In 1910, two boxers — Stanley Ketchel and Frank Klaus — fought a six-round bout in the old Duquesne Gardens on Craig Street in Oakland. Newspapers fairly hyperventilated in anticipation. “Never in the pugilistic history of Pittsburg have fans been worked into such a frenzy of excitement,” wrote The Pittsburg Press. (At the time, Pittsburgh was without its “h.”)
Ketchel was perhaps the nation’s most admired fighter. He was known as the “Michigan Assassin” and motivated himself before each fight by imagining his opponent had insulted his mother. Klaus was a local kid, the “East Pittsburg Bear-Cat.”
One of the city’s largest fight crowds packed into the Gardens, only to witness the “rawest exhibition of stalling and fiddling ever seen in a Pittsburg ring,” declared a Press writer fittingly named Jim Jab.
“This throng deserved fair treatment from the gladiators,” huffed Jab. “Did they get it? No! Ketchel and Klaus pulled off a flagrant frame-up.”
The bout ended in a draw, and the roar of disgust among fight fans filled the converted trolley barn. It was another big night at the Gardens.
There would be many others before the structure became too creaky and old and outdated to be of much use. It was demolished in 1956, the last remnants leveled by a concrete-filled safe that served as a wrecking ball.
Here’s another memorable event at the Gardens: In 1925, a record crowd of 10,000 watched the inaugural game of the Pittsburgh Pirates professional hockey team. “They certainly outplayed the ‘big town’ skaters’ from New York,” tooted the Press. Still, the Pirates lost 2-1. “It was a great game played by great players and left a great impression on the fans,” declared the not-so-great story.
Hockey and boxing were big draws — local fighters Billy Conn and Fritzie Zivic were regulars. And the joint was home to the short-lived Pittsburgh Ironmen of the Basketball Association of America, forerunner of the NBA.
But the Gardens would host just about any event, from private parties to summer operas to major political events to bizarre athletic competitions.
A six-day roller skating race was scheduled at the Gardens in 1911. Surely it was riveting to witness. Contestants were required to skate 10 hours each day. And this was no team event — it was “every man for himself,” promoters promised.
Next came an auto show. “Every Known Device for Pleasure and Profit in Motoring Will Be on Exhibition at Duquesne Garden,” a headline teased.
Perhaps the show was too successful. Newspapers reported in 1912 that negotiations were underway to convert the Gardens into an “automobile garage.” It never came to pass. Foreclosure threatened the Gardens in 1931. The city’s primary indoor entertainment facility survived that, too.
None of us at the Digs have any memories of the Gardens. To us, it serves simply as a window through which we can view Pittsburgh as it once was — a city in need of a place where residents could cheer athletes, skate to the music of a live orchestra, listen to politicians thunder words of outrage and hope and, in the summer, enjoy operas such as “Robin Hood,” “Girl from Paris” and “Wizard of the Nile.”