William Alston

William Alston (b. about 1797 - d. May 16, 1851) was a mason and construction contractor in Lanark, Scotland and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

His ancestry

William Alston's parents are unknown. There is evidence of Alstons in Lanarkshire since at least the 17th century.

According to an old story, scarcely repeated on the World Wide Web, the Alstons in Lanarkshire descend from a retainer named Alston, who served a nobleman named Gilbert de Hamilton, during the reign of Edward II (1302-1327), the son of Edward I ("Longshanks"). Hamilton expressed admiration for Robert the Bruce of Scotland, which infuriated a Lord Spencer, leading to a duel or some sort of armed scuffle in which Hamilton killed Spencer. Fearing retribution, Hamilton fled for his life for Scotland, with soldiers in hot pursuit.

In one version of the story, Alston acted as a decoy, dressing as Hamilton and riding his horse.

In another version, both Hamilton and a servant disguised themselves as woodcutters and began sawing an oak tree. As their pursuers neared, the servant hesitated and Hamilton yelled, "Through," a traditional sawyer's exclamation. This subterfuge worked, and their lives were saved. This event is commemorated in the Hamilton coat of arms, which include an oak tree and a frame saw.

Later, Alston supported Bruce in his wars of Scottish liberation. Following Bruce's victory, he granted lands to Hamilton, who in turn granted Thinacre Milne, or Mill, in Lanarkshire, to the Alstons.

His Life

William Alston was born in Lanark, Lanarkshire, about the year 1797. Lanark is about 25 miles southeast of Glascow.

As a young man, William worked as a stone contractor. On September 29, 1822, when he was about 25 years old, he married Agnes Menzies. Agnes, the daughter of John Menzies and Elizabeth Rowland, was born June 26, 1802 in Glasgow, Lanarkshire. While still living in Scotland, William and Agnes had at least three children: John M. Alston, born August 22, 1823; Archibald, b. ca. 1827; and Christina W., b. ca. 1829.

William decided to seek his fortunes in America. Leaving the family behind, he emigrated alone to the new world, arriving in New York City in 1830. He was about 33 years of age. William was unable to find work in New York City, so he walked to Philadelphia, a distance of some 100 miles. In Philadelphia, he had no better luck finding work, so he walked to Pottsville, PA, about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia. He found work only for a short time in Pottsville, so he returned to Philadelphia.

The Long Walk

In January, 1831, William Alston walked from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a distance of over 300 miles. January is the dead of winter in Pennsylvania, often with sub-zero temperatures, bitter winds, snow and ice. That he would undertake such a trek suggests extreme economic hardship; that he would finish it testifies to his physical and mental toughness.

We don't know what route he took, but the most direct one is the route that the present-day Route 30 follows. In doing so, he would have traveled some historic roads.

In 1831, the first 70 miles, Philadelphia to Lancaster, was a paved turnpike. From Lancaster to York and then Gettysburg, he would have been following the route of the Great Conestoga Road, or Philadelphia Wagon Road, a route begun in the colonial-era that connected Philadelphia with Gettysburg, and then continued south through the Appalachians as far south as Augusta, Georgia.

Between Lancaster and York, he would have had to cross the wide, shallow Susquehanna River. There was no bridge; we don't know whether he took a ferry, or, whether the river was frozen solid enough for him to walk across.

From Gettysburg through Chambersburg, Bedford, and Greensburg to Pittsburgh, the way was originally an Indian path, then a packhorse trail. By 1831, though, it was a well-traveled, if unpaved, road. The route included the Chambersburg-Bedford Turnpike, a private toll road, and the Forbes Road, which General Forbes had carved through the Alleghenies in 1758. In 1831, William Alston would have seen stage-coaches and covered wagons, carrying farm goods east, and trade goods west. There were a number of inns of various quality along the road, but we can imagine William staying only in the most humble, and only when driven to do so by the weather.

We don't know how long this trek lasted. If he managed 15 miles a day, perhaps with the help of an occasional lift, it would have taken about three weeks. We do know that he arrived in Pittsburgh, where he began a career as a masonry contractor and builder.

William Alston, the builder

William's first employment was probably as a working mason. His son, John, reported that he begun work on canals then under construction, but it is unclear on which canals William may have worked. A good possibility is the Beaver-Erie Canal, which broke ground on July 26, 1831 in New Brighton, Beaver County, some 37 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. In any case, having found employment, William sent for his wife and children, who joined him, probably in June, 1832.

The Bank of Pittsburg

William worked as a foreman on the Bank of Pittsburg. The building was designed by John Chislett (1800-1869), an Englishman practicing in Pittsburgh. The design was in the Greco Ionic style. The Bank of Pittsburg was located in the financial district, between Market Street and Wood Street, taking up nearly the entire block between Third and Fourth Avenue. Here is its front entrance on Fourth Avenue:

Image courtesy of Life In Western Pennsylvania.

