07 May 2013

The Virago of Virgin Alley

Sometimes all we know about a historical figure comes from one source.

From the book Our firemen: the history of the Pittsburgh fire department, from the village period until the present time (1889), here's what we know about one of the first documented women firefighters in the United States: Marina Betts, a volunteer with Pittsburgh's Niagara Company.
Marina Betts was a virago, who lived on Shinbone alley, now Virgin alley, between the years 1820 and 1830. She professed a hearty contempt for public opinion, rather an unusual qualification for ladies who wish to go into society. But there was not much society in those days, and what there was gave Marina the cold shoulder. Although she was not on the cotillion lists of the time or invited to the church socials, she never missed a fire. She was about 5 feet 10 inches in height, and seemed to be of French- Indian extraction, having jet black hair, high cheek bones, and exceedingly dark complexion. She would take her place in the bucket line with alacrity, and besides devotion to the work in hand she manifested the ability of a recruiting sergeant. Woe to the dandy who passed, or stood as a mere spectator when, as Marina said; "Men folks should be working." He would get the contents of the next full bucket she caught as the alternative of getting into line, and many a man she pressed into the service by force of energy and a leather bucket well primed. Could Marina's spirit be materialized to-day, it would writhe at the sight of a "dude." She was more effective in securing workers than half a dozen captains, for those out of reach of her bucket would feel the weight of her tongue if she perceived any signs of skulking, and few cared to brave the ordeal of either. She afterwards settled down, married a farmer up the Allegheny river, and although she never had children of her own, reared several orphans, who to-day owe good positions in life and a virtuous and honest training to the heroine of the bucket brigade of over half a century ago, Marina Betts.
The term 'virago' is admittedly a loaded word, often used disparagingly to indicate a woman who violates social norms and thereby assaults tender sensibilities and expectations. While there's admittedly a whiff of that sort of judgmental attitude in the above piece, I prefer to think of this description of Marina in its positive connotation of a true female hero.

And as one who has been known to "writhe at the sight of a "dude"" myself upon occasion, I gotta say: I like Marina's style.

Until paid firefighting companies were organized in 1870, Pittsburgh's fire protection was on a volunteer basis. Every able-bodied male was legally required to lend a hand, and every household was required to keep a leather fire bucket ready for emergencies. Fire engines were kept supplied by a bucket line of men (and Marina, who probably wasn't the only woman in the line) who passed water drawn from the nearest sources such as wells, streams, ponds or even one of Pittsburgh's three rivers. Such organizations were crucial to early urban life because fires were devastating.

Small wonder Marina writhed at the sight of men shirking their firefighting duties. The worst happened some years after her firefighting days when the Great Fire of 1845 destroyed downtown Pittsburgh, as shown in these paintings from the Carnegie Museum of Art by eyewitness artist William Coventry Wall.

William Coventry Wall, View of the Great Fire of Pittsburgh, 1845

William Coventry Wall, Pittsburgh after the Fire from Boyd's Hill, 1845

William Coventry Wall, Pittsburgh after the Great Fire, 1845

Try as I might, I cannot find any other information about Marina. Her Pittsburgh was a rough-and-tumble place, chaotic enough that a female firefighter would be accepted for her role-breaking rule-breaking out of urban necessity.

Shinbone Alley where Marina lived abutted Virgin Alley (which is today known as Oliver Avenue). Although I've not found her home on the maps I've looked at, Marina Betts would have lived near to the Niagara Fire Company station located at Penn Avenue near Fifteenth Street. Virgin Alley was thus close enough for a virago to dash down to join a bucket brigade.

How did Virgin Alley get its unusual name? That, at least, had nothing to do with Marina. In 1754 the French settlers of this area dedicated a fort on the Feast of the Assumption, naming it Fort Duquesne to honor the governor-general of New France, Ange Duquesne de Menneville. It was the custom in Catholic countries to select a patron saint for important sites, someone whose protection would be assured through public dedication and veneration. Accordingly this new fort and its associated chapel were dedicated de 1'Assomption de la Ste. Vierge a la Belle Rivière or to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin of the Beautiful River. A footpath used for funerals led from the chapel (original location unknown but somewhere near Fort Duquesne and what we know today as the Point) to a cemetery near the Native American burial ground in midtown. That path was called L'Allee de la Vierge Marie and the cemetery was also dedicated to la Ste Vierge a la Belle Rivière, the Blessed Virgin of the Beautiful River. 

1957 painting by Charles Hargens portraying The Reverend Denys Baron celebrating the first Mass at Fort Duquesne on 16 April 1754.
When this area passed from French to British ownership, the established street names were altered accordingly. L'Allee de la Vierge Marie thus became Virgin Alley. In the late 18th/early 19th century, the original Episcopal Trinity Church was built on lots bordering Virgin Alley, over the tumulus that had served as a Native American burial ground and cemetery for early French and English settlers and military personnel. That site is thought to have encompassed some 4000 graves.

Alas, the evocative Virgin Alley was renamed a prosaic Oliver Avenue in 1904. But Trinity Cathedral and its cemetery remain as active and well-maintained religious and historical sites in downtown Pittsburgh.

The above story is the sole primary source about Marina Betts. It has been summarized, paraphrased, and cited in any number of histories, but nothing new has ever been added to her history. We don't even know whether Betts was a married or maiden name. The book this history was written in was published some 50 years after Marina supposedly volunteered with the Niagara Company.

The ultimate irony -- or insult, depending upon how you look at it -- is that the saga of a firedog and canine Union soldier named Dog Jack in the same source is longer and more detailed than the tale of Marina Betts. And Dog Jack has even had a movie made of his life (with much artistic license applied).

Today, only 4% of firefighters are women. I suspect that Marina Betts, Virago of Virgin Alley, heroine of the bucket brigade, would have something to say about that.

1 comment:

  1. Sue, although never a fire fighter myself, i have great respect for these guys, and had no idea there was ever a female fire person in Pittsburgh. Cousin ART