Short History of the Evolution of Coal Hill
(Mount Washington)

View East from Coal Hill
A view of Mount Washington and the Duquesne Heights neighborhood, looking towards the east.

The communities of Duquesne Heights and Mount Washington stand atop Coal Hill (now refered to as Mount Washington), a 600-foot mountain with a tree-covered cliffside that borders the Monongahela River, creating one of Pittsburgh's most unique and striking vistas. With vintage, historic inclines scaling it's steep facade and the Grandview Park overlooks providing a world-renowned view of the Golden Triangle and the Three Rivers, Mount Washington is now one of Pittsburgh's key tourist attractions. Property along Grandview Avenue, which runs the length of Mount Washington, is some of the most sought-after in the city.

This was not always the case. Mount Washington has a long history, full of geological and economic ups and downs. The Indian name "Monongahela" means, "mountain of sliding banks," making reference to the geological features of the hill. Early settlers and travelers marveled at the tree-covered natural barrier to the north, and soon learned the bountiful secrets of the Pittsburgh Coal Seam hidden beneath the surface.

As the city industrialized, the mountain became the source that fueled Pittsburgh's growth. By the late-1800s, annual coal production was 13 million tons. The rich coal seam, which extended the length of the Monongahela and Ohio, has been deemed the most commercially valuable mineral deposit in North America. Although mining in Pittsburgh ended years ago, the legacy of Coal Hill will forever be tied to the black gold that flowed from it's veins.

View East from Coal Hill
By 1923, the hillsides along Mount Washington were becoming a barren eyesore.

By the end of the 19th century, the ravages of time, the scarring from the mining operations and the destructive forces of modern industry had transformed the once-forested hillside into a barren, eroding wasteland. Property values plummeted and the entire image of the city of Pittsburgh suffered as a result.

The 20th century saw a gradual increase in efforts to reduce, and subsequently reverse, the deteriorating condition of the hillside. The city began by designating the area as green space and park land. Through the determined efforts of the City Department of Parks and Recreation and the City Planning Commission, along with numerous local community and civic groups, Coal Hill has been transformed back into the lush, tree-covered vista that once thrilled early travelers like the young British officer named George Washington.

View East from Coal Hill
Today, the slopes of Mount Washington have been returned to their former picturesque quality.

The following is a short history of Coal Hill, written in the 1980s and brought up to date. The article was discovered online at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy webpage and has been edited to bring it up to date. It provides some interesting insights into the evolution of Pittsburgh's historic Mount Washington.

Geological Origins of “Coal Hill”

The origin of Mount Washington, or Coal Hill, goes back to a period of time known as the Taconic Orogeny. The unusual exposed coal deposits along Pittsburgh’s Coal Hill were the result of tremendous shifts in the earth’s crust beginning more than 435 million years ago. During this episode of mountain building, North America was crashed into by a chain of volcanic islands. The land folded, buckled and lifted to form new mountains in the eastern part of the state while depressing a basin in the central part of the Pennsylvania plateau.

Over the next 30 million years the Taconic mountains were eroded, and vast quantities of sediment were carried into the central and western part of Pennsylvania. These sediments were deposited in the huge Catskill Delta, where sedimentary rocks were formed to a depth of 4,000 feet. Deposits 1,500 feet thick were made in Erie. This delta covered an area from New York through central Pennsylvania.

Diagram showing how the Allegheny Mountains formed.
Diagram showing the prehistoric upheavals that led to the creation of the supercontinent
Pangea and the formation of the Allegheny Mountain range. Click to enlarge.

A second mountain building period, called the Acadian Orogeny, formed more mountains to the east, providing even more sediment to enlarge the delta. Finally, the Alleghenian Orogeny occured some 300 to 220 million years ago, during the collision of North America and Africa. The sediments washed from this set of mountains created the sedimentary rocks that can now be seen on the surface of much of the land in western Pennsylvania today. Pittsburgh sits on over 16,000 feet (more than 3 miles) of sedimentary rock.

During this Pennsylvanian Period (300 to 220 million years ago) Pittsburgh was under swamps with a hot equatorial climate that supported lush plant growth. These plants provided the raw materials, later transformed by bacteria, pressure and heat into bituminous coal, that underlies Mount Washington and much of the rest of western Pennsylvania.

Early Colonial History and The Siege of Fort Pitt

The European powers that battled for control of the region focused their attentions on the junction of the Three Rivers. The location was perfectly situated for a fort, providing excellent defensive barriers on all sides, including the Monongahela River and Coal Hill to the north. First the French, who erected Fort Duquesne, then the British, with Fort Pitt, knew what a formidable obstacle the cliffsides of Coal Hill were to any invading force.

On the other hand, control of the heights did offer the enemy a perfect observation point. This was the case in 1763, when an Indian Uprising threatened British control of the entire Northwest. Ottawa Chief Pontiac and his coalition of northwestern tribes took control of several British forts and soon were marching on Fort Pitt and the settlement of Pittsburgh.

