Monongahela House Hotel

The Monongahela House - circa 1900

The Monongahela House, shown above circa 1900, was built in 1839 at the corner of Smithfield and Water Street (now Fort Pitt Boulevard) along the downtown riverfront. It was Pittsburgh's first modern-day hotel and one of city's grandest for many years.

The hotel became a popular stop-over for many of Pittsburgh's famous guests, including several who held the office of President of the United States of America. The Monongahela House also played a significant role as part of the historic Underground Railroad.

The Monongahela House

Pittsburgh was a bustling inland port-of-call in the early 1840s, and the mining industry was operating at full capacity along the Mount Washington hillside. From the veranda of the five-story, 210-room hotel, visitors watched wagons carrying coal from Mount Washington and gazed at steamboats loaded with passengers, and barges laden with freight, moving down the river bound for New Orleans.

For five years the hotel, which featured a sixty-foot domed entrance and white marble floors, continued to expand, including the addition of an ornate ballroom with gilded ceilings. Then came the disastrous fire of 1845, which burned the riverfront mecca to the ground.

Undeterred by the loss, owner William Lyon had the riverfront hotel rebuilt, and enlarged to 300-rooms, at great expense. The hotel lobby included a tall, winding black walnut staircase and a huge registration desk of matching quality. The new Monongahela House, boasting only the finest accoutrements, including leather-upholstered furniture, a light-filled writing lounge, panelled fresco walls and lofty rooms, opened in 1847.

The Monongahela House

At the height of its popularity, the hotel register included the following:

General George Rogers Clark, Henry Clay, Horace Greeley, General William T. Sherman, Mark Twain, General Philip Sheridan, Daniel Voorhees, Dwight L. Moody, Carrie Nation, Henry M. Stanley, Henry Ward Beecher, P. T. Barnum, George F. Hoar, Mr. and Mrs. General Tom Thumb, Roscoe Conkling, Prince Louis Napoleon of France, General Winfield Scott, Jenny Lind, Edwin Booth, Robert G. Ingersoll, General George B. McClelland, Buffalo Bill Cody, the Prince of Wales (Edward VII of England), Charles Dickens, Salmon B. Chase and William Jennings Bryan.

American presidents who spent time at the Monongahela House (before, during or after holding office) included John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

1887 Monongahela House Menu.
Monongahela House restaurant menu from 1857.

On February 14, 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln, on his way to Washington D.C. for his inauguration, arrived at Fort Wayne Station in old Allegheny City. Although the train was several hours late, hundreds waited until evening for a glimpse of the man newly elected to the presidency. Lincoln was then driven by coach to the Monongahela House, where he paused to say a few words to those in the crowded lobby.

The following morning at 8:30am, in a driving rain, from the gilded balcony overlooking Water Street, President-elect Abraham Lincoln addressed a cheering crowd of thousands below.

Shuffling forward slowly, Lincoln thanked Mayor George Wilson for the courtesies shown him during his overnight visit in Pittsburgh, then briefly spoke about the tense relations between the northern and southern states, assuring those in attendance that there was no crisis but an artificial one and that there was no need to be alarmed. His statement proved inaccurate on April 12 when the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter.

The Monongahela House - Lincoln's Bedroom.

Four years later, the room in which the then-martyred president had slept during is Pittsburgh visit was turned into a memorial. It was redone to resemble it's appearance during Lincoln's visit. The furnishings were considered elaborate and a huge wooden bed stood against one wall. An ornate fireplace and clothes closet were nearby. High backed chairs and small stools completed the decorum.

During the bustling days before the war of secession, planters from the southern states rested at the Monongahela House during their weary journeys upriver. Hotel managers took pride in the ornateness of the establishments decorum, boasting of its many appointments with confidence as they compared it to the Astor in New York and the St. Charles of New Orleans.

Many of the hotel's staff of free African-Americans were also active abolitionists and supported the movement through secret meetings and by undermining slave owners who lodged at the establishment. The hotel became one of three downtown safe houses for fugitive slaves and a vital part of the Underground Railroad.

The Monongahela House - 02/11/1900.
The Monongahela House as depicted in the February 11, 1900 Pittsburgh Press.

When slave owners from the south would bring their slaves here, the free men who worked at the hotel would whisk the slaves away to places like John Vashon's barbershop and bath house, located where the PPG Building stands today. The ex-slaves would get a new hair style and wardrobe to help them elude capture on their way to freedom in Canada.

