How I almost died on a duck boat and what Grant St. used to look like

What They’re Really Thinking will be up later. In the meantime, let’s verbally flog Jonathan Scott and read this post.

I’ve already told you how much I love history. This is a new development in my advanced age (#werthers) because as a teen in history class? I spent my time half-listening and half-doodling pictures of the space shuttle on my Trapper Keeper. TLA. BFF. RMA.

Have we talked about how much of a dork I was? Am?

Now when I think about history, I tend to ask questions like Did Jesus ever tell a knock knock joke? Did Abraham Lincoln ever eat too much at Thanksgiving dinner and then sit on his couch and unbutton his pants? Did Mother Teresa ever have a fender bender? Did Napoleon ever dance in his underwear in front of the mirror?

Those kinds of questions make history come alive to me.

So when I heard on the Ducky Tour that the street level of Grant Street used to be much much higher in one area, it wasn’t enough for me to just hear that. I needed to SEE that. I needed it to be real and alive and tangible so that I could truly know what once was.

While researching for my latest Pittsburgh Magazine column, I found this 1913 article in The Municipal Journal, which I don’t need to tell you sounds like a rip-roarin’ feel-good beach read:

Look where Grant Street used to be before they cut the hump!

I never knew.

This link will take you to an earlier edition of the journal and it includes a street map, a grading map, and pictures of the cutting. It’s all so very cool if you’ve never seen or read about it.

Check it out, Wendy Bell!

Frick Building before:


This little info about the street level of Grant Street is just one of the things I learned when I took a Just Ducky tour this summer. One of the other things I learned is that BABIES SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED TO DRIVE BOATS.

A snippet:

While the rest of the passengers were jovial, I was in a panic, silently pleading with Ray to turn around and see that we were heading toward a bridge. The boat veered left toward a pylon, then right toward the shore, then left toward a large wake, then right toward sure death. Death by boat over-correction is what my death certificate would say.

The laughing passengers quacked happily at a passing boat. I prayed fervently for deliverance from this evil. Then they let a baby drive. God has a cruel sense of humor.

Have a read!


  1. LovinPittsburgh
    September 26, 2011 1:55 pm

    I always love walking the Grant Street block and looking up at the buildings’ “old” street level facade – realizing that we are looking at the basements when we walk by now. The courthouse has a pretty dramatic entrance up above.

    I read once in a history book about Pittsburgh (don’t remember which one) that the city offered building owners money for the building renovations during that time and most owners turned it down. Can you imagine that?

  2. Margaret
    September 26, 2011 2:04 pm

    I, too, am fascinated with this type of history. I am from Allentown (the one near Philly) and have a few books that show Allentown through the years, with some pictures dating back before 1900. I love comparing photos of “then” and “now” to see what has changed and what hasn’t.

    PGH is my 2nd home and my brother sent hubby and me a picture book about the history of the City and it is so cool! My husband, who hails from Bellevue, says the book brings back a lot of fond memories.

    I never cared for world history or American history classes, but anything that focused on areas with which I was familiar would catch and hold my attention.

  3. Rachel
    September 26, 2011 2:23 pm

    I did the Just Ducky tour this summer as well… my tour guide also mentioned the changes to Grant Street. Such a cool tour, I highly recommend it, even if you have lived your whole life in the ‘Burgh (as I have)

    But I agree 110% that it was terrifying when they let the kids drive the boat. We had 7 underage drivers, but only almost hit a wall once

  4. PK
    September 26, 2011 2:35 pm

    @LovinPittsburgh – You are half correct. I believe it was Franklin Toker’s all-important Urban Pittsburgh which explained that when the Evil Lord Henry Clay Frick wanted to build his building, he offered to pay to remove Grant’s Hill and level the road. The City Fathers refused, so to build the building he had the hill removed to prep the site, then put it back when the building was finished.

    What a jagoff. And there used to be a pond or lake up near the Hill District.

    And Ginny, did you know the Allegheny County Morgue used to be located next to the Old Jail, until the County decided to build the new County building? They had to lift it up and move it 400 feet on rails – in 1929.

    Oh, and it used to have a “chapel” with public viewing of John and Jane Does – my dad told me that he and his friends used to take the trolley into town on weekends to see it.

  5. PK
    September 26, 2011 2:36 pm

    Sorry…the book is Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait.

  6. spoon
    September 26, 2011 2:41 pm

    I love that there are markers on the buildings showing where the old street line was.

  7. biggeorge
    September 26, 2011 5:48 pm

    check out the frick building. When you walk in off grant st. You go down steps into the new lobby which was probably the basement before the cut. It is really fancy.


  8. BooYeah
    September 26, 2011 8:18 pm

    Scroll up a page and look at the street map….the title is “Streets of the Hump District.” Can we bring that name back?

  9. Different Brian
    September 26, 2011 10:51 pm

    @biggeorge That is my favorite piece of Pittsburgh history. You’re in the lobby of the building, but you turn back around and look way high up to the ceiling and see the lions – and if you’re lucky, right time of year right time of day – the sun will shine through the windows just right and you think wow – thats where the street used to be.

  10. bucdaddy
    September 26, 2011 11:49 pm

    Did Jesus ever tell a knock knock joke?

    Well, what ELSE did He have to do when they were sitting around the fire and farting and smelling like two tons of Sea of Galilee fish?

    I imagine they told jokes and bawdy stories and told lies about the One That Got Away, just like fishermen have done for millennia. And what do you suppose those fisherman said when they got a hook through the arm or lost a finger in a net? “Oh, golly, gee, will you look at that? That’s really gonna hurt, right there, Peter.”

    I hope they let out a good “Jay-sus KEE-RIST,” to which Jesus would reply, “Look, I’m standin’ RIGHT HERE.”

    What? You want YOUR Jesus to be all prim and humorless and prude-y and scoldy and stuff? A guy who hung out with harlots and tax collectors (then, as now, pretty much the same thing) and stinkin’ to high heaven fisherman?

    God help me, if that’s the real Jesus, I’m out of here.

  11. Beatrice
    September 27, 2011 8:43 am

    Love the old photos. I work right off of Grant a block from the Frick building and I never knew about the street grade removal. And, I’ll have to check out the lobby of the Frick building. How cool.