Jan. 31, 1956: "The Mystery of Pittsburgh’s Missing Bomber"
If you’ve lived in Pittsburgh more than a week, you’ve no doubt heard about the “missing bomber” — the B-25 that crashed into the Monongahela River late on a cold winter afternoon in 1956. When it was suggested to us at the Digs a few months ago that we search our files for pictures from the event, we were intrigued. Perhaps we’d discover some long-forgotten images and uncover clues. Perhaps we would solve Pittsburgh’s most enduring mystery.
Very quickly, we found notes indicating the existence of a photo file called “Monongahela River — B-25 plane crash, January 31, 1956.” We dug into the archive. For days we searched, looking in every conceivable category: Monongahela River, plane crashes, planes, bombers, lost bombers, rivers, aviation. We searched for files containing the names of the crew members and those who helped in the rescue and recovery operations.
We found nothing.
Like the plane itself, the file containing news pictures of the event had disappeared. Those of us on the Digs team looked at each other uneasily. Perhaps the file was clandestinely carried away in the dead of night and is now secured in a locked cabinet at a top-secret military location.
It was a fun thought. Most likely, the file was simply misplaced or lost. Unfortunately, our efforts to shed light on the missing bomber episode resulted only in a deepening of a decades-old mystery.
That’s OK. Like all Pittsburghers, we get a kick out of telling the story and trading theories about what happened to the plane. But we cannot forget the tragedy of the event — two crew members drowned before they could be rescued.
The B-25 was enroute from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to Olmsted Air Force Base near Harrisburg. Over Western Pennsylvania the plane inexplicably ran out of fuel. Pilot Maj. William Dotson executed an emergency landing in the Monongahela River just past the Homestead High Level Bridge.
All six crew members survived the landing. Four were rescued. The bodies of the other two were found in the days after the crash. For two weeks, authorities tried unsuccessfully to locate the B-25, which had sunk somewhere near Beck’s Run. The bomber seemed to have vanished without a trace.
What could have happened to the aircraft? Several theories are floating around. Some make sense; some are bizarre. If you want to learn more, check out the video we produced. You’ll find it on the blog post above this one. It depicts the crash, using some pretty cool animation.
And as for the picture file, we’ll continue searching — and speculating. Hmmmm. We’re thinking “Area 51.”
1947: "Tragic explosion on excursion steamer Island Queen"
It was the first and one of the worst river disasters in the history of the Pittsburgh Port. Nineteen people died and 18 were injured as a result of an explosion aboard a huge and lavish excursion boat — the Island Queen.
In 1947, the Island Queen was considered one of the largest excursion steamers in the United States and the largest river pleasure boat in the world. It was built at Midland, Pa., in 1924 and completed in Cincinnati in 1925. The estimated half-million-dollar excursion steamer was 286 feet by 45.6 feet and had accommodations for 4,000 passengers.
On Sept. 9th, 1947, the day of its tragic end, the Island Queen — a luxury boat with a huge dance floor and dazzling interior design — was in Pittsburgh during its 10-day excursion tour. It had a scenic tour scheduled for 9 p.m. Tuesday. There were no passengers aboard that afternoon when the blast shook the boat, but about 40 crew members were aboard preparing for the regularly scheduled trip later that day.
According to the Post-Gazette, the blast occurred at 1:16 p.m. and was followed by a roaring fire with with flames shooting 200 feet or more into the air. Bodies were thrown by the force of the blast, then dropped more than 30 feet away into the Monongahela River. At 1:20 p.m., less than five minutes after the explosion, the structure of the boat began to crumble. The five-deck boat was completely enveloped by flames and smoke; fire was raging inside and all around the boat. Onlookers gathered ashore to witness in horror as the tragedy unfolded. They could see and hear as the boat was being scorched by fire with members of the crew on board. Fifteen of the crew members were believed asleep aboard the vessel during the blast.
The entire Downtown was shaken by the force of the explosion, which was described by some near the scene as a single blast, by others as two almost simultaneous blasts and by still others as a continuous rumble lasting several seconds and sounding as though it was made up of a series of five or six explosions following each other in quick succession.
The devastating force of the blast knocked several people to the ground on nearby streets. One of them, the Post-Gazette reported, was Joseph Miller, manager of the Union Bus Terminal, who was standing in the terminal yards when the blast occurred. “I picked myself up and at first I could not figure what happened,” he said. “It was as if an atomic bomb had gone off. Then I saw the boat burning and ran across First Avenue and notified the fire department.”
The big boat “was a blazing inferno within seconds after the explosion.” According to the Post-Gazette, the boat turned into a mass of flames very quickly and it became clear that very few would have a chance to escape. “After burning for two hours, the once charred and blackened hulk of the once proud steamer sank in the Monongahela.”
