April 18, 1941: War was a distant rumble when Pittsburgh conducted what was labeled a “blackout rehearsal” in April 1941. The event was treated as a grand spectacle, a sort of a light-up night in reverse. “The greatest audience ever in Western Pennsylvania” jammed the surrounding hillsides to see the city go dark at 10:10 p.m., reported The Pittsburgh Press.
Only Pittsburgh didn’t quite go dark. Several bridge lights continued to twinkle. Streetlights burned. The beacon atop the Grant Building never ceased flashing the city’s name in Morse code. A reporter flying in an airplane at 3,500 feet wrote that the Golden Triangle was dim but very recognizable.
Pittsburgh tried again on June 25, 1942. This time, folks got serious about the business of making the city invisible to enemy aircraft at night. Maybe it was the memory of all those American ships burning in Pearl Harbor.
On the day of the planned blackout The Pittsburgh Press warned, “If and when we do get bombed, we’ll get perfection in our blackout or it will cost us dearly in lives and property damage.”
Sirens and church bells signaled the “lights-out” moment at 9:45 p.m. At Sixth and Penn, a handful of people and four police officers watched the street lights blink off. “The complete darkness was a physical shock,” wrote Post-Gazette reporter Anna Jane Phillips. “For the first time we felt war close to us.”
Street cars stopped in their tracks. Motorists pulled their automobiles to curbs and switched off headlights. Bessemer converters at the National Tube Works in McKeesport were blown out. Air raid wardens patrolled the streets. Those who violated the blackout were subject to a $100 fine.
Downtown, Phillips encountered a number of people huddled in the entrance of a darkened restaurant on Fifth Avenue. It was a somber crowd. Everyone spoke in whispered tones. “Nowhere did we hear laughter or shouts or hilarity,” Phillips wrote. The stillness was so great she could hear the quiet footsteps of police officers patrolling the street.
At one point, the silence was eerily broken when bells at a Hill District church tolled, “like a dirge for peace,” Phillips wrote.
Not all was perfect. Someone forgot to shut off bulbs in the Liberty Tubes, which were “like the barrels of a huge shotgun” blasting light at the city, according to the Press.
After 30 minutes, sirens sounded the blackout’s end.
As the city once again illuminated itself and returned to life, a young man in a chef’s hat stood downtown and proclaimed, “Those lights, gee, I never knew they were so wonderful.”