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How Pittsburgh lost its 'H' and got it back a century ago

Pittsburgh - America's Most Misspelled City

By Patricia Lowry / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Richardson Clover had a problem, and a pretty good idea how to fix it.

As assistant hydrographer in the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Navigation in 1889, Lt. Clover was in charge of producing its maps. He'd noticed that many place names were spelled several different ways, especially in Alaska, where there were 20 indigenous languages.

He suggested to Thomas C. Mendenhall, superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, that the two offices work together on standardizing place names on government charts and other official publications.

Thus was born, in 1890, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. One of its first acts, on June 2, 1891, was to take away Pittsburgh's "H." On Dec. 23, President Benjamin Harrison made it official. Merry Christmas, Pittsburg!

Nothing personal, mind you. The board ruled that all cities and towns with name endings pronounced "berg" should be spelled "burg."

In the case of Pittsburgh, this was not as capricious as it seems. Numerous 19th-century local history books omitted the H. Not even the city's newspapers, including the Pittsburg Telegraph, the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette and the Pittsburg Press, could agree on the spelling.

And although Pittsburgh's original city charter of 1816 spelled it with an H, the printed act omitted it due to a printer's error. The board believed the U.S. Post Office arbitrarily added the H at a later date.

So in the eyes of the federal government, Pittsburgh was Pittsburg for almost 20 years, until the board, prodded by two prominent Pittsburghers, reversed itself 100 years ago ...on July 19, 1911.

In fact, the H was there from the beginning, a reflection of the settlement's British, not German, roots. When Gen. John Forbes wrote in a letter to William Pitt the Elder, then leader of the House of Commons, that his troops had forced the French to abandon Fort Duquesne, he added, "I have used the freedom of giving your name to Fort Du Quesne." The letter was dated "Pittsbourgh. 27th November 1758."

Forbes would have pronounced it Pittsborough -- Pittsburra, actually, in his guid Scots tongue. Had Pittsburgh retained that pronunciation, the spelling still would have been changed in 1891. The board also decreed that all places ending in "borough" use the truncated, inelegant "boro."

Further, it eliminated hyphens, apostrophes and in at least one case, the space between two words: It declared all places named New Castle should be spelled Newcastle. Now that's capricious.

"The board consisted of 10 members," Sewickley-born George R. Stewart wrote in his 1945 book, "Names on the Land: a Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States."

"Most of them were scientifically trained, especially in geology and geography. They were government employees, practical men. Thus they were well fitted to deal with naming insofar as it was a practical problem. They were not well fitted to deal with its important phases which were illogical, traditional and sentimental. The original board rendered good service. It might have done better if its list had included a woman, a student of the English language, a journalist, a poet, and a hillbilly."
A common query

The case of the missing H is old news, of course, to 'Burghophiles. On Rick Sebak's 2001 "Pittsburgh A to Z" show, the letter H stood for Pittsburgh's H.

"The H question is probably our most frequently asked question," Steve Dell, then chief archivist for the Heinz History Center, told Mr. Sebak.

"Local libraries are familiar with it; the present writer has been besieged with it at his office and at dinner parties," architectural historian James D. Van Trump wrote in WQED's program guide, QED Renaissance, the forerunner of Pittsburgh Magazine. "The never-ceasing recurrence of the query has induced me to write an account in final answer, at least in the interest of sparing myself constant verbal repetition."

Mr. Van Trump wrote that he based his article partly on a 1971 one by Press writer George Swetnam.

"What is disturbing," Mr. Swetnam wrote, "is the form of the question: Nine times out of 10, it is: 'When did they put the "h" in Pittsburg?' There's even a legend it was done through some dark design of the old Flinn-Magee ring."

Ah, yes. When in doubt, blame a politician.
Are yinz from Pittsburg?

"There are Pittsburgs in California and Kansas, Illinois and Texas -- a tribute to the distances to which the Pennsylvania Pittsburghers have wandered," Mr. Van Trump wrote.

So it would seem, but in fact, Pittsburg, Texas, is named for William Harrison Pitts, who arrived from Georgia with his family in 1854 and donated the land on which this town of about 4,300 grew up.

Pittsburg, Kansas, which sits atop a coal field, was named for Pittsburgh by Canadian-born co-founder Franklin Playter, who hoped it would become an industrial city like the one at the forks of the Ohio. When it was established in 1876, it was called New Pittsburg because four years earlier, farmer William A. Pitt had named his Kansas town Pittsburg -- or Pittsburgh as it was spelled in the 1880 census. Playter bought the "naming rights," shall we say, from Pitt in 1881, the year old Pittsburg became Tipton and New Pittsburg became Pittsburg. Population today: about 20,000.

Pittsburg, Ill., is considerably smaller -- so small that no information about its founding is easily found online. But at the Pittsburg Public Library, "We just happen to have a book that someone local wrote," said Sue Clark over the phone. She manages the one-room library housed in the municipal building, a yellow metal structure on the edge of town.