The explosion created traffic hazards: the blast drew thousands to the scene. People were rushing across the streets toward the river and motorists were driving to get a close-up view. “So great was the crowd on the Smithfield Street Bridge that police were forced to clear it, fearing the additional weight might cause it to collapse, Post-Gazette reported. “As the crowds ran along Smithfield, Wood and Market streets toward the river, they found the sidewalks in many places littered with glass.” Thousands of workers and shoppers hurried toward the Monongahela Wharf in the Golden Triangle to view the wreckage of the excursion boat Island Queen. They waded through water from fire hoses and crowded onto the outer sidewalk of Water Street Boulevard. Many of the spectators had been on the ship during its stay in Pittsburgh, and many others were planning scenic trips on the river in the floating palace.
The blast was so powerful that it shattered windows of store and office buildings in the “concussion-rocked” Monongahela waterfront area; authorities had to establish a strict guard to prevent looting that night. Many automobiles in the city parking lot on the wharf below Smithfield Street were damaged as well, including the eleven that were so badly damaged and scorched that they could not have been driven away and had to be towed to a City of Pittsburgh garage.
A follow up investigation concluded that the explosion on the Queen Island was caused by sparks from welding work being done that set the boat ablaze. The monetary loss of that tragedy was estimated at $1,000,000.
1990s: "Former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy and his accomplishments"
Tom Murphy’s activism on Pittsburgh’s historic North Side propelled him to serve in the state Legislature from 1979 through 1993. On Dec. 30, 1993, he conferred with Mayor Sophie Masloff in City Hall and power transferred quietly.
A month earlier, the 49-year-old legislator had hoisted his 2-year-old son, T.J., into the air after learning he had won election to the mayor’s office, a post he held for three consecutive four-year terms. A picture of that scene appeared on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s front page on Nov. 3, 1993. The victory was especially sweet because an earlier campaign in 1989 ended in failure.
As mayor from January 1994 until January 2006, Mr. Murphy was highly visible and hard working. He was often seen running on riverfront trails or in Point State Park. As the city’s 56th mayor, he was passionate about improving neighborhoods and making Downtown more vibrant even if, at times, he could be a bit prickly.
To a large degree, he succeeded in transforming Pittsburgh. Mr. Murphy’s zeal for improving the city’s rivers led to the creation of more than 25 miles of riverfront trails. Public-private partnerships transformed blighted industrial land into residential or retail spaces. One example is Nine Mile Run, a former slag heap that became Summerset at Frick Park, a residential community.
Other major achievements during Mr. Murphy’s administration include construction of PNC Park, Heinz Field and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which was the largest certified green building in the nation when it opened in September 2003.
Mayor Murphy’s plan to raze Downtown buildings on Forbes and Fifth avenues to attract a Nordstrom department store and Planet Hollywood ran smack into ardent opposition from preservationists. The department store chain, Lazarus, came and went from a Downtown building that is now condominiums. To the horror of preservationists, the Mellon Bank Building became a home for Lord & Taylor. The department store chain had a brief run before leaving town.
As 2012 drew to a close, the former mayor made a rare appearance in City Council chambers. He told civic leaders that a Strip District project proposed by the Buncher Co. falls well short of Pittsburgh’s world-class standards for riverfront development. Buncher has backed away from seeking tax increment financing from the city.
Since 2006, Mr. Murphy has been a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.
June 18, 1941: “The Conn Clan is distraught as Billy is knocked out”
It was a sports night in Pittsburgh. Radios squawked in living rooms and bars and social clubs throughout the city. On a porch at 5435 Fifth Ave., the atmosphere was electric and tense. A half dozen girls listened with special intensity. They were the Con Clan — relatives and friends of Pittsburgh boxer Billy Conn, whose fight with heavyweight champion Joe Louis was nearing its end.
Throughout the night at the Conn home, three radios blared news of the bout. Billy’s mother, terminally ill and under doctor’s orders not to listen, remained in an upstairs bedroom and prayed. One aunt fled when the opening bell sounded. Reports from the Polo Grounds made her too nervous. And when Billy launched a furious attack on Louis in the 12th round, Conn’s six-year-old cousin Davey Herr got so excited he knocked over a table of phonograph records, shattering several discs, including “Mariquita Linda” and “It Makes No Difference Now.”
The Conn-Louis fight is legendary. You know how it ends. The Pittsburgh Kid battled himself into the lead, then tried for a knockout in the 13th round. Instead, Conn himself was KO’d. The Conn Clan, including the fighter’s sister Mary Jane (she’s the one sitting at left), wailed and weeped.
No athlete captured the Pittsburgh ethos more fully than Conn. He was a tough and spirited underdog (Louis outweighed him by more than 30 pounds) and knew something of commitment — to his hometown and to his wife. He lived for decades in the same Squirrel Hill house, and his courtship of Mary Louise Smith is a story an old-time romance novelist could have dreamed up. The marriage was ended only by Conn’s death in 1993.
