Saw Mill Run

Saw Mill Run has figured in two of my blog posts about lost Pittsburgh towns.  So, Al and I thought it would be interesting to drive the 9-mile length of it and learn a little bit of the history of the towns the live along it. 

First, why is it called a “run” and not a “creek” or a “stream”?  We have our English and German ancestors to thank for that.  The word “run” is related to “ryne” in Old English, “runnen” in Middle Dutch, “irnan” in Old Saxon and “rinner” in Old High German. 

Famously flood-y after a heavy rain, Saw Mill Run was an unprepossessing trickle at the end of a very dry September.  In the past, its banks were home to a salt works, coal patch towns and the saw mill that gave it its name. 

Saw Mill Run in Bethel Park

The Run starts in the backyard of a house on Casswell Drive in Bethel Park, but it is culverted for about its first half mile as it passes under backyards on Casswell and Cassidy Drives.  It emerges as a visible stream near the Caswell T stop, in a little wood among birdsong, thrashing deer and flitting yellow butterflies.  It flows openly along Milford Road for less than a mile, before culverting again at the Washington Junction T station.  There, we also saw some houses that dated back to one of the many coal patches that once thrived in the South Hills.

Here is where Saw Mill Run is first visible
Old coal patch houses near Washington Junction

Saw Mill Run in Castle Shannon

The stream emerges once again just north of Washington Junction, and gurgles obediently through sluices between T tracks and the backyards of Canal Street until it sprawls again near St. Anne’s School.

Here Saw Mill Run is very neatly controlled
But it sprawls a little more further into Castle Shannon

Culverted under downtown Castle Shannon, the stream again sees daylight starting at the corner of Library Road and Castle Shannon Blvd., near Mindful Brewing and Williams Stained Glass, watched over by a banner honoring a son of Castle Shannon who was killed in Viet Nam in 1969. 

I felt like this hero was guarding the stream as it flows near his banner

At the corner of Library and Grove Roads, where the Sunoco Station and the St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Store stand today, a large greenhouse business once thrived.  It was the second-largest employer in Castle Shannon at one time, second only to the coal mines. 

This large greenhouse business was one of the biggest employers in Castle Shannon

A little further on, the Run trickles past Memorial Hall T Station and historic Linden Grove.  I can remember going to dances at the Grove as a teenager, when it stood on stilts above its often-flooded gravel parking lot, and smelled like an old boat house.  The Grove dates back to 1872, when the Pittsburgh-Castle Shannon Railroad created it as an “amusement grove” to draw more fares from the city into the suburbs. 

I have many fond memories of dancing at the Grove
The stream bed was almost completely dry near the Grove on the day we did our drive.

A little further down Library Road all that remains of another coal patch is a bar marking the old entrance to the mine shaft, and the steps that used to lead to miners’ housing on the hillside across the street.

The Coal Mine tavern near old mine entrance
Old steps that led to miners’ housing
Children standing in front of patch town houses in 1920s

Saw Mill Run many times naughtily overflowed its banks at the intersection of Library Road (Route 88) and Saw Mill Run Blvd. (Route 51), before the state Department of Transportation enlarged the culverts and improved the interchange several years ago. 

Junction of Saw Mill Run Blvd. and Library Rd. today
It was a lot quieter in 1933

Saw Mill Run in Brookline, Overbrook and Bon Air

I wish I could say that our drive was a pleasant one, but if Library Road is a featureless show of strip malls, the scenery gets even uglier when the Run makes its bend onto Saw Mill Run Blvd.  The Run’s namesake road is a miserable slog of decrepit houses, one used-car lot and car-parts store after another, other dispirited-looking small businesses, and traffic as clogged as the arteries of some cranky old man who’s been eating nothing but cheeseburgers for 40 years.  In the span of 20 minutes, we witnessed a truck accident at the Co Go’s and an altercation in the parking lot of the Red White and Blue Thrift Store, and got caught in chaotic quitting-time traffic coming out of the Advance Sign factory.  Oh, and you don’t see a car carcass in just any stream.

