Tag Archives: anniversary

Catching Fire

No, this is not a review of the second book in the Hunger Games series. This is something much closer to home. The place is Pittsburgh. The time is April 10, 1845. Yes. 1845. That was 170 years ago.

Do you know what happened in the Burgh 170 years ago? From the title of this piece you can probably guess. On this date, a fire, hot and horrible, marched through the city. In April, 1845, the city’s population of about 20,000 had seen no rain for several weeks. Black dust and soot from hundreds of coal fires, plus the addition of flour dust and cotton fibers from local industries created an incendiary mix. Add to that a warm wind which gusted out of the west and the stage was set for a disaster.

On April 10th, about noon, a lone fire left unattended sparked and set nearby structures ablaze. The wind carried the flames from one wooden structure to the next and most of the buildings in the city were constructed of wood. Pittsburgh’s ten fire companies were no match for the inferno. Because of the lack of rain, the rivers were low as was the one existing reservoir. The firemen’s leather hoses disintegrated in the heat of the blaze. The wind carried flaming debris up and over the city.

Church bells sounded the alarm as families snatched their valuables and fled to the shoreline of the Monongahela River. But the fire had consumed any boats still moored nearby and escape across the river by that means was now impossible. The only bridge across the water was the covered wooden Monongahela Bridge at Smithfield Street. This served as a conduit to safety until it also caught fire. It burned in fifteen minutes. The residents of Birmingham (now the South Side) fought desperately to keep the flames at bay on their side of the river.

The Monongahela River and what remained of the wooden covered Monongahela Bridge - photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Photographic Library (all rights reserved).

The Monongahela River and what remained of the wooden covered Monongahela Bridge – photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Photographic Library (all rights reserved).

The huge warehouses along the shore, filled with bales of cotton, barrels of gun powder, and casks of molasses and coffee, caught fire and exploded. People abandoned their property and fled north toward the Allegheny River and safety. Help arrived from Allegheny City (now our North Side) as many volunteers rowed across the Allegheny River to help. One of those volunteers was Stephen Foster.

The fire crawled east along the streets from Ferry (now Stanwix) to just beyond Ross Street and spread from Fourth Avenue to the Mon River, devouring everything in its path. For over nine hours (from noon until 9 PM) the fire feasted as wood burned, glass melted, and brick and stone cracked under the intense heat.

This sketch shows part of the city and the Monongahela Bridge ablaze. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

This sketch shows part of the city and the Monongahela Bridge ablaze. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

Homes, businesses, banks, churches and the Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh) succumbed to the inferno. The flames destroyed about one third of the city and displaced about 12,000 residents. Surprisingly, only two persons died. Afterwards, the mood of the city was one of shock followed by despair. The desolation was overwhelming as buildings continued to smoke and burn and collapse for days.

Painting by William Coventry Wall entitled "View of the Great Fire of Pittsburgh."  Original in color is held by the Carnegie Museum of Art. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

Painting by William Coventry Wall entitled “View of the Great Fire of Pittsburgh.” Original in color is held by the Carnegie Museum of Art. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

But rebuilding began soon after. Once the ashes cooled, debris was cleared away and new homes and buildings were erected with better materials. The city renewed itself. Life continued at the confluence of the three rivers. For decades, the city remembered the Great Fire annually by the tolling of a bell on April 10th.

Much has happened since then to erase the memory of this event. But take a moment this year, the 170th anniversary, to remember what was once viewed as Pittsburgh’s greatest catastrophe.

Local author, Gary Link, used the great fire as the setting for his compelling novel, The Burnt District (2003).

To learn more about the Great Fire, visit the Pennsylvania Department where you will find books, articles, and photographs related to this and other significant local events. The staff on the third floor of the Main Library in Oakland looks forward to assisting you.

Looking Toward the Point After the Fire,  from a painting by William Coventry Wall. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

Looking toward the Point after the fire from a painting by William Coventry Wall. Pittsburgh Photographic Library, all rights reserved.

~ Audrey ~


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Happy Birthday, Mansfield Park


Two hundred years ago this month, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen was published.

I’m sure it was hard to top Pride and Prejudice. But if there must be a least favorite Jane Austen novel, Mansfield Park leads many readers’ lists, usually right next to the humorous gothic spoof, Northanger Abbey.


I suspect it’s because readers simply dislike the terribly shy, plain, and quiet heroine, Fanny Price, and the rather dull and proper hero, Edmund Bertram. But if you think of Mansfield Park as a novel of manners in the context of its time in history, instead of a romance–unlike Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, or the poignant second chance love story, Persuasion— you’ll discover both its richness and its brilliance.

“A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.”

At its heart, it’s really about a dysfunctional family. The Bertrams of Mansfield Park are a wealthy family who take in a poor relation Fanny Price when she is ten years old, to give her worn-out and fecund mother a break. Appearances are everything and they congratulate themselves on their benevolence, forgetting that Fanny has been completely uprooted from her immediate family in Portsmouth.

“There is not one in a hundred of either sex, who is not taken in when they marry.” 

With a family like this, you might be as terrified as Fanny is:

  • Aunt Bertram, a bit dim and languorous, and who is more concerned with her dog, Pug, than in anyone or anything else; Fanny serves as her companion and errand girl.
  • Maria, Julia, and Tom, Fanny’s self-interested and privileged cousins who look down on her or worse, ignore her.
  • Uncle Bertram, with his larger-than-life austere manner, who scares her to death.
  • The downright nasty Aunt Norris, who never lets her forget her very low place in the household and how eternally grateful she should feel.
  • Edmund, the only cousin to show her great kindness and consideration. However, he also pursues their new neighbor, the beautiful and saucy Mary Crawford, and talks about her incessantly to the lovesick Fanny.

“Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.”

When the elegant and sophisticated Henry and Mary Crawford arrive from London to visit their sister, Mrs. Grant, the vicar’s long-suffering wife, the two families become intimately acquainted. Henry is a dashing and unapologetic rake who lives for his own pleasure and flirts shamelessly with both Julia and the engaged Maria, creating great rivalry and tension between the sisters. Mary is gorgeous, worldly-wise, and attracts Edmund with her boldly direct behavior, much to Fanny’s disappointment. But when Henry sets his restless sights on Fanny merely to make “a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart,” the novel kicks into high gear intrigue and drama.

“If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow.”

Many might be surprised to discover all the unsavory and titillating drama that is going on in this novel including:

  • Jealousy
  • Infatuation
  • Lust
  • Adultery
  • Slavery
  • Drunkeness
  • Gambling

All behind an elegant narrative as only Jane Austen could create.

~Maria A.


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Happy 40th To Me

Last month I celebrated my 40-year anniversary working for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. I was hired as a clerk, fresh out of college, at the CLP Bookmobile Center. I was armed with an undergraduate degree in library science, qualified to be a school librarian. Alas, school library positions were hard to come by. It was the 70s, the Vietnam war was going strong, and every other person wanted to be a teacher. To be a public librarian, then and now, a master’s degree in library (information) science was required. I was lucky to find a library-related job.

Click the image to read more about the history of bookmobile service in Allegheny County.

Click the image to read more about the history of bookmobile service in Allegheny County.

Like many Pittsburghers, except for college, I had never ventured too far away from my Brighton Heights home. The travel radius around my home was tight. I rarely went beyond the North Hills to shop, or to make a visit to my cousins in Penn Hills. Going downtown was always a special treat. Lunch at Stouffers, then shopping at the three big department stores: Horne’s, Gimbels and Kaufmann’s.Sometimes there would be a stop at the Candy-Rama for some special sweet treats. Movies were a draw to town as well, at the Penn, the Stanley, and the Fulton theaters. But I never went to the downtown library. I took the scary bus trip to Main in Oakland (transfers were involved) for my high school research papers.

However, I was a library brat. I had one maiden aunt who worked at the Allegheny Regional library and another who worked closer to home at the Woods Run branch. Books and libraries were in my blood and a habit from my earliest days.

So, working on the bookmobile was an adventure for me. I really loved it! We traveled weekly routes all over the bridges, hills, and valleys of Allegheny County to deliver books to customers from our 3,000 volume mobile libraries. We went and parked at shopping centers and municipal buildings large and small, in mill towns and suburbia. I made friends there that I will always have, though many are now retired.

Bookmobile service was a very personalized, almost boutique service. You really got to know the regular borrowers and often chose books for them based on what you knew they liked to read…without them even asking. The bookmobile was a great training ground. There was no card catalog on board. Staff had to memorize b0th the Dewey Decimal and the Library of Congress call numbers (CLP switched classification systems in 1972), so you could find the subjects people wanted on the orderly shelves, for both kids and adults.

The bookmobile customers were voracious readers, especially of all kinds of fiction. You really learned all the genres and authors–popular, classic, and literary. We were allowed to read as we drove to and from our stops so it was not uncommon to read a few books each week. This was like feeding steak to a lion.

All of the work was done manually. Registering customers for library cards, taking requests and filling holds–all were done with pen and paper and we kept the information in cardboard shoe boxes. For checking items in and out we used a camera system. Book requests were searched for and laboriously sorted into bins for placement on each of five bookmobiles. Services were very transaction-oriented. We even called the date due cards we put in pockets in the books “trasaction” or “T-cards.” The T-cards had holes along the side like early computer data punch cards and staff used long, thin rods which you skewered into the holes systematically to sort for adjacency of dates. All of the returned T-cards were matched up against the photo logs of check-outs to see if all T-cards had been returned. If not, well, that’s the way we identified if someone had materials overdue, and if they had fines. We kept long lists of names and folks with fines so we could send them overdue notices in the mail.

The world of libraries has changed dramatically over these past 40 years. Computers were introduced in the mid-1970s and have since changed almost every aspect of our library work, our collections, and our services, both behind the scenes and for public service. Our work then and now has been focused on developing a community of readers of all ages. What the public wants from the library is still somewhat the same, but also very different, too. I will talk about these changes from time to time in this blog in future months. People think of the library as a very quiet, traditional place. We anchor our neighborhood, we help everyone. But scratch the surface and you will discover a dynamic, vibrant institution that has constantly changed over time, and is still changing.



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Tomorrow is the twelfth anniversary of my first day at this fine institution. In honor of that glorious occasion, here are twelve twelve-related items from my department!

  • 12 – Ah, we start with a depressing foreign film. This one looks like a Russian version of 12 Angry Men, which is of course also on this list.   
  • 12 Angry Men – See? We thought of it first. In 1956 and with Henry Fonda, no less. 
  • 12 Monkeys – Whenever I see this movie, I have to remind myself that no one in 1996 could have predicted our current cell phone technology.    

Will I last another 12 years? Will this library last another 12 years? Will Brad Pitt ever star in any movies based on Janet Evanovich books? Tune in again in 2023 to find out!

– Amy

Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway.  Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.


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