Digging up the past in the Fifth and Wood corridor
Artifacts discovered at the PNC skyscraper construction site date back to when Fifth Avenue was the center of the commercial district
November 25, 2012 5:00 AM
Christine Davis holds up a bottle excavated at the site of The Tower at PNC Plaza at Wood and Fifth. Manufactured by Arsenal Glass Works, in what is now Lawrenceville, the bottle shows a man holding a cane. The bottle can be dated to the 1865-1869 time period.
A Champaign Cider bottle excavated at the site dates to the mid-1860s.
By Mark Belko Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Long before Carnegie, Mellon and Frick, C.S. Maltby was among the wealthiest businessmen in Pittsburgh.
In the block now claimed by PNC Financial Services for its new skyscraper, Pittsburgh-born Maltby sold and shipped oysters, and amassed a fortune doing so -- some $30 million in today's money.
Maltby struck it rich in the Civil War era by figuring out a way to ship fresh and packaged oysters from Baltimore to Pittsburgh and then down the Ohio River to points west. He dubbed his system the Oyster Express, "from Baltimore to way out west."
Workers iced down fresh oysters for trips to Pittsburgh, where the delicacies were sold to upscale restaurants like the Monongahela House. Maltby's factories in Baltimore also shucked and canned millions of oysters a year for trips further west, where gold miners, in particular, clamored for them.
In Pittsburgh, the oyster trader kept track of his dealings at Maltby's Oyster house and depot, which operated out of a storefront on Fifth Avenue near what is now Warner Centre.
"They would track the oyster business like the stock market. It was a commodity that they tracked because it was so valuable," said Christine Davis, president of Christine Davis Consultants, a Verona firm that specializes in urban archaeology.
Evidence of Maltby's life and times in Pittsburgh surfaced in the excavation of the site for the $400 million Tower at PNC Plaza, the 33-story skyscraper being built along Wood Street and parts of Forbes and Fifth avenues. Ms. Davis and her team spent months scouring the site for artifacts that would shed light on the block's past.
They unearthed whiskey flasks, wine bottles, smoking pipe fragments, ceramics, vials of prescription medicine and soda bottles from J.C. Buffum & Co., a big soft drink distributor in Pittsburgh at the time. Most of the artifacts traced back to Maltby and his business.
The team's research uncovered a thriving 19th- and early 20th-century Fifth and Forbes corridor that was as much of a commercial and retail center as it is today.
There were toy stores, tent and sail makers, butchers, tanners, taverns, dry goods and grocery stores, tobacco shops, lamp and piano stores, billiards rooms, restaurants, a bicycle shop, a fruit and nuts store, a china shop, theaters, and a museum whose headliner was a live python.
"It was just a really fun era," Ms. Davis said.
In all, 1,104 artifacts were found at the PNC site, virtually all of them in an old privy near the location of Maltby's oyster business. Privies were essentially 19th-century outhouses that could be as much as 20 feet deep.
With the advent of piped water and sewage, people cleaned out and closed their privies, often filling them with discarded household objects or other items. For urban archaeologists, privies and old wells became "receptacles of these incredible archaeological finds," Ms. Davis said.
At the PNC site, two wells were found. Both had been filled with concrete. The privy turned out to be the only source of artifacts, and it proved to be a good one.
"They were just packed in the bottom of the well. We were really happy to find them, because we were getting worried that maybe we wouldn't find a lot," Ms. Davis said.
Because of the location of the privy, she believes most of the artifacts related to Maltby's business. That is supported in part by the age of certain artifacts, like the whiskey flasks, some of which dated to the period at the end of the Civil War.
"He was the closest [fit], the closest of anybody who could also afford some of these things like really fine whiskeys," Ms. Davis said.
One of the whiskey flasks found had been made at the Arsenal Glass Works in Lawrenceville and featured an etching of a gold miner. A blue flask, called an Eagle flask, was found perfectly preserved, a "real classic."
Along with quart- and pint-size flasks, the privy produced fragments of a two- to three-gallon wine bottle, a number of glass tumblers and soda bottles, including those of J.C. Buffum & Co. A champagne cider bottle bore the address of John Ogden & Co. at 187 First St.
"All of these products were going to the West. Ogden and Buffum were selling their stuff all over the West during the same gold rush period, the opening of the West. These products were all sitting on the Mon Wharf, cases and cases of them," Ms. Davis said.
