If a Tree Falls: Human Impacts on Forest and Park Trees

Forests are natural, wild places. Trees burn, blow down, mature, and regenerate on their own.

At the same time, forests have fingerprints of Homo sapiens all over them. If you know how to look, a stroll through Frick Park’s shady paths can highlight just how human actions have molded one very visible part of the park forests: the trees.

eastern hemlock magnified

An eastern hemlock attacked by hemlock woolly adelgid.

Dude, where’s my hemlock?

You could scour Frick Park and never come across white pine (Pinus strobus) or our state tree, the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Until the 19th century both species were common throughout the state, but as the region industrialized, lumber companies prized these trees for their uses in tanning and construction and they disappeared from much of their former ranges. The result? The number of places in Pennsylvania where massive old-growth stands of white pine persist can be counted on your two hands. Afterwards, when forests began to regenerate, conditions did not always favor the return of these former giants.

If you do see a white pine or eastern hemlock in Frick (and there are a few of each), it was likely planted relatively recently by Parks Conservancy staff and volunteers. Much like logging these species, reforesting requires human labor.

A century later: Cherries

Though white pine and eastern hemlock have fared poorly in our forests over the last 200 years, the forests that regenerated after logging actually benefited other trees. Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is one of these. North of Pittsburgh, in the Allegheny Plateau, it is estimated that black cherry trees made up less than 1% of the pre-logging forest. After extensive clear-cutting in the late 19th century, however, black cherry became a common part of the new forest that regrew there thanks to preference for sunny conditions and fast growth.

The same is true in Frick Park. Easily identifiable by their dark bark that looks like burnt potato chips or corn flakes, black cherries are common these days. You can find a large number of them where there once was a country club (now in the area where Riverview and Bench trails run). After the club’s annexation to Frick in the 1920s, forests regrew on these lands with black cherries. Some of these trees are actually now dying, as the species’ mortality typically increases after 80-100 years.

Tagging Tree 2

Phil Gruszka, Parks Management and Maintenance Director, tagging a dead ash tree.

Invasive species, world travelers

Dead trees can also illustrate how humans have shaped our forests. Since 2007 when it was first detected in Pennsylvania, emerald ash borer (EAB), a tiny green invasive insect, has left a path of destruction across Allegheny County, killing nearly all area ash trees (Fraxinus var.) in just a few years. The evidence is all over Frick Park, with standing and fallen dead ash trees exhibiting the tell-tale scars where EAB larva chewed through the trees’ energy-rich cambium, girdling them.

Globalization not only redistributes products, money, and people around the world, but also non-native plants, animals, and fungi, sometimes in ways that reshape our parks. EAB, for example, likely arrived in the U.S. in a shipping pallet from Asia. This pest, however, is not the first invasive species to change our forests. In the early 20th century, chestnut blight, a fungus accidentally introduced from Asia, killed virtually all American chestnut trees, a species then common throughout the eastern U.S.

Trees on the move (and we’re not talking Ents)

Frick Park’s forests will keep changing as a result of human influence. In addition to the risk of future invasive species, anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change promises big shifts for park trees. Just walk Rollercoaster Trail on the hills between Fern Hollow and Falls Ravine and look out on the sea of young sugar maples (Acer saccharum) that dominate the forest understory.

According to the U.S. Forest Service’s Climate Change Atlas, sugar maples will likely become significantly less important across Pennsylvania as the climate warms and stresses this species, eliminating it from the southerly parts of its range. More heat-tolerant trees may ultimately replace sugar maples in Frick Park and elsewhere in the state.

Learning from the past

Recognizing human fingerprints on our forests gives us opportunity to learn from the mistakes and successes of past generations. How can we leave fingerprints that will improve forest health? Parks are planned spaces, cared for by the people that use them. The team at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is constantly on the watch for invasives like the Asian longhorned beetle and oak wilt and replanting diverse, resilient species of trees to create strong forests that will be around for generations to come.

Kevin C. Brown is an educator with the Parks Conservancy, and a researcher-writer of a National Park Service-funded history of the Devils Hole pupfish, an endangered desert fish that lives in Death Valley National Park. You can read more about his work here.

Spotlight on Mary Schenley

An estranged daughter. An international love affair. An heiress disinherited.

