Monday, July 1, 2019

Pittsburgh and its Alligators

Pittsburgh made national news when three alligators randomly appeared on various city streets within a month in South Side, Beechview and Carrick. By the time October rolled around, two more had been found; one in Shaler (because apparently the suburbs needed in on that hot gator action) and another in Lawrenceville. 

This is all kind of a big deal.

Alligators, you see, are not indigenous to Western Pennsylvania.

These Yinzigators, dubbed Frankie, Chomp, and Gator Doe, were likely all abandoned former pets. Only one was traced to its owner, a man whose stash of 32 exotic animals -- including three more alligators -- was subsequently confiscated by Animal Care Control. He  was charged with multiple counts of animal neglect.

I'm here to tell you that lost in all the subsequent wisecracks and commentary was historical perspective, because 2019 does not mark the first time Pittsburgh saw a proliferation of alligators. The reptiles were reported hereabouts beginning in the late 1800s, as both private and public residents of the region.

The Rise of the Reptile

The American alligator can be found in parts of Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Florida and New Orleans. But it's the latter two places which are historically associated with popularizing the species as pets.

A mid-1880s article in the New York World blamed a newfound popularity of pet alligators on the Cotton Centennial of 1884, a world's fair held in New Orleans. Exposure to the flora and fauna of that region “.…taught Northern visitors to the French quarters to look with kindly eyes upon the lizards’ big brother.” Alligators had hitherto been valued for their commercial possibilities, and thousands were slaughtered each year for their hides and to make an oil to grease steam locomotives and cotton mill machinery. But suddenly, thanks to New Orleans mega-tourism, they were regarded as kinda cute. A “little old bird store in the Rue Royale” reportedly sold wee gators by the dozens at 50-75¢ each, complete with travel boxes.

If the newspaper is to be believed, many a baby NOLA gator found a home in New York amongst “….that growing class of people who are always on the lookout for something new to caress or talk about.” One such person was a girl living on Lexington Avenue who kept her two year old 14-inch alligator in a globe aquarium, fitted it with a silver collar, and took it for walks on a leash.

And then she did this.

Related image
Vintage postcard from the Thurlow collection, circa early 1900s

Okay, I don't know, maybe not. But I wouldn't reject it as a possibility. Alligators inspired whimsy.

At the same time the purported appeal of New Orleans reptiles was launched, Florida was getting in on some hot gator action. The wild, untamed regions of Florida had been regarded as largely uninhabitable until the latter half of the 19th century brought railroad expansion to the state. On those trains came wealthy northern travelers, enchanted by the exotic plant and wildlife they found. Tourists brought back chameleons, palmetto fans, bird plumes to decorate their chapeaus, orange thorns to serve as toothpicks…and alligators.

If you’ve ever had the chance to hold a wee baby alligator, you’d understand the appeal.

Or maybe that’s just me.

I once held a live baby alligator that had been plucked out of its nursery pod and passed
around a Louisiana swamp boat. It wasn’t an illegal thing to do but it was probably unwise; I couldn’t help but wonder where Mama Gator was (probably submerged nearby until we left).

But that little leather tube of air, bones and claws was as sweet as could be.

To people in the 19th century, a wee gator would also have seemed exotically docile. The newspapers described gators as “easily tamed” pets that would spend their days lounging around an aquarium in one's conservatory or small pond. And feeding every couple of days wasn’t a hardship: one 1878 Virginia newspaper recalled the writer's pet alligators had "....a habit of eating any eatable thing that was given to them." The same writer opined that " their first or second year, gators are pleasant pets, and no more dangerous than kittens.

Having a, uhm, kittenish pet alligator soon became associated with status and prestige, and the right sort of quirkiness.