I’d love to know the story behind this
Corner of Saw Mill Run Blvd. and Nobles Lane today
There was a gas station there in 1936 too

Saw Mill Run in Beechview

Seldom Seen Greenway seems like an oasis after the hell of Saw Mill Run Blvd between Library Road and Woodruff St.  Here, the Run trickles merrily through a lovely wood right in the middle of the city.  See my blog entry from April 28 on Seldom Seen (formerly Shalerville) for more details about this pretty greenway. Here are a few pictures of the Run in its much more natural habitat.

Pretty little waterfall in Seldom Seen.
So pretty!
Saw Mill Run in its natural habitat.

Saw Mill Run in Banksville and West End

From Seldom Seen, the Run passes under the Rt 51/376/19 interchange and emerges into West End, another place where it has caused all kinds of trouble in the past.  Al and I spent a very nice day exploring the West End (formerly Temperanceville) earlier this summer (see this blog entry).  We walked the length of the Run in the West End, all the way to where it culverts under West Carson Street and the railroad tracks.  Where it spills into the Ohio River, near the West End Bridge, is where the saw mill that give it is name once stood.  That saw mill almost certainly supplied the lumber for Fort Pitt.  Later, in the early 19th century, a salt works stood there.     

I’ve spent my whole life living within a couple of miles of this humble little stream that has seen so much history and been so abused.  Now that I’ve seen every inch of its 9 miles that is viewable, I feel kind of protective!

This is the last view of the Run before it culverts under West Carson Street and the railroad tracks and empties into the Ohio.
Right below this view is where Saw Mill Run spills into the Ohio
Salt works at the confluence with the Ohio, 1834.

SOURCES

https://www.wesa.fm/post/why-are-there-so-many-run-roads-pittsburgh-region#stream/0

http://www.brooklineconnection.com/history/Facts/SawMillRun.html

http://www.brooklineconnection.com/history/Facebook/SawMillRun.html

Here’s a Rick Sebak show about Route 88 that tells a little more about the history of part of the Saw Mill Run watershed.  We’ve seen the play about the armored car heist in Bethel Park in 1927; it was really good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94jJNLXyNgg


Temperanceville

In my last post, I blogged about the Pittsburgh area’s oldest tavern building.  This week, I continue with the history of the neighborhood where the Old Stone Tavern stands.  The history of Old Temperanceville is both fascinating, and very, very typical of Pittsburgh communities.    

19th century map of Temperanceville

Early Temperanceville History

The present-day West End of Pittsburgh was part of St. Clair Township in the 18th century.  In 1800, the northern and western sections of St. Clair broke off into Chartiers and Union Townships.  Much of the land in Chartiers was owned by a gentleman named West Elliott (yes, the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Elliott is named for his family).  Mr. Elliott was a gambler and he sold the land encompassing present-day West End in 1835 to pay off gambling debts.  The new owners, Isaac Warden and John Alexander, laid out the town of Temperanceville in 1837.  The deeds to the lots that they sold included a clause stipulating that no liquor may be sold on the parcel, or the lot would revert back to Warden and Alexander.  Nevertheless, by the mid-1800s, several saloons flourished in Temperanceville.

The little town grew quickly.  Businesses sprouted up to support the nearby coal mines, blast furnaces and iron mills.  By the 1870s, Main, Wabash and Steuben Streets were paved roads, and Temperenceville businesses included the Sheffield Iron Works, Haller & Beck Salt Works, Duff’s Sawmill, Wood’s Rolling Mill, Hall’s Plow factory, Wightman Glass, and Taylor Salt & Chemical.  A coke oven operated at the corner of Main & Woodville Streets. 

The Slums of Temperanceville

This is not a photo of the slum area of Temperanceville, but it is a good depiction of what a 19th century slum looked like.

