Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Romanian salvage crew unearths piece of Pittsburgh's past


By Mike Wereschagin

A steam engine made more than a century ago
is pulled from a shipwreck in the bottom of the
Danube River in Romania. An employee of
Marshall Elevator is trying to find out how the
engine wound up on the ship in Europe.
Evenimentul Zilei Online

The Ukrainian ship Kapitan Jitcov pulled into Galati Harbor in Romania last month, dropped its anchor 30 feet through the waters of the Danube River and latched on to a piece of Pittsburgh's past.

In the bowels of the shipwreck in which the anchor became stuck lay the rusted hulk of a steam engine that wallowed in murky obscurity for 140 years.

The name of the ill-fated steamboat remains unknown. The only clue to the ship's origin emerged when Romanian salvage workers raised its steam engine from the riverbed Oct. 19 and found attached to it a bronze plaque with four words and a date:

"Marshall Brothers -- 1863 -- Engineers Shield."

These days, Marshall Brothers is known as Marshall Elevator. It stopped making steam engines more than a century ago, when the company was still located at the corner of Smithfield Street and Diamond Alley, now Forbes Avenue.

"That's where this would have been manufactured, over on Diamond Alley," said Rob Jamison, director of marketing for Marshall Elevator, which moved to 2015 Mary St. in the South Side in 1902. "How it ended up in Europe, I have no idea."

The answer could lie somewhere inside a faded, stained ledger tucked away in Marshall Elevator's basement with the rest of the record books that survived throughout the company's 185-year history.

The ceilings there are low, and Jamison had to duck under support beams Friday to enter the small room that houses most of the ledgers. Two naked bulbs light the cramped space, a repository of the financial history of Pittsburgh's second-oldest company. It smells like an antique bookstore.

The ledger Jamison and company president David Heiner had been looking for -- the one containing all the company's transactions in 1863 -- sat atop about a dozen log books piled on a table in the center of the room. Its yellow pages clung tenuously to the brown, stained spine. Inside, the transactions were written in flowery but mostly illegible handwriting.

"You could get an elevator for $225, fully installed," Jamison said, reading from the ledger. Beyond that, the faded and smudged writing revealed few other secrets.

Heiner and Jamison, second cousins, are the eighth and ninth generations of their family to have run the company founded by John Marshall in 1818, Heiner said.

Marshall, an Englishman who immigrated to the United States through Canada in the early 1800s, began his business as a blacksmith shop. The company made a wide array of machined products -- including a few steam engines, elevators and the first-ever spiral staircase fire escape -- in the mid-19th century.

The first elevator came out of the shop in the mid-1840s. In the 1960s, Marshall Elevator made the stage lift for the Civic Arena and a lift that carried workers up and down the side of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis during its construction.

Marshall Elevator today is one of two domestic manufacturers of elevators for communications towers that reach up to 1,900 feet. The shop itself is a link between the company's -- and the city's -- past and present.

In one room, an employee solders circuit boards for the elevators' electronic controls. Two floors down, Dave Lowe, a fourth-generation employee who's been with the company for 30 years, works in a shop full of turn-of-the-century machining tools, all run off a belt-driven system that these days is easier to find in museums than factories.

News of the steam engine's discovery reached Jamison thanks to an anonymous Romanian immigrant who called from New York City and alerted him to a story in a Romanian newspaper about the shipwreck.

"He called me out of the blue," Jamison said. Jamison plans to seek help from experts at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center to track down how his family's 140-year-old product made its way from Smithfield Street to "some old steam ship sitting in the bottom of the Danube."

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