Sometimes we wonder what would have happened if Conn had followed the advice of his handlers, avoided Louis in the later rounds of that famous fight and held onto his lead on points. What if Conn had become champ? It’s our guess we’d still be talking about a guy who lived for decades in the same Pittsburgh house and who grew old with the woman he fell in love with when both were young and beautiful. He knew what was really important. He was a Pittsburgh kind of guy.
1966: "The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in Pittsburgh"
“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. “
These are the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we are honoring his legacy with a series of photographs from our photo archive and newspaper clips from The Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King visited the University of Pittsburgh in Nov. 1966 and addressed a crowd of some 1000 students and faculty members jammed into the University of Pittsburgh’s 850-seat Student Union ballroom. In his 50-minute speech the civil rights leader said that non-violence is the “most potent weapon” of African Americans in the fight for equality. “America,” he said, according to the Post-Gazette, “has failed to listen to the plight of the poor Negro.” He observed that ‘winters of delay’ had led to ‘summers of riots.’
"Dr. King drew the largest turnout of students ever to hear a visiting speaker in Pitt’s Student Union. The main auditorium was filled to overflowing and hundreds of students stood or sat in halls and other rooms, listening to his speech by loudspeakers," the Post-Gazette said.
Speaking in solemn, sometimes poetic tones, Dr. King said that “if the United States could spend 24 billion dollars a year to fight the war in Vietnam and almost as much to put the man on the moon then billions could be spent to upgrade the Negro,” the Post-Gazette reported.
"Some people are more concerned about winning the war in Vietnam than they are about winning the war on poverty right here at home," he said. "I must say to you no matter how much I’m criticized for it I never intend to adjust to madness of militarism."
Dr. King ended his speech on an optimistic note: “Despite current problems in the civil rights movement, white backlash and black power, I still have faith in the future.”
Jan. 20, 2009: "First inauguration of Barack Obama"
Capturing the scene of Barack Obama taking the presidential oath of office required effort and stamina. In January 2008, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photographer Michael Henninger walked a mile, cleared at least three security checkpoints and stood outside for six hours in frigid air.
He carried two camera bodies, a normal complement of lenses, a 400 millimeter lens, a video camera and a laptop. Under his heavy winter coat, he wore three layers of clothing plus warmers inside his gloves and three pairs of socks. Still, Mr. Henninger recalled, “I was the coldest I’d ever been in my life. I couldn’t feel my feet at all. I was genuinely worried about frostbite.”
Many news reporters stayed warm inside trailers while he positioned himself on a bleacher.
“I do remember the moment when [Chief Justice John] Roberts said the wrong word. There was this smirk on the face of the president,” Mr. Henninger said. Afterward, he was able to send one photo. Then, he walked to a coffee house to file the rest of his images. As he walked, circulation returned and he warmed up.
For days afterward, his shoulders and back felt sore. But in retrospect, all the effort seemed worthwhile. “I have a plate of the A-1 photo that we ran on my wall. It’s definitely a conversation starter,” Mr. Henninger said.
(Photo by Michael Henninger, Post-Gazette)
August 1939: "Trolleys on Fifth Avenue in Oakland"
Streetcars figured prominently in Pittsburgh’s history and carried many students to classes at the University of Pittsburgh.
This photograph, made in August of 1939, shows how streetcars dominated Fifth Avenue in Oakland. In the background is Mellon Institute, Heinz Memorial Chapel and Bellefield Avenue.
During summer, when bridge work and road construction are in full swing, numerous detours make Pittsburgh seem like the world’s biggest obstacle course.
The summer of 1939 was especially trying for motorists and streetcar riders as construction crews worked to widen Fifth Avenue from University Place to Neville Street.
During that year, trolley riders and motorists regularly encountered closed streets, torn up streetcar tracks and holes in the pavement.
(Photo credit: Unknown)
Circa 1973: ”Homestead Works 4 o’clock shift.”
The Homestead Works was at one time the busiest steel mill in the United States. According to the Post-Gazette, the Homestead Works of U.S. Steel produced nearly a third of all the steel used in the country.
“In its 105-year history, the Homestead Works produced more than 200 million tons of steel: Rails and railroad cars, armor plate that covered battleships and tanks from the Spanish-American War through the Korean War, and beams and girders that went into the Empire State Building, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the U.S. Steel Building in Pittsburgh and the Sears Tower in Chicago.”
This photo, found in our archives, shows men leaving the Homestead Works after their shift. The mill shut its doors July 25, 1986, when a lonely band of two dozen men drove out the Amity Street gate for the last time.
