01 July 2019

Pittsburgh, Alligator County

In 2019 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 to be 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 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.

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. 

Sure, alligators aren't indigenous to Pittsburgh. But they have been esteemed private and public residents of the region.

The Rise of the Reptile

The American alligator can naturally be found in parts of Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Florida and New Orleans. It's the latter two places that 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, well, kinda cute. So much so that a“little old bird store in the Rue Royale” in New Orleans reportedly sold wee gators by the dozens at 50-75¢ each, complete with travel boxes.

Many a baby NOLA gator found a home in northern United States, including 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 little girl living on Lexington Avenue who was said to keep her two year old, 14-inch alligator in a globe aquarium. She fitted 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'm lying. That's not the same girl. But I wouldn't reject a kiddie wagon pulled by a gator as a possibility, in New York or even Pittsburgh. Alligators inspired such whimsy.

At the same time that New Orleans launched a reptile craze, Florida was also getting in on the gator trend. The latter half of the 19th century brought railroad expansion to the state, which had previously been too wild, untamed, and inaccessible. On those trains came wealthy northern tourists, enchanted by the region's exotic plant and wildlife. The tourists took home souvenirs like 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.  Than again,  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. Doing so was most likely illegal, and was certainly unwise. I kept wondering where fierce Mama Gator was. She was probably submerged nearby until we left. Her progeny was a little leather tube of air, bones and claws. Definitely cute: 

Me, holding a baby gator in a Louisiana swamp

To people in the 19th century, such a wee gator would have appealed as docilely exotic. The newspapers of the era described gators as “easily tamed” pets that could spend their days lounging around aquariums in one's personal conservatory or small pond. Feeding them 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 "....in their first or second year, gators are pleasant pets, and no more dangerous than kittens.

Having a, uhm, kittenish pet alligator came to be associated with status, prestige, and fashionable quirkiness.

Conservation and Consumerism 

As reptile pets trended there was a growing recognition that alligators in the wild were rapidly diminishing, perhaps even nearing extinction level. Such environmental consciousness was not limited to gators, since similar observations were also being made in the late 1800s about polar bears, bison, grizzly bears, and pronghorn antelopes. But the pet trade was unique to alligators, and was cited as a significant reason for gator population decline in the late 19th century. Pittsburg Dispatch reprinted a London Standard article, "Danger of the Extinction of the Mammoth Reptile", in March 1889 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.

Conservation did not extend to consumerism, however. There were no public calls to boycott purchases of alligator leather goods in hopes of curbing population decline. Quite the contrary, as evidenced by these ads from Pittsburgh publications: 

Advertisement, Weldin's, Commercial Gazette, 12 November 1880

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

Presidential Alligators

There were 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 was said to have 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 sadly only apocryphal. There are no references to Adams' alligator in any diaries, nor 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.

There were also White House-adjacent alligators. In 1890, newspapers noted that President Benjamin Harrison’s son Russell had moved some gators gifted by the state of Florida into the White House conservatory, which was connected to the main floor of the mansion. These gators reportedly lived in tin foot-tubs in the White House. Decades later, President-elect Warren G. Harding was said to have accepted a “fair sized ‘gator'” from an unnamed Florida man, although that one probably never made it to the White House. President Herbert Hoover's son Allan donated his own pet alligators to the National Zoological Park in Washington a few years before Hoover was elected.

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

Pittsburgh Alligators

The first Pittsburgh alligator owners -- whomever they may have been -- were perhaps inspired to adopt after reading articles like this one about a pet alligator named Jim, published in 1888 in the Pittsburg Dispatch:

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.

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 those 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

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

That's right, Allegheny alligators. Well, sort of.

Alligators from Pittsburgh's rivers 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. Its absence from the waterways signals poor water quality.

Photo from Wikipedia Commons

Hellbenders were Yinzer versions of real alligators, so popular distinctions weren't always made locally in the 19th century between amphibian "Allegheny Alligators" and southern reptilian alligators. Pittsburg Dispatch noted on 27 June 1889 that Allegheny City Detective John R. Murphy was "presented with an alligator which was captured in the Ohio river by some of his friends. He will build a tank at his home and raise it." While good Detective Murphy could have been gifted with a Southern stray, it's more likely that this story referenced a hellbender.

Fact is, hellbenders are amphibians and as such are truly aquatic. Since they can't live out of water, the hellbenders wouldn't make a cuddly pet. Here's another indisputable and objective truth: Allegheny Alligators were (and are) universally regarded as butt-ugly. Real baby alligators were (and are) cuter. 

