The Monte Carlo of Allegheny County
High Bridge Station - West Liberty Borough
High Bridge Station in West Liberty Borough
West Liberty Borough was formed in 1876, a small municipality south of the city of Pittsburgh, just beyond the southern slopes of Mount Washington. Unlike the bustling urban atmosphere and abundant factories in the city, life in West Liberty took had a more rural quality. Marked by gently rolling hills and free of the noise and soot of the nearby city, the days and nights were rather peaceful here in what some considered a suburban paradise.
Along the Saw Mill Run valley, that picturesque quality would soon change, leading to a chapter in borough history that resembles more the ugliness of "Gangs of New York" than the rural beauty of "Green Acres," a period that would go down in the records as a permanent blotch on West Liberty's otherwise gleaming history.
Beginning in 1872, the Pittsburgh and Castle Shannon Railroad operated a freight and passenger line that ran from the city to a terminus at Arlington Station in Castle Shannon. The route of the railroad ran along the outskirts of West Liberty Borough as it wound it's way along the eastern hillside through the Saw Mill Run corridor. One of the passenger stops along the P&CSRR line was High Bridge Station, located on the northwestern end of the McKinley Bridge over present-day Bausman Street.
In 1890, Colonel Samuel Lincoln Boggs, a prominent South Hills landowner, sold off his holdings and moved west. Several small housing developments emerged around the area with the Boggs name attached, including the Boggs Place Plan in West Liberty. This small cluster of homes sat on a plateau above the Saw Mill Run valley along Valley (Timberland) Avenue. The Boggs Place Plan contained four other roads, Fern (Fallow) Avenue, Carleton (Cadet) Avenue, Linial Avenue and Lester (Leavitt) Avenue. When the West Side Belt Railway line came in 1895, access to the plan came via a small wooden bridge that spanned the railroad tracks.
In another development that occurred sometime around 1890, the large open field along Saw Mill Run that lay below High Bridge Station on one side and Boggs Place on the other, became something more than a quaint, picturesque hollow with a gently flowing stream and an occasional locomotive passing by.
Located in West Liberty Borough near a crease in the border with four other independent municipalities (Montooth, Beltzhoover, Knoxville and Baldwin) and just beyond the jurisdiction of the Pittsburgh Police, on Sunday's during spring and summer months this became the ideal location for professional gamblers and con-artists, along with excessive liquor consumption and other illegal gaming activities. The High Bridge gaming festivities were a free-for-all, a tempting yet dangerous place were only the strong survived.
As the notoriety of the festivities grew, people from all over the city and county began to descend upon High Bridge Station on Sunday afternoons to participate in what became known throughout the region as the "Monte Carlo of Allegheny County."
The lawlessness and illegal activities that took place each weekend was such that residents feared for their safety. Gambling of all kinds, vice, prize fighting, cock fighting, dog fighting, horse racing, and illegal liquor sales attracted thousands, many on foot passing through nearby neighborhoods committing other crimes along their path.
It was like the Wild West. Borough officials were coerced into silence with threats of violence, leaving no law enforcement agencies other than the occasional Allegheny County sheriff to protect the peace. During the afternoons and evenings, nearby residents like John Schafer, who owned a dairy and poultry farm along Timberland Avenue near High Bridge, learned to lock their doors and wait for the coming darkness for the wild throng of alcohol-fueled gamers, sharpers and thugs to leave the area.
An 1896 map and 2016 aerial image
showing the location of Monte Carlo activities around the turn of the 20th Century
Despite the efforts of concerned citizens and promised legal action, along with token raids by county detectives, nothing much was done to stop the Monte Carlo activities until the turn of the century.
By 1900 the population of West Liberty Borough and the nearby independent municipalities began to grow. Promised transportation improvements and residential development brought investment, and this progress increased concern over the illegal weekend activities that had been transpiring nearly unchecked now for nearly a decade.
In the spring of 1901, the West Liberty Street Railway Company laid an electrified traction line along West Liberty Avenue to Mount Lebanon, part of the larger Charleroi interurban railway project. County officials cracked down on the gaming activities that spring and, for a while, the weekend affairs came to an end.
