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Old county maps shine light onto past

Monday, January 18, 1999

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For 137 years old, the map is in remarkably good condition, flaking in places and worn at the creases but really not bad, considering.

Until about a year ago, and for who knows how long before that, it was mounted and leaning against a wall behind a filing cabinet near a stairway landing in the administration building at Round Hill Farm.

That's where Allegheny County Commissioner Bob Cranmer found it, on a routine visit to the county-owned demonstration farm.

Cranmer rescued the old Allegheny County map, which Smith, Gallup & Hewitt of Philadelphia published in 1862. Then, he asked one of his assistants, Rod Frantz, to check with the county's Public Works Department to see if more old maps might exist. Two others, dated 1883 and 1890, surfaced through the Engineering Department.

Cranmer wanted to have the maps restored, a daunting task because they had been varnished. Frantz said the process would be "like restoring a Stradivarius that had been in the trunk of someone's car since the 1930s." So when restoration estimates came in at more than $25,000, the maps were instead photographed in color, for $2,000. The reproductions now hang in the commissioners conference room in the Allegheny County Courthouse.

Last week, the county donated the three original maps to the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center. Renée Savits, the center's acquisitions archivist, was glad to get them.

"We have maps that go back to the mid-1700s but not that large," Savits said. "We also have pieces of the 1862 map but not the whole map," which measures about 5 feet square, about the same size as the other two maps.

"I think the 1862 map is very important," said University of Pittsburgh history professor Ted Muller. "There wasn't a whole lot of mapping going on other than these companies coming in" from out of town. "The 1883 and 1890 maps would be important but not in the same league because of Hopkins [atlas of 1876] and Sanborn [fire insurance maps of the late 19th century]."

Printed in muted pinks and greens, the 1862 map shows the names and locations of streets, roads, railroads, ferries, rivers, creeks and runs. It also pinpoints the locations of homes and the names of homeowners, from the McCurdy house in Scrabble Town, in southern Elizabeth Township, to the Jacob homestead in northern Richland.

The streets of Allegheny City, Manchester and Birmingham are recorded, as are the streets of Pittsburgh, then bounded by the rivers and extending only to Soho, the Hill District and the Strip District.

In advertisements that list the names of hotels, horticulturists, whip manufacturers and other businesses, the map also reveals something of the culture of the day: Under "Hair Dressing Saloons," Peter Winter offers the following services at 501 Penn St.: "Cupping, Leeching, Bleeding and Tooth Drawing."

The leeching, bleeding and tooth drawing we can picture, at least on someone else. But cupping? What's the deal with that?

Well into the 19th century, barbers performed minor surgery and dentistry. Cupping is the application to the skin of hot glass cups, which draw the blood to the surface. The better to leech you with, my dear.

"I'm going to miss having these around," said Charles Wilf, who pointed out Peter Winter's listing in the lower left corner of the map. Wilf, a senior policy analyst in the county manager's office who also teaches historical geography at Duquesne University, had the maps in his office the past couple of months before delivering them to the history center.

"From 1862 to 1883, the city of Pittsburgh has grown a lot," Wilf notes, standing over the 1883 map spread on a table in the history center's library.

Over the time frame of the three maps, 1862 to 1890, "the county boundaries don't change, but internally, the boundaries [of townships and municipalities] have changed quite a bit."

The maps reveal there once was a Lower St. Clair and a town called Sodom in Upper St. Clair. Both no longer exist.

Sometimes, maps show streets that were never built - "paper streets," they're called. The 1883 county map, which G.M. Hopkins, a Philadelphia civil engineer, published, shows an entire paper village.

Wildwood was laid out between 1862 and 1876 by or for James Boyd, on his property overlooking the Allegheny River west of Verona. In a day when towns and cities were laid out on the grid, Wildwood's plan was quite progressive, featuring curvilinear streets and a crescent-shaped street facing a park that extended the length of the village. Lots varied in shape and ranged from a half acre to 10 acres.

Wildwood also appears in the 1876 Hopkins atlas, in which it is described as being "laid out upon the Park plan" and "planned by skillful engineers, aided by a landscape gardener of the first ability. Being just outside the limits of the city, the smoke and the more to be dreaded taxation are both escaped," the sales pitch concluded.

Had it been built, Boyd's Wildwood would have become one of America's earliest romantic suburbs, a picturesque village in a park-like setting. Only New Jersey's Llewellyn Park of 1852, which Andrew Jackson Davis laid out, and Frederick Law Olmsted's 1868 plan for Riverside, a Chicago suburb, are known contemporaneous examples.

Did Olmsted design Wildwood? Muller, who has researched the firm's work here, found no such evidence.

An 1889 county history reports that Wildwood had about 100 residents, but on the 1890 map, which Otto Krebs published in Pittsburgh, the town doesn't exist - no roads, no name, nothing. Today, maps show the the golf course of the Longue Vue Club in Penn Hills, which dates to about 1920, occupying the entire site.

The 1890 county map includes parts of adjoining Westmoreland, Washington and Beaver counties. All three maps are available for viewing upon request at the history center.

Wilf suggests that the history center might seek a grant for the maps' restoration. Because they show the locations of houses, farms and estates, "They could be a resource for people interested in genealogy."

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