Life in a boom town isn’t always pleasant.  The town flooded frequently, most catastrophically in 1874. Most of the streets were still dirt, and turned to rivers of mud after a rain or snow.  Cows and chickens roamed the streets and free-ranging pigs rooted in the garbage.  Sensible people knew to avoid the shantytown along River Road (present-day West Carson Street) at night.  One woman who often had to go back and forth between West End and downtown Pittsburgh described it this way: “It required considerable courage to make a trip in comfort and safety to Saw Mill Run after nightfall…the only illumination after leaving the Smithfield Bridge came from the glare of the blast and puddling furnaces…the absence of gas lights and police in this district made it a refuge for toughs, who were dangerous to meet at all times, but particularly so after they had received a pay and were full of drink…Needless to say, if a passerby happened to get killed, it was an easy matter to throw his body into the river.”

Late 19th-century housing

A local official described the slum housing that climbed up the hillside from the Ohio River:  “half a thousand people living there under conditions that were unbelievable – back-to-back houses with no through ventilation; cellar kitchens; dark, unsanitary, ill-ventilated, overcrowded sleeping rooms, no drinking water supply on the premises, and a dearth of sanitary accommodations…In one apartment, a man, his wife, and baby, and two boarders slept in one room, and five boarders occupied two beds in and adjoining room.  In another apartment of the three rooms, the man, his wife and baby slept in the kitchen, their two boarders in a second room; and the third room was sub-let and occupied as a living and sleeping room by five persons – a man, his wife and child, and two boarders.”

The single water pump in this section served 91 households, a total of 568 people.  It was located 75 steps below the top row of houses.  Drainage chutes for both storm water and human waste dropped to open wooden gutters running between the houses. 

Temperanceville Becomes West End

Temperanceville was absorbed into the City of Pittsburgh in 1872, and continued to grow, from a population of 2768 in 1880 to 3725 by 1900.  Slavs, Hungarians, and Poles joined the English, Irish and Germans in the neighborhood.  Small industries gave way to commercial buildings like banks, shops and real estate offices.  The West End became a shopping, transportation and entertainments center for the Crafton/western Pittsburgh area.  Wooden houses were replaced by the tall brick row houses seen today in the neighborhood.  The West End boasted many social clubs, fraternal lodges, churches, choral and drama societies, and a dance school and baseball league. 

German Evangelical Church dates to 1864. Now the Jerusalem Baptist Church
Late 19th-century buildings.
Some beautifully restored 19th-century architectural detail

The neighborhood endured a period of decline in the late 20th century, but shows signs of bouncing back.  The lovely old Carnegie Library, dating to the 1890s, still stands and is a lively community hub.  Local businesses include a yoga studio, a stone and tile showroom, an art gallery and an antique store.  I had a delicious vegetarian panini and iced chai latte at Café 412, a pretty little coffee shop in Main Street.  Life in old Temperanceville sure has improved since the days of wooden gutters and wandering pigs!

West End is one of the earliest Carnegie Library branches, dating to the 1890s.
Charming Cafe 412 serves a great lunch at a reasonable price.
A nice side trip from West End takes you up to the West End Overlook, for a slightly different view of the Point than what you get from the more-famous Mt. Washington.

Sources

A special shout-out to Emily Ahlin and Maria Joseph of the West End branch of Carnegie Library. The history closet at the West End branch was a wealth of information. Thanks!

Lawrence, Peter, A Geographical History of West End and Elliott and the Neighboring Southwest Pittsburgh Area: City of Pittsburgh Planning Department, 1973.

Fording, Arthur M., Recollections and Reminiscences of West End – Pittsburgh, PA: Self published circa 1950.


Pittsburgh’s Oldest Tavern

Early History of Temperanceville

In our search for lost Pittsburgh neighborhoods, Al and I recently visited old Temperanceville. The community was founded on temperance but is also the home of Pittsburgh’s oldest tavern building.