There was even trans-Pennsylvania beef about alligators. A Pittsburg Dispatch editorial from 16 May1890 responded to a Philadelphia Press article mourning the species' possible extinction. Pittsburgh apparently had no sentimental attachment to the creatures:

Aside from the excellence of its hide for certain purposes, its best friend would be puzzled to point out a single good quality in the alligator. If the alligator is going – it is usually lying still in the mud – we are glad to hear it. A few specimens of the amphibious reptile might be preserved in the zoological gardens, if for no other reason to keep the ugly brute from claiming, after the dodo’s fashion, fame for being extinct. As for the tears the Press sheds over the departing saurian, we are inclined to believe that they might have come from a crocodile.

Perhaps media speculation about alligator extinction prompted Pittsburgh public officials to consider adding a southern gator or two to the city's collection before it was too late? Regardless of whether the city fathers were inspired by species preservation efforts or being on-trend by adding exotic oddities, by the late 19th century Pittsburgh got its own (real) alligators. Pittsburgh stepped up its municipal reptile game just as Henry Phipps was providing a companion conservatory for the city of Pittsburgh in 1892.

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. Highland ranked lower in sentimental attachment when compared to Schenley's grandeur and the legacy status of Allegheny Commons park. It was also less centrally located, despite having streetcars stopping at its front entrance. Maybe gators would help raise its profile? In April 1892, a five foot alligator acquired in Georgia was accepted by city officials for Highland Park. The plan was to house the creature at the city zoo, which existed at Schenley Park at that time,  until Highland was ready for it (Highland Park Zoo opened in 1898).

It's unclear whether this 5-foot beast ever actually came to Pittsburgh, but in August 1892 two slightly smaller gators did arrive 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 measuring 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! The Commercial Gazette lamented on 9 August 1892 that "The Schenley park zoo must look up or it will not be in it with Highland park. The latter was enriched yesterday by seven feet of alligators."

Later in the 1890s Schenley Park zoo would add gators in its collection. But so, too, did the new Phipps Conservatory.  That 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


Commercial Gazette announced on 7 December 1893 that in addition to enjoying flora contributed by prominent citizens and a collection purchased by Phipps from the recently-closed World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, conservatory visitors would be greeted by reptilian fauna. "Keeping company with the plants in this apartment are the alligators, two of them, lazy and good-for-nothing, to be relegated to the “zoo” at the first opportunity."

Lazy, good-for-nothing reptilian fauna.

Fine, 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 a human sociological parallel to be drawn, what with these beasts being decried as lazy when all they were really doing was low-key existing - just trying to avoid mud-flinging and abuse.

The poor Phipps gator was probably trying to manage reptilian depression after being removed from its warm native habitat and forced to endure a Pittsburgh winter replete with indignities, including target practice by toothpick-wielding children. Its struggle was real.

But perhaps there was another reason for alligator laziness.

Maybe the alligators were dead. 

According to the Press, within a month of its introduction to our fair city, one of the new conservatory alligators died. It was left floating in the tank, presumably to add interest to the new building. 

Which led to an incident with That Guy. 

You know That Guy. We've all met That Guy. Here's the 1894 version:

There was a man, a few days ago, who went out to the Phipps conservatory...to see the alligators. Now as the world - or that part of it which goes to Schenley park - knows, the first alligator that was put into the tank was dead, and he floated around in a life-like manner until removed to make room for his successors. The man aforesaid had seen this dead alligator and had toyed with him in security, as he floated like a log on the water. Some days later the same man came out to the park with a friend of the other sex. He did not know that the defunct saurian had been replaced with a live one, and so he resolved to alarm the young lady by toying with the reptile. She begged him to desist, and he, with the sangfroid which comes of security, persisted. Suddenly the alligator's mouth expanded, just a second too soon to miss the man's finger. Moral....never fool with an alligator unless you know he is dead.                                                                                                     Pittsburg Press, 14 January 1894

 Pro tip: getting your finger bitten when teasing an alligator will not impress your date. Really, it won't.

Although the Schenley Zoo acquired an alligator of its own that same year, Phipps Conservatory continued to house gators for a while. 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 toothpick-wielding children).

By 1900 the Highland Park Zoo boasted nine alligator residents. Their genders were unrecorded and were quite possibly unknown, since the requisite naughty bits are hidden inside a vent in the gator’s nether regions. (An adult gator isn't best pleased at being flipped over so curious humans can probe its cloaca).  No alligator births at the zoo were as yet recorded so those Highland Park gators were likely all donated - they may even have been pets that grew out of the cute, kittenish stage. Two additional zoo gators died that year. (Nineteenth century life in Pittsburgh was harsh for everyone, including alligators).