On April 10, 1845, there was a great fire in Pittsburgh that destroyed over a thousand buildings. The Bank of Pittsburg survived. After the fire, " . . . the vaults of the Bank of Pittsburgh were opened, and the books, papers, and money, were found almost uninjured." In 1896, however, this building was demolished and a New Bank of Pittsburgh was built.

Sometime before 1837, William Alston formed a partnership with William Pagan, a stone-work contractor. Their company was known as Pagan & Alston. (The firm is also referred to as Pagan & Allston. William's son, John M. Alston, reported that the company was named Fagen, Swan and Alston, but I've found no evidence for a firm of that name, although there was a contractor named Theodore Swan. Pagan also did business as William Pagan & Company, but I don't know whether those enterprises involved William Alston or not.) Together, Pagan and Alston worked on some of the most important projects in the Pittsburgh of their day.

The Courthouse

According to his son, John M. Alston, William Alston helped build Pittsburgh's second Courthouse. Since the builders of record were Coltart and Dilworth, we must surmise either that William Alston worked as a masonry foreman, or, perhaps, that Pagan & Alston were masonry subcontractors.

Pittsburgh's first Courthouse was built on Market Square. Land for a new Courthouse was purchased in April, 1834. This was a tract of land on the corner of Fourth and Grant Streets, known as Grant's Hill. Construction took place between 1836 and 1840. The court house was built with polished gray sandstone, quarried at Coal Hill (present-day Mount Washington), opposite Ferry Street. The building was also designed by John Chislett. The design was Greek Revival and included a domed cupola housing a rotunda 60 feet in diameter and 80 feet high. The building was completed in 1841. Due to corrosion caused by coal smoke, the building deteriorated: the dressed surface of the facade dropped off, some of the cornices near the roof began to fall, and the building had a scaly appearance. Even in its deteriorated state, it was a handsome structure. On May 7, 1882, a fire broke out and destroyed the building. The image below (which is in the public domain) is an engraving that appeared in the February 21, 1857 edition of Ballou's Pictorial.

Second Courthouse, Pittsburgh, as it was in 1857

Subsequently, this building was demolished and the third, and present, courthouse was erected on the same spot.

Also according to John M. Alston, William helped build the Duquesne water works. This was one of the earliest public water projects in Pittsburgh. Wells were drilled near the Monongahela River, 50 to 65 feet deep. Air compressors pumped the water to a 220,000 gallon clear water well, and then a 500,000 gallon stand-pipe on a hill.

The Ninth Street Bridge (Hand Street Bridge)

According to his son, John M. Alston, William Alston helped build the Ninth Street Bridge. Several histories confirm that the contract for the bridge's stone-work was awarded to Pagan and Alston. This bridge connected Hand Street in Pittsburgh with Cedar Street in Allegheny City. (Hand Street became Ninth Street; Allegheny City became the North Side; Cedar Street became Anderson Street.) This was the first of three bridges built at this site.

The most challenging part in building the stonework for these bridges were the stone piers, which had to be erected in the swift-flowing Allegheny River. The Ninth Street bridge had four piers. You can see three of them in this picture:

Image courtesy of the Carnegie Library.

Construction began in 1837 and the bridge opened for traffic on May 29, 1840. The bridge was built on an arch principle. The original superstructure was a wooden covered bridge. On the roof, a promenade was constructed, which was a popular place for Pittsburghers to walk in pleasant weather. The picture above was taken after 1890, when the piers were repaired and the wooden superstructure replaced with steel. In 1925, construction began on the present-day Ninth Street bridge, one of a set of suspension bridges known as the Three Sisters.

The Sixteenth Street Bridge (Mechanics Street, or, Chestnut Street Bridge)

Also according to John M. Alston, William Alston helped build the Sixteenth Street Bridge. This bridge connected Mechanics Street in Pittsburgh to Chestnut Street in Allegheny City. (Mechanics Street became Sixteenth Street; Allegheny City became the North Side; Chestnut Street remains today Chestnut Street!). The stone-work contract was awarded to William Pagan and Company. Like the Ninth Street bridge downriver, construction began in 1837, but finished sooner, in 1838. Like the Ninth Street bridge, this bridge was a covered wooden structure. Here is a photograph taken about the year 1905:

Image courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art Collection of Photographs (CMA).

This image gives us a much better idea of the original appearance of the Ninth Street Bridge, (although this bridge lacks a promenade.) After a fire in 1851, the Sixteenth Street bridge was rebuilt. It was the last standing wooden covered bridge over the three rivers, finally burning down in 1919. The present-day Sixteenth Street bridge, located on the same site, was completed in 1923.

The Williamsport Bridge

Not mentioned by John M. Alston is the Williamsport bridge, over the Monongahela. Bids were opened in 1836 and the bridge was completed in 1838, so this bridge was built at pretty much the same time as the Ninth and Sixteenth Street bridges. Boyd Crumrine, in his "History of Washington County, Pennsylvania," reported that the contract for stone-work was awarded to William Pagan and Robert Alston. Since William Alston's son, Robert, was not born until 1834, he would have been a child when this bridge was built. Perhaps this was a typo in Crumrine; or William Pagan was partners with another Alston altogether, this one named Robert. (Since this other Robert Alston doesn't appear in any other sources, I'm inclined to believe this was a typo.)

