This short history of Squirrel Hill, originally written in 2003 by the late Mark Iskovitz, Vice President of the Squirrel Hill Historical Society, was revised and updated in 2015 and again in March 2016 by current Vice-President Helen Wilson.
Nowadays Squirrel Hill is a thriving neighborhood in the eastern part of Pittsburgh. It is the largest and most populous of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, comprising about 26,500 people within a 3.89 square-mile area.
The entire neighborhood is located on a hill rather than nestled in a valley, which is an important factor in its history. Until the late 1800s, Squirrel Hill remained farmland, with a few coal mines scattered around, while most of Pittsburgh’s early industrial and residential development took place elsewhere in its valleys and along its riverbanks.
The first inhabitants of Squirrel Hill were Native Americans, who possibly came here in prehistoric times. They used the hill as a hunting ground. The area was rich in game. A salt lick near the mouth of Nine Mile Run attracted wildlife. Squirrels were so numerous the Native Americans are said to have given the name “Squirrel Hill” to the hill.
French and British hunters and trappers roamed the area in the mid-1700s, but Squirrel Hill wasn’t settled by Europeans until after the French and Indian War, when colonists from the British Isles and German-speaking nations trickled in, attracted by free land and plentiful game. They blazed claims to large tracts of land. The claims were later legalized when the government of the colony of Pennsylvania opened a land office in Pittsburgh in 1769. Meanwhile, treaties between the British and Native Americans had reserved the land only for Native Americans. Skirmishes between them and the settlers continued until after the Revolutionary War.
The first log house in Squirrel Hill is believed to have been built by Colonel James Burd in Nine Mile Run valley when he was stationed at Fort Pitt in the 1760s. Col. Burd called his property “Summerset.” That house is gone, but two other log houses from the 1760s still stand in Schenley Park. Both of them are believed to have been built by Ambrose Newton.
They are called the Martin house and the Robert Neill house after later owners. They are among the oldest buildings in Pittsburgh.
One of the early settlers, a widow named Mary Girty Turner, came to Squirrel Hill with her five sons in 1764. She had come to Fort Pitt from the central part of the state looking for her youngest son, John Turner. The family had been abducted by Native Americans and separated, but Mary managed to reunite her family. John was the last to be found.
When the land office opened in Pittsburgh, eighteen men made applications to secure land in Squirrel Hill. Some of them were already living there. Two of Mary Girty Turner’s sons by her first marriage—George and Simon Girty—were among those who applied. Simon later became infamous for defecting to the British during the Revolutionary War. He became a leader of the Mingo Indians, who were allied with the British. He used his extensive knowledge of the frontier to attack settlements. After the war, he and two of his brothers fled to Canada, so John Turner inherited the land in Squirrel Hill. His 140-acre farm, which he named “Federal Hill,” extended from Saline Street to Frank Street in Greenfield. Turner bequeathed land for a burial ground to his community. Some of the earliest settlers still lie in Turner Graveyard at 3424 Beechwood Boulevard.
Few trails ran through Squirrel Hill in the early days. Among them were what later became Hazelwood, Forbes and Shady Avenues and Saline Street. The trails were mainly ways for travelers from the east to get over the hill on their way to the Point or East Liberty.
In the early 1800s a small settlement developed at the top of what is now Browns Hill Road above Nine Mile Run valley. Around 1820, at the sharp bend of Beechwood Boulevard just a long stone’s throw from Browns Hill Road, William “Killymoon” Stewart built an inn and tavern where travelers could find refreshment or stay overnight. The building was not demolished until 1949.
As Pittsburgh prospered and grew in the mid-1800s, wealthy city businessmen began buying up the farmland in Squirrel Hill for vast country estates. At that time the hill was part of Peebles Township, a large municipality east of Pittsburgh.
After Pittsburgh annexed Peebles Township in 1868, the large estates began to be subdivided into smaller but still substantial residential lots where wealthy industrialists built mansions, many in the northern part of Squirrel Hill along Fifth Avenue and nearby roads. Some of the mansions were built by a half-dozen interrelated families of Pittsburgh’s industrial elite on the fifty-five forested acres of the Woodland Road district between Fifth and Wilkins Avenues.
The Berry mansion on Woodland Road was the first home of Chatham University. It was founded in 1869 as the Pennsylvania Female College and then renamed the Pennsylvania College for Women. Today Chatham University occupies a score of buildings there—many of them mansions bequeathed to the university by former occupants or their descendants.
Another mansion is now a Chatham University gatehouse and guesthouse. Willow Cottage, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Woodland Road, is the oldest surviving element of Millionaire’s Row along Fifth Avenue. The cottage was built in the 1860s by industrialist and civic leader Thomas M. Howe. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the Whig party from 1851 to 1855. Willow Cottage was neglected for years and almost torn down but underwent a $2.2 million restoration in the early years of the 21st century.
