This excerpt from Luna: Pittsburgh’s Original Lost Kennywood follows Frederick Ingersoll in choosing a site to build Luna Park after his first two deals fell through. Late in 1904 he settled on the Aspinwall estate, a mysterious old house on the wooded eastern slope of Herron Hill, a couple blocks from today’s Bloomfield Bridge.
The Aspinwall house was hidden by an untended orchard and tall board fence. People whispered about the eccentric widow Aspinwall, but she had every reason to be reclusive. Annie Aspinwall, née Ross in 1818, was a granddaughter of James Ross, famed senator, lawyer, and friend of pioneer settler James O’Hara. Ross bought 3,000 acres from O’Hara, which passed to Annie and her niece Mary Delafield.
Annie’s mother died at 28, when Annie was six. At 19, she married George Aspinwall, owner of Aspinwall steamship lines. They had three children who each died when a year old. They had a daughter but then Annie’s father died, then her younger sister, then her husband at age 40 — the same year a son was born. The next year, 1855, Annie moved to Pittsburgh and built this house. Her son died at 15, in France. Her daughter died at 28, in Scotland. Only her niece Mary Delafield remained, but they were not close. Annie was alone in the big brick house, 16 empty rooms, most with 14-foot-high ceilings.
Most of Annie’s land holdings were up the Allegheny River at the north end of today’s Highland Park Bridge. O’Hara descendants, the Darlingtons, owned adjacent land that is now Boy Scout Camp Guyasuta. In 1890, Annie sold 155 acres to developers for what became the borough of Aspinwall.
When Annie went out, she covered her face and rode inside an antique carriage driven by her coachwoman. She took no callers except for long-time neighbor and well-known banker William Herron, who tended her rents and accounts. In 1895 he convinced her to donate a triangle of the property that crossed over Craig Street. The $30,000 gift (now about $800,000) was to West Penn Hospital, where Herron was vice president.
Society columns splashed the story across the country of the eccentric millionaire’s gift, thrusting a reluctant Annie into the spotlight. She packed up and headed for Scotland aboard a White Star liner, but while crossing the Atlantic, Annie fell and was injured during a storm. She made it to Edinburgh but died soon after from her injuries.
Annie left her estate — $3.5 million, worth more than $100 million today — to the Protestant Episcopal Hospital in Philadelphia to build and maintain a ward for poor, ill, orphaned girls. That left nothing to her niece, Mary Delafield, who challenged the will, saying that Annie had been of unsound mind. Mary got nothing and in 1901, the hospital sold Annie’s home in Oakland to Thomas Crump. Subway advocates saw the 16.5 acres as the best spot for a downtown tunnel to emerge, while land brokers coveted it for housing. In fact, a deal to subdivide it was underway in December 1904 when the broker got sick for two days; along came Frederick Ingersoll, desperate for open land, and bought Annie’s estate for $115,000.
Ingersoll brought in workmen from Cleveland, where they were finishing his other Luna. Temperatures on February 10, 1905, plunged into single digits but Ingersoll was terribly behind schedule, so work began clearing and leveling the estate. With the ground frozen solid, dynamite was used along Craig Street to blast down 35 feet then push the loose earth toward the ravine. Booth & Flynn, Pittsburgh’s leading constructors, charged $80,000.
Five days later — the ground white with eight inches of snow and overnight temps below zero — the first load of lumber arrived at the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Shadyside station. Horse-drawn wagons on skis carted five million feet of wood over the frigid mile-long route to the estate. Once there, wagons began sinking into the slushy mud so workers laid down boards to solidify the road: $20,000 in wooden planks were left there and the park built right over them.
Luna: Pittsburgh’s Original Lost Kennywood follows the intriguing, intertwined stories of two very different amusement parks in suburban Pittsburgh: Kennywood in West Mifflin and Luna Park in North Oakland. Author Brian Butko takes readers on a rollicking trip to the rowdy picnic spot first called Kenny’s Grove, then we meet the Ingersoll family of inventors who go from building rides at Kennywood to creating its chief competitor. Purchase your copy today!