Pittsburgh’s First Hotel: A Destination For Presidents, Famous Writers And Escaped Slaves

Jul 3, 2017

Even before Pittsburgh was topping “most livable” listicles and getting attention as the “next Brooklyn,” it attracted travelers from around the country.

But, 100 or even 200 years ago, there were no trendy Ace or Kimpton hotels to accommodate visitors. So where did early passers-through go?

There’s no official record floating around of a “first” hotel in the Pittsburgh area, but historians have a pretty good idea of what it would have been like.

“The earliest ‘hotels’ — they’d be called inns or taverns instead, or lodging houses — were along key transportation routes into town rather than being in ‘Pittsburgh’ itself,” said Leslie Przybylek, senior curator at the Heinz History Center

Those short-term housing establishments, resembling bed-and-breakfasts with a bar, had already existed in Europe and other parts of the world for some time.

A 1936 article in Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, compiling early accounts of travelers in the area, found mentions of lodging houses by 1759 and instances of trading posts serving as makeshift lodgings were recorded as early as 1748, predating the name “Pittsburgh” entirely.

“There must have been a number of these taverns or ordinaries around Fort Pitt, for James Kenny wrote in his journal on the eleventh of July, 1761:’I think Drunkenness & feighting is much abated in this end of ye Town to what it was & some of ye Ordinary Houses is moved from here.’” – Eighteenth-Century Inns and Taverns of Western Pennsylvania, John W. Harpster.

When counties like Westmoreland and Fayette incorporated in the 1770s and 1780s, officials granted a handful of licenses to taverns in their jurisdiction. By 1815, when Pittsburgh was becoming a major manufacturing hub, the city’s inaugural directory included more than a dozen inns and taverns in its pages.

However, the first large hotel -- closer to what we think of today -- in the city was the 210-room Monongahela House, on the corner of Smithfield and Water streets, now known as Fort Pitt Boulevard. According to a 2013 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, it featured a 60-foot domed entrance, white marble floors and a ballroom with gilded ceilings. Erected in 1840, the building burned down in the Great Fire of 1845, only to be rebuilt in 1847 at even larger proportions, with almost 300 rooms.

A satellite view of the corner of Smithfield St. and Fort Pitt Blvd., where the Monongahela House once stood.
Credit Google Maps

In its time, the hotel hosted famous guests like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, as well as many U.S. presidents, including Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln stayed at the hotel in 1861 on his way to Washington and gave a speech from his balcony there regarding the impending Civil War.

In those days, the hotel was also a safe house for escaped slaves traveling the Underground Railroad from the southern states to the north. The hotel's owner, James McDonald Crossan, sympathetic to the abolitionist movement, employed many free African Americans who would take in fugitive escaped slaves. Another Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article explains that they would even go so far as to waylay former owners who came looking for them.  

Today, there is hardly a shred of evidence of the Monongahela House on its former site. The hotel was razed in 1935 to make way for a bus depot, which itself no longer exists. That corner of Smithfield and Fort Pitt Boulevard, opposite the beginning of the Mon Wharf, is currently occupied by the Allegheny County Human Services building.

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