19th-century map of Temperancville (present-day West End)

The American Indians seldom traveled to the area that would later become Temperanceville and then Pittsburgh’s West End.  They preferred the mouth of Chartiers Creek in modern-day McKees Rocks.  Like all of western Pennsylvania, the site of Temperanceville was disputed territory in the 1850s, claimed by both the British and the French.  Traders from both countries tramped the wooded hills and rafted up and down the rivers and creeks, trading with the Indians.  One of the earliest traders was Peter Chartier a Frenchman who lent his name to Chartiers Creek and the former Chartiers Township from which Crafton, Sheraden, Temperanceville and other western communities were formed.

The history of Temperanceville predates our nation.  Before the American Revolution, the mouth of Saw Mill Run was the home of the saw mill that almost certainly supplied the lumber for Fort Pitt.  In our nation’s earliest history, the area also boasted a boat yard, stables and an inn. These would have been conveniences for travelers heading south on Washington Pike or west on Steubenville Pike.  The inn, The Old Stone Tavern, still stands and is one of the oldest buildings in the City of Pittsburgh.

History of the Old Stone Tavern

Most historians don’t think so!

Architectural historians dispute the age of the Old Stone Tavern.  The cornerstone gives a date of 1752, but that is probably inaccurate.  1756 is another proposed date, but that is also suspect.  Few Europeans settled the area before the 1860’s and the French & Indian war raged in the 1850’s.  It seems unlikely that anyone would have made the investment to put up a stone building in the middle of a war zone. In pre-Revolutionary Western Pennsylvania, most all buildings in Western Pennsylvania were log or frame. Stone would have been an expensive luxury. 

Dates as late as 1819 were proposed until a ledger from the tavern was found, with entries starting in 1793.  Current consensus is that the Old Stone Tavern was built sometime between 1782 and 1793. An addition on the back dates to the Civil War era.  Perhaps the cornerstone refers to a humbler tavern building that first stood on the site. 

The Old Stone Tavern today

The tavern has a colorful history.  The ledger helped to establish as fact the legend that the it was a meeting site for members of the Whiskey Rebellion.  The ledger lists the names of 89 Whiskey Rebellion participants, as well as 109 known veterans of the American Revolution, and 16 known veterans of the War of 1812.  President Grant visited the tavern in 1869. 

Less proven are rumors that George Washington, Arthur Saint Clair and Charles Dickens slept at the tavern, along with a legendary duel fought there in the early 19th century.  Also unproven are the inevitable ghost stories. Ghost stories center around the use of a small room in the tavern as a holding cell for prisoners being transported along the Washington Pike. 

The tavern operated continuously from circa 1782 until 2008.  It was a toll plaza for the Washington Pike, a stage coach stop, a social center, reputedly a brothel for a time, and a Prohibition-era speakeasy.  Dog fights, political rallies and boxing matches were held there.  It just missed destruction in a refinery fire in 1873. The 1874 Saw Mill Run flood swept away a grocery store only a block away but merely licked the tavern. 

As a young girl growing up in Banksville and riding the old 36C West End Greentree bus out of downtown, I passed The Old Stone Tavern many times and never noticed it. Reading a book or daydreaming about boys.  I had no idea that a piece of lively Pittsburgh history passed right outside the bus window .

The Future of the Old Stone Tavern

The tavern was designated a historical landmark in 2009, and the Pittsburgh’s Old Stone Tavern Friends Trust is raising funds for an ambitious project to restore the old building into a restaurant and tavern.  Plans for the tavern and surrounding area also include a museum, distillery and tasting room, and community green space.  Find out more HERE.

Coming Next on the Blog

COMING SOON:  More Temperanceville history, our trip to Temperanceville, and tracing the path of Saw Mill Run.   

Sources

A special shout-out to Emily Ahlin and Maria Joseph of the West End branch of Carnegie Library. The history closet at the West End branch was a wealth of information. Thanks!

Lawrence, Peter, A Geographical History of West End and Elliott and the Neighboring Southwest Pittsburgh Area: City of Pittsburgh Planning Department, 1973.

