Circa 1900: The Pittsburgh views of John C. Bragdon
A few weeks ago, we donned our Indiana Jones fedoras and went on an adventure. The PG’s photo “morgue” is well-maintained and organized, but it occupies a large space and so it contains places that are dark, hidden and somewhat mysterious. Sort of like those ancient tombs you’ve seen in the movies.
We were determined to explore one of those out-of-the-way places. So, with our whip clenched between our teeth, we inched our way up a ladder, toward a barely accessible top shelf. What would we find there? Perhaps some forgotten or misplaced folder, like the long-lost “Missing Bomber” file from the 1950s. Maybe just a pile of stink bug carcasses.
Well, initially we were disappointed. Nothing but a few yellowing newspapers from the 1970s. As we peered deeper into a far corner. however, we discovered an ancient cloth-bound book. We picked it up carefully and wiped off a thick layer of dust so we could read the title: “Pittsburgh Views,” it read.
Not quite the Dead Sea Scrolls. Still, we were thrilled.
The five-pound, oversized book contains 28 pages of photographs of Pittsburgh and a few of its landmark structures. No text accompanies the images. Our limited knowledge of Pittsburgh’s history leads us to believe the pictures were made sometime around 1900.
The images reveal a city already showing the strains of hosting more than its share of heavy industry. Pittsburgh seems lifeless. Mt. Washington is largely barren. The Monongahela Wharf is empty. We searched for people in an image of Allegheny City, now the North Side, and found one lonely man on a hillside path. Coal barges choke the Mon River. At last, we found a few horse-drawn buggies and Sunday strollers in a picture of the Carnegie Library before it was enlarged in 1907.
And who was the photographer? A name stamped on the inside cover reads “John C. Bragdon, Wood & Photo Engraver, No. 711 Penn Ave., Pittsburg, PA.” A quick search of the federal census revealed that Bragdon lived on Brighton Road in Ben Avon. According to a Pittsburgh city directory from 1900, Bragdon’s studio was located at 240 Fourth Avenue. By 1905, he had moved his business to the Penn Avenue location.
Mr. Bragdon left us a fascinating collection of images depicting a city moving full-tilt into an age of heavy industry. Still, we’re a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to use our whip.
(Top picture: The Point and the Mon River, choked with coal barges.)
— Steve Mellon