Indians surround Fort Pitt - May, 1763
Indians on the warpath held the heights of Coal Hill for eighty-six days during the Siege of Pittsburgh in 1763.

For nearly three months, beginning on May 27, 600 settlers and a garrison of 150 British soldiers were under siege at Fort Pitt. The Indians held the hills ringing the city, including the commanding heights of Coal Hill. The garrison had withstood several attacks and were running short of supplies and ammunition.

The siege was lifted on August 20, 1763, only days after a relief expedition under the command of Colonel Henry Bouquet defeated the Indians at the Battle of Bushy Run. After the rebellion had been put down, the growth of Pittsburgh, considered the "Gateway to the West," accelerated at a rapid pace. Coal would be the catalyst that fed that growth.

Pittsburgh Industry and the Role of Mount Washington

By the latter part of the 1700’s the south side of the Monongahela River had become known for its supply of coal. The first mining of bituminous coal in the nation began on “Coal Hill” in 1762. Early residents of the region gathered the coal to heat their homes and to supply the soldiers at Fort Pitt. Coal was delivered to the fort in canoes. This early use of coal was unusual in the colonies, since wood was the fuel of choice elsewhere.

Historical marker commemorating history of Coal Hill

The Penn family began selling mining rights on Mount Washington as early as 1784. By then, Pittsburgh had already been dubbed “The Smokey City” because of the heavy use of coal. This name was thrust upon the fledgling city long before the roaring iron and steel mills came along in the 19th century to saturate the air with their acrid, sooty discharge.

The black gold of Coal Hill was unusually accessible. At one time people could simply loosen the coal at the surface and toss it down the hillside to waiting boats. It sold for a penny a bushel. Soon, mining ventures were drilling deep into the mountain to extract the fuel that fed the growing city and its emerging industrial base.

Early industrial uses of coal included salt extraction. By 1825 over 200,000 tons of coal per year were being used in Pittsburgh to produce salt for domestic use. Glass making was established in the 1830’s, and within a few years Pittsburgh was producing more than half of the nation’s total glass. By the 1870s, canals, and then railroads, helped spur the use of coal for iron and steel production. Coal extraction was at an annual 13 million tons, which accounted for one-fifth of the entire national output.

Pittsburgh Coal Miners
Miners in Pittsburgh went underground to extract the mineral riches locked in the heart of Coal Hill.

The rich Pittsburgh seam, which extended the length of the Monongahela and Ohio, became the most commercially valuable mineral deposit in North America. Mining enterprises were in operation throughout Pittsburgh and the surrounding boroughs and towns. Small-gauge coal railroads and spur lines criss-crossed the valleys near Coal Hill.

Many of these lines, like the Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad, utilized a network of underground tunnels that themselves criss-crossed through the rock core of Mount Washington. These lines terminated at inclines or loading platforms on the north face. From there the coal would be transported to the factories along the Monongahela riverbank.

As the steel industry became one of the coal industry’s largest customers, many of the most famous names in Pittsburgh 19th century industrial history became linked to it's riches. Entrepreneurs and financiers like Seward Hays, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Phipps, and Thomas Mellon all were part of the industrial engine that made Pittsburgh an economic powerhouse for the nation.

Since 1760, more than 1,000,000,000 (one billion) tons of coal have been mined from the Pittsburgh seam in Allegheny County alone. This quantity of coal is equal to the volume of about 3,000 U.S. Steel Buildings, enough to fill 12,000,000 standard rail coal cars and make a train that would extend almost six times around the earth.

“Coal Hill” Becomes the Community of Mount Washington

While Mount Washington may have been first noted for the abundant coal deposits, its location made it a natural area for settlement in the earliest days of Pittsburgh's burgeoning industrial enterprises, which were primarily farming, ship building and salt production.

By the 1860s Pittsburgh's industrial base experienced a large expansion, with the introduction of glass and iron production. This growth required new workers, and the workers needed housing. The nearby hillsides, including Mount Washington and Duquesne Heights, were an attractive option. Slowly, the farmlands at the top of Coal Hill were converted to housing.

Indian Trail Steps - 1911
The Indian Trail Steps were a popular way for early pedestrians to scale the heights of Mount Washington.

The Borough of Mount Washington was annexed into the City of Pittsburgh in 1872. Unfortunately for these new city residents, the steep terrain was difficult to traverse. The mile long switchback known as the Indian Trail Steps, which ran the entire length of the mountain’s face from High Street (Grandview Avenue) to the base of the hill at Carson Street, was a major transportation route for many weary commuting factory workers.

