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  • Writer's pictureTammy Pasterick

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Pittsburgh's Strip District, June 1906.

"Karina Kovac heard the harsh caw of a crow passing overhead as she began her walk to work. She looked up at the early morning sky and frowned. The gray cloud of soot greeted her as it did every morning. No matter the time of day or season, the eerie mass hung, thick and heavy, casting its dismal shadow over her, darkening her mood."

—from Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash

When Mark Twain visited Pittsburgh in December 1884 to promote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he made a stop in Mount Washington to get a bird’s eye view of the city by moonlight. As he peered down on the "lake of fire and flame," he famously said the city "looked like a miniature hell with the lid off." It's no wonder Twain's grim description of Pittsburgh stuck for decades to come—there was truth to it.

Between 1870 and 1920, the population of Pittsburgh grew almost sevenfold as European immigrants poured into the city. Many came from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany as in previous decades, but the most common sources after 1870 were poor, rural areas in Eastern and Southern Europe. Immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, Italy, and the Balkans left their homelands to find work in Pittsburgh's steel mills, coal mines, and factories. Carrying only the bare essentials, they journeyed across the Atlantic in search of prosperity and settled in a region smothered in smoke.

Pittsburgh was destined to became a bustling industrial city largely because of its favorable geography and geology. Two navigable rivers—the Monongahela and the Allegheny—met in the middle of a forest and combined to form the Ohio River. This was a logical meeting point for settlement, trade, and industry. The existence of an impressive coal seam near the center of this confluence proved to be particularly advantageous. It was this bituminous coal that would later fuel the region's hundreds of steel mills and darken its skies.

View of the point, downtown, and rivers. Engraving published by Charles Magnus, 1860.

As the Steel City boomed through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it become known for its smoke, grime, and filth. Its perpetually dark sky often necessitated the use of street lamps during the day. But for many of the city’s workers, smoke was a sign of progress and prosperity. In fact, by 1900, Carnegie Steel was the country’s largest steel company with three million tons of capacity. When J.P Morgan formed the U.S. Steel Corporation the following year by financing the merger of Andrew Carnegie's steel company with seven others, it became the largest private company in the world, controlling the majority of U.S. steel production.

By 1910, Pittsburgh produced 25 million tons of steel—more than 60 percent of the nation’s total. It was the height of the city's golden age of steel. But working conditions in the steel mills of Pittsburgh were brutal, and company owners were largely unsympathetic. Men worked twelve-hour shifts, seven days per week, in front of furnaces heated to over 2500°F. Persistent noise, stifling air filled with mineral dust and furnace exhaust, and unsafe equipment made the mills especially hazardous. According to a profile of Andrew Carnegie in The Economist, fatal accidents in the steel mills accounted for 20% of all male deaths in Pittsburgh in the 1880s. Injured workers were often let go and forced to pay their own medical bills, while the dead were easily replaced by the countless immigrants arriving to the region every day.

Steelworkers circa 1900.

The immigrants who came to Pittsburgh brought their languages and traditions with them, creating a culturally diverse city. Unfamiliar accents, exotic foods, and striking architecture could be found in the ethnic neighborhoods of the South Side, Polish Hill, Bloomfield, and Squirrel Hill. Immigrants built these tight-knit communities with their family and friends from the "old country" and were often reluctant to socialize with outsiders. Even workers in the mills remained largely segregated with a strict racial hierarchy placing Northern and Western European Whites at the top, Blacks at the bottom, and everyone else somewhere in the middle. Supervisors were often Irish while Slavs, Hungarians, Serbs, and Blacks performed the most dangerous and grueling work.

Despite the harsh working conditions in Pittsburgh's steel mills, immigrants continued to write to their families and friends in Europe about the opportunities in America. The promise of prosperity enticed many young, healthy workers to trade a life of poverty in their homeland for a chance at the American dream. And while some immigrants were satisfied with their new lives within a few years of their arrival, others suffered disappointment, unthinkable hardships, and even death. But no matter their fates, all of Pittsburgh's immigrants learned to live under an oppressive, smoky sky—in a city that looked like a miniature hell with the lid off.

"He quickly raised his crowbar and knocked the hole out in the furnace door. He watched as glowing red fluid gushed from the door into the ladle waiting in the eight-foot-deep pit below the furnace. The heat was so intense that his already damp work shirt was soon drenched and clinging to his body. Sparks flew, singeing the hair on his arms. Janos imagined this was probably what hell looked like, glowing red flames all around. He half expected to see the devil crawl out of that raging pit."

—from Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash

Painting of steelworkers. Unknown origin.


A native of Western Pennsylvania, Tammy Pasterick grew up in a family of steelworkers, coal miners, and Eastern European immigrants. Her debut novel, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash, is being released by She Writes Press in September 2021. Visit to learn more.