Despite its popularity as a pet, there was at the same time a growing recognition that the number of alligators in the wild had rapidly diminished, and was perhaps even nearing extinction level. Such observations were also made about polar bears, bison, grizzly bears, and pronghorn antelopes, but the pet trade was unique to alligators and thus cited as one of the reasons for population decline. The Pittsburg Dispatch reprinted a London Standard article in March 1889 entitled the "Danger of the Extinction of the Mammoth Reptile" which warned:
The spread of settlement, the systematic hunting of the brute for the sake of its hide, teeth, oil and musk, the slaughter of it by the powder-burning visitor to Florida, and the extensive winter tourist trade in little alligators as choice gifts for Northern friends, have all tended to thin the Southern swamps in an appreciable degree.
Perhaps Pittsburghers reading such articles found themselves wanting their own alligators before it was too late. But it's worth noting in this context that the notion of boycotting  purchases of alligator leather goods in order to curb population decline did not get any corresponding press.

Advertisement from R.Hay & Son, The Bullletin, 29 December 1888

Advertisement from Solomon & Ruben department store, Pittsburg Post, 11 August 1893

Advertisement from Gusky's department store, Pittsburg Post, 1 May 1896

Advertisement from Kaufmann's department store, Pittsburg Post, 5 December 1897

Presidents and Alligators

There were certainly gators in high places. President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland were presented with two Florida alligators during a February 1888 campaign trip to that state. National newspapers joked that the animals were to be kept in White House reception rooms either to be “trained to shake hands with visiting statesmen” or “taught to distinguish between statesmen and journalistic interviewers.” The young Mrs. Cleveland was fond of animals, so it's possible she incorporated the reptiles into her existing menagerie.

President & Mrs. Grover Cleveland outside Indian River Hotel, Titusville Florida, 1888

The Clevelands weren't the first occupants of the White House to be associated with alligators. Decades earlier, President John Quincy Adams was said to have received a spare alligator from the Marquis de Lafayette, who'd acquired plenty of such odd souvenirs during his 1824-25 victory lap of the United States. Adams supposedly kept his Lafeyette-regifted gator in a White House East Wing bathtub. As delightfully specific as this story seems to be, and as oft-repeated as it's been, it is apocryphal. There are no references to Adams' alligator in any diaries, or in contemporary accounts about Adams, Lafayette, or White House bathtubs. Alas, without contemporary evidence of its existence, the Adams Alligator is but a mythical beast.

But there were subsequent presidential-adjacent alligators, or at least White House-adjacent. In 1890, newspapers noted that President Benjamin Harrison’s son Russell moved his two Florida-gifted gators into the White House conservatory connected to the main floor of the mansion, where the gators reportedly lived in tin foot-tubs. Decades later, President-elect Warren G. Harding was said to have accepted a “fair sized ‘gator” from a Florida man (!), although it probably never made it to the White House. And President Herbert Hoover's son Allan donated his own pet alligators to the National Zoological Park in Washington some years before Hoover was elected.

With such celebrity-status gators, how could Pittsburgh resist the lure of the saurian?

Pittsburgh and Alligators

The first Pittsburgh alligator owners -- whomever they may have been -- were perhaps inspired to adopt after reading articles like this one from the Pittsburg Dispatch in 1888:

Pittsburg Dispatch, March 1888

We can't know when or why the first alligator came to Pittsburgh, or whether it had a relentlessly normcore name like Jim and wore doll clothing.

But it does seem like it took Pittsburgh a while to work up to full gator. The first mentions of alligators in local papers referenced the creatures imported to grace Henry Phipps' aquatic garden. Second-in-command of Carnegie Steel, in 1886 Henry Phipps led the way in local Gilded Age philanthropy by proposing and establishing the area's first public plant conservatory.

Phipps Conservatory in Allegheny Park, circa 1898.
From Our cities, picturesque and commercial (Pittsburgh and Allegheny)

Located in Allegheny City (today's North Side), that complex was expanded three years later in 1889 when Phipps funded the addition of an aquatic garden.

Illustration from Pittsburg Dispatch, 30 November 1890

The new addition included an aquarium room, although in the early 1890s the Phipps Allegheny Conservatory filled its tanks with mostly local fish. That might seem like a cheat, but think about it from the perspective of a century ago. The opportunity to see such creatures up close and personal, to observe their fishy ways? That was a novelty to Pittsburghers whose typical encounters with river life involved squiggly things dangling from the ends of hooks.