Native Germans, using the model of steel roads, or "steilbahns", on the steep hillsides of their native Germany, proposed the construction of Inclined Planes as a more efficient way of transporting men and material up the slopes. Inclines had been in use by the coal industry for a few decades, transporting raw material from the mines on the hillsides to factories below. The proposed communter inclines, like the Monongahela and Duquesne Planes, began operating in the 1870s, carrying not only people but also freight, horses and wagons. Their popularity soared and soon several inclines dotted hillsides throughout the city of Pittsburgh.

The Monongahela Freight and Passenger Inclines
Inclined Planes, like the Monongahela Incline, became a popular way to traverse the steep slopes of Coal Hill.

Environmental History of Mount Washington

Views of the Mountain

The earliest descriptions of the Mount Washington area by travelers provide a testament to its original beauty and riches of its landscape. The dramatic vista sculpted by the three rivers was lushly wooded, both productive and scenic. Numerous accounts describe the thick and diverse tree cover along the hills, as well as the clear water, abundant fish and prosperous farmlands.

In 1754, George Washington, a British Major sent as an emissary from Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia to the French encamped at Fort LeBoeuf on French Creek, noted that the land at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers was “extremely well situated for a Fort; as it has the absolute command of both Rivers. The land at the Point is a considerable bottom of flat, well-timbered land all around it very convenient for building.”

In the late 1780s, Justice Hugh Henry Brackenridge wrote lyrically of his experience of Pittsburg and compared it favorably with many other locations. Clearly the land has been converted toward agriculture in many places:

"The bank of the Allegheny on the northwest side of the town of Pittsburg is planted with an orchard of apple and pear trees brought and planted it is said, by a British officer who commanded at this place. The fruit is excellent and the trees bear in abundance every year.

Describing the confluence of the rivers, he states:

"Here we have the breezes of the river, the gales that fan the woods and are sent from the refreshing northern lakes; the extensive hills and dales whence the fragrant air brings odors of a thousand flowers and plants or of corn and grain upon its balmy wings. Here we have town and country together. The winter season is equally enjoyable, the buildings are warm, the fuel abundant, consisting of coal from the neighboring hills, or ash, hickory or oak firewood."

In 1806, Irish visitor Thomas Ash also formed a favorable impression of the area. On a boat ride down the Allegheny he wrote:

"I found the scene instantaneously changed and become peculiarly grand. In ten minutes I got into the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela waters. For half an hour I steered my boat in this confluence being able to dip up whitish water on one side and perfect green on the other. The hills on the right hand were nearly 1,200 feet high, those on the left something less lofty, each clothed with sumptuous and increasing timber from the base to the summit, the garb of many thousands of years."

Shipbuilding along the Monongahela riverbank in 1803.
Shipbuilding for the Lewis and Clark expedition along the Monongahela River in 1803.
The heights of Mount Washington stand lush and tall along the southern shore.

Mrs. Ann Royall visited Pittsburgh in 1828 after it had recovered from the depression caused by the War of 1812 and had become a center of commerce and manufacture for the region. She wrote expansively of the splendors of Pittsburgh, including Coal Hill. Among her notes are these remarks:

"Of all towns in our country, Pittsburg excites most astonishment. Everything pursued in other towns is thrown into the shade in Pittsburg; even in the building of steamboats it excels. The scenery around Pittsburg is very beautiful, highly delightful in summer and when viewed from some points presents the most interesting associations of nature and art. Coal Hill is a point of interesting observation where the eye at a single glance takes in a hundred beauties that might view with the purest and brightest of other hemispheres."

By 1832, however, when Mr. James Stuart visited, the tension between exploitation of the riches of the land and the condition of the environment was evident in his comments:

"Pittsburg is well known as the great manufacturing city of Western America, and would be a very delightful place of residence but for the clouds of coal smoke which cover it and give a gloomy cast to the beautiful hills which surround it and all the neighboring country.

Fourteen years later, in 1846, the Pittsburgh Chronicle had this to say on the subject of environmental degradation in the pursuit of coal and industry:

"Coal mines, stone quarries and railroads have sadly marred the beauties of this noble barrier to our view towards the West. In the days of its glory, which covered with trees from summit down to the edge of the water, it was the fairest portion of our surrounding scenery. But, now how it has changed! At its base vast furnaces belch forth dense clouds of flame and smoke, its steep side has been cut down by large quarries, and all along near its top a dozen yawning throats pour down a dozen railroads its rich treasures. Trees and shrubs have been reft from their fast hold, and the old hill now stands before us with scarred sides and an almost shaven crown."

Goats, advertising signs and the effects
of erosion highlight this section of Coal Hill in 1923.
Wandering goats, advertising, ramshackle homes and the deteriorating effects of erosion
highlight this section of the Mount Washington hillside in 1923.