(Photo by Ed Morgan, The Pittsburgh Press)
Dec. 3, 1937: "Not a bad picture — just smog"
We saw pictures of Beijing’s “off the charts” air pollution yesterday. Hmmm, we thought. We’ve seen this before. Pittsburgh was once the smog champion. Here’s proof: a picture of the Wabash Bridge, shot at noon on what The Pittsburgh Press described as “one of the worst smog days in the city’s history.” A headline above this picture explained, “Not a moonlit scene nor a bad picture.”
The sun-blocking smoke is long gone. So is the Wabash Bridge. It was demolished in 1948.
(Photo credit: Unknown)
April 28, 1989: “Lemieux on the ice in Philadelphia”
Upon hearing last week that pucks would once again fly at the Consol Energy Center, we were inspired to dig though a box of aging prints in search of an historic hockey picture. We found this image of Penguins center Mario Lemieux joining his teammates shortly before a 1989 Patrick Division playoff game against the Flyers in Philadelphia. A few Flyers fans displayed signs that showed remarkable wit (wink, wink).
The Pens lost the series, but it proved a turning point for both teams. The Pens were on the verge of true glory — the team went onto win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992. The Flyers, on the other hand, were soon to hit a dry spell. They failed even to make the playoffs for the next five seasons.
(Photo by Vince Musi, The Pittsburgh Press)
May 2, 1932: "The trial of Pittsburgh Mayor Charles Kline"
The date stamped on the back of this picture suggests it was made during the first day of former Mayor Charles Kline’s trial on charges of malfeasance. After his conviction, The Pittsburgh Press editorialized, “The little machine henchmen with their knowing smiles …. now know that no political machine is all powerful.”
Charles Kline (he’s the one smoking the cigarette) can be remembered for many things: He was a dapper dresser, and during his administration the skyline grew to include the Gulf Oil Tower, the Grant Building and the Koppers Building. He loved greeting famous people who visited the city. One day we’ll post a collection of pictures of Kline welcoming notable folks — among them President Calvin Coolidge, Charles Lindbergh, Mary Astor, Richard Byrd and Gene Tunney. Kline also was the last Republican elected mayor of the city.
But perhaps Kline is known best as the city’s most corrupt politician. His trouble began with the purchase of a $1,350 rug he said would “dignify the mayor’s office.” That purchase fueled a controversy that led to Kline’s indictment in a purchasing scandal. Kline was sentenced to jail, but never served because of ill health. He died a few months after his conviction.
The infamous Kline rug remained in the mayor’s office, becoming threadbare over the years, until Sophie Masloff ordered it removed in 1992.
(Photo credit: Unknown)
Oct. 9, 1960: "Diamond Market House"
At the massive Diamond Market House that sat at present-day Market Square, farmers, butchers and bakers sold fresh meat, vegetables and flowers directly to the public. On one of its upper floors, you could roller skate to the accompaniment of live organ music.
Built between 1912 and 1917, the red brick, H-shaped structure was designed by Rutan and Russell. The market thrived for nearly 50 years. But with suburban expansion beyond the city’s core and the growth of shopping plazas featuring large supermarkets, business dwindled at the Downtown market.
In December, 1959, a 35-pound hunk of cornice fell from the building, striking Mary Shelton of Forest Hills on her head and crushing her right foot. Afterward, city officials toured the building and found that it was dim, drafty, splattered with pigeon manure and in need of between $160,000 to $300,00 in repairs.
City officials also found that the Marketmen’s Association, which rented the building, was six months behind in payments. The building was razed in 1961.
Luckily for Downtown shoppers, farmers still come to Market Square to sell their produce. The appearance of their temporary stalls, which are set up every Thursday between spring and November, enlivens the plaza with color and commerce.
Go to the Post-Gazette’s Pittsburgh Then and Now page to see how the square has changed since 1960.
(Photo by Morris Berman, Post-Gazette)
June 24, 1987: "Beach Boys at the Civic Arena"
On the evening of June 24, 1987, the roof of the Civic Arena opened to the summer sky, delighting the 8,963 fans attending a Beach Boys concert that night.
Bill Wade took this photograph from the U.S. Steel Tower after the roof opened at 9:12 p.m.
It was an especially fun and memorable concert because the festive atmosphere included bouncing beach balls. Also, inside the arena, at stage right, there was a beach with six tons of sand, a grass hut, volleyball nets, umbrellas and inflatable beach toys.
Fans were allowed to bring their own food, buy it at the Arena or have it catered by the Pittsburgh Hyatt. Some lucky people sat at tables on the floor; each table cost $600.
Singer Brian Wilson was clean-shaven and slim. On vocals and keyboard was Bruce Johnston.
"As always, the four Beach Boys and their six sidemen rattled through number after number as if their pants were on fire, yet still played each one with energy, conviction and skill. That’s their style," wrote Pete Bishop, a reviewer for The Pittsburgh Press.