Before turning twenty, Mary Schenley’s life read like many a juicy soap opera. And it’s exactly this flair for the dramatic that has us telling her story more than 150 years later.

Recently, 90.5 WESA featured the story of Mary Schenley in a pithy piece featuring our Parks Curator Susan Rademacher. Listen to the full story here, and read below for a piece written by Susan about Mary and the making of Pittsburgh’s civic park.

Mary Schenley and the Making of Our Park System

By Susan M. Rademacher, Parks Curator, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy
Originally published in
Squirrel Hill Magazine

Only two of our city’s four historic regional parks bear a family name. Frick Park is named in tribute to Henry Clay Frick who, upon his death in 1919, gave 150 acres and an endowment to develop and care for a new park. Frick Park is also a symbol of a father’s Iove for his daughter — Frick’s daughter Helen is reputed to have asked her father for the park property as a gift to the children of Pittsburgh. This story is perhaps the better known of the two family-named parks, because the Frick home and museums at Clayton remain to embody the family’s presence and impact on Pittsburgh.

Mary E. Schenley

Schenley Park, on the other hand, wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for the forgiveness of a father in restoring his estranged daughter to her inheritance. In what became the scandal of the day, Mary Elizabeth Croghan eloped at age 15 from her Long island boarding school with the headmistress’s 43-year-old brother-in-law, Captain Edward Schenley. The newlyweds settled in London and Mary was promptly disinherited. Her father, William Croghan Jr., couldn’t bear the break for long, visiting the young couple and the first of many grandchildren in London a year later in 1843. His forgiveness is especially understandable, given that Mary was the widower’s only surviving child.

William Croghan Jr., father of Mary Schenley

Croghan was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, at the fabled country seat Locust Grove. His father was the Revolutionary War Quartermaster General William Croghan, married to the sister of General George Rogers Clark. After the steamboat allowed passage upriver, Pittsburgh became a favored destination of Louisvillians. It was on such an outing that William Croghan Jr. met the prosperous O’Hara family, marrying daughter Mary O’Hara in 1821. The couple started their family in Louisville with son William and daughter Mary Elizabeth born at Locust Grove on April 27, 1826. That same year, William Croghan Jr. wrote his brother-in-law, “I am sick & tired of farming, incessant toil and anxiety & no profit….I am now firmly resolved so soon as my difficulties will allow to make arrangements for moving to Pittsburgh.” Sadly, he would make that move as a widower, his wife Mary having died 1827. In an 1828 letter from William’s sister Ann Croghan Jesup to her sister Eliza Croghan Hancock, Ann writes “Mr. Baldwin in Pittsburgh says Will Croghan is the finest boy he ever saw & Mary is a lovely child it did me good to hear him speak of those poor little children. Mary has quite recovered I sat up with her for two nights she was dangerously ill with Quinsy and inflammation on the Lungs.”  Young Will died only a month later.

Picnic House

Father and daughter Mary Elizabeth soon moved to Pittsburgh to make a new life. There, William Croghan Jr. was admitted to the Allegheny Bar. And in August of 1833, Mary writes to her Aunty Lucy Jesup, “Next year Papa is to build his cottage.” This fine Greek Revival-style home atop Stanton Heights was named Picnic House, and contained 22 rooms. Croghan died at Picnic in 1850, but his will preserved the home and furnishings for the use of Mary and her children until 1931, when Mary’s daughter Hermione, Lady Ellenborough, sold the furnishings. The house was demolished in 1955, and its grand ballroom and foyer were transplanted to the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning where they remain a major attraction.

Mary’s inheritance of O’Hara properties from her mother’s estate made her the largest property owner in Allegheny County. Her Pittsburgh landholdings included slums at the “Point” and she was severely criticized as an absentee landlord and exploiter of the wretched by Pittsburgh’s Labor Tribune and the Chicago Daily Tribune in the late 1880s. Her redemption came in philanthropic form. Significant gifts to several important institutions helped shape the cultural, social, and physical landscape of Pittsburgh as we know it today.

