Remnants Of Houses Along Fifth Avenue Are Reminders Of A 1964 Landslide

Aug 1, 2019

Along Fifth Avenue where Pittsburgh’s Oakland and Hill District neighborhoods meet, sit the remnants of concrete foundations and staircases. Trees and wildflowers wrap around broken brick walls and peak through crumbling retaining structures all the way up the hillside.

Good Question! listener Tim Appman wanted to know how long the area had been “abandoned.”

“What happened to the houses that were there? Who lived there? Why did they leave?”

A 1882 G.M. Hopkins & Co. map show what's now parts of the Hill district and west and south Oakland. Beelen Street can be seen running nearly parallel to Mohawk Street (now it's cut off) and Boston Street, now Brenham Street can be seen connecting to Beelen Street.
Credit Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection / Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System

On Dec. 29, 1964 around 7:50 p.m., a massive landslide forced the evacuation of nearly a dozen homes on Beelen and Brenham streets. A broken water main was the source of the slide, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, and caused utility poles to fall over as mud and rock tumbled down the hill toward Fifth Avenue.

“Engineers at the scene said any further damage from the slide would probably be slow, if it occurred,” the article said.

Workers dig a trench and lay pipe along Brenham Street (formerly Boston Street) as seen from the intersection with Fifth Avenue.
Credit Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection / Archives & Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh Library System

The scene was described as looking like the aftermath of an earthquake.  One of the homes dropped 10 feet from its hillside foundation, and a car fell nearly 20 feet. No injuries were reported, but some of the families would go on to sue the city and utility companies over the damage to their homes and cars. The neighborhood was primarily occupied by families who worked at the nearby Jones and Laughlin Steel Company.

About six months later, another Post-Gazette article reported that the city bought eight houses and 14 vacant lots along Beelen and Breham streets. The properties had been impacted by the slide and were to be developed “into a green slope area.”

The area remains untouched by development. Today, piles of tires lie next to fallen trees and occasionally a rafter of turkeys strut around the area, enjoying the open space.

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