From Saw Mill Run to Nelson Run to Glass Run, there are about 80 roads in Allegheny County that include the word “run” in their names. No one sprints down these streets, but the word is ubiquitous in the region.
Good Question! listener Erin Malloy is a Pittsburgh “boomerang” who grew up here, but has spent time living in other parts of the country. When she returned to western Pennsylvania, she wondered, “Why are the streets and, actually, the streams in Pittsburgh referred to as runs?”
— Odd Pittsburgh (@OddPittsburgh) June 21, 2019
The word “run” was introduced to this region when Europeans settled in western Pennsylvania. Joby Bass, professor of geography at the University of Southern Mississippi, said these families brought traditions and language with them, including “run,” a term for a creek or stream.
“Looks like it was used to refer to water very early on (ca. 1200s or earlier),” Bass wrote in an email. “Its first use in North America was in Massachusetts in the 1700s.”
The noun version of “run” derives from the Old English noun “ryne,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, meaning “a flowing, a course, a watercourse.” It also appears in Middle Dutch, Old Saxon and Old High German as “runnen,” “irnan” and “rinnen.”
As immigrants made their way across the young United States toward what would become Pennsylvania, they named the waterways they encountered. Bass said this is a concept known as first effective settlement. The population that arrives in a location first and firmly establishes themselves leaves a lasting cultural impact.
“This idea that this group of people called streams ‘runs’ meant that everybody that came after was going to use that term,” Bass said.
Creek and stream names are different across the country. "Run" is used predominantly in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio; “kill” is used in parts of New York; “rio” is found in the southwest. Building streets near the “runs” made sense for early settlers because the land around them was flat. Plus the routes they took were already familiar to residents because they used the water for transportation.
History blogger John Schalcosky, of the website the Odd, Mysterious and Fascinating History of Pittsburgh, is familiar with all of these “run roads,” as well as nearly every other street in the region. He’s currently writing a book about the stories behind local street names.
“Each run tells a story,” Schalcosky said. “Who is Jack’s? Who is Thompson? Who is Beck’s?”
The origins of these names aren’t always obvious, he said. Take Woods Run Road, for example. It’s not named after the trees it winds through, but instead George Woods, an early surveyor in Pittsburgh. Moon Run Road doesn’t house a telescope, but is instead a nod to the crescent-shaped curve of the Ohio River through that community. Runs with a distance in its name, like Four Mile Run, can either indicate how long that stretch is, or how far that road is from a significant landmark. Having important information in the name of a road was important for travelers who didn’t have GPS or a map.
Then, of course, there are names after nature, like Deer Run Road and Spring Run Road. And some oddballs like Potato Garden Run Road and Rainbow Run Road. Wexford and the associated run is named after a town in southeast Ireland. Saw Mill Run Boulevard refers to the former saw mill at the mouth of its namesake tributary through the West End.
Water is still near almost every “run road,” according to Schalcosky, whether it be in the form of natural streams or piped underground.
“Somewhere … the creek exists,” Schalcosky said. “You could track down the runs and creeks that all these things are named after.”
Every run road has a story. Whether it references an old landmark like Coal Pit Run or a former landowner like Flaughtery Run, each reflects the area’s history. So next time you find yourself on a run road, look for the water that first helped connect and shape the region.