An Unsettled Area at the Heart of the French & Indian War
Prior to the late 1760s, there was little European settlement in western Pennsylvania. The unrest of Indian disturbances, the ongoing French and Indian War, and boundary disputes between Pennsylvania and Virginia made the area undesirable to settlers. A successful expedition under General John Forbes in 1758 terminated French and Indian War fighting in Pennsylvania, and the French flag disappeared permanently from the Pennsylvania landscape.
However, the French gave the English rights to territory that was also claimed by the Indians, causing further unrest and hostilities. In 1763, Colonel Henry Bouquet defeated the Indians at Bushy Run in Westmoreland County, and by the late 1760s, the territory was considered safe enough for European settlers. A 1768 treaty with the Indians of the Six Nations included a transfer of the Indian titles to most of the land in Western Pennsylvania. There was an immediate demand for grants in the purchased territory, so an era of land speculation began. On April 3, 1769, the Land Company of the colony of Pennsylvania opened territory for sale in the state’s western counties.
Andrew Levi Levy, Sr.
Just two weeks later, on April 20, 1769, Andrew Levi Levy, Sr., filed application number 3122 to the Colonial Land Office for a tract of 266 acres and allowances on both sides of the Great Road, about seven miles east of Fort Pitt. The land tract was known as Africa. He sold the patent to General William Thompson in 1788. General Thompson died soon after his acquisition of Africa, and his heirs quickly sold the patent to Dunning McNair in 1789.
Dunning McNair and McNairstown
In 1788, McNair built a log home on the north side of the Great Road, on the present Penn Avenue between Coal and Mill Streets. He called it “Crow’s Nest,” a likely reference to the top shelter at the masthead of the ship. Within a short period of time, Crow’s Nest burned. In 1790, McNair built a new home south of the Great Road, near the present corner of Hay Street and Kelly Avenue. This large stone structure, known as Dumpling Hall, was notable because it was said to be the grandest home for miles around.
Also in 1790, McNair laid out a plan for a village 2.5 miles west of the Church of Bullock Pens (Beulah) which had been organized six years before. His plan was simple, and included the Great Road, which McNair called Main Street (now Penn Avenue), Ross Street (named in honor of James Ross, a friend and attorney for McNair), and Wallace Street (named in honor of William Wallace).
At the east end of the village was a trail called Horner’s Lane, running north through the forest toward Frankstown Road. Horner’s Lane is now Wood Street. At the west end of the village was an Indian trail that extended as far north as Kittanning, and as far south as McKeesport. That trail is now known as Swissvale Avenue.
As soon as the nucleus of a few log houses formed, he named the place McNairstown. Each village lot in McNair’s plan had frontage of 66 feet and depth of 364 feet, running from Main Street to its parallel on the north or south (Ross and Wallace Avenues).
Rippey’s Tavern and Rippeysville
In the first decade of the 1800s, Samuel A. Rippey and his wife, Sutia Stewart, took over a tavern on the Great Road in McNairstown. Sutia’s sister, Anne, was the wife of Dunning McNair. Their establishment, Rippey’s Tavern, became quite popular, and for some time many new McNairstown as “Rippeysville.” Samuel Rippey died in 1812, but Sutia continued to run the tavern prosperously from 1812 to 1820.
Some historical accounts place the arrival of the Rippeys in McNairstown as early 1788, which would make them the first settlers in the area. That timing is unlikely, however, since records show Sutia’s date of birth as October 1777, and Sutia and Samuel’s wedding date as May 1797.
During McNair’s lifetime, the Wilkins family also flourished in the area. As early as 1812, McNair referred to the village as “Wilkinsburgh” in legal documents. Most historians agree that the village was named in honor of William Wilkins, a judge of the county courts and one of the founders and the first president of the Bank of Pittsburgh. He later became a state senator and minister to Russia in the administration of the President Tyler, and reached the height of his public career by becoming Tyler’s Secretary of War. Other historians believe the village was named for Judge Wilkins’ brother, John Wilkins, Jr., who served as a young man in the Revolutionary War and was later appointed Brigadier General of the Allegheny County militia.
Although Dunning McNair was the largest property holder in the village, his holdings were very heavily mortgaged. In 1824, after McNair encountered some difficulty paying his debts, the mortgage holder foreclosed on the property. The U.S. Marshal granted a deed for 856 acres to William Griffith of the Pennsylvania Population Company, who in turn passed possession to the Holland Land Company. Dunning McNair survived the loss of his holdings, but only by a short time. He lived the remainder of his days in Dumpling Hall, and died in 1825. He was buried in Beulah Cemetery, at the Church of Bullock Pens.