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  • Writer's pictureTammy Pasterick

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

I often wish Pap Pap were still alive. There's so much I'd like to ask him—so much I'd like to tell him. He was a constant presence when I was a child, but I didn't fully appreciate his influence on me until years after his death when I started a family of my own. Memories of him visit me at the most unexpected times—like when I walk past the cantaloupes at the grocery store. My grandfather had an impressive garden and provided my family with an endless supply of tomatoes, cucumbers, snap beans, and melons every summer. His greenhouse was just as special as his garden, and I think of him every time I see a colorful row of zinnias, azaleas, or canna lilies. However, the strongest and most emotional memories of Pap Pap flood my mind whenever I hear the lively sound of an accordion.

My grandfather was an accomplished musician who played the harmonica, guitar, and accordion. He was in a band before my mother was born and often played on Pittsburgh's radio stations. It was not unusual for me to step outside on a warm summer evening and hear Pap Pap serenading the entire neighborhood from his back porch. He played energetic songs on his accordion like "Beer Barrel Polka" and sad, sweet tunes like "Twilight Time." I never thought it strange that my cousin and I often caught lightning bugs near Pap Pap's pond to the sound of Lawrence Welk, Frankie Yankovic, or even the Beatles. Music was at the center of my grandfather's life, and I am so thankful it spilled over into mine.

Now that I'm in middle age, I spend just as much time looking back as I do looking forward. Living six hours from the town where I grew up has given me a perspective I would probably lack had I stayed in Western Pennsylvania. I've come to appreciate the uniqueness of my hometown with its many steelworkers, coal miners, and farmers. But more importantly, I've fully embraced my Slovak heritage and my family's traditions. As a child, I knew that most of my friends did not eat holubky (stuffed cabbages) or halušky (cabbage and noodles) for dinner and did not have grandparents who spoke another language. It did not bother me in the least bit until ... I had to read the results of my genealogy project aloud to my fifth grade classmates. A particularly ignorant boy—whose name I won't reveal—actually burst into laughter when I mentioned my family was Slovak. I was mortified. I had no idea this was something to be ashamed of. It's quite possible this boy didn't know either—maybe he just thought the word "Slovak" sounded funny. At any rate, it was the first time I'd felt embarrassed about my heritage. In the years that followed, I learned many other reasons people made fun of "Hunkies."

Maybe it's because of this ridicule that my family did not go to great lengths to preserve its language and culture. We continued to go to a Roman Catholic church, listen to polkas, and eat the wonderful dishes from the "old country" as my grandfather liked to call it. But for some reason, he made little effort to pass the language or stories of his Slovak parents on to me. Sometimes I wonder if it's simply because I did not ask. How I wish I could go back in time and ask Pap Pap all the questions that have been swirling around in my head since I began researching our genealogy almost nine years ago. Where in Slovakia did your parents come from? Why did they immigrate to America? What was their journey to Ellis Island like? Sadly, I'll never get the answers to these questions.

My great grandparents' history may be lost to me, but I can certainly pass my memories of Pap Pap on to my children. He was an incredibly talented and industrious man given that his schooling ended after the eighth grade. He worked as a steelworker, a coal miner, and a janitor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but most remember him as a talented musician, a skilled farmer and gardener, a devout Catholic, and a devoted father and grandfather. As for me, I remember him as the loving man who brought me cantaloupes, gave me enormous bear hugs, and filled my childhood with the sweet sound of accordion music.

I now have Pap Pap's beloved accordion in my attic and desperately wish I could play it, but I can barely get my arms around it. Luckily, my son and daughter both take after their father and are on track to be rather tall. Their arms should be able to handle that beast of an instrument. And by the grace of God—or maybe just luck of the gene pool—my children inherited Pap Pap's musical talent. I'm patiently waiting for the day when they put down their saxophone and flute and pick up the accordion. Pap Pap would be so proud.

My Slovak great grandparents, Joseph and Anna Tomicek, with their children, Andrew, John (my Pap Pap), Joseph Jr., Ann, Irene, Paul, Thomas, and Frank. Their daughter, Mary, is behind the camera.

Pap Pap's accordion and sheet music.

For a taste of my Slovak childhood, please see my mom's recipe for holubky below. And while you're preparing it, click on the following link to hear a lovely rendition of "Twilight Time."

Nana's Stuffed Cabbages

1 large head of cabbage

1 1/2 lbs ground beef

1 cup cooked rice

1 egg

1 cup ketchup

2 cans tomato soup

1-2 cans water (use soup can to measure)

dash of brown sugar

Boil the cabbage for at least one hour. Let it cool. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the ground beef, egg, and cooked rice in a large bowl. Roll the beef mixture into little logs and place each log in the center of a cabbage leaf. Roll the cabbage leaves and place them in a casserole dish with the seam on the bottom. Mix the ketchup, tomato soup, and water to make a sauce. Add brown sugar to taste. Pour the sauce over over the stuffed cabbages and bake in the oven for an hour.

(Courtesy of Linda Tomicek Pasterick)


A native of Western Pennsylvania, Tammy Pasterick grew up in a family of steelworkers, coal miners, and Eastern European immigrants. Her debut novel, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash, is being released by She Writes Press in September 2021. Visit to learn more.

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