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Wilkinsburg Borough


Wilkinsburg Borough Hall is located at 605 Ross Avenue, Wilkinsburg, PA 15221; phone: 412-244-2900.

Beginnings [1]

The history of Wilkinsburg is closely tied to the history of transportation resources in the region east of the City of Pittsburgh. The current main street of Wilkinsburg, Penn Avenue, follows the route of the "Forbes Road" or "Great Road" of the colonial period. The Forbes Road was cut through the wilderness in 1758 by the British army operating against the French, who occupied Fort Duquesne at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. The military road became a de facto civilian highway, providing settlers and traders from eastern Pennsylvania with a land route to Fort Pitt and the fledgling community of Pittsburgh that took root in its shadow.

In 1769, when the Land Company of the Colony of Pennsylvania (representing the Penn family) opened up its western tracts of land for sale, Levi Andrew Levy applied for and purchased 266 acres along the Forbes Road, seven miles from the Pittsburgh Point, which he named "Africa." He sold the plantation to General William Thompson in 1788, who in turned conveyed the property to Colonel Dunning McNair the following year.

McNair laid out a plan of streets that he called "McNairstown," with the Great Road called "Main Street," two parallel streets both north and south of Main Street (hence "North Avenue" and "South Avenue"), and three crossing streets- the middle of which was "Center Lane" (now "Street"). By 1812, McNair (who had been elected to the state legislature) changed the name of the settlement to "Wilkinsburgh" in honor of his friend General John Wilkins Jr. Wilkinsburg was not a financial success for McNair, who was able to sell only 33 building lots to 15 buyers, and the mortgage holder foreclosed on McNair's 856 acres in 1824. The property was conveyed to James Kelly the same year. Kelly's land holdings eventually grew to more than 1000 acres in what is now Wilkinsburg, Edgewood (to the south), and Brushton (to the north). Kelly refused to sell most of his property, and remained the principal landowner in Wilkinsburg for 55 years.

Due to Kelly's refusal to sell, Wilkinsburg grew little during the middle of the 19th century. In spite of the construction of the Pennsylvania Railroad's main line to Pittsburgh through the East Liberty Valley in 1852, which spurred rapid development elsewhere in the region, Wilkinsburg's population increased from 100 in 1860 to only 500 by 1880. Most of the development that did occur in Wilkinsburg took place in the original core of the village, along Main Street. However, during his tenure, Kelly did a number of things that influenced the future growth of Wilkinsburg. In 1868, the townships east of Pittsburgh, including Wilkinsburg, were annexed by the City of Pittsburgh as part of a campaign of expansion that tripled the size of the city. Kelly led the legal battle to appeal the annexation, and by 1876 had reversed the action and ensured the independent status of Wilkinsburg. Kelly encouraged the construction of a station in 1860 by the Pennsylvania Railroad at Wood Street and Rebecca Avenue, just west of the Hamnett Historic District, which remained active until it was replaced in 1915. He gave land to a number of religious congregations, including the Methodists, Reformed Presbyterians, and United Brethren, for construction of churches. In addition, after appeals from two local women (cousins who were both named Jane Holmes), he donated tracts of land along Water Street (now Swissvale Avenue) for a Home for Aged Protestant Women and a Home for Aged Protestant Men and Couples, known also as "Sheltering Arms." Both of these institutions had constructed their first buildings in the 1870s.

