Thomas White, Author, Forgotten Tales of Pittsburgh
First, what got your started as an archivist both at the Heinz History Center and at Duquesne?
I’ve always been interested in history since I was a child, so when I went to college that was the field that I chose to study. In graduate school I specialized in the area of Public History, which covers things like archives, museums, oral history, historic preservation, and historical editing.
Public historians take academic ideas about the past and apply them to local history while at the same time making them accessible to a general audience. I gravitated toward the archives aspect because I enjoy working with original documents, photographs and maps.
How do you come upon new materials for those collections?
As an archivist I’m always coming across old newspaper stories and obscure first-hand accounts of events. Anytime I see anything interesting I save it.
With folklore, my first encounter with stories if often by word of mouth. When I hear about a legend I collect as many different “versions” of the story as I can and then to determine the historical truth behind it.
What have been the stories that have fascinated you most in your research, and what made them so interesting for you?
It is difficult to pick just one or two because there are so many good ones. I’ve always been a fan of the story of the Lost Bomber of the Monongahela, the B-25 that crashed in the river in 1956 and was allegedly secretly removed by the government. It is probably Pittsburgh’s most popular conspiracy theory/urban legend.
But I like all of the legends that have hidden cultural meanings because they are both entertaining and provide insight into our society at the same time.
Much of what you write on is based on Pittsburgh folklore and history – from books like the Forgotten Tales of Pittsburgh and Legends and Lore of Western Pennsylvania. What makes Pittsburgh’s lore and culture unique, in your opinion?
Western Pennsylvania is an area rich in folklore and legends. This region was forged by blood and steel and innovation and faith. It has been many things—a battleground, a gateway to the frontier, a workshop for the world, and a center of religion, education and medicine.
Tradition thrives here. Families took root in western Pennsylvania and stayed for generations. They formed stable, tightknit communities in the city and surrounding towns. Even when these natives they leave, they still carry the Pittsburgh identity with them (hence the Steeler Nation). That stability has allowed the population to maintain connections to the past, and regional folklore has flourished.
Traditional beliefs, customs, and stories have been handed down orally and in writing. Legends that might have been lost in an area with a more transient population have survived here.
How much have sports played a part in the stories you’ve included in your work and the folklore of Pittsburgh, and how so?
So far I haven’t written specifically about sports directly (though I hope to gather some sports legend in the near future), but I do write about some of the places and social factors that impact local sports culture.
My favorite piece relates to the lost islands that were once located across from the Point where the stadiums are today. They were eventually back filled or washed away, and the land became home to Pittsburgh’s Exhibition Halls and eventually Exposition Park, where the Pirates played in the first World Series.
In the 1700s the islands were allegedly cursed and served as the site of execution for many of the captives of the Braddock expedition during the French and Indian War. Later they were the site of several ghost stories.
In modern times that strip of land housed Three Rivers Stadium and later PNC Park and Heinz Field.
Who are some of the Pittsburgh sports figures over history that you feel have most impacted Pittsburgh’s culture and history, and how so?
Obviously Art Rooney Sr. had a huge impact in a variety of ways, but most everyone is familiar his story. Roberto Clemente as well, who stood as an example of how a professional athlete should act on and off the field.
But I would have to say the largest impact on Pittsburgh collectively was the 1970s Steelers as a whole. They provided the region with something to be proud about while it was facing the decline of the steel industry and economic uncertainty. They really became a key factor in defining the modern identity of the city.
Being such a huge follower of Pittsburgh’s history and culture, how much of a concern do you have that Pittsburgh’s unique culture and history get overshadowed by Pittsburgh’s sports reputation and image?
I think Pittsburgh’s sports reputation is inseparable from the other aspects of its unique culture. Together they make up Pittsburgh’s identity. On some level it is all tied to the city’s work ethic – a town that works hard and plays hard.
In many ways (and us Pittsburghers often forget it) this city “built” modern America. From the industrial era when our steel literally did build the country anew, through all of our technological advances like Westinghouse’s first atom smasher and atomic power plants and our current medical advances, to the Steelers, who helped redefine professional sports in the 70s making it the industry that it is today.
We could list important things that have come out of this city all day, but they all represent part of the same character and culture that define this region.
What new books are on the horizon?
I should have a new one out by the end of the summer titled Gangs and Outlaws of Western Pennsylvania, co-authored with Michael Hassett. It covers exploits of some of the areas less-than-respectable characters.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I’d just like to remind everyone to take the time to appreciate the great history and culture of the city that they live in. There are not many places where you can go to a Smithsonian affiliated museum, listen to a first class orchestra, ride on tracks up the side of a mountain, take a trip on a riverboat, watch a championship sports team, go to an amusement park, and eat a sandwich with French fries and coleslaw on it all in the same weekend.