The elegant Monongahela House hotel hosted Pittsburgh's most famous visitors during the 19th century and also secretly doubled as a safe house on the Underground Railroad.
Built in 1840 at the corner of Smithfield and Water streets (now known as Fort Pitt Boulevard) in Downtown, the five-story Monongahela House featured 210 rooms. Pittsburgh's Great Fire of 1845 reduced the hotel to ashes, but by 1847, the Monongahela House was rebuilt at the same location with nearly 300 luxurious rooms.
Famous guests included Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Prince Edward of Great Britain. Nearly a dozen U.S. presidents visited the hotel, including Abraham Lincoln, who stayed overnight in 1861 en route to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration.
It was fitting that the "Great Emancipator" stayed at the Monongahela House during his only visit to Pittsburgh, because the owner of the hotel, John McDonald Crossan, was sympathetic to the abolitionist cause.
Many of the hotel's staff of free African-Americans were also active abolitionists and supported the movement through secret meetings and by undermining slave owners who lodged at the hotel.
One such example occurred in spring 1847, when a Virginia slave named Daniel Lockhart escaped and took refuge in Pittsburgh. His owner, Joseph Logan, followed him to the city with two friends and tricked Lockhart into coming to their hotel room at the Monongahela House, where they hoped to recapture the fugitive slave.
When confronted, Lockhart began yelling for help and others staying at the hotel came to see what was causing the commotion.
Hotel staff organized a crowd who blocked the building's exits and attacked Logan and his friends, allowing Lockhart to flee the hotel and continue his journey to freedom.
With safe houses such as the Monongahela House, John Vashon's barbershop in Downtown and the Lemoyne House in Washington County, Western Pennsylvania was an important region in the anti-slavery movement.
Visitors to the Heinz History Center can learn more about the hotel's role in the Underground Railroad as part of the long-term exhibition "From Slavery to Freedom." Visitors can also celebrate Presidents Day weekend by interacting with an Abraham Lincoln re-enactor from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday at the History Center. For more information: www.heinzhistorycenter.org.