The games began again in earnest the following year and, with the traction line providing quick and reliable access to Bell's Tavern from points across the city, the crowds swelled.
By this time residents had endured enough, and decided to take a stand. Without a municipal police presence to call upon, the boroughs began deputizing citizens. This allowed residents the power to police the illegal gambling activities themselves to ensure the peace. Unfortunately, this ill-advised policy had unforeseen and unimaginable consequences. A riot and gun battle on May 31, 1903, between enraged citizens and gamblers ended in the death of two men and several injured.
Other factors contributed to the changing times in West Liberty. The Mount Lebanon traction line spurred investment, residential and commercial development, along with a population surge. Heightened concerns and pressure from borough officials on Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh for more policing gained momentum, and gambling activity ceased in 1903, marking the end of the Monte Carlo era in West Liberty Borough.
Below are four newspaper clippings detailing the Monte Carlo activities in the 1890s and early 1900s. There are no photos from that time period but included are images of the area from later years. Click on the highlighted link to view a copy of the actual article.
* Click on image for larger pictures or readable newsprint *
About a mile southeast of Knoxville, just on the border of West Liberty Borough, in Baldwin Township, is a little hollow near Bell's Tavern. On Sunday the crowd take several barrels of beer there and start poker, fan and crap games. The friends of the crowd, the bad element of the South Side and the borough toughs, visit this place on Sunday. The place has received the names of Monte Carlo and Coney Island. The crowds stay there playing cards and drinking beer until late Sunday night and early Monday morning. The crowd is nearly always the same, and it is a habit of theirs to single out one or two houses in the borough to rob every Sunday night.
During the week the gang hold out at Dilley's Grove, two miles beyond Knoxville, which is run on the free-and-easy plan. The grove is rented for $50 or $75 per day, and beer in large quantities is sold at every picnic held there. The gang live at the grove where they make a practice of relieving picnickers of their clothing and valuables, and at night stroll up to Knoxville and rob a couple of houses of perhaps a store. That practice has continued so long, and the complaints were growing so much more numerous, and forcible that Burgess Kenny of the borough determined to go to the bottom of the thing. Accordingly, he recently took a trip down to Monte Carlo, to see for himself the state of affairs. His eyes were opened at the sight he beheld, and he determined that it should stop.
MONTE CARLO IN FULL BLAST
CROWDS OF GAMBLERS VISITING THE FAMOUS RESORT
CITIZENS UP IN ARMS
Declare That the Continued Law-Breaking Must Come to a Stop
INDIGNATION MEETINGS BILLED
Monte Carlo II, Pittsburg's summer gambling resort, was in full blast yesterday, almost within rifle range of the city limits. The usual crowd of disciples of fortune was larger than ordinary, because of the fine weather. There was to have been an open meeting Saturday night of indignant residents of that section to devise ways and means of suppressing this open school of vice. But there wasn't.
Monte Carlo is a picturesque hollow near High Bridge Station, on the Pittsburg and Castle Shannon Railroad, where the borders of Baldwin Township, West Liberty Borough and Montooth Borough meet. Poker games, with double decks on the side of the "bankers," "seben, come leben," "chuck-luck" and shell games have been going on there undisturbed, and unknown quantities of the amber-colored and other fluids have been disposed of free of tax in plain view of the respectable people who inhabit the few houses in the bottoms. They have to listen to the insults of the gamblers and crooks who congregate there, get drunk and do not give a rap for the practically defenseless residents. The women are afraid to leave their homes, especially on Sundays, when the orgies reach their utmost height.
A small bridge over a creek coming down through McKinley Park and under the McKinley High Bridge in October 1909.
It is alleged that many strangers have been coaxed to visit the place and then have been practically robbed of all they possessed. Some years ago the gamblers even did not hesitate to fleece a reporter, who went there to write up the place, and in order to thoroughly study the gamblers' methods tried his hand at a game of poker. But that enabled him to write a more graphic story.
The continued violations of the laws finally aroused the residents of the surrounding communities, and especially of but recently incorporated Montooth Borough. This hamlet suffered most, because to reach Monte Carlo one must pass through the borough. Sundays the usually quiet community is being shocked by the gamblers doings, and when they return from a day's carousel in the hollow no young woman is safe from the insults of the drunken wretches.
