Squirrel Hill History

A Pittsburgh Neighborhood

Written in 2003 by SHHS Former Vice President, the late Mark Iskovitz

Before the advent of the Europeans, Squirrel Hill was a wilderness area used as an Indian hunting ground. During the 1760s, Squirrel Hill was a pioneer farming community that also included Indian traders. Its main attraction was that it was a wilderness area where land was free, there was wild game to hunt, etc., but it was nonetheless not too far from the protection of Fort Pitt.

Squirrel Hill has always been known for its abundance of gray squirrels in the days of the early pioneers, the squirrels were so numerous that their chatter created a din. The first house of record in Squirrel Hill was built by Colonel James Burd, stationed in Fort Pitt. It was erected at a place called Summerset on the Monongahela River in 1760. The Martin House, which still exists, may have been built by the first owner of the Neill land, Ambrose Newton, in the 1760s. (It is located on Overlook Drive, between the Schenley Part Oval and the swimming pool.)

1760 Martin House located on Overlook Drive Schenley Park

Mary Girty Turner settled with her sons in Squirrel Hill in 1764. She had earlier come to the Pittsburgh area from the central part of the state, looking for a son who had been abducted by Indians. On April 3, 1769, the government of the colony of Pennsylvania opened a land office for the sale of land in western Pennsylvania. Eighteen men made applications to the office to secure land in Squirrel Hill, some of whom already lived there.

Two of Mary Girty Turner's sons—George and Simon—were among the initial applicants for land in the neighborhood. Simon Girty later became infamous as a renegade leader of the Mingoe Indians. They were allied with the British again the Americans during the American Revolution. Girty used his intimate knowledge of the settlers to help the Indians in their attacks.

In the early days, when there wasn't much here, the Pittsburgh area was overwhelmingly focused on the rivers—the connection to the outside world Squirrel Hill (almost an outlying village to Pittsburgh at first) faced southward with its front on the Monongahela River. Its first center of activity was at Brown's Hill Road and Beechwood Boulevard—an intersection that still exists. In 1778, John turner built his estate of Federal Hill nearby (in what is now the 3400 block of Beechwood Boulevard). The Robert Neill Log House (on Serpentine Drive in the Schenley Park municipal golf course) was probably built in 1787 and still stands. It consists of massive wooden planks with interspaces filled with mud and small stones.

Around 1820, at the sharp bend of Beechwood Boulevard (just a long stone's throw up from Beechwood and Brown's Hill), William "Killymoon" Stewart built a tavern where travelers could stay overnight. It was not destroyed until after World War II.

As the city of Pittsburgh prospered and grew, Squirrel Hill's status was upgraded to that of a very affluent suburb. Willow Cottage, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Woodland Road is the oldest surviving element of Millionaire's Row (along Fifth Avenue) Willow Cottage was built in the 1860s by the industrialist and civic leader Thomas M. Howe. Howe, a bank president with interest in copper mining, a railroad, and a cotton mill, served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the Whig party from 1851 to 1855. Though neglected for many years and almost torn down, Willow Cottage has recently undergone a $2.2 million restoration and renovation into a Chatham College gatehouse and guesthouse.

Immediately after the Civil War, a half-dozen interrelated families of Pittsburgh's industrial elite created houses on the fifty-five forested acres of the Woodland Road district between Fifth and Wilkins Avenues. Formerly part of Peebles Township, Squirrel Hill was annexed to the city in 1868. The wealthy families in the Woodland Road District were joined in 1869 by a women's college that was the predecessor to Chatham College. Today, Chatham College occupies a score of buildings there—many of them mansions bequeathed by the original inhabitants of the area or their descendents. Also in 1869, the neo-Palladian clubhouse of the Pittsburgh Golf Club was built. This is now part of a public course on the edge of Schenley Park.

In the late 19th and 20th century, the partially rural nature of Squirrel Hill was made permanent by the donation of two large tracts of forest bracketing the neighborhood on the east and west. The western park, Schenley, was donated first in 1889. However, the donor of the park became famous long before that. Pittsburgh heiress Mary Elizabeth Croghan was the granddaughter of Gen. James O'Hara, a leading Pittsburgh pioneer and landowner. In 1842, shortly before her sixteenth birthday, she eloped from her boarding school with 43-year-old Capt. Edward W. Schenley, of the British army. It was the Captain's third elopement. The couple fled America in a British navy ship.