In 1833, James Kelly of Penn Township purchased McNair’s large tract of land from the Holland Land Company for $12,000. He continued to acquire nearby lands until his holdings included thousands of acres. Kelly was connected with almost every business, financial, religious and civic activity in Wilkinsburg for the next fifty years.
He donated the land for most of the churches of all denominations, the two homes for the aged (the Home for Aged Protestant Women, which is now the Jane Holmes Residence on Swissvale Avenue, and the adjacent Home for Aged Protestant Men and Couples, which is now the Three Rivers Center for Independent Living) and the schools of the borough (including the Western Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf, also on Swissvale Avenue). He favored schools and once maintained a private school in Dumpling Hall for his own family and for the public. He advanced the money for the first public school in the village in 1840.
By 1840, the first post office in the village was established under the name of Wilkinsburgh. (The final “h” was dropped and the name of the office was officially changed to “Wilkinsburg” in 1893.)
Growth and Change
The main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad came through the village in 1851. One year later, regular train stops began in the borough. By 1853, the Wilkinsburg station had four daily trains to Pittsburgh. The first railroad station was built in 1860, but burned down in 1873. It was replaced by a larger station in approximately the same location. By 1883, the railroad carried between 6,000 and 8,000 passengers from Wilkinsburg each day. Access to jobs in the city solidified Wilkinsburg’s status as primarily a residential area.
In May 1873, Wilkinsburg was annexed to the City of Pittsburgh as the 37th ward. James Kelly believed this was unwise and, unable to convince his neighbors otherwise, he entered the dispute single-handedly. On November 29, 1873, James Kelly filed a bill against the city of Pittsburgh, and began a long legal battle that would eventually reach the Supreme Court of the state of Pennsylvania. On January 31, 1876, the court issued an injunction that returned the village of Wilkinsburg to its independent status.
People soon wanted to create a borough out of the village. The process began in 1886 and within a year the necessary preliminaries had been completed. On October 5, 1887 Wilkinsburg was officially established as a borough. From the date of the incorporation, the community rapidly advanced in both numbers and accomplishments and, in due course of time, streets were paved, lighting installed, fire and police companies organized and the growing pains of a healthy community were experienced by the citizens.
Beginning in 1920, Wilkinsburg was one of Pittsburgh’s most outstanding suburbs. Residents were upwardly mobile, and the schools were very good. By 1937, about 85 percent of households had telephones, 95 percent had radios, and 55 percent had automobiles.
The borough was always, however, a mildly transitional area. Once families became more prosperous they tended to move to Edgewood, Monroeville, or Fox Chapel. Two areas of the borough were always more prosperous than the others: Regent Square and Blackridge, which were built up in the 1940s and 1950s. The rest of the Wilkinsburg was middle and upper-middle class, with white-collar managerial workers. Wilkinsburg neighborhoods also attracted people in professional services, including clergy and medical professionals. Much of the population boom of this period was due to the nearby location of several Westinghouse plants.
The Wilkinsburg business district became a popular shopping destination. People came from Penn Hills and Monroeville to shop at the “downtown” department stores. The Walmer Hardware Co., which closed within the last 20 years, had a reputation for having everything you could possibly need. Caldwell & Graham in downtown Wilkinsburg was one of the finest department stores in the northeast. Faller’s Better Furniture was in business until the 1980s. There were nice movie theaters just a block from the train station, and the Penn-Lincoln Hotel on Main Street was a very fine downtown hotel.
Hard Times, and Rebirth
The population boom started in the ’20s and peaked somewhere in the late ’50s, between the 1950 and 1960 U.S. Census. At one point, Wilkinsburg was the most densely populated borough in the country, with 37,000 people in an area of 2.2 square miles. Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, the steel industry in the region imploded, with massive layoffs and mill closures. From the 1950s to 2000, the population of Pittsburgh shrank more than 50% to about 330,000. Wilkinsburg’s population decreased proportionally to about 19,000.
The diminished population and depleted tax base of the past several decades brought economic hardships social ills for the borough. Within the past few years, however, a renaissance has begun. Wilkinsburg residents, government leaders, and nonprofit organizations are working hard to revitalize the community. Several restoration and renovation projects are underway. New retail developments are bringing jobs and resources to the area. There is a growing sense of optimism in the community, and a determination to improve the borough for all its residents.