purpose of an underground cable.

This invention quickly set scientists generally to thinking. The mayor of New York City sent a committee of five men to Birmingham for the purpose of examining the new process that threatened to revolutionize things along that line. Mr. Arbogast's idea materialized in the form of three-foot sections of strong glass, with as many as 36 wires running through them, the intention being as mentioned before, to join these sections end to end. But a peculiar trouble developed. It appears that if a message was sent along one wire in the cable all the other wires would absorb the sound and deliver it simultaneously at the receiving end. The great confusion that followed can readily be understood. But this defeet [sic] defeat, it is thought, might have been overcome had not others taken advantage of the idea to develop different methods which mark the operations of the underground telegraph as it is known today.

A well known man in Birmingham during the thirties was Andrew Burtt. Burtt has an interesting biography. As a young man he left Wheeling and came to Birmingham, where he settled as a bottle blower in the glass works of the McKees, at what is now South Twelfth street. Burtt lived in a small house that is still standing, well preserved, on Bingham street, between South Tenth and Eleventh streets. Like other men prominent in history local and otherwise, the young glass blower had higher ambitions. He began studying at night, without any regular tutor, to fit himself for teaching.

Having worked all day at the factory Burtt would return home, and after his evening meal at once get out his books and begin studying. After a while the young man began to be known for his cleverness and the final upshot was that the former worker opened a school of his own in Birmingham. He rapidly attained distinction as a scholar and teacher. Graduates of his institution were recognized for their superior training and were received into educational positions with the greatest alacrity. If the diploma had Burtt's signature on it, the meaning was that the possessor was much better qualified as a teacher than the majority were in those days. The one time worker became known abroad on account of his English grammar, which is still published, and in frequent use. Burtt afterward became principal of what is now the Ralston school.

A man by the name of Crawford built the first brickyards in Birmingham about 1850. These reached between what is now South Twenty-second and Twenty-fourth streets. Crawford grew rich, but died poor. In the places where he dug away the ground to obtain the material for his bricks there afterward sprung up many natural springs. Indeed, it is said that there was so much really good water in Birmingham that there was no need at all for the city water system which was installed about the year 1868, through alleged political influence.

These natural springs abounding in those days were responsible for a stream about ten feet deep which had gouged out a gully extending from about the head of South Twenty-fourth street along Sarah street to South Ninth street, and then turning down to the river. It is said that a fine mist hung over this gully in the summer months, although the stream was dry.

It was also about 1850, and several years previous, that Dan Rice, the well known clown and showman, was best known in Birmingham, where he had come from New York when a child to live. Dan had a part interest in a livery stable, and later began his showman's career by displaying the tricks of a trained pig in the small towns of the southern portion of the state. He afterwards became connected with Barnum's and Spalding's circuses, and had one of his own, the largest at the time, but he failed about 1850. Dan recovered, however, and afterward became manager for Forepaugh & O'Brien at the comfortable salary of $1,000 per week.

Circus day in Birmingham was a very important occasion. It is said of Mike Kenny, the farmer, who owned what is now Kennywood Park, that he thought nothing of walking the distance of about six miles to attend the circus. People often trudged ten miles for the same purpose. It is said that while many people had objections of various kinds to churches, nobody was ever known to say anything against the circus. If a religious cyclorama came to town on the same day that the circus did, it was a logical thing that all the children would be found where they kept the pink lemonade, the peanuts and the elephants. The favorite stopping place for the gala visitors on circus days was the Farmers Hotel, at South Twelfth and Carson streets.

Among other important industries in Birmingham was the glass plant of James Robert and John Bryce, who came over from Scotland and began business at South Twenty-first street and the river front. They made flint glass, fine tableware and the like, but about 17 years ago removed to Mt. Pleasant, their interests in Birmingham being taken over by the United States Glass Co.

It was about 1855-7 that the Kaufmann brothers, Isaac, Jacob, Morris and Emanuel conducted their general store in Birmingham on the southwest corner of Carson and South Twentieth streets. These merchants were in the habit of starting out on Monday for weekly trips through the country with packages on their shoulders, returning Friday or Saturday. Of course there was always one or two of them who remained at the store while the others were out. A few years after this time these men moved to the Pittsburg side. It is said of these Kaufmann brothers that they never forgot their old Birmingham friends and were generous in giving to charities.

In the early 60's Jake Spieler lived in Birmingham and made himself notorious by his marvelous proficiency in "cussing." But Jake was a pretty clever chap, too, as the following anecdote told of him will prove: It seems that one rainy morning Jake stepped out of his front door to find that his well had caved in. It certainly was bad business. But Jake had an inspiration. He quickly found his hat, and ran out into the street, and, calling that a man was buried in his well, soon had a number of willing workers on hand with their shovels to dig him out. They dug away until all the fallen dirt was removed, only to discover that there had been no man there at all. Of course they were properly provoked, but that didn't bother Jake any, seeing that his well had been cleaned out without any labor or expense on his part.

It was about 1863 that a German woman, Mrs. Melder, pastured her cows on Ledlie's hill, at the head of what is now South Twenty-first and Twenty-second street. This simple fact led the people into the habit of calling the place Medler's hill instead of Ledlie's. The matter was that of the real owner of the property, but he didn't reside in Birmingham. Well, it is called Melder's hill to this day, as the people of the South Side and the hill tops will tell you, indicating what humble origin represents the history of some municipal titles.

It was about this time that Matthew, Alexander and James Chambers were operating a bottle and window glass factory at what is now South Sixth and Birmingham streets, while Alexander and Philip Arbogast conducted a bottle factory at South Twenty-seventh and Jane streets. It will be remembered that these men, with other manufacturers of Birmingham, used to send their workmen to the old fort at the head of Twenty-second street during the war period to make defenses against the dreaded invasion of the Southern troops. At South Twenty-first and Twenty-Second streets, between Jane and Josephine streets, D. O. Cunningham, the glass man Charles Foerster and others established a skating rink. This was about the year 1867. No admission was charged and it was simply used as a common place of amusement. In the winter evenings the rink was lighted by many Chinese lanterns and there was plenty of wholesome pleasure.


Researcher notes:Ralph Gray was working in the Birmingham side of Pittsburgh in 1844
Supplemental information: 
Researcher:Bob Stahr
Date completed:August 1, 2010 by: Bob Stahr;