Is Washington's Landing so named because "Old Wooden Teeth" really landed there? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Is Washington's Landing so named because "Old Wooden Teeth" really landed there?

Question submitted by: Kathleen Boario, Leechburg

Well, to begin with, Washington's teeth weren't wooden; they were made of animal and human teeth. And no, he probably didn't land on Washington's Landing. There was also no cherry tree, and he owned slaves. While we're at it, the Easter Bunny is a fraud. So is a national missile defense system.

But I digress.

Washington did try to cross the Allegheny in December 1753 with his trusty guide, Christopher Gist. Washington made numerous trips to the area, to survey land -- he later owned a gristmill in Perryopolis -- and to conduct military campaigns with the British during the French and Indian War. In late 1753, Gist and Washington were returning home after a diplomatic mission, bringing a message to the French at Fort LeBoeuf in Erie County that the British wanted them to leave. The French ignored the request, naturally, but took four days to tell Washington. Nobody can ignore something more thoroughly than the French.

Washington and Gist headed south to what would become Pittsburgh, and found themselves with the prospect of crossing the Allegheny, which, as historian Leland Baldwin puts it, was "a mass of grinding ice." Fortunately, they had just been dealing with the French and were prepared for such conditions. They built a raft and set out for the far shore, but before he and Gist were even halfway across, Washington later wrote in his journal, "[W]e were jammed in the ice in such a manner that we expected every moment our raft to sink and ourselves to perish. I put out my setting pole to try to stop the raft, that the ice might pass by; when the rapidity of the stream threw it with so much violence against the pole, that it jerked me out into ten feet of water. & Notwithstanding all our efforts, we could not get to either shore, but were obliged, as we were near an island, to quit our raft and make to it."

But Washington probably didn't land at Washington's Landing any more than Grant is buried in Grant's tomb. (Or wait a minute & was Grant buried in Grant's tomb? I can never remember.) In her History of Pittsburgh Sara Killikelly identifies the island as "Wainwright's Island," which even when her book was published in 1906 had "long since washed away." Indeed, the historical consensus seems to be that Wainwright's Island -- located just upriver from and closer to the Allegheny's southern shore than Washington's Landing -- is the more likely landing place. The island, however, was not likely "washed away" but absorbed into Lawrenceville when a river channel between the mainland and the island filled in.

Of course, Herr's Island -- the original name of "Washington's Landing" -- had history of its own. Herr's Island, as any lifelong Pittsburgher knows, was once most famous for its stockyards and animal rendering plants. Yet when it came time to redevelop the island with new business and residential development, developers were reluctant to capitalize on that history.

One wonders why. After all, most suburban housing developments are named after what had to be destroyed to create them: That's why they have names like Rolling Meadows and Shady Valley. But apparently no one thought suburbanites would relocate from their homes on Shady Trees Terrace or Fox Run Road to live on "Horse Hoof Boulevard" or "Rendered Animal Fat Circle." A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but not so a former slaughterhouse.

So the name "Washington's Landing" suggested itself for the new development. It's only a minor geographic inaccuracy, and Pittsburgh isn't the first city to try to cover up the stink by appropriating the sophistication of a more respectable -- if trumped-up -- history. Cleveland did much the same thing with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In fact, the trend isn't even new to Pittsburgh: The name given to that quaint portion of Downtown down toward the Mon -- "Firstside" -- seems to be just about the last name anybody has used to call it, coined during the Renaissance II era as a way to boast about new construction. I've yet to see a reference to "Firstside" that predates the Caliguiri administration. And those new homes at Nine Mile Run? They're not being called "Slag Heap Manor" -- which is too bad, if you ask me. Instead, they're being billed by the meaninglessly generic moniker "Summerset at Frick Park."

George Washington, they say, never told a lie. Maybe that's why he never had too much success with real estate around here.

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