Why is Squirrel Hill named as such? Were there lots of squirrels there? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Why is Squirrel Hill named as such? Were there lots of squirrels there?

Question submitted by: Melanie Marchionno, Squirrel Hill

Franklin Toker's Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait, notes that "Squirrel Hill is a neighborhood of surprises" -- though as you've guessed, the neighborhood's name isn't one of them. While acknowledging that the area "preserves log houses from the eighteenth century and a cemetery in which Indians are buried," Toker concludes that because it remained largely undeveloped for so long, "it has no significant history."


He never asked the squirrels, presumably. Clearly, they thought there was something here worth fighting for. And there was, once: When settlers arrived here in the 1760s, the area was covered with oak and hickory trees, and early accounts make note of its rustic beauty. A 1981 city-sponsored survey of area neighborhoods reports that the area "was a favorite hunting ground of local Indians."


Among the game in such plentiful supply were indeed squirrels. Gray squirrels, to be more precise. But as the settlers found out, the hunted can quickly became the hunters.


Gray squirrels are supposedly less irritating than their cousins, the noisy red squirrel. But apparently the squirrels of this particular neighborhood didn't go quietly at all. They were willing to defend their turf. Why they should be so defiant remains a bit of a mystery. It could be the area's natural beauty, and apparently oak and hickory are among the squirrel's favorite tree species.


Or it could have been something in the water. In its early days, Squirrel Hill was associated with a strong tradition of defiance. Among the first settlers to live in the area were members of the Girty family, whose most famous son, Simon, became a notorious British collaborator during the American Revolution.


Whatever the cause, this was a defiant breed of squirrel: A 1920 Pittsburgh Dispatch reported that the area's squirrels "were so tame and bold ... they were even known to make hasty entrance through cabin windows and stealthily make way with nuts or grain that families had stored away for winter consumption or for next year's seed."


Some of the squirrels didn't even bother to break in. According to The Early History of the Fifteenth Ward, by Sarepta Kussart, the squirrels even "built nests in the eaves of the log cabins and by their noise and chatter kept the inhabitants up at night. They proved perfect pests and were so raucous that the settlers named the whole district ... 'Squirrel Hill.'" I've come across apocryphal stories of squirrels raining nuts down on roofs at small hours of the night ... although it's possible that people were blaming squirrels for everything by that point -- graffiti, slashed tires, depleted nut harvests, whatever.


Which all goes to show that history is written by the winners, much to the regret of squirrels and the descendents of Simon Girty alike. After all, maybe squirrels did build their nests inside log cabins. But you could just as easily argue that the log cabins were built from trees that nested the squirrels. So who's the real trespasser in all this?


For a while, the squirrels were able to hold their own. Thanks largely to a lack of paved roads, Squirrel Hill retained much of its rural character into the 20th century: Some country estates were built in the late 1800s, but Forbes Avenue bordered on farmland as late as the 1930s. (Fittingly for a neighborhood that later became a center for the Jewish community, among its first settlers were Jewish dairy farmers.) But changes were in motion by then: A street car line was built in the 1890s, and a decade later Beechwood Boulevard was substantially enhanced. But the neighborhood only really exploded in the 1920s, when a spike of immigration to the city took place at roughly the same time the Boulevard of the Allies was completed, linking Squirrel Hill to Downtown. Murray Avenue was paved, and a thriving neighborhood business district appeared.


Squirrel Hill has maintained a distinctive mix ever since: Wealthier established families living in its northern precincts, while the southern portion of the neighborhood draws a diverse mix of college students, international immigrants and even a few working stiffs.


Some noticed the changing demographics and figured "There goes the neighborhood": If you think red squirrels are bad, try living next door to college students. They fled for the suburbs -- where they don't pay much in city taxes either. There are still many squirrels living throughout the neighborhood, but these days any ruckus you hear is more likely to be that of the neighborhood's other tiny but combative denizens: 14th Ward Democrats.

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
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Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson