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Schenley Park: foresight and conservation

In 1869, City Councilman William Phillips proposed that a bond be issued to purchase land, known as Mount Airy, for a park from the Capt. Edward Schenley family. A long series of debates resulted in a public referendum in which the idea was defeated; opponents claimed it was a political trick and there was no need to create public parklands since most people could easily travel to nearby recreation areas.

Another attempt was made in 1871, but it only served to irritate Capt. Schenley who refused to sell. Motions to comdemn the property were also defeated.

In 1889, the land was being considered for housing development. Part of it had been used for farming, but due to the deep ravines which crossed the property it had been spared from the building which was beginning to surround it. Upon learning of the possible sale, Edward M. Bigelow, Director of the Department of Public Works and attorney Robert Carnahan raced the real estate agent to New York. The two men embarked on a boat which departed ahead of the agent and arrived in London, England two days earlier. There they sought a meeting with the land's owner -- Mary Croghan Schenley.Mary Croghan Schenley

Mrs. Schenley had inherited the land from her maternal grandfather, General James O'Hara. O'Hara had been an early settler in the area, a pioneer in the glassmaking business, the first U.S. Quartermaster General and had the foresight to buy large tracts of land throughout the area. He had purchased this land in 1813 and it still holds two log cabins from previous occupants.

Accepting the suggestion of Mr. Bigelow, Mrs. Schenley donated 300 acres to the city with the provision that the land be called "Schenley Park" and that it never be sold. Another tract was donated and one other purchased to bring the total to 455 acres.

The following year, landscape architect, William Falconer began the work which in five years transformed the wilderness into a public park. The varied topography allowed for much of the forested areas to remain while setting aside the hilltops for more structured and formal uses.

In 1890, a temporary trestle was constructed across Junction Hollow. The present Schenley Bridge replaced this structure in 1897. One of the original plans was to remove the temporary trestle and re-erect it over Panther Hollow. It has been speculated that the fire which destroyed the Schenley Casino near the temporary bridge was also a factor leading to the erection of a wholly new bridge at Panther Hollow. As built, the Schenley Bridge and the Panther Hollow Bridge are near twins -- built concurrently.

The terrain on the eastern and northern borders of Schenley Park blend easily into the Shadyside and Squirrel Hill neighborhoods. But toward the south and west two more bridges would be required. In 1907, an arch bridge was built to connect Wilmot St in South Oakland. This has since been replaced by the Charles Anderson Bridge with its 1940 Weichert truss. The fourth bridge is the Beechwood Blvd Bridge, also known as the Greenfield Bridge named for the neighborhood to which it links. It was the last of the original four bridges into the park, completed in 1923.

It was not long after the purchase of the land that Henry Phipps donated his second Conservatory in 1893. His first was built for the City of Allegheny in West Park where the National Aviary stands today. In 1895, Andrew Carnegie donated the library, museum and music hall which stand at the Schenley Plaza entrance. Pittsburgh's first zoo and aquarium were located in Schenley Park until they were moved to new quarters in Highland Park in 1898. Although the Casino did not last long, other attractions included a band shell and an electrical fountain with dancing waters. Still in place, although altered, are the golf course, man-made Panther Hollow Lake and the Schenley Oval track. The Oval was once a race track complete with grandstands. The stands have been removed in favor of tennis courts and the track is now used for running.

In September, 2000, the city began a long-term plan to clean up and renew the park. Possibly the most visible project will be the redesign of the Schenley Plaza entrance to make it more in keeping with the original plan by Fredrick Law Olmsted, son of the designer of New York's Central Park.

Second in land area to Frick Park, Schenley Park is by far the most used of the city's parks. Partly because of its location and through streets which act as rush hour shortcuts, but more importantly because of its easy access from downtown, Oakland and the eastern neighborhoods.

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Last modified: 14-Nov-2000