Before Fern Hollow, there was Jones Hollow
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HistoryImagining the past

Before Fern Hollow, there was Jones Hollow

What can the current collapse tell us about a collapse from a century ago?

Crews building a temporary plank road over a collapsed section of Bigelow Boulevard in November 1920.
(Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh)
Crews building a temporary plank road over a collapsed section of Bigelow Boulevard in November 1920. (Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh)

The collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge is reviving a familiar urban tale: the detour story. Hearing friends describe their daily struggles to move between Regent Square and Squirrel Hill — taking Penn, or the Parkway, or going through Frick Park — has given me new way to think about a local road catastrophe from a century ago.

In the summer of 1920, the city enhanced Bigelow Boulevard for the first time since the thoroughfare opened to traffic in 1901. Part of the work involved straightening a short section of the roadway above 26th Street. Bigelow Boulevard originally ran along the outer edge of what is now Frank Curto Park. If you’ve ever walked along that edge, you can understand why it was called “Dead Man’s Curve.”

The unstable hillside beneath Dead Man’s Curve was called Jones’ Hollow. It had troubled civil engineers for decades. To support the new road, they erected a stone retaining wall and hefty timber cribbing, and then they partially filled the hollow with dirt.

While straightening the road in 1920, contractors estimated that the Jones Hollow embankments could hold another 18,000 cubic yards of debris. They were wrong.

Soon mud was flowing over the retaining wall. Then the wall gave. The oozing hillside took out most of a long Pennsylvania Railroad Company storage hanger above Liberty Avenue and covered eight tracks. The cleanup was one of the largest steam shovel operations of its kind. The lawsuits dragged out for at least two decades.

The slide was still going a week later. Then cracks appeared in Bigelow Boulevard. Then chunks of the roadway broke loose and slid down the hillside as well.

The city closed the road and summoned Gen. George Washington Goethals. He had supervised the landslide-plagued Panama Canal, and officials hoped he could halt the Bigelow slide. His assessment, slightly apocryphal, became legendary: “Let ‘er slide!”
And so they did.

The slide continued through November 1920. To maintain Bigelow Boulevard as a thoroughfare during that time, the city built a wooden plank road over the collapsed roadway. Although anchored to the bedrock, the road shifted with the slide over the following weeks and had to be adjusted every so often. Would you have driven over it?

Imagining the impact on Jewish life
The slide is not really a Jewish story. Even at the time, the local Jewish Criterion didn’t cover it. But the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse shows how a civic event can impact the patterns of communal life. I thought it would be fun to imagine how the cracks in Bigelow Boulevard might have impacted Jewish Pittsburgh in the final months of 1920.

Pittsburgh had about 60,000 Jews at the time, and they lived all over the city.

The Hill District was still the largest Jewish neighborhood. It had all the biggest communal institutions — the places with the most Jewish people passing through them on any given day: Montefiore Hospital, the Jewish Home for the Aged, the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House, the Hebrew Institute, and the Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association. The largest Jewish business district was lower Fifth Avenue in Uptown.

Squirrel Hill, Oakland, and East End were the fastest growing Jewish neighborhoods. The Strip District, Lawrenceville, Homewood, Deutschtown, Manchester, Hazelwood, South Side and Beechview all had small, active communities.

The automobile is largely responsible for this dispersion. The early 1920s was the moment when the car allowed some people to easily live across multiple neighborhoods.

Bigelow Boulevard was designed to speed travel between the growing eastern neighborhoods and the city center. It’s probably no coincidence that the Jewish community of the East End emerged just a few years after Bigelow Boulevard opened.

The leaders of B’nai Israel Congregation were downtown merchants who left the Hill District for inner ring suburbs. Max Azen, for example, maintained memberships at both Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on Washington Street in the Hill District and also at B’nai Israel in East End in the early 1920s. He lived at 708 N. Negley Avenue and ran a furrier business at 1023 Fifth Avenue. Without the straight shot of Bigelow Boulevard, he likely would have zigzagged through the crowded streets of Shadyside, Oakland and Uptown.

Squirrel Hill commuters probably felt the impact, too. Few people today use Bigelow Boulevard to get downtown from Squirrel Hill. But the Boulevard of the Allies didn’t exist in November 1920. Construction was just beginning at the downtown end.

In fact, the Boulevard of the Allies was created in part to alleviate congestion on Bigelow. Bigelow originally connected downtown to Schenley Park. The original idea was a scenic 14-mile system of boulevards and parks, like Boston’s “Emerald Necklace.” You could take Bigelow to Schenley Park and then connect with Beechwood Boulevard, which twisted all the way to Highland Park along present-day Washington Boulevard.
With the rise in automobile ownership, beauty was sacrificed to efficiency. The goal was increasingly to move as many people downtown as quickly as possible.

Traffic also went the other way.

Even though Rodef Shalom Congregation had been on Fifth Avenue nearly 15 years by late 1920, about 5% of its membership still lived downtown, in the Hill District and on the North Side. Bigelow would have eased their travel considerably.

Louis Colton lived in the Hill District and commuted to Squirrel Hill in the late teens and early twenties, likely using Bigelow Boulevard.
(Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project)

Bigelow may have even assisted a small but notable group of eastbound commuters living in the Hill District. In the late teens and early 1920s, Louis Colton lived on Webster Avenue and ran the Squirrel Hill Grocery on Murray Avenue.

At the time, Kirkpatrick Street connected with Bigelow Boulevard, allowing Colton and others like him to easily access the boulevard system. The connection was severed with the construction of Bedford Dwellings in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

And then there are the Jews of the Strip District. The blocks between 27th and 29th streets were largely occupied by Jewish merchants. They had a small synagogue at 28th and Liberty, tucked against the curved stone embankment of the 28th Street Bridge.

Imagine them coming outside after morning services, taking a few minutes to watch the steam shovels scoop away the mud, and then rushing off to open their shops. PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at rjarchives@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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