Eyewitness 1863: As war rages, Allegheny City builds for the future

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Even while the continued existence of a "United States" remained in doubt during the dark years of the Civil War, political leaders and business people in Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh's North Side, were planning for the future.

In the spring of 1863, a new public market was ready to open on Diamond Square at Federal and Ohio streets.

"As a whole we think our neighbors across the river have quite eclipsed us in the matter of providing for the public convenience an elegant, convenient and commodious market house, which must needs produce a very handsome addition to the city revenues," a report in The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette said on March 9. "We rejoice with them in the successful completion of a work of such magnificence in the midst of these war times."

The Gazette described a long battle to replace both the old market house, known as the "Colonade," and an "ancient and dilapidated structure on the corner of Ohio and on Federal Street" that served as Allegheny's Town Hall. Allegheny's common and select councils created a special committee to oversee the project in 1861, the newspaper said. It took an act of the state Assembly in the summer of 1862, however, to open the way for work to begin.

The result was a 19th century version of tax-increment financing. Rents to be paid by butchers, farmers and grocers for space in the new market would be used to pay off design and construction costs. The legislation gave local commissioners the authority to collect payments and reimburse private builders. It prohibited diversion of the money "into any other channel, until the said contracts should be fully paid."

"This was deemed necessary for the safety of the contractors, who had agreed to accept the city revenues arising from the market ... and desired to be free from any future financial complications," the Gazette said.

Work on the 200 foot-by-200 foot brick building began in June 1862 and took about nine months to complete. "This fine building is acknowledged by all to be a model structure, both as regards the architectural design, its magnificent proportions and its interior arrangements," according to the newspaper. Iron columns supported a roof that provided shelter from rain and snow for much of the building's interior courtyard.

The market house had room for 76 butchers stalls and 200 vegetable and produce stands. "The whole building is provided with gas burners, so arranged as to illuminate each stall sufficiently for convenient transaction of business during the night," the story said." Four snug little rooms have been fitted up for coffee houses, for the accommodation of those attending market, and these are already rented to good tenants, who will be ready to occupy them when the building is opened for public use."

Leases were to be signed by the end of March and the opening was set for mid-April. The "two intervening weeks being required by the butchers and other lessees to have their signs lettered and perfect other minor details, which must, necessarily, be postponed until after the sale of ... stalls has taken place."

The nearby new City Hall, under construction nearby, would be completed before the arrival of winter, the newspaper predicted.

The Allegheny Market House stood for 103 years, outlasting the city for which it was named. Allegheny was annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907. The market house was demolished in 1966.

The building was not forgotten. In 1979 the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation installed a historic marker outside Allegheny Center, where the landmark market house had long stood.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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