Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Pittsburgh's Waterways (Part 3)

The Monongahela River wharf has its own colorful past as many expeditions, western explorations and historically significant events began on the shore of the Mon. In 1770, George Washington made his exploration down the Ohio as he began his journey from the bank of the Monongahela near the point. It was also from the Mon Wharf that a steamboat made its first inland cruise from Pittsburgh in 1811.

Other events included the shipment of supplies to General Andrew Jackson’s army in New Orleans during the War of 1812 by Major William B. Foster, father of one of Pittsburgh’s favorite sons Steven Foster, and an 1817 visit from James Monroe, the first U.S. President to come to Pittsburgh. Many celebrations during the Civil War were held on the wharf as well as a great centenary celebration of steam navigation in 1911. At one time, the Monongahela Wharf was a popular open market for goods and produced shipped into the city and off-loaded at the river bank.

The River’s Ghosts and Lore

Pittsburgh’s river history is includes many tales of strange events predate even modern river traffic as the early Indians believed that the Ohio River was a place where evil spirits dwelled in the dark and muddy water. An early story dating from 1786 tells of a “hole” at the bottom of the Ohio River near McKees Rocks. The Pittsburg Dispatch of 1910 reported “Just below the bend of the river is deep water which has been sounded by a line of 60 fathoms and no bottom found.” Although the existence of a hole in the river was never proven, many swimmers and river boatmen fervently avoided the area.

Many Pittsburghers are aware of the story of the B-25 airplane that crashed into the Monongahela near Homestead in 1956, but most don’t know of the many forgotten stories of eerie events and strange sightings handed down by riverboat captains and deckhands.

Another of these tales of the unexplained came from a steamboat captain in the 1930’s who described an eerie yellow light in the rocks along the shoreline in the Ohio River just below Parkersburg. Many believed that it had something to do with the wreck of a packet boat in 1916. On a cold February night, the Kanawha capsized for no apparent reason and 17 people drowned. Shortly after the Kanawha went down, the strange yellowish light appeared. Many packet boats passing the place of the wreck would point it out to their passengers who too saw the eerie glow in the water.

The history of Pittsburgh’s three rivers is as vast and far-reaching as the waterways themselves. From the early packet boat traveler on the Ohio, to the barge captain on the Monongahela, to the fisherman on the Allegheny, all Pittsburghers know how these great rivers have defined our community and shaped our history.

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