Frick Park’s 644 acres include extensive hiking trails, hundreds of species of wildlife and old fire hydrants that seem out of place. As stir-crazy Pittsburghers take advantage of the city’s many green spaces, Good Question! askers took notice of the peculiarly-placed manmade objects.
“During quarantine I’ve been walking through Frick Park a lot more, particularly exploring new trails,” asked Jenna DeVivo, of Wilkinsburg. “We’ve been going up Firelane Trail a lot and it’s made me curious why there are so many fire hydrants.”
Firelane Trail runs through the southern portion of Frick Park, near Nine Mile Run. The hydrants are easily missed among the foliage. Some hydrants are a rusted red, while others are green or brown; they sit next to foot bridges, underneath logs or nestled into moss.
A brief history of Frick Park
Prior to European settlement, the land that makes up Frick Park was occupied by Native American tribes. They created trails through the region and hunted along its rivers and streams. As Europeans arrived, one family established a mill nearby. Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy curator Susan Rademacher said some old, round mill stones are still hidden in the trees.
“That’s early industry,” Rademacher said. “Then that was followed by heavy industry. There were gas wells in the valley and then the steel industry began to grow.”
As manufacturing bustled primarily along Pittsburgh’s rivers, the wealthy barons of the industry wanted to move away from the smokey city. Industrialist Henry Clay Frick and his family moved to an estate he’d call Clayton in the 1880s.
“The children grew up with a real sense of the importance of these woods and meadows,” Rademacher said.
When Frick’s daughter, Helen, had her debutante party as a teenager, her requested gift was that her father would donate their estate to the City of Pittsburgh. Her hope, Rademacher said, was that it would become a public park.
“She was inspired by Teddy Roosevelt, who was a personal friend of her father’s and who came to dinner at Clayton with all of these ideas about preserving nature, establishing national parks,” Rademacher said.
Upon Frick’s death in 1919, about 150 acres of his land was given to the city. As part of the family’s request, the park was meant to be “conserved as a natural landscape,” Rademacher said.
“This is a park that was planned to keep all of its facilities that attract people and serve people like an environmental center, like a playground, like basketball courts to the perimeter, to the edges of the park, where they interface with the city and where people live,” Rademacher said. “But then they also protect the interior and keep it more quiet, more natural, more woodsy.”
Brushfires and the golf course
Frick Park is the result of decades of land acquisition. Adjacent to the Frick property near Nine Mile Run was a small, residential neighborhood; beside that was land owned by the Country Club of Allegheny County.
“Down around the Blue Slide playground, that portion of the park was mostly a golf course,” Rademacher said.
When the country club relocated, the city acquired the land and essentially let it grow undisturbed. But the grass and weeds grew quickly and became susceptible to brushfires, Rademacher said.
“So there were a lot of brushfires happening in the 20s and 30s in the park,” Rademacher said. “[City officials] decided they should put hydrants in to deal with the brushfires.”
It wasn’t understood at the time that fire could be a cleansing agent for wildlife areas, so fire department officials deemed it necessary to put in easy water access nearby. They were not left over from the former residential area, but placed intentionally.
According to the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, the hydrants were installed around 1933. They still have connected water mains, but a spokesperson for PWSA couldn’t say if they were functional. The city says were there to be a blaze today, fire fighters would assess the scene and its challenges, and put it out, but didn’t provide details about how they’d get their equipment into the park, with no interior roads.
The hydrants mostly found near the southern portion of the park have become synonymous with Frick Park’s identity. Christine Iksic with the outdoor gear store 3 Rivers Outdoor Company in Regent Square says the fire hydrants are included in a poster the business sells about the park. The company hired a West Virginia-based artist, took him on a tour of Frick Park, and asked him to create a poster based on the space’s quintessential elements.
“One of them was Hot Dog Dam,” Iksic said. “And then there’s a fire hydrant in it … It’s just a unique thing that makes Frick Park quirky.”
Even though they’re no longer used, Susan Rademacher said she doesn’t see value in removing them.
“I think the value is in shedding light on them and understanding sort of where we came from, how we've adapted, especially in terms of our environment and what better choices we can make once we love it,” Rademacher said. “And we know it loves us back.”
Visitors to the park can find most of the hydrants along Firelane Trail.