What happened to ‘Grant’s Hill’ in Downtown Pittsburgh?
Despite the city’s many hills and valleys, Downtown Pittsburgh is pretty flat. But it wasn’t always that way. Before the city and its Golden Triangle were developed to what they are today, a roughly 33-foot-tall rocky mound known as “Grant’s Hill,” or, “The Hump” stood in the middle.
“I’ve always been curious about Pittsburgh and the things that were here and the things that are no longer here,” Good Question! asker Raymond Kotewicz said. “One of the things I came across was Grant’s Hill. I’ve always wondered where it was, and why it was so necessary to remove it, and why it was so inconvenient to everybody.”
In historic maps of the city, Grant’s Hill can be seen spanning from what’s now the U.S. Steel Tower to about the Boulevard of the Allies. It was a major presence in historic Pittsburgh, and played a significant role in the city’s development.
In 1758, British General John Forbes was sent across Pennsylvania to kick the French and their Native American allies out of Fort Duquesne. Before he reaches the city, Forbes dispatched Major James Grant and several hundred men to Pittsburgh to get an idea of what they were up against.
“But Grant had bigger ideas of glory,” said Edward K. Muller, University of Pittsburgh emeritus professor of history. “He decided that he would surprise the French.”
The area was covered with dense forest at the time, and Grant chose the hill as the base of his attack. Unfortunately for Grant (and his ego), he was ambushed by the French and Native Americans and hundreds of his troops were killed, wounded or captured. Despite the defeat, the mound was later named Grant’s Hill.
In the fall of 1758, the French retreated, abandoning Fort Duquesne. Forbes and the British took over, establishing Fort Pitt at the Point.
As Pittsburgh grew and expanded beyond the Point, Grant’s Hill was used as a park, where families gathered to picnic and play music. But others criticized Grant’s Hill, saying it was a nuisance and needed to go, to clear the way for future development.
“It was big enough to be an issue at various times,” Muller said.
In 1836, the top third of “the Hump” was removed in an attempt to bring its height closer to the rest of the growing Downtown area. Still, some felt it wasn’t enough, as evidenced by a 1839 Pittsburgh Gazette article.
“Level this hill, with the exception of the ornamental buildings which are upon it, and let our citizens see the fine scenery beyond, and Pittsburgh will show, like every large and flourishing city, an ‘abundance’ of employment and accommodation for her industrious family.”
The mound was a barrier for transportation, and made new development difficult. In 1841, Allegheny County decided to build a new courthouse — a Greek Revival-style structure along Grant Street. A courthouse had been established in Market Square, but as the city grew, it needed more space.
“By moving the courthouse up there, it begins a several-decade drift of insurance companies, lawyers and others in that direction,” Muller said. “And that, in part, is reshaping Downtown.”
When that courthouse burned down in 1882, the county asked architect H. H. Richardson to design a new one. This is the Romanesque Revival-style building that still stands today. But Muller says there was still a discussion taking place on how Grant’s Hill was impacting the city’s growth. City planners wanted to level the area, but some prominent owners of nearby buildings including Henry Clay Frick, weren’t convinced.
“Frick was a holdout in this. And he and other property owners, if they were gonna cut this thing down, which would mean having to do something about the foundation and bottom floors, who was going to cover damages?”
Eventually in 1912, Mayor William Magee figured out a way around the opposition. He issued a construction bond to the tune of $3 million, and ensured Frick that work would go smoothly. Frick signed on. They removed the rest of Grant’s Hill, reinforcing the foundations and basements of the buildings that were standing upon it. Sixteen feet were taken off throughout the next year, leaving the mostly level land that exists today.
There are still reminders of the event, including a plaque on the Frick Building and the Allegheny County Courthouse.
“If you stand at the corner of Fifth and Grant, you can see a marker on the corner that says this was the height before Grant’s Hill was cut down. And it's been there a long, long time,” Muller said.
It can be hard to picture “the hump” today, but the removal of Grant’s Hill changed Downtown and helped solidify Grant Street as one of the main thoroughfares of the Golden Triangle.