Nov. 28, 1931: Plane crashes into the doomed Exhibition Building
People walking near the Point around noon on a busy Saturday heard a screeching sound, then looked up into the thick fog covering the city and saw the wispy image of a biplane twirling downward in a death spiral. Pedestrians scattered. Automobiles “darted like water bugs” as drivers sought safety, one newspaper reported. Moments later came a tremendous crash of breaking glass and then the tinkling noise of shards falling to the earth.
Soon another form emerged from the foggy sky. Dangling from a white circle of silk was a 27-year-old pilot wearing fur boots, a leather aviator cap and goggles. His doomed plane had plowed into the aging Exhibition Building.
And that, too, is where the pilot’s journey ended. Melvin Garlow’s parachute became snagged on the cornice of the crumbling structure. He was left hanging a few feet from the street.
After releasing himself from his chute, Garlow dropped to the earth and promptly helped police gather letters and packages from the wreckage of the plane. It was Garlow’s job to deliver the mail, so he then reported to the post office. Clearly this young man possessed an admirable work ethic.
Garlow explained that he’d lost control of the aircraft while searching for a landmark in the heavy fog, which he called “bad stuff.” Before jumping from the cockpit, he aimed his aircraft toward the Allegheny River and away from the crowded business district.
Only one injury was reported. A railroad employee working near the crash site received minor cuts when hit by falling debris.
Nobody lost any sleep over damage to the Exhibition Building. It was just another scar added to a massive, rotting corpse of steel and glass that had become an eyesore along the Allegheny River.
In an earlier time, however, the Exhibition Building was a gem. Tousands of people each year swarmed to the castle-like structure and paid a quarter to attend annual exhibitions. Visitors viewed marvels of the machine age, sampled Heinz pickles, rode roller coasters and listened to the music of world-renowned symphonies. In an age that predated movies, crowds were entertained by “spectacles” in which models, actors and special effects were employed to re-create historic events like the Rough Riders’ charge of San Juan Hill and the sinking of the Titanic.
Attendance dwindled after the beginning of World War I, however, and following the 1916 season, the exhibition closed for good. The City of Pittsburgh took possession of the property in 1919 and once-gleaming jewel of the Point began its inglorious career as a maintenance shed.
Garlow’s misadventure is just another footnote in the story of a fascinating structure whose last remnants were leveled in 1951 to make way for Point State Park.