Historical Markers
David L. Lawrence Historical Marker
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David L. Lawrence

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Point State Park, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
February 28, 1985

Behind the Marker

Pittsburgh's famous smoke-filled skies.
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"Midday darkness": Smoke pollution in Pittsburgh, PA, circa 1940.
Charles Dickens had called it "hell with the lid lifted." In 1903 Lincoln Steffens said, "It looked like hell, literally." In 1913 an English visitor observer wrote that "[i]n Pittsburgh man befouled the streams, bedraggled the banks, ripped up the cliffs, hacked down the trees, and dumped refuse in their stead. He sowed the most imposing heights with hovels and set beneath them black mills to cover everything far and wide marker with a film of smoke." And then there was H.L. Mencken: "Here was the very heart of industrial America... the boast and pride of the richest and grandest nation ever seen on earth – and here was a scene so dreadfully hideous, so intolerable, bleak and forlorn that it reduced the whole aspiration of man to a macabre and depressing joke."

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, markerPittsburgh ran on bituminous coal. Each month the steam boilers and furnaces of its industries, its railroads, and its homes dumped 100 tons of pollutants on its streets. There had been laws on the books since the 1860s to control smoke releases, but they were never enforced. After all, smoke meant prosperity, wealth, and greatness.
David Lawrence is pitching a ball to teenage boys on a city street.
David Lawrence tossing a ball on a Pittsburgh street, circa 1950.

As the Second World War drew to a close, however, the city leaders were forced to recognize that foul water, polluted air, and periodic floods were jeopardizing the city's future. Pittsburgh had the nation's highest rate of pneumonia and was among the leaders in other respiratory illnesses. In winter the city received only one-third as much sunshine as the Allegheny County Airport, which was only seven miles away. The smoke got so bad early in the war that the city turned on the street lights during the day. The air was so foul that U.S. Steel, ALCOA, markerWestinghouse, and other corporations were threatening to pull their headquarters out of town because they could not recruit or retain office workers or managers.

David Lawrence had watched it all since his childhood in a tough, working-class Irish neighborhood near Fort Pitt. Educated in parochial schools, Lawrence at the age of fourteen took a job as a clerk stenographer in the office of the leader of the Pittsburgh Democratic Party. Hard-working and ambitious, Lawrence became the director of an insurance company, and devoted his energies to building the Democratic Party in his home town.
A cartoon of John Lewis, George Earle, Joseph Guffey, David Lawrence playing a card game and Charles Margiotti watching.  Cigar smoking John Lewis says "I might win a pot if those guys on the end don't start dealing each other aces." A gun with the letters C.I.O. on the handle sits on the table next to Lewis. Guffey glares at Lawrence and Earle appears uninterested. State Attorney General Charles Margiotti, is seen peering over the transom in the background.
"Pennsylvania's Political Poker Room," editorial cartoon, 1938.

Lawrence's hard work paid off in the early 1930s when the Democrats finally beat the Republicans in Pittsburgh. Allied with Pennsylvania Senator Joseph Guffey, Lawrence in 1934 became secretary of the Commonwealth, Democratic State Chairman, and one of the most powerful men in the Commonwealth. Corruption scandals associated with the dispensing of federal jobs and funding under marker Governor George Earle, however, cost the Democrats their control of the state government in the 1938 election. Charged but not convicted of bribery, Lawrence, who was interested in becoming governor, temporarily put aside his ambitions for higher office.

In 1946 Lawrence rebounded, winning election as mayor of Pittsburgh on the promise that he would revitalize the city by controlling the floods, beautifying the downtown, and cleaning up the air. "I am convinced that our people want clean air," Lawrence told the city in his first inaugural address. "There is no other single thing which will so dramatically improve the appearance, the health, the pride, the spirit of the city."

Lawrence was banking his political future on smoke control, and he knew he could not control the emissions without the cooperation of the city's business leaders. The mayor found the ally he needed in Pittsburgh billionaire Richard King Mellon, who used his influence with other corporate leaders to support the mayor in his efforts to clean up and rebuild the city.
Oil on canvas of David A. Lawrence.
David A. Lawrence, Governor of Pennsylvania, 1959-1963.

Businesses, railroads, and domestic users all had to comply with the new regulations. In the winter of 1947-48, Pittsburgh received 39 percent more sunshine than the previous year. By 1954, smoke was 90 percent less than it had been in 1946. By 1949 Congress had appropriated all the funds needed for a new dam at Conemaugh, and the Pittsburgh Renaissance was well under way. Modern buildings dotted aging neighborhoods, the floods were brought under control, new bridges and roads opened the city to the commuter suburbs, and the smoke gave way to cleaner air.

Lawrence served an unprecedented four consecutive terms as mayor of Pittsburgh, during which time the city's anti-smoke campaign won national acclaim. As one of the nation's most successful mayors and leader of the state Democratic Party, Lawrence was the clear choice to succeed Democrat George Leader as governor.

In 1958 Lawrence became the first Catholic elected governor of Pennsylvania. While in office he sponsored clean air legislation, signed the law permitting betting on harness racing, and empanelled a Committee on Education that proposed sweeping changes, including creation of a state university system. After stepping down as governor, Lawrence served as chairman of the President's Committee on Equal Opportunities in Housing from 1963-66.

Politically active to the end, Lawrence suffered a stroke while campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Milton Shapp, and died a few weeks later, on November 21, 1966.
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