In 1866, Pittsburgh, with its roaring blast furnaces working round the clock, was described by James Parton as “hell with the lid taken off.” But in an even truer sense, Mount Washington itself was literally aflame underfoot. A fire was started accidentally in the underground coal fields and burned uncontained for sixteen years. One visitor, the Reverend Charles Beatty, described his experience on the hill in 1865 or 1866:

"The earth in some places is so warm, that we could hardly bear to stand upon it; as one place where the smoke came up we opened a hole in the earth till it was so hot as to burn paper thrown into it; the steam that came out was so strong of sulpher that we could scarcely bear it."

By the time the inclines were built, much of Mount Washington’s north face was completely bare of greenery. Some sources suggest that the fumes and byproducts of industrialization had poisoned the hillside flora. The forested hillsides of George Washington’s first visit were long gone and the “practical” use of the mountainsides prevailed.

In the 1950s, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Mount Washington and Duquesne Heights area were characterized as "one of the ugliest industrial cities in the world. Honeycombed with mines, fronted by smoke-belching steel mills at its base and virtually isolated with only a few poor roads servicing it, Mount Washington was hardly a prestigious address."

An abandoned home on the Mount
Washington hillside in 1930.
A crumbling, abandoned home on the Mount Washington slope in 1930.

Geological Features of Mount Washington

Forest Types

Forest types in Western Pennsylvania were documented by early travelers and others, but only in the most general terms. However, there are a few specific surveys of plants on Mount Washington. Land sold by the Penn family in the 1780s was surveyed using trees as property markers. This included portions of Mount Washington. Mentioned in the surveys were the following trees: Hickory, White Oak, White Walnut, Spanish Oak, Sugar Tree, and Red Oak.

A study by the City Department of Parks and Recreation in 1970 cataloged the following trees on Mount Washington: Maples and Locust, with a few Red Oak, Mulberry, Dogwood, Walnut, Ash and Sumac scattered throughout the entire area. The list also included Ailanthus, Malus, Honeysuckle, Box Elder, Hawthorn, Virginia Creeper, Sumac and poison ivy. The report specifically noted the absence of evergreens on the hillside. Undergrowth, weeds and small trees were found to be adequate for controlling erosion throughout most of the area.

Fisheries

Early descriptions of Pittsburgh's fisheries speak highly of the quality of the water in the rivers. In this well-watered region fish were naturally abundant: trout were found in the tributaries of the Allegheny, perch and pike in the streams flowering into the Monongahela. The three great rivers also included catfish, sturgeon, bass, and bullheads. Turtle, eel and the “Allegheny alligator fish” are also recorded by early travelers.

However, development of the flats near the rivers, including dredging and filling, and polluted runoff from mining and other industrial operations, led to large fishkills and other signs of degraded water quality in the 1950s. The impact of decades of industrial exploitation in the surrounding hills had created a toxic environment that destroyed Pittsburgh's once abundant fisheries.

Soils

The 1970 study for the Department of Parks and Recreation describes the soils in the Mount Washington-Duquesne Heights area as “variable” over relatively short distances due to the steepness of the slope.

A 1971 Grandview Study by the City Planning Department provides some insight into soil conditions on Mount Washington:

LANDSLIDES - The steep slope areas of Mount Washington have been formed by erosion and are in the process of erosive change at the present time. These areas can be considered as generally unstable and subject to landslides, rock falls, and other types of geologic movement, a condition that has existed since the days of the earliest settlers.

GEOLOGIC FISSURES - The horizontal strata exposed on the steep hillsides in the Mount Washington area are dissected by a series of parallel and near vertical fissures. The fissures occur throughout the steep hillsides facing both the Monongahela River and Saw Mill Run Creek. These fissures are a result of removal of lateral support by the erosion which formed the hillside and adjacent valleys. Removal of this support has caused immense slabs of bedrock to move toward the center of the valleys. These fissures are largest and most frequent near the faces of the hillsides and gradually diminish in both size and number away from the slope. They are visible in the hillsides, especially where some recent movement has occured. They become natural channels and carry large volumes of water draining through the hill. This water can exert hydrostatic pressure, which aggravates an already serious stability condition. These fissures are the planes of weakness along which landslides and rockfalls have usually occurred in the past and will continue to occur in the future.

Landslide near the top of McArdle Roadway - 2012.   Landslide along the railroad tracks - 2012.
Landslides, like these in 2012, have been a recurring problem along the Mount Washington slopes.

WEATHERING AND EROSION - The on-going, natural weathering processes of the area are generally very gradual and there are elements that work to control erosion. Plants on the steep slope area have a stabilizing influence, tending to retard erosion, in addition to presenting a green façade to the hill. Any intervention into the harmony of this ecology should be done with due consideration or an undesirable situation may be created. Thirty years ago the local air was so polluted that much of the plant life on the north façade of Mount Washington was poisoned. The sparse growth presented an unnatural condition that accelerated erosion. This condition offered a much less desirable façade as well. Fortunately, nature has restored much of the plant growth. Periodic excavations in connection with railroad or highway construction have also scarred the hillsides in such a way that nature has not been able to restore vegetation. The excavation for the portals of the Fort Pitt Tunnels have removed plants and top soil and has exceeded, to a critical degree, the natural slope of the hill. This presents a serious problem with regard to planting and erosion control.

