For decades, the squat brick structure known as the Fort Pitt Blockhouse endured the indignity of domesticity. The blockhouse was built in 1764 as a small defensive fortification at Fort Pitt. Less than 10 years later, the fort was abandoned and the Point quickly morphed into a neighborhood packed with mostly poor residents. The blockhouse became a home. Windows replaced narrow gun openings. Then came curtains. Damp undergarments drying in the sun. Giggling children. Scolding parents. You do what you can to survive.
This lasted a century or so, until the Pennsylvania Railroad came along and filled the Point with rail yards, warehouses, roads, smoke and grinding, unpleasant noises. The railroad wanted that tiny piece of property occupied by the blockhouse, but had a problem: the property was owned by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The DAR proved as tough as the old building it owned. The blockhouse remained.
But it was surrounded. A speck of a building lost in the midst of industrial enormity.
The DAR gave the grounds a higher profile by arranging for the construction a gated entrance and a two-story brick structure called the Blockhouse Lodge.
The lodge looked like a house — or half of a house. It measured only 15 feet in width. For the lodge’s grand opening in 1905, the DAR decorated the front room in colonial style. Visitors signed a log and then walked through the lodge, exited through a back door and took a few steps to enter the blockhouse. A tiny terrier named “Aliquippa” stood guard. Someone tied a massive red, white and blue bow around the poor pooch.
For 60 years the lodge served as home to custodians of the blockhouse grounds. One was Aunt Mollie Beck. She was a Scottish immigrant who, at age 10, took a job a North Side cotton mill after the death of her father. There, she worked 12 hour shifts and made $11 a week. Years later, in 1913, Aunt Mollie was hired as housekeeper for a Civil War veteran serving as blockhouse custodian. When he died, Aunt Mollie took over.
She rarely left the grounds. One Sunday morning Aunt Mollie received a visit from Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of U.S. forces on the Western Front during World War I. Aunt Mollie wasn’t expecting tourists — she was, in fact, in the yard raking leaves and wearing bedroom slippers and a bathrobe. She was a bit embarrassed but she produced the large copper key that opened the blockhouse and gave the general a tour.
When floodwaters came in 1936, Aunt Mollie hung on as long as she could. Eventually police and firefighters rescued her from a second-story window of the lodge. She remained as custodian for 33 years and grew old on the grounds. A Pittsburgh Press story in February 1946 noted that one school boy on tour with classmates fired off a question at white-haired Aunt Mollie: “Are you George Washington’s wife?”
Six months later, on a warm July morning, Aunt Mollie began her usual routine of walking out the lodge’s back door to open the blockhouse. She collapsed in the yard. DAR members found her a short time later and took her to Allegheny General Hospital. She died two days later.
Within a few years, massive change arrived at the Point. Down came all those industrial buildings. Soon, the lodge and blockhouse were lonely outposts in a vast and empty landscape in the process of becoming a park. At least visitors could find the old fortification, noted The Pittsburgh Press. Before, tourists hoping for a blockhouse tour had to navigate a maze of narrow streets.
The four-room lodge, though, was doomed. It came down in 1965. Bulldozers were busy churning up the Point to create a replica of the original Fort Pitt, and the lodge wasn’t part of the plan.
Newspapers had long noted that visitors walking by often stopped to photograph the lodge, thinking it was the blockhouse, then went on their merry way. Those pictures may yet endure, mistakenly labeled in dusty family photo albums and awaiting corrective action. The homely and resilient blockhouse will survive this indiginty, too.
— Steve Mellon