Not to be outdone by the city's institutions, the wealthiest 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). 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 organized the preservation of the Fort Pitt Blockhouse, which had nearly been 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 had pet alligators

According to descendant and family chronicler Martha Symington Sanger, young Childs Frick kept a menagerie at the family's Pittsburgh home of Clayton. It included dogs, kittens, a raccoon, guinea pigs, Angora bunnies...and an alligator. 

Childs Frick from a circa 1892 image.
Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

Childs Frick grew up to become a naturalist and botanist. He maintained a research laboratory and small zoo as an adult at his own Long Island estate (which was called Clayton like his childhood home). 

Childs Frick, 1942
Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

In his granddaughter Martha Symington Sanger's book The Henry Clay Frick Houses, Childs Frick's zoo was said to have housed a bear, six-foot-long gouffer snakes, and alligators. His daughter (Sanger's mother) particularly enjoyed the swimming pool on the grounds, which was basically a Frick gator playground:

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.

The Fricks and other wealthy Pittsburghs were Gilded Age snowbirds, annually traveling to Palm Beach in the 1890s during the winter months. Although there is no documentation that a young Childs Frick or younger sister Helen brought back pet alligators from Florida, many other Pittsburghers did so.

Some were just passing through, as per this story from the Post in October 1894 which adds a new level to the notion of alligator luggage. Dr. J.B. Des Roche and his wife were held by local police due to a complaint by former partner Dr. Cecil Krause, who claimed Des Roche had absconded after stealing money, medicine, and other items from their Cincinnati practice. "When Des Roche and his wife were arrested at Union station their luggage was seized….It consisted of one small and three large trunks. Inside one of them was a box containing three little alligators, pets of the doctor’s wife."  There was not enough evidence to press charges, so the Des Roches and their gators left town. 

Others were permanent residents of the Pittsburgh region. The Dispatch alerted readers in May 1889 to the case of a weird gator situation: "A young alligator in McKeesport show window tried to swallow a teacup. The excited owner barely saved its life by inverting it and vigorously thumping its system." 

And no matter what the press said about their "kittenish" qualities, alligators were definitely more dangerous than kittens. In fact, they were downright dangerous to kittens:

The Dispatch reported a gator-related Christmas cat-astrophe on 27 December 1889:

John R. Johnston’s big alligator, sent to him by Captain Doddler, of New Orleans, has been playing sad havoc in the store at No. 94 Water street. The scaly gentleman from the South has been kept chained in his big tank, but he grew so frolicsome or hungry Christmas evening that he broke the chain and crawled out of the tank. There have always been kept in the store a number of cats and kittens. They are to be found, as rat destroyers, in all the grain commission houses along Water street. In that particular house there were four half grown kittens, as cute and sprightly as could be. Mr. Johnston used to love to lie in the middle of the floor and play with them all the afternoon. He will play with them no more. When the storehouse was opened yesterday morning, the alligator was found sleeping in one corner, puffed with eating. No kittens ran to greet the opening door, but the floor was strewn with cat-fur.  

The local newspapers also helpfully printed articles about the care and keeping of alligators. One such piece appeared in May 1909 in the Press from the Brooklyn Institute Museum. It acknowledged that maintaining alligators outside of their natural environment was challenging at best: 

Every winter and spring the museum receives a crop of unfortunate young alligators, brought by unhappy owners, who, having purchased them for household pets while in Florida, find that alligators are a serious disappointment. Instead of eating, they refuse all food, they spend nearly all of their time in sleep, and, worse than either, they pine away and die. “What shall I feed him?” is the anxious query of nearly every alligator owner….

The piece went on to describe the steady diet of its two young alligators who were thriving on “their regular rations of earthworms and chopped beef” in an aquarium habitat kept at an even temperature in the mid-70s. Of course, keeping anything in the average Pittsburgh home at an even 70 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year was a challenge.