Illustration from Pittsburg Dispatch, 30 November 1890

And certainly the opportunity to gaze upon two “Allegheny alligators” pulled from a Monongahela River lock was a draw for the new aquatic rooms.

Alligators from the Mon (or Ohio, or Allegheny) don't mind if you refer to them as snot otters, devil dogs, mud-devils, mud dogs, grampus, or hellbenders. The Eastern Hellbender Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) is the largest form of salamander in North America, and was recently recognized as the Pennsylvania Official Amphibian. This creature could once be found in waterways throughout Western Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh's three rivers. Today the dwindling population is of concern due to the hellbender's role as an indicator species signaling poor water quality.

Photo from Wikipedia Commons

A century ago, there wasn't a popular distinction made between amphibian "Allegheny Alligators" and reptilian alligators found in southern states. While it's possible the good Detective Murphy referenced in this clip may have been gifted with a Southern stray, it's more likely that this story from June 1889 was referencing a hellbender:

Pittsburg Dispatch, 27 June 1889

But here's the indisputable truth: Allegheny Alligators were (and are) butt-ugly. And since they are amphibians, the creatures are truly aquatic and can't live out of water. They just didn't make good cuddly pet material -- unlike those cute southern alligators.

Perhaps the occasional media speculation about alligator extinction even made Pittsburgh public officials consider adding a gator or two to the city's collection. A tongue-in-cheek Pittsburg Dispatch editorial from 1890, responding to a Philadelphia Press article mourning the alligator's speculative passing, even suggested preserving a few members of the species in zoos:

Excerpt, Pittsburg Dispatch editorial, 16 May 1890

Whether inspired by species preservation efforts or the trendy acquisition of exotic oddities, it was past time for Pittsburgh to get some real gators. Around the time that Henry Phipps was tapped to provide a companion conservatory for the city of Pittsburgh in 1892, this region stepped up its reptile game.

First Highland Park got gators. Despite a man-made lake, its own conservatory, beautifully landscaped gardens, and eventually a zoo and two reservoirs, Highland Park struggled to overcome its status in the hierarchy of urban parks. Less centrally located despite streetcars stopping at its front door, Highland ranked lower in sentimental attachment when compared to the massive acquisition of Schenley's grandeur and the legacy status of Allegheny Commons. But in April 1892, a five foot alligator acquired somewhere in Georgia was accepted by city officials for Highland Park. The plan was to house the creature at the zoo which existed at Schenley Park at that time (Highland's Zoo didn't come along until 1898) until Highland was ready for it.

It's unclear whether this beast ever actually came to Pittsburgh, but in August 1892 two more gators arrived for Highland Park. Allegheny County state representative and local political boss William Flinn received notice from the East Liberty express office that a box was waiting for him. It had been sent by one of his former Highland Park neighbors who'd relocated to Florida. Hopefully it was a generously-sized container because inside were two alligators, three and four feet long. "The object was to have them put in Highland park" stated the Press.

History does not reveal whether these gators got dumped into Reservoir No. 1 (the only existing reservoir at the time) or were accommodated at the existing Highland Park conservatory. But their existence in Pittsburgh aggravated intra-park rivalry, because there was no way that Highland Park could get alligators and Schenley Park go without.

Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, 9 August 1892
Later in the 1890s, Schenley Park zoo did have gators in its collection.

But so, too, did the new Phipps Conservatory.

The new plant palace underwritten by Henry Phipps opened its doors to the public at 9 AM on 7 December 1893.

Phipps Conservatory in Schenley Park, circa 1893

In addition to flora contributed by prominent citizens like Judge Thomas Mellon and the collection purchased by Phipps from the recently-closed World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, conservatory visitors were greeted by reptilian fauna.

Excerpt, Commercial Gazette, 7 December 1893

Lazy, good-for-nothing reptilian fauna.

