Menu Contact/Location

North Shore discovery well worth the effort

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Richard Byrne Reilly
Monday, August 13, 2007

An old well unearthed by construction crews digging the North Shore Connector tunnel has given archeologists a brush with history.
Among glassware and dinner plates was a 10-inch-long toothbrush that historians speculate was last used in the 1850s.

“It’s very exciting to find a toothbrush because you generally don’t find them,” said Lori Frye, a lead historian and archeologist with GAI Consultants, a cultural resource group hired by the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which is overseeing the tunnel project.

The toothbrush — made of a compound resembling stone and hardened wood — is one of hundreds of artifacts that workers found inside the well, which is in a massive shaft being prepared for a huge German boring machine that will tunnel under the river for a T subway extension connecting Downtown and the North Shore. The well was discovered two weeks ago.

So far, items retrieved from the well have been packed in 50 plastic bags and taken to GAI’s headquarters in West Homestead. Each item is cleaned, researched, bagged and tagged before being sent to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, said Benjamin Resnick, a cultural resources manager for GAI. Items that filled 30 other bags have been recovered from other areas of the construction site since digging began earlier this year.
Items found include bottles, plates, pencils, kerosene lamps and toys, such as pieces of porcelain dolls. Often, when water tables changed or if the well became contaminated, the well was used as a garbage dump — and therefore is an archeological treasure troves.

“These are actual physical pieces of our past. The artifacts are from a narrow time frame. It allows us to form a picture of the people who lived here before,” Resnick said.

The shaft sits near the corner of Mazerowski Way and West General Robinson Street across from PNC Park on the North Side. The area was in separate town known as Allegheny City before Pittsburgh annexed it in 1907.

The well was found in an area that had been a sprawl of heavy industry and smaller shops producing glassware, iron-cast stoves, train locomotives and houses in the mid-19th century, said Mike Coleman, president of the Allegheny Society. Pittsburgh painter Mary Cassatt was born in 1844 nearby. Coleman said workers undoubtedly will uncover more artifacts as they dig deeper.

“They’re going to unearth a lot of stuff,” Coleman said.

Resnick estimated that the well dates from the mid-19th century or possibly the early 19th century.

Armed with massive research books with titles such as “Encyclopedia of Britain Pottery and Porcelain Marks,” Resnick’s four-member team tries to determine the manufacturer and production dates for the material. A majority of the ceramics found were produced in England and Ohio, he said.

Resnick’s team is compiling an archeological impact report that will be presented to the Port Authority.

“Anything we collect, we give to the team. This is historical in nature, and that’s why we go through the process in order to preserve history,” said Keith Wargo, director of the North Shore Connector Project.

One of the choicest finds is a large, ornate glass boar, missing three legs and part of its tusks. GAI assistant lab director Colleen Dugan says the boar was a collector’s piece. Numerous clay smoking pipes and scores of bottles — including containers for medicine, alcohol and soft drinks — have been catalogued.

“I love the pig. I named him Spider Pig after the pig in ‘The Simpson’s Movie,'” Dugan said.

One large bottle, in pristine condition, has a label reading: EE Hecks, Pharmacy. Corner of Smithfield and Liberty Streets, Pittsburgh, PA. Prescription Bottle.”

The well was discovered 15 feet below ground, and crews haven’t finished excavating it. The mud and earth have helped keep many items intact, experts said.

“The preservation has just been phenomenal,” Resnick said.

Richard Byrne Reilly can be reached at or 412-380-5625.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633