The report included a strongly-worded assessment of land conditions on the north side:

“The north slope of Mount Washington is one of the most unstable hillside areas in the city. Numerous landslides have been recorded in the area. The vertical fissures along the length of the hill have created an additional concern. The fissures are so positioned that a substantial piece of the face of the hill could shear off and slide down to Carson Street. This could occur as the result of natural stresses alone. If additional weight is placed on top, as in the case of new development, the probability of occurrence would be increased."

Hillsides, Green Space and Parks

In the early part of the 20th Century, there was considerable activity focused on the livability of Pittsburgh. Among the reports was a seven year effort begun in 1918 and completed in 1923, to review six different features of Pittsburgh, including playgrounds, streets, transit, parks, railroads and waterways. The central theme of these efforts was that “a good city in which to live makes a good city in which to do business, and that industrial and commercial progress is largely dependent upon social and civic conditions.”

Facilities such as parks and recreational areas were considered primarily from the standpoint of their importance to economic conditions, but there were also social and aesthetic considerations at work in these reports.

J.T. Holdsworth, PhD, introduced the topic of recreation facilities in his economic survey of Pittsburgh in 1912:

"In the social life of a great industrial city like Pittsburgh no problem bulks larger, and nonerequires for its solution more wise judgment and intelligent planning than that of adequate recreation facilities. A city is judged largely and not improperly as to its desirability as a place of residence by its educational and recreational advantages. It is in the hours of his recreation that a man, whether he toils with his hands or with his brain, really lives. One-half of efficiency and happiness depends on vitality, and vitality depends largely upon recreation. Public provision of rational recreation opportunities has come to be recognized as a necessity by everyone interested in the social and civic welfare of individuals and communities."

Frederick Law Olmstead, in a report to the Pittsburgh Civic Commission in 1910, said:

"Especially is it desirable that the precipitous hillside rising to Mount Washington, now largely an unfruitful waste, a place of raw gulleys and slides mingled with some painful advertising signs, should be treated with respect as a vital part of the great landscape of the city. It should be protected from defacement and its earthy portions should be reclothed with the beauty of foliage.

The hillside of Coal Hill in 1929.    The hillside of Coal Hill in 1915.
The Mount Washington hillside showing the effects of 19th century development, erosion and deforestation.

Olmsted goes on to plea for a careful planning process:

"Such a plan should make provision not alone for the present, but at least a generation to come. Industrial and commercial growth alone will not make a city great. The proudest boast a city can make is that it is a good place in which to live. Good standards of living, a happy and contented working class, permanency of employment, and opportunities for culture and recreation are indispensable to permanent growth. The location of parks and playgrounds is a fundamental factor in any comprehensive city plan."

"The basic standards set forth for distribution and accessibility of parks were generally accepted and used as a basis for the discussion of desirable parks planning during this period of time. It is proposed that all families should live within no more than a quarter of a mile or at most half a mile from playgrounds or local parks that provide for exercise or rest.”

"Pittsburgh’s topography creates a special challenge to planners. The problem of making use of the excessively steep hillsides in the Pittsburgh District is a troublesome one. There is a great deal of such land in the district, as much as 30 to 35 percent of the total area. These steeper and more irregular pieces would be of greater use to the public than they could be to private occupants."

"Although the steep hillsides of Mount Washington, as isolated fragments, can not meet the local needs for playfields and outdoor gymnasiums like those in large rural parks, it is possible to lay out sidehill walks on easy gradients and to furnish seats and terraces, especially near the upper edges, where the people of the neighborhood can stroll or rest and enjoy interesting and extensive views of the city, the river or the adjacent valley, always with the steep natural hillside below as a foreground.

One of the scenic overlooks along
Grandview Avenue on Mount Washington.
As Olmsted recommended, the city constructed several scenic overlooks along Grandview Avenue.

"In flatter landscapes, fewer and larger parks can serve a large number of people. In a hilly terrain, in which the hills themselves present physical barriers to travel, a park on one hillside may not be accessible to someone living nearby."

In an eloquent plea for Pittsburgh to take advantage of its visually remarkable location between the rivers, Olmstead specifically included this comment about Mount Washington:

"Immediately across the Monongahela are the high and rugged hillsides of Mount Washington and Duquesne Heights, and below these are the lesser but still striking hills along the Ohio River from the West End to McKees Rocks. The outlook along the river with its varied activities to these hills immediately beyond would be notable in any part of the world. Furthermore, the rivers and the hills are the two big fundamental natural elements characteristic of the Pittsburgh District. Thus any provision close to the heart of the city, whereby the people can have the enjoyment of these mighty landscapes, is of particular importance. There is no doubt that the area in question should be preserved intact for all time as a monumental example of the Pittsburgh landscape."

