Thursday, April 22, 2021

Pittsburgh's Heinz History Center Touts Award-Winning Exhibits

If I had more time in my schedule, I'd visit Pittsburgh more often. As it stands, however, I have yet to lay eyes on many tourist attractions, beyond the Duquesne Incline, so that's what I set out to do a few weeks ago with the John Heinz History Center as the focal point of my visit.

The Heinz History Center is one of the more interesting museums that I've visited. In fact, it ranks up there in my top 10 and no, you don't need to be from Pittsburgh to enjoy it. I'm not, and I found it quite fascinating and I learned a bit more about Pittsburghers who made a significant contribution to history. 

The Largest History Museum in Pennsylvania

The 370,000 square foot, six-story museum, located in Pittsburgh's historic strip district, was once home to the Chautauqua Lake Ice Company, which closed in 1952 due to the popularity of refrigeration.

The Heinz History Center was once home to the Chautauqua Lake Ice Company.

The first thing visitors will see upon arrival have to do with modes of transportation, from antique cars, to an antique wagon that once transported Heinz products and Pittsburgh Streetcar #1724. Removed from service in 1988, the streetcar underwent a four-month restoration before being transported to its new home at the Heinz History Center. Guests are encouraged to walk through the trolley, peruse the old ads above each seat and harken back to the days where streetcars played a larger part in the daily lives of many.

A stainless steel car that Allegheny Steel salesmen drove.

What I found particularly interesting was the stainless steel car, which is one of six designed by Allegheny Steel. Lucky sales reps had the opportunity to get behind the wheel of these beauties to demonstrate the metal's durability and resistance to weather, wear and corrosive elements. This particular car is more than sixty years old and has been driven approximately 200,000 miles. 

While we're on the subject of transportation, I should also mention the cute ride pictured below, which dates back to 1927 and carried many an excited child around the twists and turns of the roller coaster at the Kennywood amusement park, located in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania. The cars were replaced in 1982 and this particular one had weeds growing up through the floor until it was refurbished by the maintenance department in a style akin to ones that were popular in the 1970s. The height check figure is a reproduction of Howdy Doody, a character that was popular in the 1950s.
A popular ride at Kennywood, which still entertains young and old today.

Visitors who take the elevator to the second floor will get an interesting glimpse into the life of Pittsburghers who made their mark on the world in the area of medicine, moon exploration, music and more. 
"Lola" was made by Shirley Yee and students at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

This dinosaur was, in 2003, part of an outdoor public art exhibit called "DinoMite Days." The stegosaurus, known as Lola, is layered with newspaper clippings and photos that tell the story of Pittsburgh's past. 

How many of us take portable music for granted? I remember the huge boom boxes of the 1970s. People would look ridiculous nowadays if they toted them around. And prior to that, there were was the orchestrion. You can see one of those huge machines at the Asa Packer mansion in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Money was no object to Asa Packer's daughter, who had it shipped via train every year when she vacationed in Florida. 

These days, music is much more portable and you may have a Pittsburgher to thank. Nathan Schulhof created the forerunner to the MP3 player and you can see his notebook and his "Listen Up" player here. 

Visitors will also find plenty of Pittsburghers in the medical industry who were responsible for improving life for all of us. Dr. Thomas E. Starzl is one such individual. Known as the "father of liver transplantation." Starzl performed the first transplant in 1968 at the University of Colorado and was later in charge of the liver transplant program at UPMC. Since then, thousands of liver transplant operations have been performed, saving many lives.

Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, known as the "father of liver transplantation."

Sports fans will enjoy the "museum inside the museum" at the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum located on the second floor of the Heinz History Center.  There guests can inspect sports memorabilia from teams which hail from Pittsburgh. Below is a figure of Steeler Franco Harris gearing up for his famous "Immaculate Reception."
Franco Harris eternally reenacts his famed "Immaculate Reception."

Also housed at the Heinz History Center is a tribute to Elektro and his dog Sparko, which debuted at the New York World's Fair in 1939. Known as the first voice-activated robot, Elektro weighed more than 250 pounds, smoked cigarettes and could count to 10 on his fingers. The Westinghouse Electric Company was responsible for creating the pair, which captivated audiences with an hourly show at the Westinghouse Pavilion.

A replica of the cigarette-smoking Elektro and his trusty mutt Sparko.

If you're of a certain age, you've no doubt heard of "Rosie the Riveter" and you can thank a Pittsburgher by the name of J. Howard Miller for that.  The freelance artist painted the poster for Westinghouse Electric and was later celebrated in a hit song, which cemented the iconic figure in the minds of the public as a patriotic symbol of how women could contribute to the war effort by working on assembly lines. You can hear the song here. 

Rosie the Riveter created by Pittsburgher J. Howard Miller.

In another part of the museum is the story of a real-life heroine by the pen name of Nelly Bly--born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, one of the first female investigative reporters. Her story is extremely interesting. I'll sum it up simply by saying that she went undercover in an insane asylum and had trouble making it out. I guess she was that convincing and it makes me wonder how many writers today would be held indefinitely.

Nelly Bly played her insanity role a little too well.

The Mister Rogers Exhibit

The Mister Rogers Exhibit attracts both young and old alike. Brady M. Smith, Director of Marketing and Communications, said the exhibit attracts children, parents and grandparents. "It is arguably the most popular display at our museum," said Smith, adding that when visitors walk in and see X the Owl's Tree, or King Friday XIII's castle for the first time, "they just light up with a sense of nostalgia that overwhelms them." 
The Mister Roger's exhibit is one of the most popular at the Heinz Center.

Did you know that there's a Mister Roger's Trail? You can read more about it in my article here in Central Penn Parent.

Speaking of trails, there's also an exhibit on the Lewis and Clark expedition which launched in Pittsburgh. This is a piece of history that neither I, nor my husband knew. You can follow their trail and learn of a modern-day family who also set off on a family excursion to follow the very same trail.

The History of Heinz Products

Finally, it wouldn't be the Heinz Center without seeing the evolution of the brand over the years, from the advertising, to the products sold. Walnut ketchup anyone?

I'd be curious about the color of this product. 

It may surprise visitors to learn that Heinz began their foray into food with gherkins, hence the "pickle kit," which salesmen travelled with to demonstrate the sizes sold.

You can plan your trip around a visit to this museum like I did and afterwards walk around Pittsburgh's strip district, which is home to dozens of restaurants, food shops and retail establishments that draw locals and visitors alike.

To plan your visit, or learn more about admission prices and hours, visit the website at