Among her major gifts were:

  • Land for building the West Penn Hospital;
  • Property for the Western Penn Institute for the Blind;
  • A large lot for the Newsboys Home;
  • A $10,000 subscription toward the purchase of land for Riverview Park; and
  • The gift of the Old Block House and adjoining property, (the original Fort Duquesne) to the Daughters of the American Revolution.

While the City of Pittsburgh had been attempting to buy or take Schenley properties for an Oakland park since 1869, it wasn’t until 1889, after Captain Schenley died, that the land for Schenley Park was finally acquired. It was through the enterprising efforts of the “Father of Pittsburgh Parks,” Edward Manning Bigelow (1850-1916), that Mary was persuaded to donate 300 acres, giving an option to buy another 100 acres. Bigelow, named the first director of the new Department of Public Works, envisioned a park system for the city. When he heard that a developer was heading to London to broker a deal with Mrs. Schenley, he promptly dispatched an attorney to get there first and secure a donation. Mary had just two conditions: that the land be used for a park named after her and that it could never be sold. The City soon purchased an additional 144 acres, including the present-day Schenley Plaza and part of the Carnegie Library for much less than its tax value.


Mary E. Schenley Memorial Fountain

Sculpted by Victor David Brenner, with the granite base by architect H. Van Magonigle, the memorial was entitled A Song to Nature and dedicated on Labor Day, September 2, 1918. The memorial was restored and lit in 2008 by the City of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Her invaluable gift is memorialized in the Mary E. Schenley Memorial Fountain at Schenley Plaza.

When she died in 1903, the New York Times observed, “The death of Mrs. Mary E. Schenley, which occurred at her home in Hyde Park, London, was made known in Pittsburg [sic] to-day. Mrs. Schenley has been Pittsburg’s benefactress for many years… Mrs. Schenley was the heroine, sixty years ago, of the greatest romance in Pittsburg’s early history… The affair created an immense social sensation at the time, and the house was preserved for many years in precisely the shape that it was in at the date of the elopement.”

Mary returned only once to Pittsburgh before her father’s death in 1850, and rarely after that. As an asthmatic, the smoky city was not a healthy environment for her. How fitting that our park system was created, in part, to improve the health of our people while changing the image of the city from gray to green. Schenley Park, along with all the parks and greenspaces of Pittsburgh, has more than fulfilled that early promise, thanks in no small part to the spirited benefactress Mary E. Schenley.

A century and a half of Pittsburg and her people, by John Newton Boucher; illustrated. Vol. 2.
Frick Fine Arts Library: Schenley Plaza, Schenley Park &Environs, Library Guide Series, No. 11.
Grove Gazette, Winter 2011.   Historic Locust Grove, Louisville, Kentucky.
“Fountain of Forgetting: Mary E. Schenley (1827-1903),” by Don Simpson, University of Pittsburgh.
Mandy Dick, “The Storyteller,” Clarksville, Indiana, 502-500-8899.
The New York Times, November 6, 1903.
The History of Pittsburgh: Its Rise and Progress, by Sarah Hutchins Killikelly.  B. C. & Gordon Montgomery Co., 1906: Pittsburgh, PA.

11 Things You Didn’t Know About Mellon Square: Part 1

Walking into Downtown Pittsburgh’s “elegant outdoor living room,” as Mellon Square was called by architectural historian James van Trump, it’s easy to see why it’s such a well-loved greenspace. Sixty years after it’s original opening, Pittsburghers are just as excited for the grand reopening next week.

Beyond the welcoming feel of this vibrant park, Mellon Square has an exceptionally unique history. Did you know that the Square is located over a prehistoric stream? That it’s a Mad Men masterpiece? That sea lions were a part of some of the early plans?

As we count down the days to the Square’s grand rededication, join us in digging into historic Mellon Square. (Many thanks to Parks Curator Susan Rademacher for providing the information below!)

1. Mellon Square was radical green infrastructure

Image from www.lifeprint.com.

Pittsburghers, sorry to tell you, but the American Sign Language sign for our city was decided during some of our filthiest years. The sign for Pittsburgh is the gesture for dusting dirt off of your shoulder — and we don’t mean in the Jay-Z kind of way. Presumably, in the way that steel workers, city workers, and just about everyone dusted themselves off after a day in the sooty air.

