Friday, April 18, 2014

Pittsburgh--Ground Zero for Carnegie Libraries

I could have spent a couple days tracking down all the Carnegie Libraries in and around Pittsburgh, but with only limited time I had to restrict myself to just the more prominent of them.  I had just a week to bike the 550 miles back to Chicago on my annual pre-France training ride, and knowing the vagaries of spring weather eighty miles a day could be a challenge.  But this was less of a training ride and more of a tune-up, having returned from a 2,000-mile ride around the Philippines a month ago.  Plus I'd had a 180-mile ride two weeks ago to Starved Rock and back with Janina and our friend Wendy (in the foreground in front of the Marseilles Carnegie Library).

That was a cold ride, as evidenced by how bundled up they were.  We camped in sub-freezing temperatures, but they were troopers and whimpered not, even in the rain.  It was Janina's longest ride and Wendy's first.  Wendy had hiked the Appalachia Trail in its entirety on her own two years ago, so there was no denying her capabilities.  She acknowledged, though, the ride was tougher than she anticipated.  She bowed out after 130 miles with sore shoulders, unaccustomed to sitting on the bike for five or six hours a day.  Still, she is eager for more, and Janina too.

It was ten-and-half hours by train to Pittsburgh from Chicago.  It was an overnight trip.  I had a seat to myself and slept most of the way.  There were two other cyclists on the train, a couple from Portland who planned to cycle the Great Allegheny Passage to Washington D.C. They had no idea they had arrived at Ground Zero of Carnegie Libraries.

Pittsburgh is where Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in the steel industry after immigrating in 1847 from Scotland with his family as a twelve-year old. He was immediately thrust into the steel mills working twelve-hour days six days a week as a bobbin' boy earning $1.20 a week. His book learning from that time on was restricted to reading books borrowed from a benefactor, who opened his private library to the young boys working in the factories who were deprived of school.

Thus was born Carnegie's devotion to libraries and his desire to fund as many as he could.  Libraries molded him into the man he was and he wished to make them available to one and all.  Not all libraries were open to the public then.  Many of the libraries he established had "Free to All" chiseled into their facade.  He eventually established over 2,500 of them all over the world, including 1,689 in the US, doubling the number of public libraries in the country during his era of giving in the early 1900s. The first he subsidized was in his Scottish home town of Dunfermline.

After that he began funding libraries in and around Pittsburgh.  The first was in Allegheny, the city where his family first settled, right across the river from Pittsburgh.  It was closed as a library in 2006 when lightning struck its bell town.  It now serves  as a police station and senior center.  Allegheny was long ago incorporated into Pittsburgh, and its new library is part of its 19-library system.

Like many of his early libraries it also had space for a theater or meeting hall.

It took several years for the government to approve Carnegie's behest, as it included the stipulation that the government provide the funds for its operation.  Before it was finished the steel town of Braddock fifteen miles down the Monongahela River gained the distinction of being the first Carnegie  Library opened in the US in 1889.  Like the Allegheny library it was designed in an eclectic medieval style.

The town was so proud of its library, it named the street its on Library Street and commemorated it with a painting across from the library in a small park.

Three miles back towards Pittsburgh on the opposite side of the Monongahela is the sixth library Carrnegie funded in the US in Homestead sitting high on a hill.  It was opened in 1896.

The full sprawl of this French Renaissance building is better represented by a painting in the library.

It was large enough to include a swimming pool and a bowling alley.  The swimming pool was the training grounds for a handful of Olympians and is still in use, but the bowling alley has been converted into batting cages for the local baseball teams.  I wouldn't have known about the batting cages unless a librarian at the Pittsburgh main library, who used to work at Homestead, had told me about them, as they are well hidden in the basement of the library and not promoted.

The third library Carnegie gave to the city of Pittsburgh is its main library, a monumental building endowed from a million dollar grant that also included funds for four branch libraries.  Carnegie knew that a city couldn't have enough libraries and wished to make them easily accessible to all.

The main library had huge rooms with high ceilings, providing a most comfortable atmosphere for reading and study. 

The only one of the branch libraries I was able to include in my travels was the South side branch on my way from Homestead to the town of Carnegie.  It was still in its original state with no additions, as were also those of Homestead and Braddock.

The town of Carnegie, five miles south of Pittsburgh through steep hills, became the seventh US Carnegie Library after changing its town name to Carnegie. It too sits on a high hill.  Adjoining it is an 787-seat auditorium.  Carnegie is also known as the birthplace of Mike Ditka, though his family moved to Aliquippa north of Pittsburgh shortly after his birth.

Over its fireplace was an original Carnegie portrait, not the standard one that was issued to all the libraries in 1935 on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Throughout the town were many businesses bearing his name.

Not every Carnegie Library is identified with his name, but that of Carnegie could hardly avoid it.  It was the final Carnegie in my half day of biking around the environs of Pittsburgh, a surprisingly enjoyable ride on roads with a minimum of traffic thanks to the struggling local economy.  It was a pleasant  urban environment, especially the older parts of the city with narrow streets and small local businesses. The only negative was a lower than customary library-consciousness.  Not everyone I asked knew where the downtown library could be found.  When I began my meanderings around the city at seven a.m. the first four people I asked didn't know it's whereabouts.

1 comment:

dworker said...

Wow, George. I did not know much of Carnegie's life. Especially how he had by happenstance a benefactor who got him started reading. Your Carnegie journey takes deeper meaning now.