Life was rough for the 350 patients at Mercy Hospital in October 1902. They suffered from any number of turn-of-the-century maladies — influenza, abdominal pains, “congested lungs,” irritated bowels; surely some had been burned, sliced or mashed in industrial accidents, rolled under carriage wheels or clobbered by “traction cars.” One poor woman was admitted with acute back pains, swollen legs, “scanty and high colored urine” and a “very disagreeable odor,” according to one newspaper.
But then things got worse.
An electrical clock system was installed at the nearby Forbes School, one of Pittsburgh’s largest educational facilities. The system was put in place by a “wonderfully successful young electrician,” one newspaper reported, and was quite clever: It allowed every clock in the school to be controlled by a central clock. At the top of each hour, all clocks chimed out the time.
This included the clock placed in the school’s bell tower, which rose more than three stories over a crowded Uptown neighborhood. Wires connected to the central clock triggered a hammer that struck a massive school bell and pealed out the hours.
Hour after hour. Day after day.
This was simply too much for Mercy’s patients to endure.
“Nerve-racked, tortured persons say their condition is made worse because they are unable to get any sleep,” read a Pittsburgh Press article from Oct. 27, 1902. The hourly pounding of the bell was at least a discomfort, if not a “positive danger” to the sick folks just one block away.
Some patients said they didn’t even try to sleep — they simply laid in bed and waited for the irritating gong. For them, no slumber was preferable to sleep rudely interrupted.
The sounding bell was one of many ways in which the Forbes School, a solidly built three-story brick structure, dominated the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Stevenson Street. The school was completed in 1885 and, judging from news stories we found, played a prominent role in the life of the Hill District for several decades.
In 1911, a chorus of school children sang “Santa Lucia” and the Forbes School Orchestra played a march titled “Yankee Luck” for the dedication of a new annex, which included a swimming pool, an auditorium that could seat more than 600 and a “manual training department.”
The school served children and foreign-born adults who attended “Americanization” courses. As World War II began, 877 students filled the school’s halls. They were a patriotic bunch. A newspaper story from Dec. 8, 1942, noted that students at Forbes purchased $4,500 in bonds in an effort to “remember Pearl Harbor.”
Some of the largest purchases were made by adult students struggling to learn English. Many of the children, sons and daughters of immigrants, made surprisingly generous contributions. One child made his purchase with 1,800 pennies. “He is of Russian parentage,” according to the story. “His father is dead.”
Ten Chinese children bought bonds, “one boy taking $100 worth, the money coming from his school savings fund.”
By the early 1970s, officials decided the antiquated structure had outlived its usefulness. By mid-January of 1974, a heavy iron shovel began pulling apart the structure.
It had been purchased by Mercy Hospital. The Forbes School bell would toll no more.