James Kelly's refusal to part with his land led finally to its loss in the aftermath of the financial panic of the 1870s. Even as his income dwindled, Kelly took out loans during that decade of as much as $300,000 to pay the taxes on his property. Finally, in 1879, his creditors, including the Pittsburgh National Bank of Commerce, foreclosed on the loans and took control of his holdings. At that time, houses and businesses in Wilkinsburg still clustered along Penn Avenue and adjacent streets, in the original village core. Kelly's former property was subdivided by the new owners and put on the market in 1881, making a large number of lots available just at the time that demand for them began to build rapidly. For at about the same time, the development of Pittsburgh's East End, which had been radiating out of the center of East Liberty through the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Point Breeze and Homewood, reached the city limits adjacent to Wilkinsburg. More houses and businesses were constructed, and the population of Wilkinsburg jumped to 2,500 by the mid-1880s. However, Wilkinsburg remained under the jurisdiction of Sterrett Township, which provided for schools and the main roads only, and the lack of urban services and amenities discouraged many potential residents from moving to Wilkinsburg. New residents, discontented with this state of affairs, began a campaign to incorporate Wilkinsburg as a borough in the face of opposition from established residents who feared an increase in local taxes. Two applications for incorporation in the late 1880s failed due to insufficient support from taxable inhabitants. However, in October 1887, the courts accepted a third petition and granted a charter incorporating Wilkinsburg as a borough, and the first borough officials were elected in February 1888.

At the time of incorporation, the area that is now in the Hamnett Historic District was (according to the G. M. Hopkins Atlas of the Vicinity of the Cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny of 1886) still largely undeveloped. South of Rebecca Avenue and east of the railroad tracks, two small wood frame houses faced north near what is now the intersection of Rebecca Avenue and Kelly Street; only one block of Center Street had been laid out. To its west, in the open fields, there stood a large house that had been built by a man named John Hamnett after 1876. Nine Mile Run still cut across this section of Wilkinsburg from northeast to southwest before flowing under the railroad tracks near Hamnett's residence. Of the few buildings from this period, none remains in the district today.

With the incorporation of the Borough of Wilkinsburg came the municipal services and amenities for which its new and prospective residents had been clamoring. The first Borough Council immediately adopted a plan for plotting and grading the streets, preparatory to paving them, which began with Penn Avenue in 1891 and was completed by the turn of the century. Beginning in 1889, the Borough laid sidewalks and installed streetlights along the streets. In the same year, the police department was formed and a volunteer fire department was established (which became a professional department in 1903). The Pennsylvania Water Company finished laying water lines and began supplying water from the Allegheny River to Wilkinsburg in 1889 as well, and by 1894 installation of sewer lines had been completed. Nine Mile Run was diverted into a culvert and sewer and carried underground out of the borough. Three new school buildings were constructed and opened in 1890. Peoples Natural Gas Company, which had been incorporated in 1885, began to supply gas to homes and businesses in Wilkinsburg. The Central District and Printing Telegraph Company was founded in 1889 to provide telephone service, and in 1893 an electric plant was built at Walnut Street and the Pennsylvania Railroad to provide electricity to the borough.

While the establishment of these services and amenities in Wilkinsburg took place rapidly after it was incorporated as a borough, the most important infrastructure improvement that took place in the 1890s was the extension of electric streetcar lines from Pittsburgh into Wilkinsburg. Up until that point, the only transit connection between Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg was the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the fares were too costly for working-class (and many middle-class) people to use this line for commuting. On the other hand, streetcars with their lower fares were within the budgets of all but the poorest residents to use on a regular basis. The first streetcar line to reach the borough was built by the Duquesne Traction Company in 1890 from East Liberty in Pittsburgh's East End along Penn Avenue. The next line was built two years later by the Citizens Traction Company through the Homewood section of Pittsburgh into Wilkinsburg from the north, along Pitt Street to Penn Avenue, and running then along Wood and Coal Streets and Rebecca and Franklin Avenues. A third line was extended by the Duquesne Traction Company from the Oakland section of the city into Wilkinsburg by way of South Avenue in 1893. Finally, the Monongahela Street Railway Company ran a streetcar line out of the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh through Wilkinsburg by 1895 (by way of Penn Avenue) and then along Swissvale Avenue to the mill towns of Braddock and East Pittsburgh by 1910. Thus, within a five-year period, Wilkinsburg was integrated into the network of electric streetcar lines that dramatically changed the living, working, and commuting patterns of the Pittsburgh region.

  1. Michael Eversmeyer and Angelique Bamberg, Michael Eversmeyer Architect, Hamnett Historic District, Allegheny County, PA, nomination document, 2007, revised 2009, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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