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Photo exhibit provides glimpse into early Pittsburgh life |
Art & Museums

Photo exhibit provides glimpse into early Pittsburgh life

Dejan Kovacevic
| Thursday, March 17, 2016 8:55 p.m
Frederick Thomas Gretton's photo of Ferris Wheel in Pittsburgh, February 7, 1885.
Frederick Thomas Gretton's photo of pull boys in a Pittsburgh steel mill in the 1800s.
Frederick Thomas Gretton's photo of the original Point Bridge, which was was built in 1877 over the Monongahela River. It was later replaced in 1927.

Pittsburgh was incorporated as a city 23 years before photography was introduced to the world. So, no photographs of Pittsburgh’s incorporation ceremony exist.

But Photo Antiquities Museum of Photographic History in North Side is doing its best to commemorate the bicentennial of the incorporation of the city of Pittsburgh on March 18, 1816, with an exhibit of photos by the Gretton brothers from the late 1800s.

“Their negatives are glass plates,” says Bruce Klein, president of Photo Antiquities. “The family donated them to us. We were just waiting for the right opportunity. Since March 18 is Pittsburgh’s 200th anniversary, we thought that seemed like the perfect time.”

The Gretton brothers, Frederick Thomas and Thomas John, were chemists for Jones & Laughlin Steel in the late 1800s. Photography, at the time, was a complicated chemical progress, which made it the perfect hobby.

Iconic images abound.

There’s the dark, looming mills spewing smoke skyward and the bleak, semi-deforested hills, a startling marker of the persistence of that smog, which sun often could not penetrate.

There’s beauty, as well. A Bessemer Converter, one of the first, is all the light the Grettons needed — and all they would have — for one photo. A hot stream of molten fire roars out of the inky depths of a mill.

The newly built Allegheny County Courthouse rises like an alabaster palace crowning Downtown, free of the decades of soot and crud that would later adhere to its walls.

A hundred years ago, hard, dangerous work was done routinely by children. One Gretton photo depicts “pull boys” pausing for a moment in the middle of a steel mill, well before child labor laws were enacted.

The photos show a confident, growing city at play. George Ferris’ first Ferris wheel (1885) rises out of what looks like someone’s backyard but might be Luna Park in Oakland. A massive Ferris wheel, capable of carrying 30 people in each “car,” would become the toast of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Another shot shows a field of tents in Allegheny City.

“We’re pretty sure this is P.T. Barnum’s circus,” Klein says. “He came through town at this time.”

Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or 412-320-7901.

Categories: Museums
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