This rash action inspired vituperative denunciations in newspapers; bankrupted the girl's boarding school; and spurred the Federal Government to dispatch the U.S. Coast Guard in pursuit of the errant couple. Captain Schenley evaded them, however, by first hiding in the Bahamas and then heading for England. For many years, Queen Victoria would not allow Mary to be presented at court because she had been a disobedient daughter. (The Queen finally relented.) Mary Schenley always loved Pittsburgh, and perhaps had a nostalgic yearning to live here once again. This was in spite of a happy life, filled with the care of her six daughters and a son and the direction of her estate after her father's death. Later in life, she did enjoy a long visit to her home city. (Captain Schenley, however, always hated it.) Her love of the city is proved by her generous gifts. Of her gift of Schenley Park, the Standard History of Pittsburgh, edited in 1898 by Erasmus Wilson, says: "In 1889 she donated a princely tract which made the magnificent Schenley Park possible. She gave 300 acres out and out for this great scheme, and sold the city 120 acres more at the merest nominal price. Unborn generations will enjoy the blessings of this gift."

For most of the 19th century there were only three small lanes connecting Squirrel Hill—one from Shadyside, one from Hazelwood, and one from the Monongahela shore. Squirrel Hill primarily consisted of a dozen large estates. The Murdoch farms district of Squirrel Hill was dairy land until the early twentieth century. This area now includes Fair Oaks Street west of Wilkins. As mention above, the community of Squirrel Hill originally faced the Monongahela River. However, this southern face of the community became less important as the northern edge expanded to meet the contiguous neighborhoods of Oakland and Shadyside. The community, in a sense, did an about face.

In 1893, new development was spurred by the opening of an electric trolley running up Forbes Avenue into Schenley Park and then down Murray Avenue to Homestead. This stimulated the building of hundreds of large homes for steel company middle management, especially on Shady and Dennison Avenues near Aylesboro. Despite its trolley line, Murray Avenue remained a dirt road until 1920. Early on, Shady Avenue was a prominent portal to Squirrel Hill from Shadyside. It still is—via the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts at the corner of Fifth and Shady (the former Charles Marshall House, built by the prominent architect Charles Barton Keen in 1911.)

Bordering on the Chatham College campus on the west and accessible through a side outlet of Woodland Road stands the house where the famous author Willa Cather lived from 1901 to 1906. Cather was the telegraph (wire desk) editor and drama critic for the newspaper, Pittsburgh Leader. She taught at Central Catholic High School and then headed the English Department at Allegheny High School. Cather is known primarily as a westerner from Nebraska (where she grew up), but she used Pittsburgh as the backdrop to many of the short stories she wrote during her years here Death Comes for the Archbishop, A Lost Lady, and O Pioneers were her most famous novels.

In 1903, Frederick Olmstead, Jr. rebuilt Beechwood Boulevard which extended Millionaire's Row to Point Breeze. It was filled with even larger mansions than the row. This curvy street was used as an impromptu racetrack for a decade after its rebuilding. Henry Clay Frick was steel baron Andrew Carnegie's most prominent executive. When he died in 1919, Frick donated about 150 acres of land, mainly in the primeval state, to the City of Pittsburgh. Over the years, large parcels of land have been added to increase the Frick Park to almost 600 acres. Much of it remains in an unaltered natural state showing what Pittsburgh must have looked like several hundred years ago.

The population of Squirrel Hill jumped between 1922 and 1927, when the Boulevard of the Allies linked it to downtown. This increase consisted mainly of Eastern European Jews moving in from Oakland and the Hill District. Unlike most of those directly preceding them, these newcomers were not wealthy. They moved into rows of brick houses on the cross streets of Murray Avenue south of Forbes. By the 1930s most of the available land in Squirrel Hill had been filled. Squirrel Hill became the center of Jewish culture in the city, with kosher butcher shops, delicatessens, Jewish restaurants, bookstores, and designer boutiques.

In 1943, the Jewish community group known as the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, based in the Hill District, made its entry into the neighborhood with the Squirrel Hill Boy's Club on Forward Avenue. Currently, the Jewish Community Center, an organization descendent from a merger of the Irene Kaufmann Center with the Young Men & Women's Hebrew Association—occupies two very large buildings not far from Forbes and Murray—the main intersection in Squirrel Hill. Seventy years after the first Jewish influx, Squirrel Hill remains the focal point of Jewish life in Pittsburgh.

References:

"Lords of the Soil: The Migration of Backwoods Settlers to Pennsylvania, 1760-1789", R.J. Gilmour, October 1, 2003

— "Heart of Pittsburgh", Sacred Heart Elementary School, Parent Teacher Guild, 1998

"History of Westmoreland County", Volume 1, Chapter 7, Part 1, "Westmoreland County Genealogy Project", December 12, 2003

— "Squirrel Hill", by Margaret A. Frew, Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 12, October 1929, No. 4

"Oakland: Mary Croghan Schenley", Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, October 1, 2003

— Pittsburgh, an Urban Portrait, by Franklin Toker, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986, pp. 251 to 261

"Chatham College rescues and revives historic cottage", Post-Gazette.com Lifestyle, Patricia Lowry, December 21, 2003

— "And Death Comes to Willa Cather" Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 25, 1947

"History", JCC Pittsburgh December 21, 2003

"A Brief History of Frick Park", Frickparktrails.com December 21, 2003