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90.5 WESA's Good Question! series is an experiment where you bring us questions—and we go out to investigate and find answers.

How did Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood get its name?

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

From the sprawling fields of Schenley Park to the shopping on Forbes and Murray avenues to the architecturally stunning houses of worship, Squirrel Hill is one of Pittsburgh’s most culturally diverse communities.

As the city’s largest neighborhood with about 26,000 residents, many Good Question! listeners live or work in the area and have many curiosities.

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

“How did they come up with the name Squirrel Hill?” - Roger Rafson, Squirrel Hill resident

Sure, there are squirrels in the neighborhood, but there are squirrels throughout Pittsburgh. The community’s story begins with the Ice Age about a million years ago. As glaciers cut through parts of North America, their impact caused the creation of hills and deep valleys, as well as new rivers. The glaciers left Squirrel Hill on higher ground.

Helen Wilson, vice president of the Squirrel Hill Historical and editor of “Squirrel Hill: A Neighborhood History,” said because Squirrel Hill was so high, it developed differently than surrounding communities because it was hard to get to. Indigineous people passed through the region, most likely using it as a temporary hunting ground.

“We did find a spear point that’s dated to about between 3,500 to 1,500 years ago. And there were mounds in the area, which might have been Adena, which are about A.D. 100,” Wilson said. “The presence in Squirrel Hill of Indigenous people goes back a long way, however it never was a place of settlement.”

But the Native Americans likely named the community.

“The oldest sources we’ve found, it’s always been Squirrel Hill,” Wilson said. “There’s some references — that we can’t prove — that say it was named by the Native Americans because of all the squirrels.”

There’s another theory that it could have been named after an estate called Squirrel Hill, but Wilson said it’s also difficult to verify. According to Wilson’s book on the neighborhood, in the mid-1700s: “The settlers found the squirrels a nuisance, getting into grain stores and damaging crops. However, breaded and fried, they made good eating.”

While the Squirrel Hill name is today assigned to the Census-tract designated Squirrel Hill South and Squirrel Hill North, early travelers through the region would have referred to the entire hill with the name — including what’s now Greenfield, Hazelwood, Glen Hazel and Point Breeze.

There are still reminders to Native Americans’ presence in the neighborhood, including the Turner Cemetery, where some Shawnees are reportedly buried. There’s also a granite fountain built around 1912 that remembers “Catahecassa Blackhoof,” a Shawnee war chief allegedly “present at the defeat of Braddock in 1755.”

The Snyder, or Catahecassa Fountain in Schenley Park depicts a prominent Shawnee Chief. It was funded by surplus Fourth of July celebration money in 1907.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The Snyder, or Catahecassa Fountain in Schenley Park depicts a prominent Shawnee Chief. It was funded by surplus Fourth of July celebration money in 1907.

Settlement and industry

By the mid-1700s, as French and British trappers and traders roamed the region, treaties were driving Native Americans out. British farmers soon arrived. Squirrel Hill Historical Society’s Tony Indovina says the first log houses were built in the late 1700s, including the well-known Robert Neil Log House in Schenley Park.

“It’s one of the earliest examples of a permanent settlement in western Pennsylvania,” Indovina said.

When preservationists tried to improve the Neil structure in the 1960s, Indovina said it was so unstable that it fell down. So technically the log house is a reconstruction around the original fireplace and chimney. It’s currently being considered for a spot on the Lewis and Clark Trail Experience.

“Research that they submitted to us done by the National Parks Service suggested that Meriwether Lewis, when he made his last trip to Pittsburgh...stopped at the Neil Log House to water his horses.”

As the population grew in the late 18th century, industry arrived. Helen Wilson said residents would mine coal in the region, and there was a salt works in Nine Mile Run, where brine wells were drilled by hand near the mouth of the waterway. Saline Street is a nod to this essential industry.

“You could not live without salt,” Wilson said. “That’s the only way you could preserve meat over the winter.”

While Pittsburgh continued to expand its industry with iron, steel and glass, wealthy residents were attracted to Squirrel Hill. It was on a trolley line, far from the smokey riverfronts and had plenty of land to build mansions.

“Suddenly there was all of this wide open land, relatively high,” Wilson said. “It was like a feeding frenzy with developers and speculators. And you can just trace the maps [that showed] in 1890, [there was] nothing. And then in 1910, all these smaller lots all over the place.”

That’s around the time Wilson said Jewish residents started to move in, mostly German Jews who had been living in Allegheny City. Eastern European immigrants made the community their home in the decades to follow.

As was true in many early Pittsburgh communities, streets were often named for large property owners’ or their estates, including former Congressman Walter Forward of Forward Avenue and glassmaker Thomas Wightman of Wightman Street.

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The view going up Beacon Street near Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Good Question askers Katherine Eagon and Mac Booker wondered: “Was there ever a beacon on Beacon Street?”

At roughly 1,200 feet above sea level, the section of Beacon Street near Beth Shalom is the highest point in Squirrel Hill. Wilson said it’s possible that beacon or signal fires could have been set atop the hill, but it’s more likely named after a neighborhood in Boston.

“As far as Beacon, that’s not a person’s name,” Wilson said. “Beacon was supposed to be an offshoot of Beechwood Boulevard and they needed a ‘high’ sounding name for it. So it’s patterned after Beacon Hill in Boston.”

Nods to historic estates can still be found throughout the neighborhood. Good Question! asker Joan Markert, a former costume designer, noticed a wall near Shady Avenue and Beacon Street.

“And in it are shields that are held by lions and a tower, I don’t know whether to call it a tower, it’s a round structure. And it just fascinated me because it has absolutely nothing to do with the house,” Markert said.

When that wall was built, the owner was Edwin C. May, who owned a chain of drug stores. Wilson says his house was extravagant, with marble fireplaces and fountains. The architectural word for this wall’s design is a Victorian “folly.” It’s a structure purposefully meant to look extravagant.

“It’s something silly to some people,” Wilson said. “Because it obviously looks very medieval. But this is about the only one I know of that still exists, at least in Pittsburgh.”

Squirrel Hill is now considered one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. In recent decades, it’s seen a boom in its Asian population, thanks in part to the draw of Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. Today, 17% of the neighborhood's population is Asian, making it a cultural hub for the region.

And yes, you can still find a lot of squirrels.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA and 91.3 WYEP, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.