The citizens got together and talked over the matter of making a vigorous campaign against the evil-doers, and there they stuck. Sunday a week ago fully 1,000 people went to Monte Carlo, and their return was marked by even greater profanity than on preceding occasions.
This acted as a stimulus on the somewhat phlegmatic citizens. They came to the conclusion to employ an attorney to assist them to get at some plan of action. It was suggested that every citizen be sworn as a deputy; to arrest everybody going through the borough to Monte Carlo as a suspicious character, and to impose a fine in every case.
There was also to be made an attempt to enlist the aid of the county detectives in the matter, but this attempt, it is said, availed naught so far. The mass meeting was to have been held in the Boggsville schoolhouse Saturday night, and all the former plans, together with the suggestions of the attorney, were to have been taken up.
Many of the citizens went to the school hall, but they were disappointed. One of the leaders in the movement was there and informed them that the attorney's plans were not yet ready, and that nothing could be done until they were. The men pushing the matter are keeping in the dark, and will not give out the name of the attorney engaged. But they have the hearty support of every law-abiding resident in the district, and all are determined to find some way of putting a stop to the nuissance.
MONTE CARLO DOOMED
Combined Peace Forces of Hilltop
Monte Carlo is doomed. Not the Monaco casino, but Pittsburg's summer gambling resort on the Castle Shannon railroad. The law-abiding citizens of the three communities centering in the picturesque hollow near High Bridge Station. Baldwin Township, West Liberty Borough and Montooth Borough were to have met again last evening, but just as last week the meeting did not materialize, although many expressions were heard, denouncing the toleration of the orgies. It really seems as if the residents of the affected district were afraid to act. They probably fear the revenge of the "sports" that make the place their headquarters for fleecing unsuspecting people.
It was learned, however, last evening by a "Post" reporter, that the high constables of the three communities already mentioned will meet shortly before noon today, together with their brethren from Beltzhoover and Knoxville, in the office of Justice of the Peace Henry Grelle, on Third Street, Beltzhoover, and then swoop down upon the gamblers and capture everyone of the gang that they can lay hands on. Mr. Grelle at first denied the truth of this story, but finally acknowledged that there would be a meeting, but said that the matter was only to be talked over. The source from which the first information was obtained, however, has heretofore always proved very reliable.
SCENES OF DISORDER AND WILD CAROUSING
West Liberty Citizens Had Wide Open Sunday
NO ARRESTS MADE BY THE OFFICERS
The gambling season opened in West Liberty Borough on Sunday and the respectable residents are indignant at the open violation of the law. The first Sunday in May marked the opening day of carousing, and everything was run wide open, so that a man could take his chance at betting on everything, from the races to the crap game. Enough beer was sold to float a township. Gamblers, fakirs, beer sellers and confidence men flocked to that rural district and turned the day into a nightmare for the law-abiding citizens, while the sportively inclined were relieved of their coin in the most approved fashion. No arrests were made, the local officers showing no inclination to put a stop to the disorder.
For years this borough has been burdened every Sunday by a crowd of gamblers and other toughs who have made the day hideous with their cries and yells. A few arrests have been made at the place by the county officials. As fast as raids are made and people arrested others come and take their places, so that it is almost impossible for the people of the borough to get rid of the crowd which every Sunday takes possession of a field midway between Bell's Tavern and Smith Station, the latter a little village (Reflectorville) along the Castle Shannon Railroad.
Several times the people of the borough have pushed their efforts and made raids on the camp, as it is called, only to be repulsed by the toughs. Last year the visitors became so bold that the county authorities took a hand and their work was of such a nature that for a time the Sunday visits stopped, and it was thought by the residents that this year they would be free from these weekly visits. In this they were disappointed, and on last Sunday the crowd made its appearance.
The day was a delightful one and the crowd was large, as were the games which were played in the field.