Maybe the Gazette didn't think alligators belonged at the fancy new conservatory. But according to the Post, the creatures were a hit with the thousands of visitors who thronged the aisles of the new complex.

Headline, Pittsburgh Post, 11 December 1893

And if the grown-ups couldn't name the plants, at least the kids could torment the alligators:
Children do not take much interest in plants and rare specimens of nature which are to be seen in hothouses, and those children who went along to the conservatory yesterday.....were well nigh tired out before the end of their journey through the maze of plants was over. But there was an attraction for them in the hothouse, although it was the last thing they reached.

There were two pretty good sized alligators in one of the basins in the farthest building, and when the children got there they wanted to stop. The grown folks stooped, too, for everybody seemed to want to look at the scaly fellows and see what they would do. The 'gators did not care whether they were watched or not, apparently, for they did not perform any tricks for the delectation of the auditors, but lay perfectly still. The little boys and girls would throw clouds of mud, toothpicks, matches, pebbles and everything else they could get their hands on at the patient animals, who just kept the tops of their heads above the water for targets. Their heads were soon spotted with yellow mud, but they did not worry about that. They just continued to be still, and it appeared to be no job for them to do so.
Pity these poor alligators. There's some kind of human sociological parallel to be drawn, what with the beasts being decried as lazy when all they were doing was trying to low-key exist in the midst of mud-flinging and abuse.

Reptilian depression over being removed from native habitat, then forced to endure a Pittsburgh winter replete with the indignities of target practice by toothpick-wielding children? The struggle was real.

But perhaps there was another reason for alligator laziness.

Maybe the alligators were dead.

At least one of them probably was.

According to a Press article a month later, one of the new conservatory alligators had indeed died but been left floating in the tank, presumably to add interest to the new building. This information led to an incident with That Guy.

You know, That Guy, the one every straight woman has had to endure:

Excerpt, Pittsburg Press, 14 January 1894
(Note to That Guy: getting your hand bitten off when teasing an alligator really will not impress your date. It just won't. There are surely easier ways to try to get laid).

Phipps Conservatory continued to house gators at least for a while, although the Schenley Zoo had one as well in 1894. In September, two additional two-foot gators were brought to Phipps to be housed in "....a box containing warm water, with a raised platform of sand and gravel, upon which they can lie and sleep." And, presumably, dodge toothpicks.

By 1900, the Highland Park Zoo could boast nine alligator residents, although their genders were unrecorded and probably unknown. These were presumably all donated, as no alligator births at the zoo were recorded and two additional gators had died that year. Life in Pittsburgh was harsh for gators.

But not to be outdone, the private citizens of Pittsburgh acquired their own gators. Edith Darlington Ammon (known as "Darling") was the great-granddaughter of one of Pittsburgh’s earliest captains of industry, James O’Hara, and the daughter of William Darlington, a successful attorney, historian, amateur botanist, and collector of maps and manuscripts (today housed at the University of Pittsburgh). She lived at a 235 acre estate situated between present-day Sharpsburg and Aspinwall called Guyasuta, after Seneca Indian Chief Guyasuta, original owner of the land. The estate was lovingly maintained and according to the memoirs of a family friend, Anne Hemphill Herbert, there were some pets at Guyasuta:
Darling [Edith Darlington] had two alligators which she had procured in the southern part of Florida. She kept them in a low tank in one corner of the conservatory. At feeding time Darling would often hold them in her lap and let the dogs watch them eat.  
~ Personal Memories of the Darlington Family at Guyasuta, 1949
Historic Pittsburgh Book Collection, University of Pittsburgh

Darling was fierce.

Samuel & Edith Darlington Ammon (and Smoke the Dog) outside the Guyasuta conservatory, 1889
Darlington Family Papers, University of Pittsburgh

Seriously, fierce. She became president of the local Daughters of the American Revolution and as such organized the preservation of the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, which was nearly destroyed by Pennsylvania Railroad expansion. That same railroad ultimately seized and demolished the family's Guyasuta property for a through-way in 1918. Darling's attempts to save her family home and Pittsburgh’s blockhouse pitted her against one of the most powerful men in Pittsburgh, a man who owned the land surrounding the Blockhouse and who was a major shareholder in the Pennsylvania Railroad: Henry Clay Frick.

