I would like to know if there is any connection between St. Clair and Upper St. Clair. | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

I would like to know if there is any connection between St. Clair and Upper St. Clair.

Question submitted by: Chuck Friedrich, Overbrook

It's a little hard to unpack your question. Sure there's a connection. Without a "St. Clair," there'd be no place for Upper St. Clair to be above ... and for those of us who know the community, it's safe to say that feeling above things is a key part to the Upper St. Clair experience.


But as its name implies, Upper St. Clair was once part of a much larger community known as Saint Clair Township, which once encompassed much of the South Hills.


The whole area was known for one Arthur St. Clair, who sadly enough was nowhere near as prosperous as the community that bears his name. A native of Scotland, he ended up being the highest-ranking Pennsylvanian to serve in the Continental Army, and in 1787 he served as the head of the Continental Congress. But during the American Revolution, he was removed from service for losing Fort Ticonderoga to the British, and in the early 1790s, he failed to suppress an uprising of Indians, putting Pittsburgh at further risk of Indian attack. "His last days," the township's own municipal history tell us, "were spent in poverty and obscurity." If the dying St. Clair showed his face in the community that bears his name today, he'd probably be rousted by police and taken someplace where derelicts would feel more comfortable. You know, like a homeless shelter. Or Mt. Lebanon.


But at one time, the whole area was known for its radicalism. Starting in the 1790s, St. Clair Township became a hotbed of separatist fervor and disdain for strong central government. In 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion took root in the South Hills, as poor frontiersmen rebelled against an excise tax on whiskey imposed by the feds. At the urging of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, George Washington dispatched troops to the area, and the Rebellion was stomped out by a strong central government exercising its newfound authority to regulate commerce. Judging by recent election returns, descendants of those early USC settlers have taken their revenge on the federal government by voting Republican ever since. Portions of the community, like the name of Fort Couch Road, still bear names associated with that long-ago dispute.


In the decades that followed, St. Clair Township itself began to fracture. First the community divided into two parts. Yes, Virginia, there was once a Lower St. Clair, made up of South Hills neighborhoods later absorbed into the city. Traces of the old community remain, among other places, in the name of a city housing project, St. Clair Village. One of Pittsburgh's little ironies is that one of its most affluent communities shares a name with one of its most impoverished.


At any rate, Upper St. Clair itself was established in 1836 -- and despite what you may be thinking, it wasn't to get away from the poor people. According to an August 2004 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette survey of local communities, the township was created for the same reason a lot of early municipalities were: because it took too long for farmers to get to township government meetings. (Then as now, it seems, entertainment options were limited in the South Hills, and shopping malls were a century away.)


For many years, the area remained rural and grew slowly. According to the municipal history, one village in the area -- which gave rise to the political career of Republican Senator Rick Santorum -- was even named Sodom. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it, "values conservatives."


But the introduction of trolley service and, later, the Liberty Tunnels began generating rapid growth. Or as we call it, "sprawl." Over time, even more municipalities were formed from the former St. Clair Township. The communities we now know as Mt. Lebanon, Bethel Park, Bridgeville and a handful of others were all once part of St. Clair Township, but later sought their independence in the late 1800s and early 1900s. That legacy of secession is almost forgotten now, though it may manifest itself in otherwise-inexplicable levels of passion at high-school football games. Because, really, what else could these people have against each other?

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