Pittsburgh’s Lost and Forgotten Streams

map of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s Lost and Forgotten Streams

by Tom Batroney P.E., C.F.M., UpstreamPgh Board Member & Senior Water Resources Engineer at HDR

In a somewhat forgotten chapter of American history, the G.M. Hopkins Company in the latter half of the 19th century went up and down much of the eastern seaboard of the United States surveying with great precision and detail land features, roads, and property ownership boundaries. Amazingly very little is known about the company and who G.M. Hopkins the man actually was. If you are unfamiliar with their work, the company’s survey maps are beautifully hand drawn with vibrant colors, superb line work, and artful penmanship. Some might even call them works of art worthy of being displayed in museums. G.M. Hopkins first surveyed the Pittsburgh region in 1872 right on the cusp of the industrial and immigration boom. Luckily the University of Pittsburgh has the original maps preserved in their archives. Even better, they scanned them all and uploaded them onto the Historic Pittsburgh website for all of us mapping nerds to enjoy!

As a professional engineer who works on water, sewer, and stormwater projects on a daily basis, I couldn’t help but become captivated with these maps when I first discovered them for myself. What especially struck me were the locations and details of the water features. The miles of streams and ponds that once occupied Pittsburgh are striking. Streams that I would have never thought were there as I walked my neighborhood or commuted around town. I live in the Hampton Place area of Wilkinsburg and according to this map my house once was near the confluence of two streams!

Approximate location of Tom’s Home Near Two Streams in Hampton Place

Some other things I noticed on these maps. Did you know that there was once a series of ponds called Crystal Lakes behind Homewood Cemetery? One has to wonder just how pristine the water must have been to have been dubbed “Crystal”? I wish I could have seen it myself.

The Streams and Ponds Behind Homewood Cemetery

Did you also know that in Wilkinsburg at today’s Park Ave Park on Montier Street there was once a large pond with a stream for harvesting ice? At the time modern refrigeration hadn’t been invented yet and ice was harvested from local ponds to keep our food cool to prevent spoiling.

Wilkinsburg Ice Pond (Upper Right) at Today’s Park Ave Park on Montier Street

If you follow the narrow black line of the stream on the map from the ice pond southward through downtown Wilkinsburg and into Edgewood to today’s Race Street you may realize that this long lost pond and stream eventually becomes Nine Mile Run. The pond and its feeder streams were located in the watershed headwaters and provided a natural cooling spring source for Nine Mile Run. Sadly, the untold watershed ecological benefits of the pond and its miles of streams are now likely lost forever as the pond has been filled in and the stream put into underground pipes.

One day I thought to myself, I wonder if I could draw on a single map all the historical streams and ponds in Pittsburgh that are on the G.M. Hopkins Maps? I wonder if I could compare them to today’s remaining streams? How many streams are left? How many streams are now lost and forgotten over the years due to Pittsburgh’s rapid development? One rainy Sunday morning I sat down and got to work. In the fashion of the mysterious G.M. Hopkins himself, I started hand tracing the locations of the historical streams on the G.M. Hopkins Maps. I then generated two maps. One of the historical streams on the G.M. Hopkins maps and one of the streams that remain today. I posted the results on my Twitter account, and the post went semi-viral.

Historic Streams on G.M. Hopkins Maps

Remaining Streams Today

The history of Pittsburgh’s lost and forgotten streams is a bit of a sad story but one that must be told to understand why fighting for the protection of our few remaining streams is so important. Some may ask why is UpstreamPgh making such a big deal about the protection of that tiny Fern Hollow stream as part of the bridge replacement? My answer to those people would be to just take a look at how many precious few streams are left in the City! The Fern Hollow stream and the larger Nine Mile Run are some of the last remaining streams where the community can go to reconnect with water and interact with natural flowing streams in a park environment. Next time you are down along Fern Hollow, if you look closely in the stream, especially in the pools, it’s often teeming with insects and small fish. Turn over just about any rock and you will see all kinds of interesting invertebrates, worms, and critters. These are signs that Fern Hollow is playing a vital role in creating a healthy watershed ecosystem. Healthy watershed ecosystem, healthy community. It’s all connected.

That’s why, as a board member of UpstreamPgh, it is so very exciting and encouraging to see that UpstreamPgh was awarded a 120 thousand dollar state grant to perform a planning study to protect and restore Fern Hollow in the wake of the bridge collapse. We must be diligent in assuring our community and our remaining streams are healthy and last for many generations to come. Just like the bridge above.

Tom Batroney
UpstreamPgh Board Member/Senior Water Resources Engineer at HDR
Wilkinsburg Resident

View an interactive map of Tom’s historic streams layer plus G.M. Hopkins Maps from the University of Pittsburgh on UpstreamPgh’s website here: https://nmrwa.maps.arcgis.com/apps/instant/media/index.html?appid=59c9efec1abc466d80e7a98de2acf7a5