Around a family dinner, my parents, aunt, and uncle remembered days when teenagers would take their dates to the morgue to gaze at unclaimed bodies — a morbid, prom night rite of passage for Pittsburgh romantics. Sounds creepy, but maybe it was a sort of precursor to “till death do you part?”
Or maybe this fascination was forged because Pittsburgh didn’t always have a place to examine its dead.
Before 1893, Philadelphia housed the only morgue in Pennsylvania. Allegheny County coroner Heber McDowell worked with lawmakers to standardize and fund morgues across the state, leading to a make-shift facility on Eighth Street in Downtown.
The growing city overwhelmed the setup, and by April Fool’s Day 1903, a three-story marble and stone building took its place, right next to the courthouse and jail. Then 25 years later, it was moved again — but not to a new structure.
Allegheny County wanted to expand its offices, and decided to lift and carry the 6,000-ton morgue 235 feet, sandwiching it between two existing buildings.
The process was a marvel: 60 men and two teams of horses worked for three months to jack up the building and shift it over raised wooden tracks using steel rails and wheels — adjusting plumbing, sewer, and water lines as they went.
But death didn’t stop, so McDowell kept working inside the facility as it inched closer to Fourth Avenue. Once there, it served Pittsburgh for 90 years.
And it turns out, I have a family connection to the whole thing — my aunt is McDowell's great granddaughter!
Heber McDowell, coroner of Allegheny County in 1910. (Courtesy of Anne Dabecco)
According to my aunt and her brothers, Heber McDowell once said, “A problem well defined is almost solved,” and I think the county’s moving morgue may be the best testament to his beliefs.