But people still tried. The Post in March 1912 offered this vignette about Living with Gator, who seemed to be the reptilian equivalent of a pocket pet:
The pet alligator is wrapped in a lace handkerchief when he is taken to teas. Liberated and placed on the tea table he is really coy and furnished no end of amusement. When in his owner's apartment his place is in the bathtub. Here he spends his time drawn up on a shoe tree, the only floatable object his mistress as a rule brings with her, basking in the rays of an electric light. Being an amphibious animal, when his mistress wishes to make use of the receptacle, it is easy to transfer him to the floor. Altogether he makes an admirable pet. 
For the child whose parents couldn't manage the acquisition of a coveted reptile, there were always paper dolls with reptile accessories to color and clip:

Pittsburg Press, 28 January 1912

Of course, not everyone had the time or inclination to tend to a live alligator (let alone an extra shoe tree to float in their tub). In September 1887, Pittsburgh's society newsweekly The Bulletin assured East End residents that they could remain on-trend with a small dead alligator, "stuffed and mounted" and artfully displayed on a small log in a cluster of Spanish moss. Such a vignette equaled a live pet in charm, since "his chronic condition is one of absolute quiet, he loses none of his attractions when life is extinct." To cinch the deal, the paper advised that this reptilian parlor ornament could serve not only as objet d'art but as functional conversation piece: "This same alligator can be made very effective upon lace draperies, where he seems to hold them in place."

But as Pittsburgh learned in 2019, gators are prone to wandering. Daily Post claimed that a 17 inch long dead alligator was found in the water pipes of Western Penitentiary on 28 March 1880 (although it's possible that was a hellbender). 

Lawrenceville had a seven-foot long gator in 1881. Well, a dead seven-foot long gator. It was discovered floating in a box by boys swimming at the foot of Forty-first Street in the Allegheny River (which arguably is more dangerous than a live gator).

They pulled it in and found it to contain a dead alligator, fully seven feet, in length. It was very much decomposed, and emited an offensive odor. The boys dumped the corpse out on the shore, where it still lies. A number of persons went to the river to see it, but only those with strong nostrils would venture within half a square of where the dead animal lay. The alligator was no doubt  on exhibition in some upriver towns when it died and was thrown in the river.                                                                                                      ~Pittsburg Post, 16 July 1881

A few years later in December 1883 the Press reminisced about a free-range gator who'd led a colorful life downtown in the old Second Avenue Park

....it escaped from the Second avenue Park fountain a few years ago. This alligator was somewhat dissipated. It had a habit of leaving its native element after dark and spending the nights in slumber on the door steps of adjacent dwellings, much to the terror of peaceful domestics who encountered it in the early mornings when they went out to sweep the pavements. It is not known that it was addicted to liquor, but it certainly was accustomed to midnight rambles, which did not redound to its credit. But rumor has it that it strolled off one night up Second avenue and met its death beneath the cars at the Try street railroad crossing.

In May 1894, an Allegheny City accountant named William Gordon found himself "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 who "did not seem any the worse for the trip" that lasted five weeks from New Orleans. The gator was intended for Allegheny Parks but unfortunately Mr. Gordon came into work one day to discover that someone had moved aside its frame enclosure on the third floor of the office warehouse. There was just enough room for an alligator to make a break for it. Fortunately for his warehouse co-workers, this story had a happy ending two weeks later:

Often during the busy hours of the day, William would think he heard the pet romaing about and would rush frantically upstairs only to be diappointed. Thursday one of the men in moving some grain discovered the lost animal, but what a change! It was fully four feet long and twice as ugly as before. Gordon was called, and after some careful maneuvering the fellow was captured. Overjoyed at discovering his pet, Gordon secured a shawl strap and took it home, where it roams about at will, owning everything in sight. ~Pittsburg Dispatch, 7 June 1891
There was some editorial license taken with this story, because alligators can't grow from 1.5 to 4 feet in two weeks. (Then again, who knows what was in our rivers back then...). 

As with Pittsburgh's most recent reptilian wanderers, gator ownership couldn't always be established. Consider the Pittsburgh Sewer Gator of 1917:

Pittsburg Post, 17 July 1917

This 1917 Pittsburgh Sewer Gator story has everything. Not only does it fulfill one of the most enduring urban legends, that of sewer-dwelling gator in our midst, but it provides an intrepid (albeit unwise) hero. Sewer worker George Moul discovers an alligator during an inspection on the Northside, wrangles it, and walks it back to his place on Lockhart Street. All of this prompted the Gazette Times to note:

 The North Side has been famed for many things, but not even in the days when it was Allegheny City and had a distinction all its own did it put forth such a claim to notice as being the habitat of the alligator. But they have such things over there.

For all we know, a hundred years on perhaps some of the alligators that appeared during the 2019 Pittsburgh alligator plague were descendants of 1917 Sewer Gator. Too bad for them, though. The 2019 Yinzigators have been sent to Florida to establish an expatriate Pittsburgh reptile community (hopefully gated). 

But such is the lure of the saurian that you know there will be more....

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