Whose son Childs and granddaughter Martha reportedly also had alligators

That's according to Frick great-granddaughter Martha Symington Sanger, who has written several books about her family.

Childs Frick, 1942
The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives
Henry Clay Frick's son Childs Frick was a naturalist and botanist who maintained a research laboratory and small zoo at his Long Island estate, which like the Pittsburgh family home was called Clayton. In her book The Henry Clay Frick Houses, Sanger wrote that the zoo housed a bear, six-foot-long gouffer snakes, and alligators. She also wrote about a swimming pool on the grounds:
Three generations of the Frick family--and some of their pets--enjoyed this pool. Childs Frick's daughter, Martha, swam her alligator here and once rescued him from the bottom, fearing he had drowned.
During their Pittsburgh residency in the 1890s, the Frick family annually traveled to Palm Beach during the winter months, along with the wealthiest of the region's Gilded Age social set. Although there is no documentation that a young Childs Frick or his sister Helen had pet alligators during the time they spent in Florida, it's quite possible that they did. Because, why not?

Certainly other southern alligators made it to Pittsburgh as pets. Some were just passing through, as per this story from 1894 which adds a new level to the notion of alligator luggage:

Pittsburg Post, 31 October 1894

Others were permanent residents of the Pittsburgh region. They had odd appetites...

Pittsburg Dispatch, 2 May 1889

...and were definitely more dangerous than kittens.
Pittsburg Dispatch, 27 December 1889

The newspapers helpfully reprinted articles about the care and keeping of alligators.

Pittsburg Press, 2 May 1909

Pittsburg Post, 10 March 1912

And for the child whose parents couldn't quite manage the acquisition of a coveted reptile, there were always paper dolls with reptile accessories to color and clip:

Pittsburg Press, 28 January 1912

If one didn't have the time or inclination to tend to a live alligator, fear not. The local society newsweekly promised East End residents they could stay on trend with an attractively displayed dead alligator, which would equal a live one in charm. Such a unique ornament might serve as a functional conversation piece/objet d'art. Make sure it was a small dead gator, though...wouldn't want to be gauche.

Excerpt, The East-End Bulletin, 7 September 1887

But as Pittsburgh learned in 2019, gators are prone to wandering. In May 1894, an Allegheny City accountant named William Gordon was "mourning the loss of the alligator which he received some time ago from the South." Two weeks earlier, the newspapers had reported on the arrival of this 15 inch gator after five weeks travel from New Orleans, noting that it was intended for the Allegheny Parks and "did not seem any the worse for the trip."

Alas, Mr. Gordon came into work one day to discover that someone had moved the frame enclosure on the third floor of the office warehouse just enough for the alligator to escape.

Fortunately for all who worked in the warehouse, this story had a happy ending two weeks after that:

Excerpt, Pittsburg Dispatch, 7 June 1891

(A mostly happy ending. Gators don't expand from 1.5 to four feet in two weeks. Then again, who knows what was in our rivers back then...).

The provenance of that gator was known. But as with Pittsburgh's most recent reptilian wanderers, ownership can't always be established. Case in point: Pittsburgh Sewer Gator:

Pittsburg Post, 17 July 1917

I'm not sure what the best part of this story is: that Pittsburgh's Sewer Gator actually fulfilled one of the best urban legends/nightmares associated with gatordom, or that the Bureau of Highways and Sewers worker who found the alligator took it home and kept it.

Pittsburgh Gazette Times, 20 July 1917

For all we know, the 2019 Pittsburgh alligator plague might well consist of descendants of Sewer Gator. Too bad for them, though. The Yinzigators were sent back to Florida. Maybe they'll establish a little expatriate Pittsburgh reptile community down there.