In addition to the dismal air quality, Pittsburgh had the kind of traffic that would turn the Golden Triangle into a nightmare on the daily. A comprehensive traffic study identified the block that now houses Mellon Square as an ideal location for a parking garage. Thinking big, Richard K. Mellon had a better idea — put those unsightly parking spaces underground, and give the people of Pittsburgh greenery, space, and a place to enjoy their city. With Mellon’s decision, the first modern garden plaza on a parking garage was born.

before Mellon Square

Existing buildings and parking had to be removed for the construction of Mellon Square. Photo courtesy Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections, circa 1951.

aerial MlSq

An aerial shot of the completed Mellon Square. Photo courtesy Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections, circa 1955.

2. Strong women shaped the Square

Like so much of Pitttsburgh’s park history, wise women played an influential role in shaping Mellon Square. Two in particular — Sarah Mellon Scaife and Constance Mellon — had a direct pipeline to Richard King Mellon while he was dreaming up Mellon Square.

the girls

Sarah Mellon Scaife (left). Constance and Richard K. Mellon (right).

While staying at the William Penn Hotel on one trip to Pittsburgh, Constance Mellon, Richard’s wife, couldn’t even see the Mellon Bank Building across the street because of the smog. She urged him to do something, or no businessperson (or his wife, for that matter) would want to live in a city that was so heavily polluted.

Sarah Mellon Scaife, Richard’s sister, was not impressed with the initial paving design — a plain rectangular pattern — for the Square. After visiting Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, she returned to challenge the Mellon Square designers to come up with a more intriguing pattern. And thus, the iconic terrazzo pavement that resonated with the nearby ALCOA building (now the Regional Enterprise Tower) came to be.

3. What lurks beneath…

Fundamentally, the six stories of parking was built atop a prehistoric stream bed. The stream bed predicated where all of the support structures were placed and determined where to put the trees and heavy loads on the plaza. Looking at the Square from a birds-eye vantage, you can get a rough sense of where the stream was by where the trees are planted.


Construction of the garage and Square. Photo courtesy Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections, circa 1954.


The Square at the time of restoration groundbreaking. Photo by John Altdorfer, 2011.

4. Nine-of-a-kind basins

Have you ever taken a good hard look at the nine gorgeous bronze basins in the Square? These 3,500-pound behemoths are reportedly the largest basins cast as one single piece. It’s common in bronze casting to create pieces in multiple casts before welding them all together. The basins in the Square were made up of one cast, which by today’s safety standards would not be allowed. And so, these are reportedly the largest single bronze basins ever cast.

Refurbishing these basins during the Square’s restoration was no small feat. Moved with great care to Matthews International where they were cast, all nine basins are back to their original splendor. Read more about that here.

Bronze Basins from Matthews_3

Finishing the surface of one of the nine bronze basins for Mellon Square. Image courtesy Matthews International.


Positioning the last basin after its repair and refinishing by Matthews International.

5. Classy and sophisticated

When opened, Mellon Square had a quintessential Mad Men style. A promenade for men in flat-brimmed fedoras and ladies in white gloves, Mellon Square provided the perfect backdrop for classy Downtown gentlepeople. Designed by the distinguished firms Mitchell & Ritchey and Simonds & Simonds, Mellon Square has been named one of America’s Ten Great Public Spaces.


Mellon Square after opening. Photo courtesy Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections.

With the rededication of the Square next week, we’re looking forward to this restored image of classic glamour, Downtown’s emerald oasis. We hope you’ll join us in celebrating this gem being polished back to its dazzling splendor!

For more information about the rededication, visit our website and check back here next week as we finish off the list of Mellon Square things to know!

Content for this blog was adapted from a presentation by Parks Curator Susan Rademacher.

A City Boy Grows Up in the Country – Riverview Park, My Back Yard (1950-1967)

David D. Erskine grew up in the Charlotte Apartments on Riverview Ave.  He is a retired Project Engineer from BAM International in Butler Country, PA and still does consulting work. He loves sharing the stories of his youth growing up in Riverview Park from 1950-1967.

Welcome to Riverview Park

My earliest recollections as a kid growing up in Riverview were hard to recall at first. However, it just took one trip back with my wife, Donna, to show her around and my childhood memories came flooding back. 

