History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.
–David C. McCullough
What might we learn about who we are by turning a careful eye toward Wilkinsburg’s history? What might we recognize in the story of our past that provides insight into the problems and opportunities we face today? Certainly there are many ways to answer those questions, but a few key characterizations emerge from a study of our past.
Wilkinsburg thrives on and values its connection to the City of Pittsburgh. The borough’s proximity to Pittsburgh and its location along main lines of transit from outlying areas were key to its founding and early development. The original village plan was drawn along both sides of the Great Road to Fort Pitt. Wilkinsburg truly began to flourish when the railroad came through in the 1850s, bringing access to jobs in other parts of the city. Nonetheless, Wilkinsburg values its independence. Wilkinsburg was annexed to the city in 1873, but Wilkinsburg residents fought to have that action reversed. Wilkinsburg returned to its independent status in 1876.
The heart of Wilkinsburg is in its neighborhoods. Even in its heyday, when Wilkinsburg businesses bustled with visiting shoppers, most Wilkinsburg residents worked outside of the borough. Wilkinsburg’s neighborhoods have long been home to commuting workers.
Wilkinsburg is a City of Churches. The borough has a high concentration of churches, and was known at certain points in its history as “The Holy City.” Bars and taverns have been prohibited in Wilkinsburg since 1870, except during the years 1933 to 1935.
Wilkinsburg has a history of innovation and education. Several important advancements in communication technology have taken place in Wilkinsburg. The first commercial radio broadcast came out of Wilkinsburg in 1919. From a very early time, its leaders placed a high priority on public education. Wilkinsburg is also the birthplace of Scholastic Magazine.
The people of Wilkinsburg have a spirit of pride and perseverance. Even amid challenges, Wilkinsburg has found ways to address its problems and pull through. When the increasing activity on the railroad tracks caused several accidents in the early 1900s, the borough undertook the hefty job of raising the tracks. As part of the project, they also lowered the intersecting streets—and most of the roadside buildings!