Economic Benefits of Parks and Recreation

The Pittsburgh Plan, crafted between 1918 and 1923, titled section II of its report on parks and recreation “The Social and Economic Value of Recreation” and started the section with these entries: "Recreation is an essential human need. It is vital to both the individual and to the community as a whole. Human beings, as well as plants, thrive out of doors. Open spaces are the city’s lungs. They are breathing places. They may be used as playgrounds for the children or as athletic centers for both children and adults. They may consist of large parks and boulevards, formal or informal city “squares” and neighborhood parks, or water recreation areas. As the city grows, the need to provide such open spaces becomes more frequent and urgent. This is a fundamental issue."

"In the past, Pittsburgh employers have been handicapped because workers were attracted to other cities which offered more and better recreation facilities than this city could offer. If the aggregate time annually available in this city for recreation were expended wholesomely and healthfully, even if very great expenditures were required to provide facilities for that purpose, there would be an incalculable economic return. The effort would be an investment in public health, contentment, efficiency, and in better citizenship.

The Pittsburgh Plan suggested future action to increase the availability of locally accessible green spaces to “meet the needs of the masses” including the following idea:

"No general park extension plan can afford to overlook the utilization of the barren slopes on both sides of the Monongahela. At comparatively little expense these bleak banks can be converted into neighborhood parks accessible to the working community where the ever-changing panorama of river and city life may be enjoyed. By appropriate landscape treatment these eyesores can be made at once beautiful and useful in contributing to our recreation needs."

Recreational Park and Greenway History

The view of Pittsburgh from
Grandview Overlook Park.
The view of the City of Pittsburgh from Grandview Park.

Grandview Park was acquired in 1897 and originally contained some eighteen acres of hillside land. The park was developed with a picnic shelter and a merry-go-round which operated until 1946. A music pavilion was used for concerts in the summer. Grandview Park was used as a base for the topographical survey of the city. At 1255 feet above sea level, the park is one of the city’s highest points. An overlook was constructed in 1958 which has been used as a platform for band concerts and for theatre performances. A local elementary school is also located within the park.

Grandview Park Merry-Go-Round - 1937    Grandview Park Music Pavilion - 1937
The Grandview Park Merry-Go-Round (left) and Music Pavilion in 1937.

Olympia Park, once farmland, is a compact 9.3 acres on the southern slope of Mount Washington, west of Chatham Village. It was acquired in 1908, after residents of the area made known their desire to have a local neighborhood park. It was named Olympia Park in reference to the site of all public games in ancient Greece. True to its name, the park focused on athletic uses, and contained a ball field, a sizeable Recreation Center and a playground for young children. At one time the park also offered a swimming pool and bath house. The ballfield was flooded in the winter and converted into a skating rink.

Grandview Park Merry-Go-Round - 1937    Grandview Park Music Pavilion - 1937
The bathhouse (left) and ballfield at Olympia Park in 1937.

Mount Washington Park was established in 1908, again at the demand of local citizens. Once productive farmland, the park was established with about fifteen acres. It is now just under twenty-one acres of land. Much of the land is so steep that the park was nicknamed “goat park” by some. The park has also gone by the name of Wilbert’s Grove and Dilworth Park. The park includes a playing field and a children’s playground.

The Duquesne Heights Greenway is a product of a decades-long evolution of the concept of protecting Pittsburgh’s steep hillsides and keeping these areas predominantly green and in city ownership. In 1939 the City’s Planning Commission took action to preserve the steep slopes and reduce the likelihood of future development on those sensitive lands. Nineteen years later, in 1958, to further hinder hillside development, City Council added a new zoning classification - “S” for special areas including steep slopes.

A Riverfront and Hillside Master Plan was completed the following year and identified future uses for the hillside areas, including overlooks, scenic drives and conservation and recreation areas. In 1966, then-Mayor Richard Joseph Barr and the City Council supported the City Planning Commission and the Department of Parks and Recreation to create a program to acquire the remaining private properties on steep slopes. In tandem with a state program dubbed “Project 70” that provided matching funds for land purchases, the City greenway plan identified seven top priority areas, including portions of Mount Washington. One hundred sixty-six acres of tax delinquent and private properties were identified for purchase.

One of the platforms in Grandview Overlook Park.
The Duquesne Heights Greenway includes over one hundred acres of undeveloped land.

This thinking was carried into the early 1980’s during the term of Mayor Richard Caliguiri. Outlining a strategy that still holds promise, the city planned to consolidate public land, seek gifts of other private properties in sensitive hillside areas, and hold the clusters of land as undeveloped open space for passive use.