Cherry Blossom Way

The sun-parlor windows at 157 Riverview Ave. were my “windows on the world”. When I was just a toddler, I’d crawl and sit on top of the huge cast iron radiators that lined the windows and just take it all in. I watched the park employees busy at work. Peter, the master stone mason, chiseling and re-pointing some of the stone on the steps leading up to the beautiful flower gardens adjoining the park office. Louie and another park laborer weeding and planting in the flower beds. My dad would invariably appear and wave to me. Sometimes I’d see him walking up the observatory road, past the old barn road, headed up to what was called back then the observatory garage. Dad worked part-time doing small engine repair on the myriad of gasoline powered mowers and tractors that had replaced the old work horse teams kept down in the old barn. I still remember there were two of the huge old horses that were long retired kept as pets down there. Now and then, dad would take me down to the old barn and sit me on the stall rail to get nuzzled by one of the gentle giants.

Riverview Chapel Shelter

Other times, dad would take me down to the Wissahickon Nature Museum, where he also worked part-time with Mr. Harvey, the head naturalist. Wissahickon, in its glory days, was a wonderful place full of live animal, bird, and reptile exhibits. It was like having a local miniature zoo. Dad, Mr. Harvey and the volunteers would “milk” the live Copperheads and Rattlesnakes that were kept in large glass snake terrariums for their venom. Drug companies would then purchase the venom to make antidotes for people who were bitten by a snake. 

Being a kid in Riverview was really an incredible experience. Mom and dad used to take me on my tricycle-tractor down to the old merry-go-round area behind the apartments. They’d let me pedal all over the paved walkways while they sat on one of the many stone and wood benches or the steps of the old merry-go-round.  The old merry-go-round hill used to be steeper than it is today. We would sled ride down it in the winter, sometimes making it halfway across the field to the old Chapel Shelter.

Present Day Watson’s Cabin

As I got older, summer days at the Riverview swimming pool and winter days at the old ice pond playing hockey with my friends were the norm for us Riverview Brats. Whether it was summer or winter, one of my favorite adventures was packing up some food, blankets and sleeping bags then heading to the old Watson Cabin in the park to camp with my family and friends. Built as the Watson family homestead back in the 1700’s, it was a piece of living history that hadn’t changed much over the centuries. It had a huge walk-in fireplace with a stone chimney. In the winter, dad and I would build a roaring black locust fire that would ember-down and last most of the night. Mom would bake potatoes on the hearth and cook chili in an iron pot near the coal. Back then, there was a crude sleeping loft made of boards laid across the log beams. We’d just drag our sleeping bags up the loft ladder to stay warm as we slept.   It was like we had lived there in a past life. It was our home away from home and all within hiking distance from the apartment. 

Snyder’s Point in Riverview Park

We spent a lot of time hiking. We’d hike past the old road house site, down over the long, long, wooded hill into the Woods Run border area of Riverview. What a downhill hike! On the way back, we’d take the Valley Refuge road back up to civilization. We liked to stop along the way at Joe Himmelstein’s Dairy to get cold, fresh milk and pet the horses and cows. We’d then continue on up the valley road, sometimes stopping in to visit my dad at the valley maintenance garage. Occasionally, we’d pick through the huge dump they had there to find weird treasures to take home (yuck!). We spent so much time in Riverview Park, we hardly went anywhere during dad’s vacation times. The park was always there.  Everyone knew everyone in those days. It was like one giant neighborhood.

Thank you for allowing me to reminisce about my wonderful memories of growing up in Riverview Park. It is a tonic, indeed. Even though my employment and circumstances prevent me from visiting Riverview and the Observatory as often as I’d like, I still manage to get down to Pittsburgh now and then. I usually stop in at Primanti’s for a sandwich then go visit the Observatory and my beloved Riverview Park. If anyone would like to talk about their experiences with me, please email me at david_rskn@yahoo.com or contact the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy http://www.pittsburghparks.org.

Lilacs at Chapel Shelter

Stuff That’s Gone: Schenley Park Edition

If you’ve been in Pittsburgh a while, you probably have seen Rick Sebak’s Stuff That’s Gone special (or perhaps you just remember a lot of stuff that’s gone!).  In the spirit of looking back at some of our lost treasures, today we’re taking another look at our Schenley Park historic image archive.

