Learn about the history of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood

From the sprawling fields of Schenley Park to the shops on Forbes and Murray avenues and the architecturally stunning houses of worship, Squirrel Hill is one of the most culturally diverse communities in Pittsburgh.

As the largest neighborhood in the city with around 26,000 residents, lots of good questions! listeners live or work in the area and have many curiosities.


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“How did you come up with the name Squirrel Hill?” – Roger Rafson, Squirrel Hill resident

Sure, there are squirrels in the neighborhood, but there are squirrels all over Pittsburgh. The history of the community begins with the Ice Age approximately one million years ago. As glaciers traversed parts of North America, their impact caused the creation of deep hills and valleys, as well as new rivers. Glaciers left Squirrel Hill on higher ground.

Helen Wilson, vice president of Squirrel Hill Historical and editor of “Squirrel Hill: A Neighborhood History,” said that because Squirrel Hill was so high, it developed differently from surrounding communities because it was difficult to get to. Indigenous peoples passed through the region, most likely using it as a temporary hunting ground.

“We found a spearhead dating back between 3,500 and 1,500 years. And there were mounds in the area, which could have been Adena, dating to around AD 100,” Wilson said. “The presence of indigenous peoples in Squirrel Hill goes back a long time, however, it was never a place of settlement.”

But the Native Americans probably named the community.

“The oldest sources we’ve found, it’s always been Squirrel Hill,” Wilson said. “There are some references, which we can’t prove, that the Native Americans gave it that name because of all the squirrels.”

There’s another theory that it might have been named after a property called Squirrel Hill, but Wilson said that’s also hard to verify. According to Wilson’s book about the neighborhood, in the mid-1700s: “Squirrels were considered a nuisance by settlers, getting into grain stores and damaging crops. However, breaded and fried, they were good to eat.”

Although the name Squirrel Hill is assigned today to the census tract designated Squirrel Hill South and Squirrel Hill North, early travelers to the region would have referred to the entire hill by the name, including what is now Greenfield, Hazelwood, Glen Hazel and Point Breeze. .

There are still reminders of the Native American presence in the neighborhood, including Turner Cemetery, where some Shawnees are reportedly buried. There is also a granite fountain built around 1912 reminiscent of “Catahecassa Blackhoof”, a Shawnee war chief supposedly “present at the defeat of Braddock in 1755”.

Source of Catahecassa.jfif

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The Snyder or Catahecassa Fountain in Schenley Park depicts a prominent Shawnee chief. It was financed with surplus money from the 4th of July celebration in 1907.

settlement and industry

By the mid-1700s, as French and British trappers and traders roamed the region, treaties were driving out Native Americans. British farmers soon arrived. Tony Indovina of the Squirrel Hill Historical Society says the first log houses were built in the late 18th century, including the well-known Robert Neil Log House in Schenley Park.

“It’s one of the earliest examples of a permanent settlement in western Pennsylvania,” Indovina said.

When conservationists tried to improve the Neil structure in the 1960s, Indovina said it was so unstable that it collapsed. So technically the log house is a rebuild around the original fireplace and mantel. It is currently being considered for a spot on the Lewis and Clark Trail Experience.

“Investigation sent to us by the National Park Service suggested that Meriwether Lewis, when making her last trip to Pittsburgh… stopped at the Neil Log House to water her horses.”

As the population grew in the late 18th century, industry arrived. Helen Wilson said that residents mined coal in the region and that there was a salt pan at Nine Mile Run, where brine wells were drilled by hand near the mouth of the canal. Saline Street is a nod to this essential industry.

“You couldn’t live without salt,” Wilson said. “That’s the only way to preserve meat over the winter.”

As Pittsburgh continued to expand its industry with iron, steel, and glass, wealthy residents were drawn to Squirrel Hill. It was on a streetcar line, away from steaming riverbanks, and had plenty of land to build mansions on.

“Suddenly there was all this open land, relatively high up,” Wilson said. “It was like a feeding frenzy with developers and speculators. And you can only trace the maps [that showed] in 1890, [there was] any. And then in 1910, all these smaller lots all over the place.”

It was around the time Wilson said that Jewish residents began to move in, mostly German Jews who had been living in the Allegheny town. Immigrants from Eastern Europe made the community their home in the following decades.

As was the case in many of Pittsburgh’s early communities, streets were often named for large property owners or their estates, including former Congressman Walter Forward of Forward Avenue and glazier Thomas Wightman of Wightman Street.

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The view going up Beacon Street near Beth Shalom in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Good questioners Katherine Eagon and Mac Booker wondered, “Was there ever a beacon on Beacon Street?”

At approximately 1,200 feet above sea level, the section of Beacon Street near Beth Shalom is the highest point on Squirrel Hill. Wilson said beacons or signal fires may have been lit on top of the hill, but it’s more likely named after a neighborhood in Boston.

“As for Beacon, that’s not a person’s name,” Wilson said. “Beacon was supposed to be an offshoot of Beechwood Boulevard and they needed a name that sounded ‘tall.’ So it’s modeled after Beacon Hill in Boston.”

Nods to historic estates can still be found throughout the neighborhood. Good question! Asker Joan Markert, a former costume designer, noticed a wall near Shady Avenue and Beacon Street.

“And in it there are shields that support lions and a tower, I don’t know if I should call it a tower, it’s a round structure. And it just fascinated me because it has absolutely nothing to do with the house,” Markert said.

When that wall was built, it was owned by Edwin C. May, owner of a pharmacy chain. Wilson says his house was extravagant, with marble fireplaces and fountains. The architectural word for this wall’s design is Victorian “madness.” It is a structure intended on purpose to appear extravagant.

“It’s kind of silly to some people,” Wilson said. “Because it obviously looks very medieval. But this is the only one I know of that still exists, at least in Pittsburgh.”

Squirrel Hill is now considered one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. In recent decades, it has seen a boom in its Asian population, thanks in part to the lure of Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. Today, 17% of the neighborhood’s population is Asian, making it a cultural hub for the region.

And yes, you can still find plenty of squirrels.