"Pittsburgh was a real jumping-off point in the Civil War. A lot of products left by rail, but a lot of products also left by steamboat from the Mon Wharf."
The privy findings, with so many bottles and tumblers, suggest to Ms. Davis that Maltby, in addition to running his business from his site, may have had a restaurant or some other type of commercial establishment at the location. Maltby lived in New Haven, Conn., but he spent time at the St. Charles Hotel, now Point Park University's Lawrence Hall, while in Pittsburgh.
Ms. Davis also discovered a lot of white china imported from England. White china table settings became popular after the Civil War, she said.
"They went from having very colorful blues and reds and purples to wanting to see all pure white. Pure white became a very elegant way of expressing your dining," she said.
Other findings included a lice comb; fragments of a smoking pipe with the address of Chambers Street, New York; pieces of window glass; and parts of shelving.
The discoveries did not rival those turned up during the construction of Three PNC Plaza half a block away on Fifth. The haul from that dig totaled 26,000 artifacts, including a small statue of a Civil War general and saucers from a mid-19th-century tea room.
Ms. Davis said the Three PNC site was larger and contained about 15 wells. Nonetheless, she noted that she was thrilled to find the connections to Maltby and related artifacts at the tower site.
"We were happy with what we found, because I've been on lots of sites where we don't find anything," she said. "Sometimes we're really disappointed. In this case, I think we have a good story to tell. We also found a lot during the research that contributed to a better understanding of the city and that part of the city."
For instance, the earliest known resident in the block was Samuel McClurken, who operated a saddle-and-harness-making business from a lot he owned on Wood starting in 1800. Nathaniel Stewart opened a tavern at Fifth and Wood by 1815. Pittsburgh's first formal theater was built in 1833 on Fifth, opening Sept. 2 of that year.
At various times, the former Lerner's store site on Fifth hosted the Pittsburgh Commercial newspaper, a restaurant, the F&W Grand 5&10&25-Cent Store and the Pittsburgh Theater, later known as Old Drury. In the late 1880s, James W. Grove operated a "toy, notion and cycle establishment" at the location, billing it as the "largest house of the kind west of New York."
During the same period, the Pittsburg Cycle Co. offered a complete line of "swift roadsters" for sale near the corner of Wood and Diamond (now Forbes Avenue). Perhaps more interesting than the store itself was its logo, which even way back then included an illustration of the Point.
"I just love those kind of connections because I think it really helps you to understand history," Ms. Davis said.
At Wood and Diamond, the early 20th century Dimling Building, which more recently hosted Bolan's candy shop, at one time or another housed a German restaurant, a cafe, a billiards parlor and a barber shop.
The building, which the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation dubbed as "one of the finest examples in Pittsburgh of the Beaux-Arts style," was demolished to clear the way for the new skyscraper. PNC has preserved much of the facade and intends to incorporate elements into the new building.
At Fifth and Wood, Mr. Stewart's tavern gave way to an inn and warehouse; a business that manufactured looking glasses and sold clocks, combs and hardware; a men's clothing store; and the May-Liggett's Drug Store. In true Pittsburgh fashion, it most recently was home to Black and Gold Forever, a store catering to Steelers fans.
Downtown at one time was home to 200 movie theaters, the first opening on Smithfield Street in 1905, according to Ms. Davis. A number of them were located on Fifth, including the Olympic Theater, at one time the city's largest with 2,500 seats. It sat at the site of the former Rite Aid store, which at one time was a McCrory's five and dime.
There was more to Downtown entertainment than movies. The python, known as Old Rube, was the big attraction at the Harry Davis Eden Musee, a dime museum on Fifth near Warner Centre. Other draws included a Hall of Wonders show and an exotic dancer named Little Egypt.
The dime museums, created by P.T. Barnum, were so named because admission was 10 cents. They were popular in the late 1800s because they offered a variety of entertainment, from theater, lecturers and music to vaudeville, magicians and sideshows.
"There weren't a lot of places where your wife and children could go in Pittsburgh just because of the protocol of the time," Ms. Davis said. "This is one place you could go and be safe."
Except for the python. It was killed when the heating system in its cage caught fire.
That didn't stop the museum's owner from displaying Old Rube's charred remains in a desperate attempt to keep the crowds coming. They didn't, and the museum closed in 1897.