For all the historic features of Schenley Park that remain–like Phipps Conservatory, the lily pond that become the Westinghouse Memorial, the Christopher Magee and Mary Schenley Memorial Fountains–there are others that now exist only in words and old postcards.  Here are some of the late, great features of Schenley Park (along with one that survived).  Click photos for larger versions.

Before the Schenley Oval was best known for tennis courts and running tracks, it was a horse-racing track.  Built in 1895, it was declared by Parks Superintendent Edward Bigelow to be “a boon to all lovers and connoisseurs in fine horses.”  Races were held on weekends and on Wednesday afternoons.  In 1904, the Schenley Matinee Club acquired rights to hold its own races there on Wednesday afternoons, and the next year this group began work on a new racetrack and stables.  The new track included a grandstand, which you can see in the photo below.  Today’s tennis courts are situated where the grandstand used to be. 

Schenley Oval

In addition to racing, horses had other entertainment value in the park, as you can see in the magazine cover at left: diving horses were another popular attraction. 

Diving horses and skating rink

The photo at right above shows the interior of the Casino, a beautiful but short-lived attraction that sat on the ground presently occupied by the Frick Fine Arts Building.  The casino may have been responsible for the first hockey night in Pittsburgh, boasting the city’s first indoor ice rink.  In summer, the rink was converted to a 3,500-seat theater.  A rooftop garden was another modern feature.  This admired and well-used structure only operated from May 1895 to December 1896, when the ammonia in its ice-making machine caught fire.  The building first burned, then exploded, taking out the bridge over Four Mile Run along with it. 

PittsburghHockey.net has a wonderful article and more photos of the Casino that’s well worth a read.

Schenley Casino

This band shell opened in the early 20th century and was considered a beautiful addition to the park.  Free Sunday concerts were held here for several years, and the audiences who attended were mostly upper-class.  Later, it evolved into a more democratic space–reform groups used it as a rallying place, free movies were shown in the evenings, and city children held plays and musical events there.  Today the band shell’s location is occupied by the Anderson Playground.

Band Shell

And then there are the park shelters.  This rustic woodland shelter has an ornate character that seems unusual by today’s standards.


A few more ambitious park shelters were built in the early 1900s by the celebrated architectural firm of Rutan and Russell, who also designed the Schenley Hotel (today’s William Pitt Union) and Phipps Conservatory’s Botany Hall.  The Arts and Crafts-style buildings began as picnic shelters and evolved with the needs of the park.  This one is labeled “athletic shelter” in a 1937 photo. 

Athletic Shelter

You may recognize the signature eyebrow windows, because one of those buildings still exists as the Schenley Park Café and Visitor Center.  Here it’s shown in a postcard from 1912.

SPVC in 1912

The Café has been a lot of things to a lot of people in its 100+ years of life.  In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a nature museum operated by the City Parks Department.  It’s been a tool shed for city workers and a concession stand for Phipps Conservatory visitors.  But from 1935 to 1940, it was the Pittsburgh Civic Garden Center. 

Garden Center

The idea for the garden center belonged to the Garden Club of Allegheny County, which wanted a place where children and families could learn to grow flowers, as well as vegetables to feed their families during the Depression.  The women, assisted by a contractor and some young men, gutted the place and install plumbing and electricity, opening the center less than a month after starting work.

We have no notes on what type of event was being held at the Garden Center when these photos were taken, but I found it striking that Bartho Nietsch (who operates the Café) recently installed a little fireplace in the exact location where a fireplace used to sit 70 years ago.


Ladies at the Garden Center

We’re glad to have been a part of keeping this building from disappearing, and grateful for the new generation of people who have made it part of their own history.

Hope you’ve enjoyed today’s walk down memory lane!

Historic info from Ralph Ashworth’s “Greetings from Pittsburgh: A Picture Postcard History” (2000)’; “Landscaped Visions: A History of Schenley Park, 1889-1990; R.J. Gangawere’s “Schenley Park” (Carnegie Magazine, Summer 1979); Patricia Lowry’s “Welcome to Schenley Park” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 2001).