This plan was successful in several city neighborhoods, including Brookline, were delinquent properties were acquired in the undeveloped Brookdale subplot, forming a continuous forty acre greenway bordering Brookline Memorial Park. The Duquesne Heights Greenway includes fifty-six acres designated as greenspace, and another sixty-three acres, primarily undeveloped areas, that border the park.

Grandview Overlook Park includes approximately fifty acres that stretch along the northern face of Mount Washington, providing the tree-covered green backdrop to Pittsburgh’s “Golden Triangle”. The view from Grandview Overlook Park is a famous urban vista that has earned, along with McArdle Roadway and East Sycamore Street, a Pennsylvania Scenic Byway designation. This park was established in the 1950’s when the Railroad donated the land to the City of Pittsburgh with a deed restriction for the park's creation.

One of the platforms in Grandview Overlook Park.
One of the scenic observation platforms located in Grandview Overlook Park.

In the 1970’s, federal highway funds were used to enhance the public space at the eastern end of Grandview Avenue from the Monongahela Incline to Ulysses Street. At that time the four observation platforms that cantilever over the hillside from the Grandview Avenue sidewalk were constructed, and new lighting, fencing, park benches and street trees were also installed. However, the park extends beyond Ulysses Street to the western end where Grandview Avenue meets Republic Street. At the western end of Grandview a small section of relatively level land within the park area was improved with a new sidewalk and a platform for the placement of a statue of George Washington and Indian guide Guyasuta.

The statue of George Washington and his Indian
guide Guyasuta in Grandview Overlook Park.
The statue of George Washington and his Indian guide Guyasuta in Grandview Overlook Park.

In 2005, the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation unveiled a new Mount Washington park, known as Emerald View Park, which connects the existing historic park spaces, or anchor parks, with wooded greenways and a scenic byway with many amenities. The continually evolving, 257-acre uninterupted green space rings the Mount Washington hillsides in a horseshoe shape, encompassing the northern, western and southern slopes. Emerald View Park presently contains four miles of continuous walking trails. The master plan envisions a total of nineteen miles of unbroken trails, to be completed sometime near 2030.

Diagram of Emerald View Park.
An outline of Mount Washington's Emerald View Park, showing trails and attractions. Click on image to enlarge.

History of Hillside Restoration Attempts

For nearly 100 years various attempts have been made to improve the physical condition of the hillsides of Mount Washington. Ideas about what would be appropriate aesthetically or ecologically have changed over time.

In his 1910 Study of Pittsburgh, Frederic Law Olmstead urged the city to pay attention to its hillsides as an integral and defining part of the local environmental and recreational resources of the region. Olmstead called the Mount Washington hillside “a monumental example of the Pittsburgh landscape” and he urged that it should be “preserved intact for all time.” He specifically urged that the unsightly billboards and damaged areas of the mountainside be cleared and restored.

In a 1912 report on economic development for Pittsburgh prepared for the City Council and Mayor, Dr. J.T. Holdsworth considered recreation, parkland and a pleasing physical landscape to be integral to economic advancement. He supported Olmstead’s recommendations, and added that the “barren slopes on both sides of the Monongahela should be viewed as opportunities for park expansion. At comparatively little expense these bleak banks can be converted into neighborhood parks accessible to the working community where the ever-changing panorama of river and city life may be enjoyed. By appropriate landscape treatment these eyesores can be made at once beautiful and useful in contributing to our recreation needs.”

A number of program and policy decisions were made over the next two decades to reinforce the concept of hillsides as a crucial resource needing care and improvement. In 1928, the City Planning Commission adopted a Mount Washington beautification plan that would cost $75,000 over three years. The plan called for 8,000 trees to be planted in one year. The first $25,000 was appropriated, but the Great Depression ended the follow up efforts.

In 1949, a group of citizens led by the local Chamber of Commerce involved school children in an attempt to plant sunflowers, cosmos, poppy and cornflower seeds as well as “Easter plants.” A resident of Mount Washington wrote to all states and territories and requested seeds or plants to start a “Garden of the States.” Unfortunately, much of this material died, but some of it did catch on.

The Duquesne Incline rises along the slopes
of Mount Washington to Duquesne Heights.
Tree planting along the Mount Washington hillside is an ongoing effort.

In 1953, the Women’s Club of Mount Washington asked the City to get involved. City Council allocated funding to clear weed trees along the Mount Washington Roadway. Mrs. Verna Dibble undertook the first of a decade of Arbor Day events to help coordinate efforts to beautify the hillsides. In the fall of 1953, a large number of maple sugar seeds were collected and scattered on the hillside.