On April 16th, 1847, a runaway slave named Daniel Lockhart was living as a free man in Pittsburgh when he was met on the street by a man who hires him to carry a trunk to a room on the top floor of the hotel. It was a trap. When Daniel arrived, he was met by his 'owner,' Joseph Logan, and two constables that had traveled from Virginia. A boat waiting along the Monongahela wharf to whisk the fugitive away.

Daniel screamed for help. The hotel's staff sprung into action. Within minutes, they had assembled a large crowd, and when Logan and the constables attempted to escort their prisoner out the door to the boat, the crowd rushed them. In the chaos that followed, Daniel Lockhart was carried away to safety, and freedom.

The Monongahela House.

Some political history was made at the hotel in November 1855 when a committee met in its halls to lay the plans for the movement that later resulted in the formation of the Republican party. Proprietor John McDonald Crossan, who hosted the event, was sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. The first Republican convention was held three months later, on February 23/24, 1856, at Lafayette Hall on the corner of Wood Street and Fourth Avenue.

One of the hotel's boasts in the early days was that guests could have heated rooms in the winter months, for a payment of 25 cents extra. With that added payment a guest was given their choice of coal or wood and the fireplace was lighted by smiling employees.

The extravagant 1500-person ballroom was one of the main attractions of the times, a highly sought after venue for weddings and social events held by the elite citizens of the day. Beneath gas lamps turned low, stylish local leaders once bowed to heads-of-state as they waltzed on the hardwood floor.

The Monongahela House - circa 1889.
The Monongahela House in 1889.

Like the original Monongahela House that was destroyed during the fire of 1845, the new hotel had its own brush with disaster on December 5, 1889, when fire destroyed the upper two floors of the hotel and the remaining floors suffered water damage.

The fire broke out in the basement were a battery of boilers was located directly under the freight elevators. Rubbish caught fire and the flames quickly shot up the elevator shaft. In an instant the entire portion of the building was enveloped in clouds of smoke.

There were 220 guests registered in the hotel, more than half of which were in their rooms when the alarms rang out. Many made their escape via the fire escape as the flames quickly spread. One man from New York, D. S. Mason, was trapped by flames and escaped out his hotel window by climbing down a rope made of bed sheets.

Despite the severity of the fire, no one was seriously injured. The hotel suffered damages in the amount of nearly $100,000.

The Monongahela House - 1912
The Monongahela House stands at the northern end of the Smithfield Street Bridge, along Water Street, in 1912.

Over the years, the Monongahela House ownership changed a few times. In 1875, the hotel was sold for $192,000 to James McDonald Crossan (son of original proprietor John Crossan) and Alexander H. Miller. In 1900 there was talk of razing the hotel and building a 15-story office tower on the grounds.

Instead, the Monongahela House was renovated and later, in 1906, sold to D. F. Henry for $900,000. Appraised at nearly $1.5 million in 1908, the property was acquired in 1920 by B. F. Jones, Jr., president of Jones and Laughlin Steel Company, for a mere $750,000.

After the 1920 purchase, hotel management had the building improved and redecorated. The once-proud ballroom was converted into a bowling alley and pool room. However, by this time the historic riverfront structure's best days were behind.

On April 14, 1935, the Pittsburgh Press reported that all guests were given notice to vacate their rooms by May 1, and that all leases with ground-level business establishments would terminate that same day.

The Monongahela House - Pittsburgh Press - April 14, 1935

The famous hotel building was razed shortly afterwards to make way for a bus depot, which itself no longer exists. Today, at the corner of Smithfield Street and Fort Pitt Boulevard stands the Allegheny County Human Services building.

The Lincoln bedroom, which was kept under guard as the hotel was being prepared for demolition, was transferred intact to the County Museum at South Park. That museum closed at some point in time and the county lost track of the whereabouts of Lincoln's bed. In October 2006, the bed was surprisingly located wrapped in burlap and stored in the loft of an South Park maintenance shed. The bed was then removed to be displayed at the Heinz History Center.

Prior to 1840, the land on which the Monongahela House stood was originally the house of General William Wilkins, a prominent early Pittsburgh citizen. Then, as reported in 1805, it was the site of "one of the finest woolen mills in Pittsburgh." Later, the mill was remodeled to house the first free school in the city. That school became the First Ward Public School and then the Second Ward School.

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