A few miles west is The Pittsburgh Golf Club, whose original building was a farmhouse possibly dating to the 1860s, replaced in 1899 by a neo-Palladian building. The private club is adjacent to the public Bob O’Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park, which has its own clubhouse.
In spite of such developments, Squirrel Hill remained mostly rural until the late 1800s. The Murdoch Farms district in northwestern Squirrel Hill was a nursery and dairy land until the early twentieth century.
A major change occurred in 1893 with the coming of the electric trolley. Although prior development had occurred along the Fifth Avenue corridor from Downtown, the northern area of Squirrel Hill really began to develop when a trolley route began to run along Forbes Avenue, leading to the growth of the business district at Forbes and Murray. The trolley route split at that intersection, one set of tracks going to East Liberty and Wilkinsburg and the other down Murray Avenue to Hazelwood Avenue. When Brown’s Bridge was built in 1895 near the mouth of Nine Mile Run, it connected the bustling steel town of Homestead with Pittsburgh’s East End, stimulating the building of hundreds of large homes on Shady Avenue and Denniston Street for middle management of the mills.
The early 1900s saw a continuation of residential development in Squirrel Hill. Some houses became known for the persons associated with them. On Murray Hill Avenue 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 Pittsburgh Leader newspaper. She taught at Central 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 for many of the short stories she wrote during her years here. Some of her most famous novels are Death Comes for the Archbishop, A Lost Lady, and O Pioneers!
Squirrel Hill’s roads developed along with its houses. Shady Avenue (originally Shady Lane) has been a prominent portal to Squirrel Hill from East Liberty and Shadyside since early times. At Fifth Avenue, the road passes by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts—the former Charles Marshall House built by the prominent architect Charles Barton Keen in 1911.
In 1903 Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. redesigned Beechwood Boulevard. At its northern end, the boulevard began to fill with even larger mansions than Millionaires’ Row on Fifth Avenue. The sinuous road was used as an impromptu racetrack for a decade after its reconstruction.
Even with all the development taking place, large swaths of Squirrel Hill were still rural. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these swaths were made permanent by the donation to the city of two huge tracts of forested land bracketing the neighborhood on the east and west to be used for public parks.
Schenley Park, on the west, was donated to the city 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 Mary’s sixteenth birthday, she eloped from her New York 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 boarding school and spurred the Federal Government to dispatch the U.S. Coast Guard to pursue the errant couple. Captain Schenley evaded them 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 there once again. This was in spite of a happy life, filled with the care of 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.) Mary’s love for 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.”
Frick Park, on the eastern side of Squirrel Hill, didn’t open until 1927. Henry Clay Frick was Andrew Carnegie’s most prominent executive. When Frick died in 1919, he bequeathed 151 acres of land, mainly undeveloped wilderness, to the city of Pittsburgh for a park. Over the years large parcels of land were added to increase the area of Frick Park to almost 600 acres. Much of the park remains in its natural state.
The population of Squirrel Hill increased rapidly in the 1920s, when development of the automobile allowed people to move around more freely and the construction of the Boulevard of the Allies linked Squirrel Hill to downtown Pittsburgh. The increase in population consisted mainly of Eastern European Jews moving to central and southern Squirrel Hill from Oakland and the Hill District. Unlike most of those preceding them, these newcomers were not wealthy. By the 1930s most of the available land in Squirrel Hill was filled.
Because of this influx, Squirrel Hill became the center of Jewish culture in the city, with kosher butcher shops, delicatessens, Jewish restaurants, bookstores, and designer boutiques lining the business district of Forbes and Murray Avenues.
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. The present-day Jewish Community Center, an organization descended from a merger of the Irene Kaufmann Center with the Young Men & Women’s Hebrew Association, now occupies two large modern buildings near the corner of Forbes and Murray, the main intersection in Squirrel Hill. Squirrel Hill remains the focal point of Jewish life in Pittsburgh.
Transformation continues to occur in Squirrel Hill. The business district has seen a shift from retail establishments to restaurants, banks, medical buildings and high-tech companies, reflecting the influence of Squirrel Hill’s proximity to the educational and medical institutions in Oakland. Many of the restaurants are Asian, an indication of Squirrel Hill’s growing Asian population.
Squirrel Hill’s housing stock continues to be one of the best features of the neighborhood, offering a variety of urban housing options on pleasant, tree-lined streets. The availability of housing increased in the early 21st century with the building of the upscale Summerset housing development on a reclaimed slag dump in the southern part of Squirrel Hill, whose history has come full circle in a way, back to its original location.
— “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