Swisshelm Park, Allegheny County, PA

by Pat Arndt

Swisshelm Park is a little known City of Pittsburgh neighborhood, an area approximately one-square mile bordered by Nine Mile Run, Swissvale, the Monongahela River and Duck Hollow (known for years to Swisshelm Parkers as "Skeetersville). Swisshelm Park itself previously had been called Denniston Park and North Homestead. Long before it had a name, back when the City of Pittsburgh was still Fort Duquesne, Swisshelm Park was home to the Susquehannock and Iroquois Indians. A cave in the hill overlooking the river was a popular place to hunt for arrowheads back in the 20's and 30's. (It was also a popular hiding place for illegal liquor during Prohibition.)

In the late 19th century, there was a farm and a grist mill in the Nine Mile Run valley where the Irish Centre is located today, and the Jackson family had a large farm where palatial homes now line Windemere Drive. The farmhouse is still there and the old barn is the present Sarah Jackson Black Community Center, the site of popular teenage dances in the 50's.

Around the turn of the century, steel mills and foundries were being built along the Monongahela, and a small community began to take shape where once Indians roamed and hunted. Streets were laid out, and small plans of homes were built. A grand new school building, Colfax No. 2, was built on Whipple Street to replace an older structure that was moved to Pocono Street.

Colfax No. 2

Colfax No. 2

Love Street

Love Street

(The old school was converted into apartments and has outlived its replacement by 30+ years.) Mr. Obediah Harkness, the school custodian for many years, lived in a house on Love Street on the school grounds. One of his duties was to ring the bell in the tower on the roof to signal the start of morning and afternoon sessions.

Dutch Row, five frame 2-1/2 story houses on Love Street, known as Dutch Row, were some of the first structures built in Swisshelm Park. Four are still standing and two of these have not changed outwardly since they were built almost a century ago.

"Dutch Row" from 
Goodman Street, c 1911

"Dutch Row," Love St., circa 1911 (sewer pipes awaiting installation)

Street maps from 1904 of the City of Pittsburgh are available at the 
Historic Pittsburgh
Web site

"Dutch Row" from 
Goodman Street, c 1920
after streets were paved and curbed.

"Pittsburgh’s Wonderful Recreation Park"

(Courtesy of Burton R. Kennedy)

A Citizens Committee on City Planning was formed in 1916 and in 1923 published their Parks Report. The report suggested that a lake be created by damming Nine Mile Run and a golf course, country club, botanical garden and athletic field be constructed in the Nine Mile Run valley.

Expanded Key: 

However, Duquesne Slag bought the west bank of the stream shortly after the report was published, and turned it into a slag dump. By the late 30's, they had also acquired the east bank and Swisshelm Park's "woods" were slowly buried in slag. This area became known as "the desert," a playground for the children of Swisshelm Park who had no City-sponsored facilities. Many of those who grew up in Swisshelm Park walked a mile into Swissvale and then took a three-trolley ride to Kennywood to go swimming because they had been refused admission to the City pool in Greenfield as they "weren't City residents." Without public transportation, stores, and other amenities available in most City neighborhoods, the area remained virtually undeveloped until the post-war era brought a bus line and a building boom.

The "Boy Scout Circle" was a cleared area on the wooded hill overlooking "the desert." It was used every few years by the Eastern Area Boy Scout Council for their jamborees and could be reached only by the "fire engine roads." During the hot, dry summers, sparks from steam-driven locomotives caused fires on the river hill, and these tracks were cut through the woods to allow the fire truck access to the area. When not in use by the Boy Scouts, the "Circle" was a favorite playground for the children of Swisshelm Park and as they got older, the perfect place to learn how to drive.

Tribune-Review article

Though the inhabitants of today's Swisshelm Park are more transient than in the past, many of the neat, well-kept houses are home to 2nd and 3rd generation "natives," and they exhibit the same independent "Don't tread on me" attitude of those first families who settled the little community 100 years ago.

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