"Years bring changes: Captain Atkinson's recollection of the river fifty years ago: Skiffs as market wagons: Pace hardly kept with other city improvements: The famous old horse ferry." Pittsburg Post, May 27, 1895, p. 8. Newspapers.com 86414199.
When the traditional "old-timer" glances down the harbor from the Smithfield street bridge, the sight of more than a million dollars' worth of river property lying along the Monongahela wharf and in the coal landings on the other side of the river, calls up memories of the time when Pittsburg was all below Smithfield street, and had her extensive river interests to acquire. It is not so long, as the old fellows see it, when, instead of being lined with big steamboats, Pittsburg's wharf was a mooring place for the old-fashioned canoes and "dugouts." And, by the way, the river boundaries were not then where they are now, by any means.
Captain George Atkinson, local inspector of boilers on steam vessels, was born in Pittsburg a good many years ago, and he has been here ever since, with the exception of a few years spent in steamboating in the south, including three years' service in a Mississippi gunboat fleet of lurid memory during the dispute with the southern Confederacy. As he has always been connected with the rivers, he has naturally noted the prodigious changes that have taken place along the wharf. Talking to a "Post" reporter he said:
"There has been a marvelous change, not only along the wharf, but all over the lower part of the city since I was a boy. I was born down near the Point, and can remember distinctly when the river not only covered where the Exposition now stands, but also where Rees's machine shops are. There used to be a big sandbar in the river at the foot of Wood street, and many a time I have waded out to it and 'gon in swimmin' ' in the deep pools along its edges. There was another bar farther down that reached below the Point and out in the river toward Allegheny. This, too, was a favorite playground for the boys of the city then. I remember a big political demonstration held on the upper bar by the Democrats during the Polk campaign, at which a whole ox was roasted. Both bars have been dredged out to allow the boats a free passage up and down the harbor. Over on the Southside the river used to be several hundred feet nearer the hill than it is now. When Samuel Wilson built his house fronting on Carson street, say 50 years ago, the river came up in his back yard; now it is three squares to the river from his place. It is only a little over 26 years ago since the site of Painters' mills, just below the Pittsburg & Lake Erie station, was out in the river, and all the Pittsburg & Lake Erie tracks are laid on made ground.
The River Was a Highway.
"I can remember the old days when the Neville island gardeners brought their stuff to market in skiffs, and in fact almost everybody used the same means of transportation. Wednesdays and Saturdays were the market days, and I have often seen 500 skiffs tied up along the wharf and around the Point, and every one was loaded with green stuff from the truck farms. Skiffs were about the only means employed to bring market produce to the city until along in 1853, I think it was, when a Mr. Phillips, the father of my associate in the inspector's office, began to haul his stuff from Neville island with a team. The other islanders gradually adopted the same means of transportation, and in a few years the skiffs went out of use.
"Another particular feature of the harbor, which flourished over 50 years ago, was Tom Jones's, 'horse ferry.' It was the first ferry operated by power ever used about Pittsburg, and formed the connecting link between the flats, propelled by poles, and the steam ferries that came into use at a later date. Tom Jones was a noted character in his day, and when he introduced the 'horse ferry' it was looked upon as something marvelous. The boat was of considerable size, and was propelled by two horses, working on a large revolving tread wheel like a magnified country 'dog power' for churning. The wheel was geared to paddle wheels on the sides of the boat with cog bearings, and when the horses were started to walking the wheel revolved under their feet and furnished the motive power. Jones collected all the fares himself, but did not make the trips on the boat. He had a little toll house at the landing on the Southside, where he sat all day long, and collected the passengers' fares. Those coming over to the city paid in advance, and those going to the Southside paid as they left the boat. Jones was a big, fat old man when I knew him, and was prominent in the organization of the first steam ferry ever used on the rivers about Pittsburg. It took the place of his old boat at the foot of Liberty street.
"Then the coal was floated down the river, and there were no landings in the harbor. In fact the harbor was in its natural state, without any of the many improvements that have been added in recent years, and steamboats frequently had trouble in threading their way between the sandbars in low water. There were a good many packets even then, but nothing like the number there was along in the fifties. There were no bridges or abutments to bother the steamboatmen, and if someone who was familiar with the harbor a half century ago, but who had not seen it for that length of time, could revisit it now he would not have the least idea of where he was.
Changes in the City.
"The changes along the river have hardly kept pace with those in the city, however. I can remember when Smithfield street was on the outskirts of town, and we boys were not allowed to venture from our home at the Point beyond Wood street for fear we would get lost. When I was quite a lad my parents moved out to what is now Center avenue, near Dinwiddie street, and our neighbors thought we were going clear out of civilization. The boys at the Point used to get up early in the morning and make extensive preparations to visit Atkinson's, away out in Pitt township, and when the women started out to spend the day with my mother, they bade the neighbors good-bye as solemnly as they would now if starting on a trip to Europe."The city's supply of coal was mostly hauled into town by wagons, the river for some reason being neglected to a great extent as a means of transporting the local fuel supply. Long strings of teams, attached to heavy wagons loaded with coal, could be seen coming down 'Coal lane' any day. The supply came into town over what is now Seventh avenue, and 'Coal lane' is now Webster street. All along above Smithfield street, from below the federal building clear up past the Third Presbyterian church, was a stretch of water known as 'Hog pond,' and after it was drained, the bottom was so soft and unstable that when the Third Presbyterian church was built it was necessary to excavate to a depth of 30 feet and then drive piles for the foundation, and even then the builder was afraid to finish the tower for fear the foundation would not sustain its weight. To one like myself, who has watched the growth of Pittsburg, it seems little short of magical."