You can learn more about these bridges at Bruce S. Cridlebaugh's excellent site, BRIDGES AND TUNNELS OF ALLEGHENY COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA.

The Locks on the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers

John M. Alston reported that when William Alston's senior partner died (presumably, William Pagan), William Alston, in company with Mr. Hanna, built the locks on the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers.

John W. Jordan, editor of "Genealogical and personal history of the Allegheny Valley, Pennsylvania", included the following in the bio of Joseph Robbins, b. 1824]: "In the year of 1847, when the scheme of improving by slack water the Youghiogheny river was taken up . . Mr. Robbins . . . aided in the raising the amount required to construct two dams, one at Elrods, and one at Buena Vista . . . The contract was let to William Alston for the first lock at Elrods, and Theodore Swan for the one at Buena Vista. These locks provided slack water navigation from McKeesport to West Newton. The contractors encountered great difficulties in building the dams -- in following the specifications. They required the dams to be built of plank and filled in with concrete and the dams would not hold water. The company had agreed with the coal operators to have the dams finished in 1848. The work was not completed until 1849, and was continued until the winter of 1861, when the heavy freeze caused the ice to gorge and the tops were taken off these dams . . . had the dams repaired and navigation resumed. In the winter of 1865-66 the ice was exceedingly heavy. The dams were then again badly damaged . . . about June 1, 1866, without any apparent cause, the upper dam gave way, and the result was that the lower dam was broken and the slack water of the Youghiogheny river was gone forever. The washout in the dam was a break of over twenty feet in width and came without warning, leaving the boats which were being loaded along the river at the coal tipples down on the bottom of the river, where they remained until broken up and destroyed by the floods of the succeeding year . . . "

Slack water navigation means navigation in a river above a dam, which has increased its depth and diminished its current. I'm unable to find Elrods, but McKeesport and West Newton are still towns on the Youghiogheny river, 15 miles and 25 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, respectively. (Three rivers primer: the Allegheny and the Monongahela meet at Pittsburgh to create the Ohio; the Youghiogheny is a tributary of the Monongahela.) 1872 and 1876 atlases of Pittsburgh show the locations of Locks number 1, 2, and 3 on the Monongahela. Below is an image of a later-day iteration of Lock # 1.

Monongahela Lock and Dam #1, circa 1900. Image courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art Collection of Photographs (CMA).

Pennsylvania and Ohio Railroad

John M. Alston reported that William Alston and his partner, Mr. Hanna, took a contract on the old Pennsylvania, now the Pittsburg, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railroad. Indeed, the 1850 federal census finds William Alston, in company with his son, Archibald Alston, in Fairfield, Columbiana County, Ohio. They are listed as contractors on the Pennsylvania and Ohio railroad. With them are 32 other men (one blacksmith, one baker and 30 laborers, mostly from Ireland.) Fairfield is about 70 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. It is unknown whether the contract was for the stone bed of the railroad, or for a bridge, retaining wall, or some other structure.

John M. Alston reported that before he could finish this contract, his father died. His date of death was May 16, 1851, when he was only 53 years of age. The cause of death is unknown. From his accomplishments, we can imagine that it was stress from overwork. He is buried in the Division One, Section I of Union Dale Cemetery (formerly Mount Union and Hilldale Cemeteries), where his monument reads, "William ALSTON, died May 16, 1851, aged 53, native of Lanarkshire, Scotland." His wife survived him by 15 years. She is buried at his side. The monument reads, "Agnes Menzies Alston, died Nov 16, 1866, aged 73 years & 2 months, Wife of Wm. & native of Lanarkshire, Scotland." I have not yet visited their gravesite; when I do, I'll add an image of their monument.

Their legacy

The children of William and Agnes were:

Margaret, dob and dob unknown, married Joseph Stevenson

John M. Alston, b. August 22, 1823, Lanark, Scotland; d. Aft. 1910

William M., b. Abt. 1826, Scotland; d. Abt. 1890, Pa.

Archibald, b. Abt. 1827, Scotland; d. 1905.

Christina W., b. 1829; d. 1905; m. Joseph M. Williams

Robert Alston, b. Abt. 1834, PA.

His sons followed in their father's footsteps, professionally, and had successful careers of their own. William and Agnes were the patriarch and matriarch of the Scottish Alstons of Pittsburgh. (Together with a perhaps related family founded by John Alston (b. ca. 1806 in Scotland, d. April 4, 1882; wife, Lilleas Johnston, b. ca. 1807; d. January 03, 1852; both also buried in Union Dale.))

I am descended from his son, William M. Alston.


Notes and sources on William Alston


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