Brunot Island Once Hosted Explorers, Automobile Races And Now, Lots Of Wildlife

Dec 3, 2019

Brunot Island sits quietly in the Ohio River. Overgrown grass carpets the banks of the island and driftwood thuds against remnants of old steel slabs and “No Trespassing” signs. Electrical towers loom over the tallest trees, connected by dozens of wires. 

Unlike some of its Pittsburgh island neighbors, no one lives on the 129-acre island and it’s not accessible by car. Pittsburgh resident Scott Cooper often passes the island on nearby roads.

Brunot Island is not accessible by car, so vehicles must be ferried over or taken by barge. People who work there can access it by boat, or by traveling on the railroad bridge's pedestrian walkway.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

“I always see it in the middle of the Ohio River near the city of Pittsburgh and I’ve always wondered: what is the significance of it? Has anything significant happened there?”

Brunot Island lies between the West End communities of Esplen and McKees Rocks and the North Side’s Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood. It’s about the same elevation as the banks of the Ohio that run alongside it and it can be seen from highways 65 and 51. 

French doctor Felix Brunot built a home on this kidney-bean-shaped island in the 1790s. The foster brother of Revolutionary War General Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (typically shortened to General Lafayette), Brunot came over from France and established a medical practice downtown. 

A portrait of Dr. Felix Brunot and his daughter, Ann Elizabeth "Betsy" Brunot, attributed to Charles Willson Peale c. 1789 hangs in the Heinz History Center's Gateway to the West exhibit. Brunot established a residence on the island that would later be named after him.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Brunot had his home on the island when Captain Meriwether Lewis launched his 50-foot “kelled boat” from Ft. Fayette around 9th Street and Penn Avenue, near the present-day convention center downtown, on Aug. 31, 1803. Lewis and his crew stopped at the island for well wishes from Brunot and his family, when, according to Lewis & Clark Heritage Foundation member John McNulty, there was an infamous incident. 

Referencing Lewis’ journals, McNulty said the explorer had been asked to show off his new .46-caliber Girandoni air rifle. He fired several rounds for the crowd, and “...after which a Mr. Blaze Cena, being unacquainted with the management of the gun, suffered her [the gun] to discharge herself accidentally. The ball passed through the hat of a woman about 40 yards in the distant, cutting her temple about the fourth of the diameter of the ball. She fell instantly and the blood gushing from the temple, we were all in the greatest consternation and supposed she was dead.”

Fortunately, she wasn’t.  

“It was a close call, and we don't believe he ever let a civilian ever touch his air rifle again,” McNulty said. “It would have been a tragedy.”

A railroad bridge spans the banks of the Ohio River and provides transportation to Brunot Island. It's the only bridge that accesses the land.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

An 1811 flood devastated the Brunot family estate and the family ended up moving in 1819. The land was used for farming for the next few decades until it was purchased by entrepreneur and engineer George Westinghouse for his Pittsburgh Railways Company. An electric generating station was constructed, along with a railroad bridge that traversed the island to each bank of the Ohio River. Pat Conti, director of operations at Duquesne Light, has been with the company for 38 years and is considered a historian of the company and Brunot Island, which he affectionately refers to as “BI.”

Duquesne Light took over management of the generating station during the early 20th century and Conti said workers would go across to the generating station using the railway bridge, which is still true today. 

Industrial facilities dot Brunot Island, which is home to two generating plants.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

“People can walk across if they’re employees and there’s a barge ferry service that runs several days a week,” said Conti. “Otherwise you have to have a boat or swim to the island.”

Race around the island

In 1903, a group of businessman who called themselves the Pittsburgh and Allegheny Driving Club took an interest in Brunot Island. 

“I guess they needed a place to have fun on the weekend, so they built a one-mile oval dirt track on the island,” Conti said. Horses and automobiles brought over on the barges or ferry to race (although some horses were kept there for longer periods of time).

The race track at Brunot Island taken in 1905.
Credit F. Theodore Wagner Photographs / Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center

Its first races were held there in 1904 when 55-miles-per-hour was considered speedy.

The experience brought a lot of fans and well-known drivers to the island. Conti said one AAA championship car race was won by Louis Chevrolet, of the Chevrolet division of General Motors fame. 

This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.

Darren Galpin writes about old race tracks on his website and said drivers of the time period would band together and be hired by a promoter to race as a group. 

“In these early days of racing, the number of competitors in each race was not always large. There may have only been two or three cars in each race,” Galpin wrote. “And races were not long, either, by modern standards. Ten miles would have been a long race, two and five miles more common.”

Larry Schneider stands by a large mechanical system inside the Brunot Island generating station in the 1960s. “Keeping something like that running, you’re always busy.”
Credit Courtesy Larry Schneider

Lack of interest and an increased need for electricity caused the racetrack to close in 1914. By that time, Duquesne Light had expanded with the construction of a second power plant, a coal-fired facility called Reed Power Station, which supplied hundreds of thousands of kilowatts of electricity to the city. 

Over the years as technology advanced, the generating station has changed, too. 

‘It was a joy to work there’

Larry Schneider started working at Duquesne Light as an engineer almost immediately after he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1961. He said his time at the company was before federal workers’ safety regulations were in place, so it could be a dangerous job.

“Working in the plant, you had to be careful, you could very easily get electrocuted,” Schneider said. The generating plant was coal-fired at the time, and it was Schneider’s job to measure pressures and temperatures to see how efficient the stoker fired boilers performed.

The current owner of the generating station is Houston-based company GenOn.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

But because problems were relatively infrequent, Schneider said he spent a lot of time exploring the island. He’d “go fishing, set up tree stands for deer hunting” and have picnics in the grass. Depending on the weather, he’d usually take his 15-foot boat and ride it to work each day. 

“And after work we might go water skiing or fishing,” Schneider said. “It was a joy to work there.”

These days, the natural gas generating station is no longer owned by Duquesne Light, but by Houston-based company GenOn.

A visit to Brunot Island is like entering a different world. There are roads and old loading docks for barges from the coal days and for energy workers today, but the majority of the island is wildlife and animals. When we paddled by, deer watched from the shore and when The Audubon Society did a recent survey, it identified dozens of bird species.

The island has seen centuries of Pittsburgh history and now, it’s quietly returning to nature.