There were all kinds of people at the gathering place, which has become so popular that it is known as the Monte Carlo of Allegheny County and one of the toughest sections of the country. The orgies indulged in by the people who visit the place would turn to shame any of the desperate and terror-stricken places of the West. The games played are plentiful. The victim of the sharper can be separated from his money in any style he likes. The familiar chuck luck, with its attending disappointments, craps, poker, faro and, in fact, any game that a man cares to play is ready for him and the man who runs it is never afraid to strip his victim of every cent he possesses.
The usual scheme of the sharpers is to get their victim full of liquor, which is plentiful on the ground, and as soon as this is done they immediately start the fleecing process and when they are through with the work the victim is usually dusted as clean as a new pin, and, as is generally the case, as soon as he commences to raise a row the victim is beaten and kicked until his best friend would be unable to recognize him, after which he is put out on the county road and left there until some passerby picks him up and starts him on the weary tramp home.
On last Sunday fully 5,000 people visited the place, and two ball games, as well as several prize fights, took place and were viewed by the visitors. The amount of beer sold on the ground would have gladdened the heart of any Pittsburg saloonkeeper who has to pay a license. A resident of the district stated that fully 200 barrels of the amber fluid were disposed of to the thirsty people, who between drinks would view the ball games or prize fights or take a chance at one of the gambling layouts.
According to the people of the neighborhood, the gamblers are nothing loathe to take the money from their victims by force when they refuse to play their games, and many robberies which the police have never been notified about have occurred in the neighborhood. The victim of the thugs is generally left in such a condition that he is unable to remember anything about what has occurred, and should his failing memory ever return and he should attempt to have recourse to the law, his persecutors remind him gently of the fact that they beat him once and intimate that they will make a better job of it the next time.
This is only one of the many ways they have of keeping their victims quiet. Like the tungs of India or the highbinders of China, these men have a chain of friends all through the county, and whenever there is likely to be any trouble for them they are notified at once. During the raids of last summer not one of the ringleaders of the gang was caught, these men keeping themselves out of sight during the trouble, and the police were only able to capture the employees. Many attempts have been made to try to land the bosses of the gamblers, but each time the county officials have tried to make a successful raid these men have been missing.
The spot in which these men gather during the spring and summer is one of the most delightful in West Liberty Borough. It is a large green field situated in a beautiful valley and surrounded by trees. The field is about a mile long and about half as wide in places. Along the upper side of the field is one of the finest township roads in the county, and on this the lovers of horseflesh, good or bad, are wont to meet and have a brush for supremacy.
Many of the horses driven over the course are abused by the drivers, who, being filled with drink and unable to stand defeat, lash the animals until the blood flows and the poor beasts in despair run away and almost kill themselves in their efforts to get away from the cruel lash. Many horses have been known to die on the course, and a resident pointed out to the writer several mounds which covered some of the dead animals. Most of the horses are hired from local livery stables, and as the men who hire are always willing to settle the damage nothing is ever said of the occurrence.
Dog and chicken fights are also frequent, the latter fights being the most brutal. On last Sunday a number of sports from the surrounding districts had twelve birds at the place, six of which fought in the regular Puerto Rican style. The animals were devoid of all feathers except on the wings and when they had fought until they were almost exhausted the men fighting them rubbed brandy over their bleeding bodies and kept forcing them to fight until one or the other died. The dog fights are as brutal and many of the animals pitted against each other never leave the ground on which their battle is fought.
The prize fights are as vicious, bare knuckles being used instead of gloves. Two of these took place on Sunday between young men who had little differences to settle and, according to witnesses, they were bloody affairs. A few weeks ago two young men of the South Sids fought for the love of a young girl, and it was several days before either of the contestants were able to leave their homes on account of their injuries.
The residents of the district are going to enter a formal complaint before the officials of the county against the participants in these Sunday orgies, while the Humane Society will be asked to take a hand in the matter of stopping the dog and chicken fights.
So bold have the visitors to this place become that they have been known to go and ask residents for the loan of glasses with which to pass out their beer. Regular stands have been erected for the sale of the liquor and several bartenders from the city are required to pass it out to the thirsty individuals who visit the place and make the day hideous with their activities.
* Compiled by Clint Burton - March 2021 *
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