Fording, Arthur M., Recollections and Reminiscences of West End – Pittsburgh, PA: Self published circa 1950.

Informational flyer from Pittsburgh’s Old Stone Tavern Friends Trust


Wilkinsburg’s One-Room Schoolhouse

Jane’s schoolroom probably looked a lot like this, since it was in a room of her mother’s house.

Jane Grey Swisshelm held several jobs in her lifetime.  Her father died when she was only 11 years old and her family was plunged into poverty.  Jane had to produce paintings on velvet for sale as her contribution to the family’s income.  She was at various times a writer, a newspaper publisher, a corset-maker, a quartermaster’s clerk, a street commissioner and a nurse.  She was also a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse.

Wilkinsburg didn’t open its first public school until 1840.  Before that time, there were private schools in the area of varying size and quality, including Edgeworth School, the ladies’ academy that Jane attended for a couple of years in her early teens.  Following her education at Edgeworth, Jane opened a school of her own in her mother’s home in Wilkinsburg in 1830 – at the age of 15!

Jane bragged of being the first schoolmistress in Western Pennsylvania to teach without flogging.  She taught seven hours a day Monday through Friday, plus Bible school on Saturday morning, for $2.50 per term per pupil.  That would be about $67 in today’s dollars.  Quite a bargain!

Jane probably taught students of all ages.  Younger students would have sat in front, older in back.  I’ve found no record of what she taught, but it most likely followed the general educational rubric of the one-room schoolhouse of the era.

A Typical Day in a 19th-century Schoolhouse

The students’ day usually started with the Lord’s Prayer.  The first lesson of the day was in reading.  Memorization was important in those time when books were in short supply and computers non-existent.  Part of the reading lesson would include each child reciting a speech or poem from memory.  After a privy break and perhaps a short recess, arithmetic and penmanship would be taught.  Students practiced penmanship by writing their name, the date and a maxim or two in a copybook.  The class might then discuss the moral meaning of the maxim. 

Lunch and recess followed penmanship. After recess, children helped carry more firewood and water into the schoolhouse. 

The teacher instructed her students in grammar and spelling in the early afternoon, followed by history.  After another privy break, the class read and discussed a moralistic story.  This was meant to both build character and develop elocution skills.  The last class of the day was geography.

Behavioral Expectations

At dismissal time, children assigned for that day helped to tidy up the classroom.  Chores for the next day were assigned at this time as well.  Students who had misbehaved might have to stay late to sweep the floors and wash the tin drinking cup.  Oher common punishments included whipping with a rod or ruler on the palms or buttocks, or spanking with a hickory stick.   Since Jane was opposed to these physical punishments, she more likely stood her naughty students in a corner, or sat them on a stool wearing a dunce cap.  She may also have had them memorize or copy long passages with moral messages, or write sentences over and over, while the other children were outdoors enjoying recess.

19th century parents and teachers placed a high value on good manners in children.  “Making your manners” meant curtsying for a girl and bowing or nodding for a boy.  An apple or some picked wildflowers was a kind way to make one’s manners to the teacher.

Jane as a Teacher

As I do my research, I find Jane to be a study in contrasts.  She was certainly self-righteous; hence, the title of my book. She could be stubborn, demanding and unreasonable. But she was passionate about doing good, and she was very dainty and feminine in appearance when she was young. What would she have been like as a teacher?  She describes herself as being so successful at non-corporeal discipline that “boys, ungovernable at home, were altogether tractable.”  Were they charmed by her femininity?  Or intimidated by her steely righteousness?  I’d say it’s a toss-up.  She is a complex character.  I’m figuring her out as I write.

Sources

Half a Century – Jane Grey Swisshelm, 1880

http://www.heritageall.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Americas-One-Room-Schools-of-the-1890s.pdf


Nine Mile Run

Nine Mile Run where it meets the Monongahela

My research for my previous book, The Saint’s Mistress, took me as far as Italy.  We’re staying closer to home as I research Righteous, but we’re still making interesting discoveries.  Last week, looking for the spot where my two main characters met, we hiked the very pleasant Nine Mile Run Trail.

