It’s odd to look through history books about Pittsburgh. The black-and-white photos seem of a foreign city. Occasionally you can pick out a building that is still in its same condition or a sign that may still exist, but for the most part the city is different. That’s what a city is meant to do, though — evolve and adapt. What may have worked at one time does not mean it will continue to work in the future.
Next time you’re down on Grant Street by the Courthouse and City-County Building, imagine yourself or your car about fifteen feet higher. It’s hard to believe now, but just over 100 years ago there was a huge earthen mound in the center of downtown Pittsburgh. The Hump, as it was colloquially known, was known more formally as Grant’s Hill. British Major James Grant (whom Grant Street is named after) was defeated by the French and Indians trying to defend that hill in 1758 during the French and Indian War. It’s possible to take a self-guided walking tour of the extent of Grant’s Hill, thanks to the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Today, a plaque is affixed to the Courthouse at the Fifth Avenue/Grant Street intersection detailing the naming of Grant’s Hill.
The Hump was viewed as an impediment to the developing city of Pittsburgh, both from a commerce standpoint, as well as a transportation standpoint. Multiple attempts were made to remove the earthen hump, but in 1914, the excavation was finally completed and Grant Street was level for both vehicles and pedestrians. It is said that between 1836 and 1914, over sixty feet of earth were removed to get Grant Street to its current graded profile.
From Stefan Lorant’s Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City book, there is a picture from 1914 after completion of the excavation of what the street profile used to look like if you were standing at Forbes Avenue looking up Grant Street towards the Strip District. Bear in mind that the line shown on the picture is not what was cut “from left to right” on the picture, but rather what was cut along Grant Street itself. The excavation work exposed portions of buildings that were previously buried under earth. The pillars of the Frick Building used to terminate at ground level; today there are a set of windows now exposed at present-day ground level. The bottom is the same area in 2015, from approximately the same vantage point:
Top – From “Pittsburgh – The Story of an American City”
Bottom – Photo by Bridget Belardi for TPOP
In the grand scheme of history, 100 years is a blink. But in a city that is “only” 257 years old, that’s a significant portion of time. It’s hard to believe that what we take for granted (no geographical pun intended) today was so drastically different at one time. Today, Grant Street is the main artery of the Golden Triangle. Our governmental structure is here, our tallest skyscraper is here, and the greatest concentration of jobs are within a few blocks of Grant Street. All of that would have been altered if some steam shovels and immigrant workers with strong backs didn’t alter the natural landscape.
Pittsburgh lost a quirk, but it opened up the city to much greater avenues than it would have achieved without the earthwork project.