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When Saw Mill Run was world-famous

Courtesy Carnegie Museum Of Art

"Salt Works on Saw Mill Run" by Russell Smith.

By William McCloskey

Before today's neighborhoods even received their modern names, the West End district enjoyed the international stage when a world-renowned landscape artist depicted fledgling industry where Saw Mill Run joins the Ohio River.

Russell Smith, a celebrated world-traveling painter who lived in these parts in 1884, created "Salt Works on Saw Mill Run." The work is oil on canvas, measuring 22 x 36 inches, and is owned by the Carnegie Museum of Art. It was exhibited for curious art patrons in London, Paris, New York and Philadelphia.

In those days, before it was "engineered" for flood control, Saw Mill Run was a free-running watercourse and much more robust where it flowed into the big river, after pouring through what is now known as the Seldom Seen greenway.

Nature and geology caused massive deposits of salt to be laid down there in antiquity and the works pictured by Smith was part of a huge industry, as salt then was expensive and precious, used for many domestic and commercial purposes, as both catalyst and ingredient, as well as for meat preservation.

The smoky facility depicted here documents what a big deal it was and that primitive and powerful coal-fired, steam-driven machines both drilled for and processed salt.

In many parts of the site, salt in its natural solid state simply could be mined with pickaxes and shovels, like coal. Nearer the river, processors also would drill as deep as 500 feet to tap enormous springs of highly concentrated salt solutions that then were pumped to the surface and evaporated and dried into a useable form.

Ironically back then, salt drillers often struck gushers of crude petroleum. But there being no way to refine it, or few practical uses for it, what later came to be known as "black gold" usually was ditched back into the river.

Not so well known today, master artists from all over the world flocked to Pittsburgh in the early days.

Unaware or unconcerned about the health consequences of smoke, the massively industrialized 19th Century city was a sensory delight of flame, thunderous noise and earth-shaking tremors – a virtual man-made volcano not seen elsewhere in the world.

Though older and smaller than steel mills, the area's extensive glassworks equally were spectacular visually. Without photography in those days, we now know about them mostly from the work of artists like Smith.

Born in Scotland, Smith was brought to the United States in 1819 by his parents and settled in Pittsburgh, where he pursued formal art instruction before moving on to Philadelphia. There, he enjoyed celebrity and generous patronage by that city's and New York's moneyed Gilded Age elites.

William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh writer, editor and historian. Contact him at


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