The summer day was perfect for our quest. We knew that James and Jane met along Nine Mile Run, in the fateful scene described in this excerpt from my novel-in-progress.  And we knew that it must have been along the portion of the Run nearest the Swisshelm farmstead.  We decided to walk the whole of the Nine Mile Run trail in Frick Park, and see if we could guess where Jane’s carriage may have overturned in the swollen run one early-spring day.

Nine Mile Run Trail

The trail is beautiful, for bikers, hikers or just plain loafers.  Benches sit invitingly at several points along the path, where a hiker may rest for a few minutes or a loafer can sit and read a book, daydream or watch the bees and butterflies.  On the day we walked the trail, we saw black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, crown vetch, daisies, and thistles, along with several other wildflowers that we couldn’t identify.  It’s an easy hiking trail, 3.6 miles in and out, mostly flat with a few short rises and a mix of sun and shade.  Although it passes directly under the Parkway East at one point, the main sound is birdsong. 

Nine Mile Run Trail, Frick Park
Flowers along the trail

The land along the Run served as a slag dump from the 1920s until the 1970s.  Over the course of that time, Pittsburgh’s many mills deposited about 200 million tons of slag.  Between 2003 and 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers invested $7.7 million into restoring 2.2 miles of the stream. It was one of the largest urban-stream restorations undertaken in the United States. They uncovered the stream channel in many places where it was blocked or culverted. Wetlands and animal habitat have been restored.  The work continues, as you can see in the picture below.

Work on the Run continues

The stream is clean enough that we saw several people fishing for bass near where it empties into the Monongahela River.

This guy says he has caught some big bass at this spot

The trail connects the main body of Frick Park with the Monongahela River.  Al and I identified what I think a likely spot for Jane’s carriage to have overturned, leading to her rescue by her future husband.  It’s near the Swisshelm farmstead, in a fairly deep section of the Run, right above a rocky waterfall. 

But it looks like such a NICE stream, not dangerous at all!

History of the Site

James Swisshelm’s father, John, a Revolutionary War veteran, endured the bitter winter at Valley Forge in 1778.  John’s first wife died after bearing him 3 sons. He then married his second wife, Mary Elizabeth Miller, at some point before 1808. She was no more than 25 years old.  He would have been nearly 50.  In 1808, John bought 162 acres in the area called Nine Mile from William and Mary Pollack for one thousand pounds. 

John and Mary Elizabeth had at least six children: Eva born 1808, James born 1810, Samuel born 1815, Margaret born 1817, William born 1821 and Henry born 1827.   Some sources mention two additional children, who may not have survived infancy. I’ve made the decision to write a few of these siblings out of my novel.  Five brothers and sisters is a lot for a reader to keep track of! 

John Swisshelm disinherited his three sons by his first marriage and both of his daughters.  His will left his estate to his wife, Mary Elizabeth, an unusual step in an era when women’s property rights were very limited.  After her death, the estate was to be divided equally among their four sons.  As I show in my novel, this controversial will led to a lot of bitterness in the Swisshelm family, especially between James and Jane.  The family story ran that in his old age John “became blind and when the time came to make his will desired that all of the children should share and share alike in the estate,” but that Mary Elizabeth “had two wills prepared, one the way John desired and the second the way she desired.  She had the first read to him and had him sign the second.”

Lawsuits over the property continued well into the 1860s.  But, today, that battleground is a lovely and peaceful place to spent a summer afternoon.

Sources:

Jane Grey Swisshelm, An Unconventional Life; Sylvia D. Hoffert; University of North Carolina Press; 2004

https://www.yelp.com/biz/nine-mile-run-watershed-association-pittsburgh

https://myhikes.org/trails/nine-mile-run-trail


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