Pittsburgh’s First (and Peculiar) Park

It was an ash dump, a firehall, a market for butchers, a place to relax for Chinese residents, and home to an alligator that roamed the city at night. Most oddly, it was in the middle of a street. It was Pittsburgh’s first park—erased for the past century, though you can still easily find its location.

The park sat in the midst of Second Avenue between Grant and Ross Streets—where the Boulevard of the Allies ramp now lands in downtown. A deed of 1811 conveyed from industrialist James O’Hara to the city “certain portions of lots in Second Street [its original name]1 for the accommodation of a market house,” and so the Scotch Hill Market House was built down the middle of the block.2

Scotch Hill was the southern base of the much-larger Grant’s Hill, named, like Grant Street, for Major General James Grant. In 1758, Grant led his Scotch Highlanders Regiment down from the bluff, intent on capturing Fort Duquesne at the Point. His mission failed, but the Scotch Hill name honored the troops who fell there.3

On April 10, 1845, the Great Fire burned some 1,200 buildings downtown, including Scotch Hill Market. Amazingly only two deaths were reported from the massive blaze—both on Second Street adjacent to the market house. One, Samuel Kingston, a friend of Stephen Foster, was trying to rescue his piano.4 The other, Mrs. Malone, was last seen at the market house; her bones were found in a cellar two weeks later, as were Kingston’s a month after that.

The market was rebuilt, but by 1858, an ordinance stated, “the public market house on Second Street is of no benefit to the city” and that the Ross estate, which now owned the lifeless strip, agreed it “may be used as a public square.”5 In the century since the French were driven from the forks of the Ohio, the city had not had a park.6 Small as it was, the new park was a major step for the city, which would not have another municipal park until Schenley Park was created in 1889; downtown parks at Mellon Square, Market Square, and Point State Park were still a century in the future.

In 1873, a box was delivered to Second Avenue Park.7 Inside was an alligator, a present from Daniel Ferry of Louisiana.8 A news story recalled that the gator lived in the park fountain, though “it had a habit of leaving its native habitat after dark and spending the nights in slumber on the door steps of adjacent dwellings, much to the terror of peaceful female domestics who encountered it in the early mornings when they went out to sweep the pavements.”9 One night the gator left and was never seen again, likely slipping into the Monongahela River.

As the park and housing prices around it declined, more than 300 Chinese residents moved there from the Hill District and created a bustling business district.10 Local historian George Swetnam later wrote that tile-roofed buildings lined both sides of the little park, “where the people of Chinatown gathered in the evenings.”11

In 1913, Monongahela Boulevard was proposed to connect the city with Oakland along the bluff but needed a way to descend from Duquesne University into downtown.12 The park was the perfect site to land the four-lane road (by 1919, officially named Boulevard of the Allies).13 However, the wide block was not quite wide enough, so in 1921, almost all Chinese residents and businesses were forced to move to make way for demolition. The concrete ramp was connected eastward to a new iron viaduct directly above Second Avenue.14

As for Scotch Hill Farmers Market and Second Avenue Park, they were quickly forgotten in the automobile-era frenzy.15

Special thanks to Charles Succop, City Archivist, for his assistance with city documents, and Jennifer Sopko for the streetcar map that started it all.

Read the full story of the park in the Winter 2022-23 issue of “Western Pennsylvania History” magazine.

About the Author

Brian Butko has published books on local and roadside businesses and is writing a haunted historical mystery inspired by his hometown quarry. He is editor of Western Pennsylvania History magazine.

1 The street was renamed Second Avenue in 1868 per “An Ordinance Changing the Names of Streets,” Pittsburgh Gazette, September 2, 1868, p. 5. For more on O’Hara and this area, see for example Eulalia Catherine Schramm, General James O’Hara, Pittsburgh’s First Captain of Industry, MA paper, University of Pittsburgh, 1931, in the university’s Historic Pittsburgh Book Collection, 31735020876177. Second Street/Avenue east of Ross was later connected to the Monongahela Road that followed the course of the river for miles.

2 “By-Laws and Ordinances of the City of Pittsburgh,” 1828. Charles Succop, City Archivist, also tracked down council minutes from 1820 that mention “the Market house in Second Street, between Grant and Ross Streets.”

3 Agnes Hays Gormly, Old Penn Street (Sewickley: Gilbert Adams Hays, 1922).

4 Sarah H. Killikelly, The History of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh: B.C. & Gordon Montgomery Co., 1906) p. 188-189; Donald E. Cook Jr., “The Great Fire of Pittsburgh in 1845,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, April 1968, p. 145-146.

5 1858 ordinance, Pittsburgh City Archives, with thanks to Charles Succop.

6 “The Second Ward Park, Daily Post, March 17, 1859, p. 1.

7 Edward C. Sykes, “I Remember,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, June 21, 1940, p. 36.

8 Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, May 19, 1873.

9 Pittsburgh Daily Post, December 19, 1883, p. 3. Alligators had become a popular pet in that era, per “Pittsburgh, Alligator County,” The Historical Dilettante, July 1, 2019, at https://historicaldilettante.blogspot.com/2019/07/pittsburgh-and-its-alligators.html.

10 The Chinese had first come to California after 1849 to find jobs in the Gold Rush, and then to help build the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s, afterwards coming east, per Woodene Merriman, “Inn to the Past: Downtown Cantonese restaurant points back to city’s vanished Chinatown,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Magazine, p. E1-2. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act would stifle immigration thereafter. Also see “End of the Road for Chinatown,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 27, 1959, p. 17.

11 George Swetnam, “Twilight in Chinatown,” Pittsburgh Press, July 14, 1957, Family Magazine, p. 8.

12 “River Boulevard Proposed by Commission, The Gazette Times, January 27, 1913, p. 1, 6. The original plan was to set down at Fourth Street, but that would require an S-curve in the approach and even more disruptive widening of that street, but not unlike the path westbound Boulevard traffic now has to follow to enter downtown.

13 “A ‘Boulevard of the Allies’ is Council Proposal,” Pittsburgh Press, March 4, 1919, p. 12; “‘Boulevard of Allies’ Council’s Name for Highway to Oakland,” Pittsburgh Post, October 3, 1922.

14 Steam Shovels and Derricks Eat Way Into Picturesque Second Avenue District That Once Was Heart of Pittsburgh’s Chinatown: Boulevard of Alleis [sic] Forces Chinese to Move” Pittsburgh Post, September 27, 1921, p. 3; “Many Downtown Streets Resemble Western Town After Visit of Cyclone, But It’s Only Result of Army of Contractors Making Improvements, Pittsburgh Daily Post, November 20, 1921, p. 11.

15 One of the businesses on Second Avenue is the back of the Chinatown Inn, which faces Third Avenue. On April 16, 2022, a PHMC historical marker was erected in front of the Third Avenue entrance for “Pittsburgh Chinatown,” info at www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=197338. For more on the area, also see for example, Merriman, “Inn to the Past,” and Francesca Dabecco, “Lost and Found: Pittsburgh’s Chinatown,” The Incline, May 26, 2021, https://theincline.com/2021/05/26/lost-and-found-pittsburghs-chinatown/.

Date January 17, 2023
  • Brian Butko