In the spring of 1954, the City Parks Department planted over 100 crab apple trees from one to five feet tall, three bushels of hawthorn seeds, some black locust and honey locust trees. In the fall of that same year, the City planted multiflora roses donated by the Dormont-Mt. Lebanon Sportsman’s Club. The Mount Washington Hillside Planting Committee collected funds for additional plantings. In the spring of 1955 this group purchased another 100 trees and shrubs, including Sassafras, Arrowwoods, Mountain Laurels and Azaleas.

A 1959 study for the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of City Planning outlined a master plan for the city’s riverfront and hillsides. In 1965, an article in the Post Gazette featured a test planting on the hillside side near the Fort Pitt Tunnel. A lawn care company offered to test a new method of spreading seed and tested a mix of rye grass and Crown Vetch.

In 1970 the City Parks and Recreation Department commissioned studies to assess the potential for restoring Mount Washington, an area the study called “The largest single element of Pittsburgh’s magnificent topographic personality.” Their detailed recommendations led to an experimental test planting commissioned by the Mount Washington Hillside Planting Association. Also involved were the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the Hillman Foundation.

The site of a test planting in 1970 is inspected
ten years later to study the new growth.
The site of a test planting in 1970, near the Fort Pitt Tunnels, is inspected in 1980.

Newspaper coverage at the time explained the following plans: In five areas, encompassing vertical cliff, level areas, 45-degree slopes, bare rock, open field, light cover and dense forest, the plan was to plant both “introduced” and native plants. In level spots, the following were to be planted: thirty-six trees, including Sugar Maple, Yellow Buckeye, Shagbark Hickory, American Beech, Tulip Poplar, Red Oak, Chestnut Oak, Hackberry, White Pine, Basswood and Canada Hemlock.

On steep slopes, fifty seedlings of Beech, Buckeye, Pine, Hemlock, Red Oak and Sugar Maple were planted. In a clearing, shrubs including Mountain Laurel, Pinxterbloom, Fragrant Sumac, Mapleleaf Viburnum, Spice Bush and Arrowwood were tested, along with Crown Vetch. On downward slopes, seedlings of White Ash, Tulip, Sassafras, Basswood, Red Pine, Hackberry, White Ash, Scarlet Oak and ground cover were tried. On other slopes, Red Maples, Sugar Maples, White Ash, Red Oaks, Scarlet Oaks and Chestnut Oaks were planted. Finally, beside the incline, ninety-six cover plantings were added, including Trumpet Vine, Virgin’s Bower, Trumpet Honeysuckle, Virginia Creeper, Kudzu Vine, Fox Grape, and Bittersweet.

In 1980, a follow-up survey to assess the efforts to hide the Fort Pitt Tunnel scar was evaluated. It was found that several of the seedlings and shrubbery had taken root and suggested additional measures, such as the hanging of special gardens that would function to provide more stability to the oft-crumbling slopes.

Over the next three decades efforts continued on a regular basis to carry on the work of maintaining and enhancing the slopes of Mount Washington. Community groups conduct yearly clean-up efforts and tree plantings. Years of hard work have gone a long way towards restoring Coal Hill to it's past glory. The future of Mount Washington, however, depends on the continued efforts of the city, conservationists, and concerned friends and neighbors.

The Beauty of Mount Washington Recaptured

What began in the early 1900s as a determined effort to turn the tide of the degradation and erosion of Pittsburgh's dominant geological feature, the imposing heights of Coal Hill, has done wonders to return the hillside, and the hilltop communities of Mount Washington and Duquesne Heights, to prominence. The introduction of recreational facilities and the reforestation of the slopes has made considerable progress in restoring the natural beauty of the Pittsburgh landscape and providing the citizenry with several historic and picturesque parks.

Grandview Avenue atop Mount Washington, shown from
the overlook near St. Mary of the Mount Church.
Grandview Avenue, atop Mount Washington, shown from the overlook near St. Mary of the Mount Church.

High Street, now scenic Grandview Avenue, is known around the world as the overlook drive that offers the golden views of Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle, situated majestically at the junction of the Three Rivers. The roadway is lined with upscale homes, luxury apartments, five-star restaurants and, of course, the upper loading stations of the historic 19th century Monongahela and Duquesne Inclines.

The Duquesne Incline rises along the slopes
of Mount Washington to Duquesne Heights.
The Duquesne Incline rises towards the homes along Grandview Avenue in Duquesne Heights.

Along the Mount Washington slopes, the process of evolution has come full circle. The lush, tree-covered hillside that so impressed early travelers like young George Washington in the 18th century is, once again, as Mrs. Ann Royall wrote in 1828, "a point of interesting observation where the eye at a single glance takes in a hundred beauties that might view with the purest and brightest of other hemispheres." And, as the Pittsburgher of the 21st century knows so well, the view from the top of the hill is incredible!

The site of a test planting in 1970 is inspected
ten years later to study the new growth.
The view of the City of Pittsburgh and the Golden Triangle from atop Mount Washington (Coal Hill) is breathtaking.

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