Pittsburg was founded in 1906 when John Colp and Samuel T. Brush, both Illinois natives, opened an underground coal mine there.

"The mine owners agreed upon the name of Pittsburg in honor of the Keystone State," Ms. Clark read from Marlene Richey's 2003 book, "Nicknames and Other Things: Memoric History of Pittsburg, Ill."

Perhaps the need to lure experienced miners to the town from other states also had something to do with it. Although the mines have closed, street names still carry out the namesake theme: Keystone, Lehigh Valley, Hocking Valley, Pennsylvania and Scranton. Pittsburg's flat grid of streets -- about 35 blocks -- is sparsely built; the upside is its small houses have big lots with lots of trees. Population: about 600.

Pittsburg, Calif., a port city first settled in 1839 as New York Landing, changed its name to Pittsburg on Feb. 11, 1911, to honor the California city's steel-building industry. The largest of the namesake places, it's home to about 64,000 Pittsburgers today.

There is a Pittsburg whose name is attributed to a far-flung Pennsylvanian. Pittsburg, Ore., was founded by former Lycoming Co. resident Peter Brous, who arrived in 1879 with his wife and seven children. He built a sawmill and gristmill and named the settlement Pittsburgh; the H was lost after the great H removal of 1891.

Pittsburg, N.H., "the snowmobiling capital of New England," is both a small string town and the largest township in the lower 48 states. The town straddles the Daniel Webster Highway, which follows the narrow Cedar Stream. The township, bordering Quebec, was incorporated in 1840 and named for William Pitt himself, not for his first and largest namesake city.

But Pittsburgs in Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Utah were named for the industrial heritage of Pittsburgh.

If any of these Pittsburgs had H's to begin with, they don't seem to have stirred up much of a fuss to get them back.
H makes a comeback

In Pittsburgh, though, locals lobbied for the H's restoration. In fact, the city and state never removed it from official documents even as federal maps, agencies and the Post Office continued to do business without it.

As for the general public, "certainly large numbers did comply," said David Grinnell, chief archivist for the Heinz History Center today. "In hand-addressed stuff, the H is just gone" in letters and post cards in the center's collection.

Local businesses adopted the H-less name, too. The history center's "Pittsburgh A to Z" exhibit of 2001, prepared in conjunction with Mr. Sebak's documentary, included as evidence advertising materials, a commemorative plate from the city's 1900 exposition and a child's coat from the "Pittsburg" department store, Kaufmann's.

When William Hamilton Davis became Pittsburgh postmaster in 1906, he made restoring the H a special cause. The son of a South Side rolling mill worker, Mr. Davis began his career as a newspaper reporter at the Commercial Gazette, where he later was city editor. As early as 1880, at 23, he was the head of his family, living with several of his siblings, also unmarried, on the South Side and in Shadyside for what appears to be the rest of his life.

He took time out to serve in the Spanish-American War, where he attained the rank of major, and later was a leader in National Guard affairs. In 1908, he was chair of the military and parade committee for the city's sesquicentennial.

"The idea was to have a beautiful and instructive parade, not too large, which should illustrate the growth of the city from the beginning in all lines. In this complete success was achieved" on Greater Pittsburgh Day on Oct. 1, wrote Sidney King in a contemporary report on the event.

For Mr. Davis, who became city treasurer in 1916, restoring Pittsburgh's H was a matter of civic and family pride.

"My father and my grandfather added the "h' to the city's name, and when I was appointed to my first term, in 1906, the post office custom was to eliminate it, although personally I used it," he told the Pittsburgh Gazette Times in August 1911.

Mr. Davis's efforts were bolstered by those of the Chamber of Commerce and George Tener Oliver, U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, who also was publisher of the Gazette Times. Sen. Oliver persuaded the board to hold a special meeting on the matter on July 19, 1911, at which evidence in support of the H was presented.

It was enough to convince the board to reverse its position, outlined in a letter sent to Sen. Oliver and printed in the July 22 Gazette Times:

Hon. George T. Oliver

United States Senate


At a special meeting of the United States Geographic Board held on July 19, 1911 the previous decision with regard to the spelling of Pittsburgh without the final H was reconsidered and the form below was adopted:

Pittsburgh, a city in Pennsylvania (not Pittsburg).

Very respectfully,

G.S. Sloan, Secretary

Case closed? Not quite.

It took The Pittsburg Press, then the city's largest paper, another 10 years to finally and unceremoniously include the H, without comment, on its masthead and in all references to the city beginning Aug. 1, 1921.

There is at least one remaining legacy of the board's decisions, another Pittsburgh top ranking: Today it's America's most misspelled city.

...Raise a glass to Pittsburgh's silent H, a heck of a good letter with a lot of hidden history.

Patricia Lowry is a Post-Gazette staff writer plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.
First Published July 17, 2011 12:00 am

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