Circa 1900: Jimmy McKay’s ‘capital of crookdom’
Carrie Nation stormed into Pittsburgh one day in 1908, took a look at the city’s taverns and declared, “This is the worst place I’ve ever seen and the saloons are in terrible condition.”
You can insult Pittsburgh’s air and rant about its roads but, as Nation soon learned, the city doesn’t take kindly to those who denigrate its taverns. The fiery temperance crusader was arrested.
At the police station, she continued to roar: “All the young men in this city are going to hell. The young women, too, are awful, and all this is caused by the saloon.”
During her tirade, a spry man entered the station. This was Jimmie McKay, owner of a North Side tavern. McKay listened attentively while Nation ranted. She was looking for a fight. She wouldn’t get one from McKay.
In fact, McKay told her he’d learned a few things from her diatribe. “This seemed to gratify the little woman very much,” one newspaper reported.
It was classic McKay. He judged no one. “About the only thing I ever did was to take pretty literally that business about ‘live and let live,’” he once said.
His saloon reflected this attitude. It was a haven for safe crackers, thieves, mill workers, newspaper reporters and crooked politicians — people with names like the Albany Kid, Big Swede and English John.
Before annexation by Pittsburgh in 1907, the North Side was known as Allegheny City. Folks called it “Little Canada” because extradition treaties didn’t extend there. Parts of Allegheny City were quite raucous.
McKay’s tavern in Allegheny City was the “capital of crookdom,” the PG’s Ray Sprigle wrote in a 1948 remembrance of the man. Sprigle described McKay as “one of the most lovable people on the face of the earth.” McKay’s obituary in The Pittsburgh Press on Jan. 4, 1944, indicates he was an Irish immigrant whose family settled on the North Side in the 1870s. McKay worked in a steel mill before opening his tavern.
We searched the PG archives for photos of McKay and unearthed none. Sprigle’s story, found on microfilm, was accompanied by a faded image of an aging man with tousled hair. It is McKay, casually holding a pipe to his lips. His eyes are at once playful and sad.
The PG holds no file of newspaper clippings mentioning McKay. He remains one of those legendary Pittsburgh characters that seem just out of reach for those of us trying to pin facts to tales.
One of the more interesting McKay stories concerns an organization called “The Piano Mover’s Association,” headquartered in McKay’s saloon.
The organization sprung into action each time the Allegheny River overflowed its banks and flooded portions of the lower North Side. This, coincidentally, was home to Allegheny City’s red light district.
When waters rose, madams and “working girls” quickly moved their establishments’ gaudy furniture to safety on upper floors. But they needed help with their unwieldy pianos. That’s when McKay’s piano movers stepped in.
The association gathered together newspapermen, cops and businessmen for the difficult job of hauling the heavy, ornate instruments up brothel stairways. Membership to the association came with an official card and was considered a privilege, costing as much as $100, according to one report.
We at the Digs have given these facts considerable thought and we’re certain our forebears in the newspaper business considered piano moving a vital public service.
— Steve Mellon