A few months before the October 1929 stock market crash, the Allegheny County Morgue finished rolling.
The 450 tons of steel, stone and lumber needed to be moved from Forbes Avenue (then called Diamond Street) to Fourth Avenue. It was much cheaper that way, the county said, than to build a new morgue.
And inside the morgue that summer, work continued as usual.
“People were killing and dying every day,” one of the men involved in the undertaking (no pun intended) told the Post-Gazette in 1987. “The coroner’s functions couldn’t be stopped.”
One hundred years before that story, there was no county morgue system here. Local undertakers raced to recover reported dead bodies and the accompanying $12 in fees from the county (about $300 today).
In this story, Heber McDowell played an important role.
McDowell was coroner from 1887 to 1899. During his tenure, he helped draft and push through legislation to help counties statewide fund and standardize morgue duties.
At the time, Philadelphia had the only morgue in the state. In 1893, McDowell’s effort passed, and Allegheny County began to subsist in a makeshift facility on Eighth Avenue.
That wasn’t good enough for McDowell in a time when taller building construction and steel mill work were not safe at all. “With progress, you always have fatalities,” he told The Pittsburgh Press in 1929, on the occasion of the morgue’s move.
The new morgue took two years to build and was completed on April Fool’s Day in 1903. Less than 25 years later, 60 men and two teams of horses moved it 235 feet to its current resting place.
The entire operation took about three months.
View this story on our map of “The Digs.”